Spain through the looking glass

You shall know them by their voices

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It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when I actually enjoyed the infernal racket of Spain. During my virgin visit to this country nearly a decade ago, I positively revelled in the honking traffic and the screaming waiters and the 3am grumble of garbage trucks; it all struck me as yet more evidence of this country’s inherent vital energy. Now, though, it just drives me spare (check out these charming gentlemen who visit my street everyday to sell oranges from the back of a van).

The general rule of thumb in Spain is that you should make as much noise as possible at any given moment. Why talk if you can shout? Why gently place a cup on a table if it can land with a deafening crash? There also seems to be some unwritten rule stating that all doors have to be slammed hard enough to shake at least a little plaster from the walls of any neighbouring buildings.

This Spanish passion for absurd noise levels is pretty much a national trait but there does appear to be a gradual intensification as you head south; by the time you reach the quasi-Africa of Andalusia, everyday life is cacophonous.  On many occasions I’ve wandered into an almost empty bar in southern Spain only to find that the three or four people sitting inside are making more noise than the entire crowd at a Swedish football final. And much of this brouhaha can be put down to the fact that most Andalusians place little stock in actually listening to each other; instead the general conversational style involves everyone trying to drown out the tiresome voices of their companions.

My upstairs neighbours here in Seville are fairly typical in their propensity to argue loudly about everything. While I have never actually met the elderly inhabitants of apartment 4D, I feel I know their habits intimately. I know, for example, that the woman who lives up there spends most of her time stringing clothes out on an ancient rusting washing line that – to judge by the way it screeches painfully every time it is extended and retracted – hasn’t been oiled since Franco transitioned to the other side. The husband, meanwhile, is either slow or has had a stroke (or both), and he’s definitely at least half deaf, the upshot being that his speech is a disturbingly alien-sounding slurred yell.

Every day, this couple host a woman and a child for lunch (I think they are the daughter and grandson). The daughter arrives at about half past two and then cooks with her aging mother – although perhaps ‘cooks with’ isn’t quite apt: their culinary collaboration is more akin to a running battle with the younger woman criticising everything her mother does. ‘Que non! Que no se puede!’ (No! But you can’t do that!), the younger woman squeals at least 20 times during the making of every meal. Then grandma will usually start doing something which involves a series of large thumps and which could mean she is tenderising a piece of meat or perhaps killing some small animal.

At some stage during the cooking, either mum or daughter will decide she can no longer tolerate the other’s company and will turn on the television (at full volume, naturally). The two women will then proceed to watch a show where two other women are screaming at each other while a belligerent studio audience claps or jeers their every utterance.

Before the family sit down to eat lunch – always at 3, for most Spaniards are exceedingly regular in their habits – the television will be switched off. It’s not always clear, however, when this has happened, so seamlessly do the television arguments blend into the real life feuds of the inhabitants of 4D.

During lunch, the grandson will finally come to life and decide he doesn’t want to sit still and that – actually – he would much prefer to run around the apartment and knock over random pieces of heavy furniture. This, in turn, sets off granddad who has, until now, been relatively quiet. Because of his extraterrestrial-inflected voicing, I can never make grandpa’s words, but it seems he is complaining about his lunch because every time he mouths off, his wife and daughter yell something about what an ungrateful old so-and-so he is.

When I first came to Spain five years ago, I didn’t grasp the critical importance of noise here. This caused me no end of grief in everyday social situations. Someone would be talking to me, and I would be nodding my head or smiling or grimacing and just generally doing all the usual things one does in my part of the world (Australia) to show that one is listening to and empathising with the other person. But because I was neither interrupting nor trying to talk over the top of the other person, and because I wasn’t spitting out a constant stream of empty interjections, people took me for dull, or even worse, thick. Now I have learned never to be a silent listener but always to be butting in and generally carrying my social weight.  

Recently I got talking with a friend for mine from Seville about the incessant noise in Spain and he nodded sagely. He told me that he had once spent a night in the country in a house that was so quiet it has led him to have some kind of a nervous turn. In the end, he’d grown so edgy that he’d been forced to get up and switch on the television and a couple of lights just so that he could relax enough to drift off to asleep. The peace of the countryside terrified him.

It seems that while people in some countries prefer to keep silent about their fears, the Spaniards have chosen to shout theirs down.


Written by georgemills25

January 17, 2013 at 20:49

Posted in Uncategorized

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