Friday, May 7, 2010

May Day, cont.

It’s unsettling how much living in another country disrupts one’s sense of competency. More than not speaking the language challenges one’s sense of being a responsible and intelligent adult. There’s not knowing the holidays, for instance. May Day, when all the shops close, sneaked up on us and caught us unaware. Other local customs and courtesies can catch you off guard, too, as we found out on May Day.

 In the years I lived in Southern California – over 30 years – probably not a week – not a day – went by without me complaining of noise. In the mid-1980s we lived in a crowded ‘transitional’ neighbourhood of apartments in Los Angeles’ Wilshire District. We were surrounded car alarms that malfunctioned and wailed unattended for hours. Bass thuds from powerful mobile woofers shook the air. An alarm peep-peep-peep-peeped every morning as our neighbour reversed out of his driveway. And rather than going to the door, teenagers sat in their cars and honked to announce their arrival.

Moving to the bedroom community of Thousand Oaks brought relief from the worst of the car alarms and honking. But suburban life means weekends filled with the roar of gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers. Its less travelled streets serve as testing grounds for motorcycles, high-volume ‘pocket rockets’, and shrill radio-controlled mini-cars. Motor boats engines, back from a weekend on the lake, must be cleared by running at full power in your neighbour’s driveway. Patios are equipped with stereos capable of broadcasting into backyards several lots away.

And, of course, there are well-amplified garage bands channelling adolescent angst through metallic discordance.

‘At least they’re not using drugs,’ said the homeowner, unsympathetic to my plea for peace.

‘At least that would keep them quiet,’ was my unspoken retort.

Well my husband recalls my temper rising under the stress of neighbourhood noise. I seethed, I simmered, I ranted. And, at last, I escaped to the countryside of Ireland.

Of course the Irish countryside has its own noises. At harvest time, combines rumble in fields from before dawn to well past dark, working against the threat of rain to bring in the corn. Year round, tractors pass along the roads, pulling tanks of slurry or trailers stacked with baled straw or bins full of grain. The school bus driver honks as he speeds round the blind bend morning and evening. And, of course, there are boy racers, fuelled by testosterone and petrol, wherever you go. Still, the sounds of the country, apart from the drone of farm machinery, tend to be the cacophony of crows, the rising song of the blackbirds, the lowing of cattle and bawling of sheep drifting across the fields.

Here on Katzenstrasse, lawns are mown and tree limbs are cut by chain saws, but bird song is more prevalent than the noise of fuel-powered engines. I  hadn’t thought much of it at all other than enjoying the peacefulness of a neighbourhood away from most urban noise.

There is a large garden in the back of the house that contains our flat. It turns out that maintaining the garden – mowing the lawn – is our responsibility. On Saturday, May Day, Himself at last attacked the lawn, which had with the spring warmth and rains grown several inches tall. He powered up the two-stroke engine of the new strimmer and, wearing eye and ear protection, spent several hours whacking the grass, dandelions and lovely purple flowers that also grew in profusion.

From the window on the first floor, I watched him work. There were neighbours in the house behind us watching too as they washed their car and shook dust from a rug. We haven’t met, and they made no effort to greet us, but I assumed their watchfulness stemmed from relief at seeing the jungle behind our house tamed.

Surrounded by overgrown shrubs and trees, the lawn is large. It is irregularly shaped and cut at intervals by jagged corners. There are trees growing in it as well and overhanging vines to be worked around. His progress was slow. All afternoon the engine throbbed as he whacked away the tall grass, foot by foot.

We had planned to get together with our neighbours later in the afternoon, and when the time came to join them, he hadn’t quite finished. Recognising that, in this culture, it would rude to make so much noise on Sunday, he had wanted to complete it on this Saturday afternoon. However we were waiting for him, so he put away the strimmer, planning to complete the job after work during the week, and joined us.

We sat in the front garden of the house across the street, two Austrian couples and ourselves, getting to know one another over coffee and cake. I asked about May Day. Because Salzburg, in particular, has a centuries-old Catholic tradition, I wondered whether May Day was celebrated as a Marian holiday, as it is by some Catholics in Ireland, or as its more recent incarnation as Labour Day. They were surprised to hear me ask about its Catholic associations. It is Labour Day here, as it is in many European countries. Himself remarked on the church’s history of appropriating and Christianising pagan celebrations. As it turns out, some of the ancient traditions of the pagan May celebration continue. The eight-year-old daughter of one of the couples was attending a local May Pole celebration with friends. She returned full of excitement over the children trying to climb the pole to retrieve the pretzels and sausages cached at the top as prizes.

By then, the sky, which had been sunny, had clouded over and another storm begun. We had moved inside where we visited a little while longer. Then we said goodbye and dashed across the street to avoid the rain.

Inside, Himself told me what I had missed when I had briefly gone home to get a bottle of wine. The two German-speaking couples had remarked on how another neighbour, a man from up the street, had stopped by earlier in the day. He was complaining about the noise of the strimmer. How long would it go on? Didn’t we realise, he had said to them, that it is illegal to make that kind of noise on a public holiday?

I thought of the neighbours behind us, watching, unsmiling, as Himself had worked. Oh the irony! After years of my railing over noise on weekends and holidays in California, we have at last come to live in a community where respecting others’ need for peace is not only considered a courtesy, it is codified. And now, at the first opportunity, we had violated both custom and law.

We did remark, though, on the civility of our neighbours. They had communicated this indirectly, anecdotally, as if commenting on the temperament of the complaining neighbour. Without calling attention to our lapse or embarrassing us, they had slipped it into the conversation almost as though by chance. We now know. 

And we find ourselves living in a civilised country.

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