I Learned to Listen

By: Caroline McClelland

I have recently returned from Christmas break to a city I am living in for the academic year—a place of which I previously only knew bits and pieces of its qualities. This quaint town-city is Lausanne, Switzerland.

Though I had traveled to Switzerland before—specifically to Interlaken and Bern—and had experienced the richness of the culture, I was only twelve then. Since then, my appreciation has increased as tall as the Swiss Alps. Simply, if I were a country, I would be Switzerland. 

After visiting the country when I was young, I knew I wanted to return; there is something about the Swiss culture that resonated and still resonates with me. I do not know what it is—but there is just a quality about this country that is so magical and fairy-tale like. Everywhere you go in Switzerland has a small-town feel; yet, at the same time, every place feels so grand and daunting with the Swiss Alps backdrop protruding into the sky from every angle.

Simply, Switzerland is unlike any other European country. I wonder if it is because I have come to find that it is the quietest country in the world. Many of the locals do not speak outwardly or loudly in public — in fact, you stand out in Switzerland if you speak or laugh in a loud tone — giving way for other sounds to subtly enter and fill one’s ears.

If living in Switzerland has taught me anything, it is that I have learned to listen. I listen to every precious sound around me: every vibration, every change in pitch, every breath. Hearing is a physiological process. It does not occur by choice. It is a part of human nature. Listening, on the other hand, requires concentration. One must focus on what message is being conveyed in order for the mind to comprehend the sounds or words being spoken.

I find it quite interesting that we do not emphasize the importance of listening within society enough. We often find ourselves bogged down by the nitty gritty of life—hustling from this social event to that, plowing through this task and that daunting homework assignment to the next, trying to fill time and space with our own verbalizations. Do we ever stop to pause—amidst all the bustle of life—and just for a moment… listen?

I dare you to pause and do just this for ten seconds.

When I challenged myself to do this, this is what I discovered:

I listened to the jingling of a mint-green bicycle bell calmly gliding by on a crisp morning in Amsterdam. I listened to the clinking of a cup of delectable chocolat chaud at Le Barbare in Lausanne. I listened to the chiming of joyous wedding bells at the Sainte-Dévote Chapel in Monaco. I listened to the swift marching of the Swedish Armed Forces advancing in single file to the Stockholm Royal Palace. I listened to the eager smacking of lips over a crispy cheese, egg, and ham crêpe in Nice. I listened to the roaring of die-hard fans rooting for their favorite teams in the Rugby World Cup at a pub near St. Andrews. I listened to the tapping, dancing feet of a fellow traveler as she found the most perfect grey wool coat in Barcelona. I listened as our tour guide muttered the word, “Acrocorinth,” at least one million times while in Greece. I listened to the wind whipping, rushing by my face as I rolled down the window to breathe fresh Italian air on a spontaneous road trip.

And my most cherished: I listened to the Lausanne town crier proclaim at a time when I should have been in bed, “C’est le guet.”—“This is the night watch.”

It is time to learn to listen.

Though I do not tell many people, I am deaf in my left ear. I often am insecure about this: I feel as though this prohibits me from listening to the things I could hear easily without this deafness. However, I have come to find that it is not the quantity of sounds we discover through listening; it is about the intentionality—the meaningful effort of trying to pick up every bit of beauty that is created and then processed through our ears. This is how we should try experience the world around us—the world in which we are so blessed to dwell.

Looking back over my time in Switzerland thus far, I know that my memories are the sole components that will sustain my abroad experience. Memories are defined by our senses, and I plan on using them more mindfully this semester…

Especially my ability to listen.