Observations leaving the US for Germany – The quiet

This is part 3 of multi part series, and I’m focusing on the quiet in this post. Here are the links to all the entries:

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 2: The food

Well, it’s official, I have left the US for Berlin, Germany. This is part three of a series of observations I’m making comparing my life in the US to the one here. These posts are being made in more or less real-time, within just a few days of arriving, and so encompass my first impressions of it.  This is my third post, and it’s about what I notice about general volume levels for a big city.

Compared to the US, Berlin is extraordinarily quiet, especially for a big city, and despite all the celebrations and activity that goes on throughout the night. The first thing I noticed is the absolute lack of Muzak, which I love. American commercial establishments, whether they a store or a restaurant, have a pervasive need for some sort of music playing constantly. It is everywhere, and you can’t escape it. Its not the style of music that I find so objectionable (although I do generally absolute despise the type of music being played), but that having the constant drone going on in the background requires everything else to be at a higher volume to overcome it. People talk louder, whether they are discussing things face-to-face or just on their mobile phone. That constant chatter carries much further than the Muzak that they are trying to drown out.

In German culture (or basically any culture outside of the US), if you are at an establishment that isn’t an establishment intended for playing music, doesn’t do so. There isn’t music playing at restaurants, for example, so all the people in the restaurant can speak at a normal volume. The same applies for your mobile phone, you’ll find yourself speaking at a dramatically lower volume because you’re not yelling into the phone to overcome the background noise.  Most of the time, you won’t hear people outside when you are inside somewhere. The people themselves tend to be a bit more considerate of their volume levels (or they’re just used to being quieter), so you’ll hear people yell to a friend down the street during the day, but at night this behavior is rather rare. The end result of this is that you can have a relatively busy street with lots of people walking around at midnight, yet it’s nonetheless relatively quiet.

Cars here are built in a way that they tend to shut off while idling, and because the society is a bit rigid when it comes to following rules, people will wait patiently for lights to change, even with no traffic, and cars will yield consistently to pedestrians. This means that they only honk at each other to get someone’s specific attention, or if someone is violating rules. Overall, the traffic can be quite heavy, yet still remain quiet.

I also learned that they have strict noise regulations here. For example, lawn mowers are only allowed to be used between 9am-5pm, and broadly speaking, you’re forbidden from making noise before 7am and after 8pm, and never on Sundays. There’s actual complaint lines and enforcement of said regulations, so although I find the city to be significantly more active at night than most American cities (many restaurants are open until midnight, and people will be walking around with their children at 11pm in the Summer), it’s also dramatically quieter. I’ve spent most of my life trying to drown out noise when I sleep, I tend towards later hours, and even with earplugs and sealed windows, I’d still consistently get woken up. I’m quite enjoying the silence here.

The lower volumes stretch to other areas as well. I spent some time at a club, and in the US, I’ve consistently worn earplugs at any music venue for the last decade because the volume tends to be loud enough to give me tinnitus. Here, I went to an event with DJs playing techno, and for the first time in many years didn’t feel the need to wear earplugs, and left the event without any adverse side effects. The music was plenty loud enough to hear, but you were able to have a conversation with the people next to you without having to yell at full volume.

A nice, unintended side effect of the lower volumes everywhere is that I find myself speaking at a much lower volume as well. Whether its on the phone or in person, I haven’t had to yell to overcome the background noise since I got here, and it is extraordinarily refreshing. I’m afraid that coming back to the US to visit the constant noise will be even more noticeable, and I’m hoping I’m able to find it tolerable. I’ve only been here a couple days, and I can’t imagine having to deal with the constant noise pollution again.

That’s it for part three of this series of observations of Berlin as an ex-pat. There’s more coming, and it’s not all a panacea. I’ve been trying to limit each of these posts to a single topic, and so haven’t hit on some the other less positive things I’ve noticed. Stay tuned for more observations, I’ve got some thoughts on the people, the graffiti and garbage, and even my impressions of German sex culture.

Part 1: The buildings & streets

Part 2: The food

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