“The problem is that people are encouraged to function as machines. Or actually, as mechanisms. Human emotion and sympathy are unprofessional. They are inappropriate to the exercise of reason.”
“We have lots of cake. But no revolutionaries. Revolution, the shouting and breaking things. It’s very un-Swiss.”
from The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway*
The Swiss are very tidy. They are very orderly, very organized, very private, and really friggin’ quiet. Me, I’m Italian. I am messy. I am not reserved. In fact, like most Italians, I may even border on the “too friendly” side of things. And not in a million years would anyone in their right mind ever use the word “quiet” when referring to me. I talk just a tad too loud. I laugh too laud, too – I’m sorry, but in a moment of hilarity, I am just not one of those people who can put a hand in front of their mouth (unless I’m chewing, of course) and stifle a girlish giggle, then just smile. When I laugh, I embrace it, damn it.
This often makes me conspicuous here. Mind you, it’s not like I’m a spy or a ninja, I don’t set out to just blend into the background, but I don’t purposely make a show of myself, either. It’s just, you know, stuff happens.
Imagine being at dinner with friends. Friends by extension, because they were friends of your husband’s before you two even met… but still, friends. After an initial lull, the conversation seems to, if not exactly flow, at least progress fairly smoothly. You start to relax. You don’t have to watch your every step here, you tell yourself. These are friends. You like them, they like you. Just chill. Enjoy the evening. So you do. Everyone is conversing amiably, and eating (but not at the same time, because that would be gross.) Then all of a sudden the conversation stops. There is a long, awkward pause. What just happened?? You look around: no one spilled their wine, no one dropped an expensive plate on the floor. You replay the last few seconds in your head: who was the last person to say something? damn, it was you. But try as you might, you cannot imagine what you could have said that would warrant such a reaction. Long after your husband cleared his voice and broke the silence with a Would anyone like more wine? you sit, bewildered. Whatever your faux-pas was, you know it will be politely ignored – though mind you, not forgotten. Committing hara-kiri with your fondue fork sounds pretty good right about now.
On the tram. A young mother gets on with her newborn. It’s one of the older trams, the ones with the stairs. A man helps the young mom lift the pram onto the tram, then steps away without saying anything. The mom tries to maneuver the pram so that she isn’t blocking access onto or off the tram for other passengers, and some people standing nearby unwillingly move to make space. Some just stand right where they are and keep reading their newspaper. No one stops to look at the cute baby, sleeping in the pram. The mom, after apologizing profusely to anyone who might have had to move to make space for her and her baby, starts to relax a bit. But not completely. She is silently begging her baby not to wake up, not to make a peep until it’s time to get off. Because she remembers clearly what it felt like to break the complete silence of the tram; she remembers the disapproving glances from fellow passengers, and how she got off a couple of stops too early because she couldn’t bear feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed for 5 more minutes.
On the tram. My cell phone rings. I look around to see if there are any signs showing cell phones as verboten (loud, obnoxious, devilish objects, cell phones) and upon making sure there aren’t any, I pick up. It’s my godmother, wishing me a Happy Birthday. I smile, thank her, and then we start talking. I laugh sometimes, but I try to keep my voice down, because the tram was so quiet before my phone rang. Still, despite my efforts, looks like I am still disturbing the quiet, meditative moment everyone must be enjoying, because a Shhhh! is thrown in my direction like a javelin. No longer trying to keep quiet, I tell my godmother Sorry, I have to let you go, someone on the tram just shushed me. No, I’m not kidding! I laugh. I’ll call you back.
A few minutes later, I get off. As the door opens and I prepare to exit, an old lady turns to me and says, in an accented Italian It’s just that everyone could hear what you were talking about. I smile to her and reply That’s ok, it’s not like I was discussing state secrets. And as I step off the tram I add Buona giornata! and wave. As the doors close behind me and the tram departs, I turn to see her bewildered expression as she watches me from the tram window.
Shortly before our move to New York I started seeing a new tram model around Zurich: the Cobra. The Cobra stays low to the ground, and slithers quietly through the streets of Zurich. It’s easy to board, especially for moms with strollers and people in wheelchairs, and it doesn’t contribute to the noise level in the city, which compared to many other cities outside of Switzerland is still surprisingly low. What some don’t know is that the Cobra was originally made even quieter than that, and had to be modified to be slightly less quiet, so people could hear it coming.
Zurich is a beautiful city. The winter just doesn’t do it justice – even with the Christmas decorations, Zurich is just not at its best in winter. Starting in May, is when you can see it at its best. The Bahnhostrasse buzzing with people, the Hauptbahnhof so much more beautiful when the light shines through the windows and the fountain outside is brought back to life. And the lake, of course. Walking along the Limmatquai, following the river down to Bellevue, and there you are rewarded with one of the best views in Zurich. And when you stop to enjoy the view, when you hesitate to take a photo because you don’t know if it will do justice to the sun sparkling on the water, to the Alps far on the horizon, to the boats and the ducks somehow coexisting peacefully on the smooth surface of the lake… that’s when the quiet doesn’t bother you so much.
* which is a novel, not an essay on politics and socio-economical problems. And these quotes are taken out of context and totally unrelated. Except in my head, where they are clearly not.