When I travel, I like to rise as early as possible in a new time zone. The great cities of the world are best seen early: the cobblestone streets in the heart of Old Montreal, with waiters percussively dragging chairs and tables onto the patios; the still, winding alleyways of Barcelona, weaving toward Gaudi’s melting modernist masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia cathedral; Place de la Concorde in Paris, with its Egyptian obelisk saluting the rising sun as vendors prepare their fruit and vegetable stands in neighbouring streets.
Small, fragile sounds are perceptible before a city wakens: bird chirps, rustling foliage, your own footfalls. To my mind, dawn is when urban environments present their best face, before the white noise of rush hour.
As a connoisseur of quiet, I’ve explored a number of geographic spots free of urban clamour, including the World Botanical Museum in Kauai (where Steven Spielberg filmed Jurassic Park); limestone caves in Cuba and Antigua; and the Capuchin Crypt beneath a church in Rome, where the centuries-old skulls and bones of monks are arranged in rococo patterns on the chapel walls.
I have also navigated museums of unpopular or obscure subjects, which is always a dependable source of silence. One day several years ago at the University of Bologna, I was the only visitor to a medical museum devoted to deformities and diseases. I must have been pretty quiet myself, because at closing time the staff locked all the doors and prepared to leave. Only my pounding spared me an overnight stay with wax figures of syphilis and smallpox victims.
These days I work at home in a quiet neighbourhood, so any ambient sound is mostly of my own choice. Yet for many of us silence has become a rare commodity. Outside there are lawn mowers, leaf blowers, planes, trains and automobiles. Inside there’s grinding coffee makers, ringtones, jabbering coworkers or customers, and the demented din of commercial television and talk radio: the Electric Blight Orchestra.
Vancouverites commonly complain about the conversation-cancelling sound level in local bars and restaurants, which replicates a trend found in other cities. A 2012 study in New York City found a third of restaurants, bars, retailers, and gyms examined were “borderline dangerous” to hearing. This racket is a racket, so to speak. Studies have found that patrons subjected to loud music are less likely to linger after a meal (yelling is tiring). Even more profitably, patrons are likely to imbibe greater amounts of alcohol.
According to medical studies, noise pollution is a significant threat to human health, disproportionately afflicting the working poor. Insomnia, aggression, heart disease and even decreased longevity have been correlated with cacophonous living or working conditions. (Even the U.S. military understands how loud noise can be torturous. According to a disturbing 2005 Washington Post report, detainees at Guantanamo Bay were incessantly subjected to the recorded wail of infants overlaid with a track of repeating Meow Mix commercials.)
Although our culture worships at the altar of frenetic activity, glad-handing extroversion and kick-ass entertainment — where noise is a sacrament — many of us appreciate the virtues of consciously held stillness. Meditation, yoga, prayer, reading or walks in the wilderness are popular avenues into this state of grace. And thankfully, city planners of the past had the foresight to quarantine large sections of urban space from noise. The grand boulevards of Paris, Central Park in New York and Stanley Park in Vancouver are a few examples that come to mind.
This brings me to one of the unheralded blessings of Christmas. After all the mall-going and Mammon-worship, coupled with the round of seasonal obligations and chores, by the afternoon of Dec. 24 a stillness descends on the cities of the industrialized West like a warm blanket.
There is nothing like a walk on Christmas morning to appreciate civilized stillness. A holiday greeting shared between pedestrians at this time feels somewhere between a salutation and a benediction. Strangers who occupy this momentary bubble of stillness can’t help but smile in mutual warmth — even Vancouverites, globally renowned for their public aloofness.
It’s an experiment worth performing alone or with family, to soak in the annual civic stillness on the morning of the 25th. I know I will be enjoying the crisp, traffic-free ambience with my wife on that day. Happy holidays.
The Vancouver Courier, Dec. 20