Friday, August 03, 2012

Paris Ambiance: No Thundering Decibels


And one more thing I loved about spending two weeks in Paris?  I loved the sound levels in public spaces. We were never bombarded with excess noise that passed for ambiance. I ate at street cafes and walked by hundreds more. Never once did I hear heard that ubiquitous noise that reverberates in Houston restaurants. What I heard and enjoyed were human voices in conversation punctuated with bursts of laughter and an occasional shout.
Aggie and I discovered that we tended to speak more loudly than the folks at neighboring tables. We learned to talk to one another in lower voices, at dinner tables, on the street, in shops. Incredibly, we could hear each other all the time, everywhere we visited. No one had to speak above a sound tract or noise that bounces off hard floors and high ceilings. Dining out, sight seeing and shopping were all the more pleasant in Paris.
Back in the U.S., I realized again how my body steels itself against noise as I enter Whole Foods or Fiesta, as I fill my gas tank, as I get a hair cut or walk into a shop in Highland Village or into that nosiest mall in Houston - Memorial City.  (BTW, Highland Village and Memorial City Mall are the two places I go for never-ending Apple training session. And BTW, the sound level in Apple stores is monstrous.)  When I returned from Paris, it was all business as usual in Houston with music pumped into every restaurant, office space, supermarket, drug store and shopping mall I entered.
Omnipresent noise has begun to feel like harassment. There is hardly a time when I do not ask a waiter or manager to turn down the music, so that I can have a conversation with a friend within three feet of me, a conversation without raising my voice and losing half or more of his or her reply. I've not yet gone to a supermarket manager or written a letter to store owners about noise levels, but I may after this trip to Paris.
Sure, Paris has noise. There are motor scooters in the streets, screeching Metro trains, trundling garage trucks, but the sounds are brief and passing. They have purpose. And what is the purpose of a loud sound track in a supermarket, except that someone has made money selling taped music? I've heard that folks buy more when they have a sense of being 'in the action' or 'part of the scene'. Music and noise create that vibe. I've had enough of it. I've left stores without buying a thing, simply because the sound track was too loud, making a meandering look at merchandise uncomfortable.
In today's New York Times, Katherine Bouton writes in 'Sound Bites', that "noise is the second most common complaint about restaurants according to Zagat, following poor service. The first thing that anyone asks me when I say I'm writing a book about hearing loss is whether I can recommend a quiet restaurant."
I'll take the cafes lining the streets of Paris any day over a U.S. eatery. When did a restaurant's good food become secondary to the sound levels coursing over its tables? Is anyone listening?

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