Evenings in Switzerland have a unique feel for me: it’s something that I’ve struggled to identify clearly, but while on holiday there last month I was convinced I needed to write a post about it. As a happy coincidence, in the last few days I started reading Alain De Botton’s ‘Art of Travel’ which helped shed further light on the experience. Much of this is about trains.
The feeling is one of slight melancholy combined with dreamy possibilities, and also security. To set the scene, firstly there are the long evenings, which after a decade principally spent in West Africa are really enjoyable. In Summer (which is the main time I go to Europe), there’s the light the stretches well passed 10pm. Believe me, when this is no longer part of your normal life, it’s wonderful to experience.
Such dusks aren’t uniquely Swiss, but in Switzerland it’s just an element in a wider setting. Firstly everything seems so orderly – litter and pot-hole free, wealthy, and well-organised with golf-course-like greens stretching out to the distance. The combination of livestock farming and thin electric fences that vanish at distance mean the countryside can look like one undulating lawn.
Secondly, almost no-one is around after-hours so you get that feeling of being solitary in an empty but developed landscape: people quickly head indoors for the punctual evening meal. I was already thinking Edward Hopper when I thought through this experience, but De Botton brought a lot more detail. In chapter two, he writes about Hopper and Baudelaire, the latter of whom T. S. Eliot said had invented a new kind of romantic nostalgia through his appreciation of places of modern travel: waiting rooms, train stations and seaports. Hopper highlighted the dreamy and transitory quality of travel, particularly at night. The spirit of escaping our normal lives at home, of seeing into people’s lives, and the superiority of the outsider in our culture form a kind of modern poetry.
In July we enjoyed evening walks with baby Daniella around the small Swiss village where we were staying. She loves being in transit. Our walks often went alongside – or crossed over – the small regional railway track which ran past our home. I realised the illuminated empty carriages travelling through the evening landscape were a key part of the experience I was feeling, a sort of nostalgia. De Botton talks about how when you’re on a train, you’re out of your normal environment and you can feel much freer to think and dream. Often you see people’s lives from the window allowing the imagination to think of a different life for yourself.
When I was thinking through these things, I remembered my longest summer in Switzerland in 1999 when I stayed with my friend Thomas for several weeks. It was almost the only time I’ve been in Switzerland away from the family setting. At the time, there was a scheme on the Swiss railways called ‘Gleis 7’ (platform 7). If I recall correctly, you had to be a student under 26 (though I think the following year they changed the rules and you had to be a Swiss student). Paying a sum (I think around $100) gave you a card which allowed you to travel free on almost the entire national transport network after 7pm. In that sort of situation, it’s like you own the train network – hopping on and off at will, and without the stress of tickets, or indeed the stress of getting them stamped track-side. You sink into the train seat as if you were in your own lounge.
I never got to go inter-railing (instead it was Greyhounding across the US), but it’s no longer just for students, so maybe it could still happen one day. I’m sure the experience will be slightly different from slumming it in stations and sleeping on overnight trains. But it holds the possibility of an adventure in a Europe that I’ve so little explored. And hopefully with some of the poetry of late-night train travel as well, through the well-organised landscape of Switzerland.