The Sound of Swiss Silence


In Rio, silence had been elusive, sought-after; the screech of bus brakes, the tinny whine of motorcycles, the amplified kiddy-music of children’s birthday parties were constant, wearying company.

Cariocas love sound; even in places where others go to be away from noise, they bring noise. They clip iPhones to their shorts and play them as loud as possible while hiking in the woods; they bring radios to a deserted beach. Noise has only positive connotations to them; it means fun is being had, life is being lived to its fullest.

Finding a moment of silence in the cacophony of the city required effort, and earplugs. When I found it, it was a balm, and it was never enough.

It took me one afternoon alone at home in Switzerland to get enough. And more than enough.

My now-husband — I’ll call him Dr. G — had arrived three weeks earlier, and had sublet a cozy apartment in Oerlikon, a suburb north of the city center. It was a lovely place in which to start life in mid-winter Switzerland: warm, cozy, and fully furnished, with a porch looking out onto bare, snow-laden trees. It certainly beat the empty apartments and camping mats that have been my lot for weeks or months following other moves.

But how can I describe the carefully-tended silence of a Swiss suburb in the winter? It is like trying to explain the many flavors of an old family recipe, an elaborate dish rich with flavor, resonant with meaning. The Swiss have been honing their silence for generations, centuries. It involves intricacies like when you can do a load of laundry (the chug of the machine can disturb a neighbor) and rules against setting out your recycling on Sunday because the clink of bottles would disrupt the day of rest.

But I’ll try.

Take the silence of the suburb you know best. Carve out that slice of calm in the middle of the afternoon when there are no kids, no birds, no cars out. Remove the distant hum of a freeway, the muted bass of a far-away stereo playing through an open window. Add layers and layers of snow. Add double-paned windows everywhere, and impeccably constructed buildings that never. even. creak.

During my first afternoon home alone, I discovered silence had depths I had not fathomed. It had shape, and presence, and weight. It could be crushing. Or funny. I could actually hear myself chew. Gross. Did my stomach always growl that loudly?

It played tricks on me, like a mischievous Swiss imp. I would swear I heard my phone buzz, faintly, though I had no phone plan and as yet, knew no one with reason to call. It was as if my ears, unused to such vast expanses of empty, were trying to provide themselves with distractions.

Inside: Silence. I opened the window. SILENCE. Plus COLD. So I closed the window. I hummed, overly conscious of the tiny modulations in my voice. I tried to read. The silence poked at me like a bored child, demanding attention. It made concentration impossible.

I gave up and did that very Carioca thing, the gesture that would always make me roll my eyes in Rio: I turned on the stereo, and left it on. Not because I wanted the music, but just to break the silence.

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