The Quiet of Switzerland

Shortlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2022.

‘Quiet’ means a lot of things to me: early mornings, isolated mountain tops, scenery flitting silently past a train window. It means reconnecting with myself and feeling unobserved. And strangely, it means returning, for a moment, in my mind, to Lausanne, Switzerland, where my 22-year-old self spent one year as an au pair, caring for two bright, inquisitive, adorable Swiss children. I say ‘strangely’ not because Lausanne isn’t quiet, but because children, in my experience, are not quiet. At least, not voluntarily, and not for long. But for me, Switzerland was a quiet place. 

Different kinds of quiet entered my life for the first time that year; some good, some strange, all new. Up to that point in my life, I hadn’t experienced much quiet. My childhood home was casually noisy, almost always alive with the buzz of morning radio, singing siblings, and the whir of a cake-filled oven. The quiet of Switzerland caught me off guard. It enveloped me suddenly before I could see it coming, taught me myriad life lessons, and pulled me slowly, if not all that gently, into the realities of adult life. 

I first encountered the quiet on a Sunday, my first full day off. For those who don’t know, Lausanne is an almost impossibly beautiful place. It’s a glorious combination of cobblestone slopes, French-style cafés, and crisp mountain air. The horizon offers spectacular views of Lake Geneva and the French Alps. It’s like falling into a postcard. And most of the time, Lausanne town is a hub of town-like activity, shopping, dining, and coffee-drinking all taking place as it should. But not on Sunday. Lausanne shuts down on Sundays. So, on my first venture into the town, I was greeted by abandoned streets and closed doors. Pretty, empty, quiet. But the quiet I remember most clearly, is the one that followed the children. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, joining a young family as a child carer was not entirely the fanciful travel adventure my naïve, 22-year-old self had had in mind. A family is a complicated thing. Each one has a unique set of values and requires all kinds of practical and emotional maintenance. Meals must be prepared, spaces must be shared, and children must be fed, dressed, entertained, comforted in moments of anguish, educated in the ways of the world, disciplined according to the rules of the home, and, in Switzerland, they must be quiet. Not completely, and not always, but more often than I found intuitive. I was repeatedly surprised when, just as the kids were losing themselves in play, an adult’s voice would sound from the stairs, reminding them not to disturb the neighbours, explaining that their “dinosaur roars” or “dog barks” were too loud. That quiet was memorable because, to me, it was imaginary—an expectation the children couldn’t meet, and a behaviour I couldn’t quite model.   

There were other, very real, kinds of quiet too: the one that fell suddenly when the kids left for school, the one that accompanied me on my walks in the mountains, the one that waited for me in my bedroom each evening. In those moments of quiet, I became acquainted with the loneliness of adulthood. It’s the same loneliness felt by full-time parents who don’t meet other adults in their day, and by breadwinners who dine alone at lunch, as well as by young adults trying to find their place in the world. It’s not a terrible loneliness, or a lasting one, just a necessary one, one that’s part of life. 

Of course, not all quiet is lonely. Quiet can be peaceful, contemplative, even comforting. Quiet can offer reprieve, space, a moment to remember who you are. For every uncomfortable quiet I happened upon in Switzerland, I discovered a magical one to match it. There was a blissful idleness by the water on the town’s edge, where I would sit and stare at the mountains across the lake, feeling wonderfully small. There was a simple but beautiful calm that would (occasionally) come over the children when they became engrossed in drawing or painting. There was a child-like wonder that embraced me the first time I watched real, sparkling snowflakes drop soundlessly from the sky and stick to the ground like a fallen cloud. And there was the gentle lull of the one open café I could find on a Sunday, where I would retreat with my laptop and discover my passion for writing. 

I haven’t lived in Switzerland for years now, but when I need to, I return to the quiet. In my mind, I see the mountains across the lake, I feel the cold of the snow, I sit down to write, and I remember how to be still. I remember the quiet of Switzerland, and I remember myself. 

About the author

Neasa Murphy grew up in Cork city, Ireland, but can most often be found elsewhere. She found her passion for travel as a student, when she spent a year in Shanghai, China, and her passion for writing during the quiet moments of her time in Switzerland, where she was an au pair. Travel is what inspires her in life, and writing is what helps her understand it.