Author: Petra Hurtado
Have you ever listened to your city? Have you ever noticed those noises that you only hear in your city and no other city in this world? Every city has its own sound, like a personal soundtrack hidden within the urban fabric. A soundtrack that tells the stories about the people who live in the city, their culture, language, and religion, their ways of living, working, and playing. An urban symphony with an orchestra as big as the city itself and you as the conductor trying to lead yourself through the fortissimi, the mezzo piani, and the allegretti of everyday life.
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When you walk through the city center of Vienna, you can hear the click-clack of your shoes on the cobblestone streets and alleys accompanied by the even stronger click-clack of horses dragging carriages with tourists across the city. You hear voices, not too loud though, they don’t want other people to listen to their conversations. Voices that speak words that sound like a tired German, sometimes fortissimo but always adagio. Voices that drag their words behind them like the horses their carriages. A brave attempt by the conductor to tame the Viennese Raunzer (a way of complaining about things that can’t be changed anyways) gets interrupted by the clangor of a bell, the lovely Bim sound of the old tramway that is circling around the historic city center on the Ringstraße. Only on a few special occasions, you hear a deep and mysterious gong sending warm waves of peacefulness from the heart of the city, like the epicenter of a musical earthquake, across its neighborhoods, embracing them like a mother embraces her children. The sound of the good old Pummerin of the Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, the third largest church bell in Europe cast of over 300 cannons that were captured from the Muslim invaders in the Second Turkish Siege of Vienna; a symbol of peace.
About 600 kilometers southwest, you can hear thousands of tourists walking around Venice or exploring the city by its famous gondolas on the Canal Grande. Some of them are trying to take selfies on the Piazza di San Marco while feeding pigeons with the leftovers of their gelato cones. It is almost like a constant humming mixing the melody of the Italian language with words and gestures from all over the world. You almost think, the waves of peacefulness from the Pummerin didn’t make it that far south. But wait until it gets dark, when the tourists have left the city or have gone to their hotel rooms to rest after a day of sightseeing. This is the best time to listen to the city, to explore the real Venice, and to get lost in its moonlight sonata. You can hear the constant movement of water, like the floating melody of a piano, pervading its neighborhoods, La Serenissima. The echo of your own steps that reflects from the building facades in these narrow streets that are just wide enough for you to fit in with a tiny umbrella when it starts raining. You hear voices in Italian mixing in but you can’t tell where they are coming from. The water carries them across the city like the main melody of the sonata.
Some of their countrymen left Italy to search for a better dream in the far lands across the Atlantic. So did the parents of Al Capone, probably the best known criminal of Chicago of all times. Even today, 90 years later, you can still hear the noise of guns rattling in the downtown district of Chicago, a sound that is nowadays coming from the elevated train, the “L”, looping around downtown on its cranky, rusty tracks. Chicago is neither a symphony nor a sonata. The harmonica sound of ambulances and fire trucks and the squeaky breaks of the CTA busses imitating the acoustic feedback of an electric guitar are the main instruments of the urban blues of Chicago. The hustle and bustle of people getting to and from work and honking drivers that got stuck in traffic are the accompanying rhythm of the piece. Hearing the street musician play “what a wonderful world” on the platform of the red line station lowers your blood pressure and makes you smile. In the winter, once the windy city is hiding underneath an innocent white, you are trudging through the snow looking for a change in rhythm and pace. Maybe a little bit of Frank Sinatra or Chet Baker while you are sipping your hot chocolate at the nearest neighborhood Starbucks indulging in the stories the couple at the table next to you is telling. And at night, when you are lying in bed, trying to fall asleep on the twenty fifth floor of your apartment building, you can still hear the ambulances and fire trucks passing by, while the gentle humming of your air conditioning is putting you asleep.
At sunrise, you wake up with the call to prayer in the city of Aleppo. At least, that’s what it used to be. It was still dark out but with the first shafts of sunlight and the call of the muezzin from the distance, you got up and started the day. I don’t know what Aleppo sounds like today. Does it have a sound at all? Aleppo used to sound like an oasis in the desert allowing the warm and whispering breezes of the Arabic language come to life at the city’s main market, the al-Madina Souq, with almost 15 kilometers, the largest in the world. Like the sounds of an old rebab, the rattling of mopeds was accompanying your daily belly dance through the souq, negotiating prices, tasting fresh dates while sipping black tea with fresh mint, feeling alive in those oriental rhythms. And then again, the call to prayer that reminded you of the Islamic duty of praying five times a day. On the streets, you heard mainly basses and some baritones, it was a man’s world. Only as a woman did you get to join the soprano melody of splashing water and female laughter, the sound of scrubbing skin like a percussion instrument, and voices of women talking about their days in the hammam before the sun set again. One more time, the muezzin called to prayer before people went home to cook what they bought at the souq. Suddenly it was quiet, only the scratchy sound of the cicadas and the grunting of a camel drinking water outside the window. Probably the guy from around the corner and his camel walking home from work. He was making a living from taking pictures of people sitting on his camel; not any more.