Urban Noises

Urban noise comes in all sorts of forms.

At home, you get so used to the common sounds that they hardly bother you.  However, when you travel, new “auditory experiences” can sometimes be overwhelming.  In a new city,  the honking horns, speeding motorcycles, barking dogs, screaming kids, loud music, and fire sirens are just a few of the sounds testing your ability to adjust.

When my wife, Meryl, and I were in Madrid for a month a few years ago, we experienced some brand new city sounds.  We were renting an apartment in a nice residential area and the September weather was unseasonably warm.  We hadn’t factored the heat wave into our decision to stay in an Airbnb without air conditioning.  Most days, it climbed into the mid-80s (27-32° C), but it cooled down to the low 50s (~10° C) after the sun went down. 

In order to sleep comfortably, we would open the large French doors at night to let the air in.  Our apartment was on the third floor facing the street so we could easily hear the boisterous conversations from below.  It was especially bad on weekends when people were leaving the nearby bars and clubs.

A typical narrow Madrid street

Our street was a typical very narrow European side-street where at the beginning a sign was posted directing motorists to use our street as a bypass.  This ensured a heavy flow of traffic both during the day and at night.

The first new sound we often heard was that of tires hitting the curb. Since there were cars parked on the left side, inexperienced drivers had trouble judging the width of the road especially at night.  We came to recognize the whiny, high-pitched sound of rubber rubbing against the curb until the driver could readjust.  Although frequent and annoying, were quickly became accustomed to ignoring this sound.

The other sounds that we had trouble getting accustomed to resulted from the ambitious recycling plan established by the Spanish government in 1998.   Every neighborhood in Spain is required to have multiple recycling bins for paper, plastic and glass. 

After the bars and restaurants closed for the night, we would hear the clank of bottle after bottle being deposited into the small opening of the bright green glass bins.  It sounded as if it was right under our window even though it was thankfully a block away.

This particular sleep disruption was repeated at least five or six times a night due to the plethora of bars and restaurants in our neighborhood.  It was even worse on weekends because the bars were busier and stayed open even later into the night.  At least two or three times a week, the bottle clanking was magnified even further.  Since both the garbage and recycling trucks were scheduled to make their rounds after midnight, we would have to endure an additional assault after we had fallen back to sleep.  The trucks’ air brakes would announce their entry into the neighborhood and they would position themselves to pick up the individual recycling bins.  Their mandatory back-up beeping alert added to the whole auditory experience. As the trucks lifted each bin, the contents were dumped into the open bin with a final thud.

Every time this would happen, we would have the same jolting reaction. We would just say the word “vidrio” (glass) and hold our breath as if we were bracing ourselves for the next predictable minute of noise until we could fall back asleep once again. 

Some other sounds which were difficult to get used to were the noises coming from adjacent rooms or apartments in our building.   Many residential dwellings were originally constructed as large private homes and were later adapted to individual apartments.  Unfortunately, one of the common mistakes in the conversion was to neglect insulation between floors or rooms.  It can be very disturbing to hear your neighbors engaged in whatever activity they are doing.  At night, there’s very little that you can do when this happens especially when the windows are open. You can only hope that they will finish quickly. 

After a long trip, it will often take a while to get back onto “home time.”  When your days and nights are totally jumbled by jet lag, all that you want to do is sleep when your brain tells you it’s the right time. Having to re-adjust to new background noises, or even the absence of noise, makes it even harder.     

I’ve always believed that the adjustments that you have to make when traveling are part of the pleasures and challenges of experiencing a new culture. This involves being willing to expand your comfort zone and allowing for some unique auditory experiences.  Now every time we hear our recycling trucks in our neighborhood, we fondly remember our wonderful summer in Madrid and say, “Vidrio!”