The walls of the carriage vibrate, the distant train engine makes a couple of odd, unhealthy-sounding noises - and everything rattles away into complete silence.
No, not quite. My ears fight to get accustomed - the lack of noise is like fierce pressure against my eardrums, which have spent the last 7 hours being gently but incessantly pushed the other way, as the train and its carriages noisily worked their way north out of Italy and up over the Alps. Sunset was hours ago, and we should now be descending to the lowlands of France, on time for our morning appointment with the platform at Paris Gare de Bercy.
But we’re not. We’re stopped. Properly stopped, too, no idling motor, no faint hum felt through the metal of the fold-down bed I’m sleeping on. Just…almost-silence.
Yes, I can hear something. My ears start to make it out beyond this noiselessly hissing din. The distant murmurs of people outside. Even if I could hear the words, they’d probably be far beyond the grasp of my schoolboy French, but the tone is recognisably, “Okay, gimme your best ideas here, what are we looking at?” It suggests something’s gone wrong. Something broke, and here we are.
But there are the nearer sounds. Much nearer. I’m in a sleeper cabin that houses six people, and every bunk is full, out there in the darkness, just inches away from me. Everyone can hear everyone else’s breathing.
Someone’s stomach gurgles. Someone scratches. Someone takes a glug from their water-bottle.
A silence this profound really, really grabs your attention. We’re just not used to it. Our human world is noisy as standard. Even in the dead of night, the sound of a car or airplane is never too far away. City-dwellers learn to live with (and sleep through) a level of background noise that would be unbearable to someone from a small town or village - at least initially, until they got used to it, as we all do.
Some of us seek out silence to take a break, as Gordon did recently with his 7-day Vipassana retreat in Thailand. (In 2016, Canadian travel writer Jodi Ettenberg did something similar for 10 days in New Zealand, and wrote her extraordinary experience up for The Guardian here.) Silence is spiritually and physically nourishing - even though it’s also really hard, because we are so used to the noisy world we’ve crafted around us.
But what if we didn’t need to find silence - because the world around us got quieter?
This isn’t just a utopian pipedream. We all just experienced it, at the height of the pandemic lockdowns: no passenger planes noisily scratching across the sky, no traffic rumbling past, the machinery of factories at a standstill. Completely unsustainable, certainly, and under the worst of conditions - but it still happened. For a few months, the ambient roar of everyday human technology was turned down to its lowest setting, in the sonic equivalent of the accompanying drop in air pollution that left blue skies over cities worldwide for the first time in decades.
But there’s another reason to soundproof our world. Noise isn’t just hazardous to our health (and to the health of the wildlife around us). It’s also wasted energy - which should be particularly relevant to governments of the world at a time when energy and geopolitical concerns are so intertwined concerning events in eastern Europe. One solution already underway is to turn noise back into energy - but it’s an imperfect one. The real step forward is to make technology quieter.
Again, it’s already happening. Without combustion engines, the latest generations of electric vehicles are almost silent - at low speeds, anyway. Thanks to the astonishing rise in popularity of electric vehicles (16.5 million this year, triple the amount on the road in 2018), this is not a trivial thing. In the perhaps very near future, most of us will be driving around in electric vehicles - and most of those vehicles will be, on the whole, silent.
And near-silent passenger planes? That’s a long way off right now - the main pressure on air travel is making it emission-free (for which electric is the obvious choice) but the challenges of getting something that heavy into the air on electricity alone, and making the process safe…well, that’s probably the work of much of the remainder of this century.
But if the prototype from Kitty Hawk, an aviation startup part-funded by Boeing, is any indicator, quiet air travel is a perfectly practical proposition:
“…it operates at a volume of 38 decibels when at 1,500 ft (457 m), whereas a helicopter outputs 80 decibels from the same altitude. For the sake of comparison, vacuum cleaners in action might output 70 or 80 decibels, while the quietest dishwashers operate at around 40.”
So how is this deadening-down of the noise of travel going to affect us? If you’re like I was in my sleeper cabin in the Alps, silently freaked-out by the utter silence until the driver managed to get the engine running again forty minutes later - you might need a period of adjustment.
It’s already a requirement within the United States for electric and hybrid vehicles to make a certain amount of noise when moving under 18mph, so pedestrians can hear them coming. Perhaps electric planes, boats and other vehicles will face similar measures. But maybe we’ll want them to as well - the same way digital camera manufacturers artificially added back in the “click!” of the shutter, to make our brains happy. Maybe the tech will go silent, but it’ll be a little too quick for our expectations and sense of “how it’s supposed to work”, which may take longer…
But yes, for reasons of aesthetics, innovation, sustainability and energy conservation, the future of travel is going to be a lot quieter. Until then, your best bet for a quiet life abroad is to take a cruise (say, along France’s Canal du Midi) - or just go somewhere and stay put for a while.
It may take a day or so for your ears to adjust - but if you can find a way to turn the volume down on the deadening racket of our everyday world, you’ll make memories that you’ll never forget.