The Woman at the Top of the Tower

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November 9, 2021

You don’t get more local than Cassandre Berdoz. Born, raised, and educated in the literal shadow of the Lausanne Cathedral, the 27-year-old Lausannoise became an overnight and international media fixture when it was announced that she would be the city’s first ever female night watchman. She’d assumed that 24Heures would be interested in the story, but to see her name in print from Paris to Jakarta to Tokyo, was a bit of “shock” she confessed while recounting the frenzy of the last few months.

The noise has mostly died down, which allowed us to take a lunch time walk and hear more about her life in Lausanne, the iconic role she’s undertaking, and how she would like to see the city change. We started at the Palais de Rumine amidst the imposing marble columns of the grand staircase. Cassandre is poised and rehearsed after months of media inquiries, but at the same time, as she details her long journey to this moment, her candor and charm are on full display.

Destiny Meets Determination

Nearly half her life ago, her school choir performed at a ceremony to unveil the newly-renovated “portail peint” – or, the painted doorway – at the Lausanne Cathedral. The children in the choir then had the opportunity to climb the bell tower and learn the history of the watchman. “Someday I have to do this,” she told herself.

But more than a simple childhood dream, this idea stuck with her. By the time she was in university, she had started sending her CV and letter of motivation to the city (no post was open), imploring them to consider hiring a woman watchman and suggesting, in no uncertain terms, that it should be her.

When the city finally did start the recruitment process for a new watchman, she once again gathered her file and made her case. After two rounds of interviews and one audition to demonstrate the power of her voice, Cassandre wrote a new history for Lausanne, showing that we can be equally committed to preserving traditions while helping them to evolve.

A Day, or Shall We Say Night, in the Life

As an auxiliary “guette,” Cassandre is assigned 3 to 5 nights a month to keep watch atop the bell tower. From 10pm to 2am on the hour, she stands at each corner, donning a black hat and holding up a lantern, and cries: “C’est la guette, il a sonné vingt-deux heures!”

In the in between time, if she’s not hosting friends for an apéro or a night tour, she sits in the silence, admires the city lights, and refuses to be productive. “It’s a privilege to have time for myself – and even to be bored,” she explains. “Day to day life is always so busy, there’s so little time to simply be.”

The tradition has its origins in the Middle Ages when night watchmen sat atop cities all over Europe to watch for fires. When, in 1960, the city began to question the utility of a watchman, the people of Lausanne surprised the administration by rallying to protect the position, effectively guaranteeing its preservation until today. “It’s a part of the soul of our city,” Cassandre insists. “This is the intangible heritage that makes us unique.” More than just a charming tourism talking point, the watchman’s enduring presence says something about how the city sees itself and how it wants to confront modern life. After all, beauty and utility are often self-defeating.

A Call to Unleash Lausanne's Creativity

In our hour with Cassandre, we met a woman who is rooted, determined, and visionary. Simply put, she’s a force to be reckoned with. Her admiration for the city that raised her is apparent, and her desire to be an active player in shaping its future is inspiring.

But we had to know – if she could change something about Lausanne, what would it be?

She didn’t miss a beat. In the last decade, she explained, the local government has become overly bureaucratic in its management of the city’s cultural life. Whereas when she was younger, the cultural scene was spontaneous and dynamic. As an event organizer herself, she finds that the hoops and red tape required to organize any meaningful cultural activities to be excessive. She’d love to see the city government unleash the creative energy of its citizens and for Lausanne to once again embrace spontaneity in its cultural expression.

We wrapped up our conversation at Le Pointu, where Cassandre had her first job after school. (but seriously, could she be more Lausannoise?) She needed to head back to her current position as a project manager for a communications agency where, among other things, she helps to organize Nuit des Musées each year. When she’s not working, you can typically find her with friends at Les Jardins de Vieux-Lausanne or Les Grandes Roches.

This is a woman who doesn’t just have opinions about the way things should be – she sees what she wants, and she works to get it. Stepping confidently into the crossroads of tradition and modernity isn’t for the faint of heart (there have been plenty of stodgy naysayers to her appointment), but it’s a smart decision for someone with grit, determination, and a desire to make her city an even better place to live.

Cassandre for Mayor? We’re in.

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