From Downtown to the countryside, noise travels

By Wickham Boyle

My husband and I just spent two weeks as houseguests in the Italian countryside outside of Spoleto, in the famed Umbrian hills. While whiling away the time sipping prosecco or aqua frizzante I was also allowing my thoughts to bubble up. Beyond the beauty, the relentless heat and perched villages, I noticed that nowhere is truly quiet. At least it isn’t quiet the way I desire silence in my restless mind.

At home, in Downtown N.Y.C., I write mostly at my tiny desk sitting by a big north-facing window. I often rise early to avoid disturbances from the phone or family, but what I hear is a ceaseless susserence of traffic, punctuated by horns or even the clip clop of police horses heading out from the local stable. There is no real silence.

In fact during an interview, held in my loft, the final task of the sound engineer was to record the particular sound of silence in my space, the D.N.A. of my home’s quietude. I was told that every home, field, or work place has its own special, quiet rhythm and if you don’t take a sample of that, you can’t fill in the gaps. So Simon and Garfunkel were right, there is a sound of silence.

What I discovered in Umbria is that silence and calm are also always punctuated by the sounds of neighbors. Downtown I may be more unsettled by movie crews, honking horns or screaming toddlers, but on the terrace in Bazzano Superiore, population 256, there was a plethora of human interaction.

The homes are built plugged into the hillsides in what seems like an ancient version of apartments. Although my son’s godfather has taken four abodes and connected them with glassed in bridges and fabulous terraces, there are still neighbors. Angela, who is two terraces over, drinks. And when she imbibes; she sings. Things could be worse you postulate, but you haven’t heard Angela sing. She really wails and puts on very loud records to accompany her singing. First she immerges onto the balcony and hollers

“Ciao”; then she starts the record. It begins with loud applause and then Angela sings. When she is finished, there is again thunderous applause. I feel she has chosen her repertoire solely based on the applause track and not for the musical fit. When her daughter Rita is home, she can usually haul Angela off stage a little sooner.

I saw Marianne, our hostess; visibly blanch when Angela greeted her guests. I tried to assuage her, reminding her that we were from New York City and accustomed to unruly interruptions at all occasions. She further divulged that the following day began the big, long Italian August holiday and the neighbor on the other side, who normally lived in Roma, would be mowing the lawn at daybreak.

It seems this fellow cuts the “lawn” which is really the grass around the olive trees growing on a precipitous slant, with a weed wacker — you know a hand held electronic device that roars, emitting a high-pitched whine that augments when the user hits a target. The next day at daybreak the whine began. I rolled over to my husband and we laughed. Here we were miles away from the bustle of Downtown life and we were inundated with neighbor noise.

Just then the bells in the church began to ring in a profusion of notes, no, they were playing a song, the same one I had heard played at sunset everyday on the terrace. My latent Catholic school education reminded me about matins and lauds, prayers at daybreak and sun set, and I imagined that as well as chiming the hours and half hours, in Italy there was another role for the bell master. I asked my husband if they did this every day, and he laughed even more. “Why are you laughing at me now,” I pouted.

“Because they do this everyday, and you normally sleep right through it.” WOW I had been here for a few days and already my subconscious had filtered out the regular noise, that which we sleep through from the new, jolting noises, the ones we better heed or perhaps suffer consequences.

I recalled another time when I was living way up in the Adirondack Mountains working for a community theater. I had brought up some professional actors to do a workshop and they couldn’t sleep because the din from the insects, wind and trees really unsettled them. To me that cacophony was so quiet. It wasn’t their brand of quiet, or their brand of noise.

I settled into my remaining week in Italy realizing I wasn’t going to find peace, quiet or solitude anywhere but inside of me. I have to provide the same kind of silence when I want to write or read or mediate that my unconscious brain gave me during the ringing of the bells when I wanted to remain asleep.

Somehow I can be in control of what I react to, by quieting my mind. After all I must have recorded some internal sounds of silence to use as filler, just like the sound guy. Now I just have to find them.

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