a wandering woman writes

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The smell of strong coffee, the roar of the crowd

Something hit me this morning.

Spain is not a quiet place.

I took my El País-accompanying coffee in the Plaza Mayor this morning, rare for me. And I enjoyed the concert.

There's a buzz to the Plaza Mayor - at any hour, as Anni commented in her article about her recent visit. I had the pleasure of meeting Anni while she was here and enjoyed seeing her photos and reading the details of her visit.

I'd argue passionately with her about the quantity of pedestrian-only acres in Salamanca (and I'm sure she'd let me!) Other than during early morning delivery hours, (early by Spanish standards - 830 to 10 am) a huge swath of central Salamanca - the Plaza Mayor and 4 of the 5 or 6 lanes leading into it, plus La Rua, Calle Zamora, Calle Toro, Calle Compañia, Calle Meléndez and the whole area around Plaza Anaya to Patio Chico and Plaza John XXIII - is pedestrian only, except for the odd funeral, police car, lost tourist, etc. Salamanca has several large all-pedestrian parks, although they are located out of the center in the residential neighborhoods.

The entire path most of us follow through the historic center of Salamanca during the early evening paseo is pedestrian-only. Hard to figure how you'd ever get a car down those Salmatino-swollen streets at 8 in the evening.

Yet none of those pedestrian paths is quiet.

As Anni discovered, Salamanca is full of surprisingly quiet little corners, like the odd corner in the Huerto de Calixto y Melibea, the Cave of Salamanca, the inside of any of the city's Romanesque churches, or the Plaza de la Libertad, where Anni herself finally found refuge.

This morning, listening to the symphony of a Sunday morning build around me as the Plaza clock bounced toward noon, I had to agree that Salamanca's Plaza Mayor is not a quiet place. As I perused my Sunday paper, I was serenaded by the low whir of the generator powering the Technology exhibit currently in the middle of the Plaza - and the rhythmic cackling of the 30 or 40 Salmantinos waiting for it to open. I closed my eyes and finally identified what I was hearing -- a low buzz, or a low roar I suppose, depending on how you feel about it, a sound I've grown accustomed to -- the sound of a public area in Spain. Erudite conversations, humming children, wild cackling laughs. The whir of scooter wheels and the singing of my waiter. "¡Buenos dias!". "¡Hombre!" Dog-claiming whistles of every tone and cadence. Salamanca paraded by while I read my paper. And she didn't do it quietly.

And it hit me, again - one of the things I love most about Spain is this - this pulsing, talking, singing, clamoring life in the streets. I have a quiet apartment by the river, which is also a quiet place to escape, as is the old Romanesque church next door. Yet when I open a window or walk out to the patio, I am in Spain again. In the morning, an open window means bird's songs and the quiet whir of the Tormes River. In the afternoon it means clanging pans and clinking dishes, perhaps a singing neighbor, the sing song "Hola" of the little girl upstairs, or the unexpected roar of a shouted argument as only the Spanish can shout it.

Walk down Calle Toro at 8 any evening.

If you long for silence and stillness, you may hear noise. You may resent the jostling, the soccer balls bouncing at you, the children and old folks causing people-jams as they stop suddenly in their tracks.

I promise you, it won't be quiet. In fact, you may hear noise.

I'll hear the life of my lovely city.
And I'll be smiling.



  • I just returned from two weeks in Spain. While I was there I was trying to put my finger on the difference between the sound generated by Spaniards and that made by Americans. I agree that it can be very noisy on the streets of a Spanish city, but I think that a crowd of Spanish-speakers has more of a musical hum to it. You can detect an American voice even before you actually distinguish any English words - I think that English is a little harsher - Americans can be loud, but it's certain words and exclamations that stand out, instead of that kind of musical hum. I'm curious to hear if others would agree with this.

    By Blogger Mark K, at 8:15 AM  

  • I agree--it's not that Americans are especially louder than anyone else, and for me it's the different intonation that stands out and makes me perk up my ears. I wouldn't say, though, that American English sounds harsh--to me it's more sing-songy and high pitched in intonation than British English or Spanish. I also think that part of the what makes American English so noticeable to my American ears is that it's so familiar and less easy to ignore or drown out in a non-American environment.

    An interesting question, and I'll ask my non-American English-speaking colleagues what they think.

    By Blogger wheylona, at 3:24 PM  

  • 'an open window means bird's songs and the quiet whir of the Tormes River.'

    This nearly killed me ... lol, just by the way.

    Beautiful imagery.

    By Blogger woman wandering, at 10:05 AM  

  • Mellow, w-w. Mellow. LOL, you can take it. Trust me, an open window on the other side means traffic noise at rush hour and screaming skateboarders and students shouting their way home from the clubs at 7 am. I wasn't painting a picture of paradise, honest. :)

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 4:05 PM  

  • You know the more I think of this the more I know Anni is right--Spain is noisy. It's just that to me I think that's just part of the culture - talking, being int the street, letting kids be kids....And because I love the street life and the whatever that is..way we live here.....I love the noise, too.

    But yeh, Mark I like the sound of Spanish in the background because I find it musical, too. I always get excited after a trip when I get back on Iberia and hear Spanish chatter all around me..

    The American English I hear here is harsh and often far louder than any of the natives.... but I don't know if Americans are like that at home....it's study abroad disease, common in Salamanca among (some) American 22 year olds...who shout obnoxious things in American English...for reasons that escape me, considering they have paid good $ to come learn SPanish.

    By Blogger wandering-woman, at 4:14 PM  

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