My residency in Brooklyn is not something most people would describe as quiet. The traffic, noisy neighbors and occasional gunshot (seriously) do not always make for a peaceful night’s sleep either. But once I deem a place my home the noises become more bearable and almost comforting. Like the raucous, nocturnal cicadas that “chirp” all night long during the summer months in Missouri. Or the drunken street wandering and bottle throwing that begins at 2 a.m. and does not cease until class time during the school year in Vermont. Because I knew the cicadas mating and the bottles crashing onto the sidewalk; they had become a part of me after I’d created a life in the places they inhabited. But Scotland was not my home, it was a thumbtack on my map, and the sounds did not belong to me.
When I was in the fourth grade the school counselor did an exercise with my class to test if we were auditory or visual learners.
The days that the counselor came to class were always my favorite. We would take a break from the regular sluggishness of learning about math and science and instead learned about people.
We learned how to identify bullies, how to treat teachers and classmates, what was appropriate clothing for school, how big the range of human emotions was, why not to do drugs. Whether I held onto most of these life lessons or not (I didn’t), I always enjoyed the process of the activities, which were much more fun than listening to my teacher read The Chronicles of Narnia aloud in a monotonous voice.
During one of her special visits, the counselor told us all to sit at our desks and close our eyes while she left the room. Our 10-year-old bums wiggled in our chairs and dozens of toes and fingers tapped on the floor and desks. I heard her walk into the room, her high heels clicking under her. I opened my eyes and turned to see what she was doing. I saw a few of my classmates do the same. Then she walked back out and told us to open our eyes and turn so that we could only see the door through our peripheral vision. I saw most of my classmates start to giggle as they turned toward the door. I was confused at first, and when I decided to look with them I noticed the counselor had taken her shoes off and was waving her arms about wildly over her head while she walked into the room.
I was diagnosed as an auditory leaner. And although I haven’t always found this to be true, especially in trigonometry where seeing a problem written out in full paragraph length was always easier than listening to my teacher talk about it, hearing has definitely been a reliable sense for me.
The air around me was thick with Italian accents. The people sitting next to me on the plane looked in their early twenties, like me, and were thoroughly intoxicated. The boys played grab-ass with the girls and the girls giggled and yelled at the boys. Before the plane took off the boy next to me had already ordered a vodka tonic.
“Is that free?” I asked him.
He nodded with a smile but did not verbally reply. I had booked the red eye flight from JFK to London Heathrow hoping that it would help keep away the jet lag and allow me a few hours of sleep, making the 7.5 hour flight seem a little shorter.
But I was nervous. I had no idea what I was doing. I was regretting the trip horribly and all I could think to do to calm my nerves was follow the lead of the boy beside me and order myself a cocktail.
The world’s biggest lightweight could not have drank enough to engage in sleep and maintain mental stability on this flight.
The drunken students that surrounded me partied for almost all 7.5 hours. I wrapped my scarf around my head and threw a blanket over myself but to no success. The noise was inescapable.
About an hour into the flight and two mini red wines down the hatch, the pilot made an announcement over the PA. His unmistakable pilot-rhythm speech crackled throughout the plane. My eyes were closed but I was listening. The speaker directly above me began to crackle more fiercely than the other speakers in the cabin. I strained my neck to the right to see if the speaker on my opposite side four seats down was making the same noise—it wasn’t. Soon the crackling was replaced with a subtle squeal, the kind you hear when your ears are too cold or you’ve stood up too quickly. The subtleness faded as a piercing wail was released from the speaker. I looked at the passengers around them to see if their reaction was similar to mine. A few made horrible wincing faces and some slept on. A few students began to yell for flight attendants but their voices could hardly be heard over the shrill corruption. Before anyone on the crew could assist us, the squealing abruptly went away. Satisfied without need of an explanation, so long as the issue was resolved, people eventually turned back to their books and magazines and adjusted their pillows; I tightened my scarf.
Thirty minutes later I was woken again by an eardrum-bursting sound. Finally a flight attendant came to our aid. “Oh wow, that does sound horrible,” she said, and then politely denied our requests to be moved because the plane was too full. I slowly looked around at the empty seats that dotted the plane.
“Another wine, please,” I said.
My first day in Edinburgh was filled with more anxiety than I expected, and I expected a lot. I attempted to suppress my fears through sleep (an unhealthy solution I have depended on my entire life), but the endeavor was hopeless. Every five minutes someone in my 16-bunk room would open the squeaky door, walk across the room in a pair of noisy flip-flops, unzip his or her suitcase, rummage through what I could only assume was 90 plastic bags, flip-flop back out of the room and let the door slam on the way out.
Although my effort to sleep was a failure, I refused to get out of bed in this foreign place. I had easily spent my first (might I add, beautiful) day in Scotland paralyzed in my twin-sized top bunk. Day quickly turned to night and the squeaky door and unzipping sounds were replaced with snores of every variety. The person sleeping in the bunk beneath me rattled the bed frame with the vibrations coming from his nose.
Earplugs could not soothe my sensitive eardrums. Snoring had always bothered me but not this much. Only 20 more nights of this, I thought sarcastically as I laid wide-awake at one in the morning.
And I was right. Not one night went by without an orchestra of snoring during my entire visit. The noises changed at each hostel, though. During my stay in Inverness, someone took to drunkenly playing the bagpipes outside of our window around 2:30 a.m. every day. It was as if he wanted our stay in Scotland to be as cliché as possible.
I never was able to peacefully sleep through the night but eventually I became less shocked by the bewildering noises.
I sat in the Edinburgh train station, my bulky backpack hooked around my waist and shoulders, and waited for my departure time. The all too familiar sound of a PA system cackling filled the room. My heart immediately dropped;, this sound had ruined a portion of a day once before and it was sure to do it again. A recording of a woman’s voice sounded through the enormous station: “Evacuate the building, there has been a security threat. Evacuate the building, there has been a security threat.” Some people got up quickly and headed for the door. Myself and a few other backpackers and non-English speaking tourists looked around bewildered. When the announcement showed no sign of stopping I wearily got up and looked for the nearest exit. First I thought about a terrorist attack. Then I thought about missing my train. Then I thought about how nice it would be to be back in my bed in Brooklyn. Then a tall man in a security uniform came running over to our area. “It’s just a drill, stay where you are,” he shouted. The tenseness in the air lessened but never went away.
It was a month full of sounds. Most of the ones that stuck with me weren’t exactly pleasant. I walked down the street in the rain to get on the double decker bus that would take me straight to the airport for cheap (according to the ladies who ran the last hostel I stayed in). I stepped up next to the driver who was sitting on the right side,; something I still wasn’t quite used to. “That’ll be fefteen pence,” the driver said when he saw me counting my change slowly. “Thank you. And how long is the ride to the airport?” I asked. “About feffff…. Yeh, about fefteen menuts.”
I smiled and suppressed a giggle. Maybe all the sounds here weren’t so bad, I thought. The native accents were incredible. From barely there to Gaelic and hardly understandable to an American ear, they were some of the greatest dialects I had ever heard. A tour guide in the highlands told my group several legends about fairies in the thickest Scottish tone he could conjure, making their long plots much easier to listen to. The sober bagpipes were also amazing. I had heard bagpipes being played before, but nothing compares to someone in full traditional garb playing next to a statue in the middle of the Royale Mile in Edinburgh. The seals barking on an island during my boat tour in Portree were hilarious. They reminded me of my nieces and nephew— silly and playful and very, very loud. And though the airplane back to New York did not have a faulty speaker system, I still did not sleep.
And when I laid in bed next to my boyfriend and dog that night in our Bushwick apartment and heard their soft snoring and an occasional outburst from a crackhead outside on the street, I couldn’t help but feel grateful for the strangers who were semi-truck-like sleepers that were my bunkmates for the past few weeks.