Travel observation 2: sound

I’ve been too kind to Europe. Time for some criticism.

The thing I didn’t care for in Europe was its soundscape. The countries I visited did a fantastic job of presenting these wonderful old town centers, with beautiful architecture and lighting, and twisting cobblestone streets. But on top of this, they had a tendency to layer the most atrocious aural violations that would taint the overall experience.

The problem with Europe is its music and the way they assault you with it. They’re either stuck in the ‘80s or embracing the cheesiest of modern pop. This happened everywhere, but it was particularly apparent in Ljubljana and Bratislava.

It’s a manifestation of a visually oriented world. Europe is proud of its age, its history. Attempts toward preserving that in city planning are based on old drawings of sculptures and buildings, and language in text that described such locations. But we have no such sonic documents. Europe is something to be seen; it is presented. At the same time, tourism is a very lucrative thing. There is money to be had. They can’t cover up all this history with endless posters, wall paintings and billboards. So merchants and barkers use sound. They blast popular music in an effort to get attention. I don’t even think it’s given a second thought. Pop music to them means there’s something groovy going on here.

What people don’t realize is that sounds are what provide an inner psychology to any kind of visual experience. Hearing a culture, while not so literal, is important to a sense of immediate place and eventual memory. One could argue that the music and noise is part of the culture, but I don’t buy this. It’s not a reflection of culture, it is entirely a device of tourism. It morphs a location into a 21st century theme park.

I found it everywhere – walking around a city center, inside a café, pub or bar, in restaurants and hostels and hotels, even at museum ticket counters. I would be so disappointed to walk into a fantastic underground pub, with heavy iron doors and low ceilings and a fireplace, and hear KISS or Britany Spears or something equally horrific.

There are two places where you can escape, and they are two of the more enjoyable places to be in Europe: inside a train or inside a church or palace. The train experience was magnificent. It was silent and beautiful. I could read a book in peace and then look over at the landscape and just stare and stare. In churches and palaces, I came to really enjoy the sound of my footsteps reverberating in these great halls. I’m thinking now of the Old Royal Palace in Prague. I walked through that hall and the wooden floor would creak and ache with age and send the sound bouncing along its walls and ceiling. I could hear its history.

At other times and in other locations I would too often turn to my iPod. It’s sad to have to cancel out the world in order to appreciate it, but it’s the only way I could give myself a feeling of presence.

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One Response to “Travel observation 2: sound”

  1. I have no recollection of sound to go with my European memories. Except for Greece – Athens. There the music was apparent and lively and fun – and native.

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