Whenever people travel somewhere new, they talk of “the sights and sounds”, and out come the photos to give us an idea of what they’ve experienced. But without the auditory soundtrack the pictures are static and flat. We can’t feel the atmosphere.
It takes sound to flesh out the visual experience and imbue it with life. Sounds can take us on a journey far more effectively than any picture. The more blanks the mind has to fill in, the more engaged it becomes. With an evocative noise and a vivid imagination, you can travel anywhere. It’s with this in mind, that I’m taking you on an auditory trip to Canada.
From the outset, my experience here was marked by sound. When we first arrived, we were woken in our hotel room throughout the night by the insistent, metallic clang of alarm bells on a railway crossing and the whistle of the freight train as it rolled through with a low steady rumble.Muted by distance, it wasn’t anything like the protagonist in “My Cousin Vinny” had to endure; but because it was unfamiliar its presence pierced our slumber until we grew used to it. The house we live in now isn’t far from that hotel and I still hear the freight train if I happen to be awake. Its comforting regularity and suggestion of adventure in the vastness of the sleeping landscape makes me smile to myself in the dark.
The different sounds in a new location add another layer to the culture shock experienced by the newly transplanted expat. Initially, the “pip” of a car horn would always make me glance around for someone I knew, then, realising how unlikely that was, I’d check that I hadn’t tucked my skirt into my knickers. It took me a while to stop reacting to the automatic signal prompted by someone locking their vehicle!
Out walking in the suburban jungle, most of the sounds that reach my ears are the result of locomotion; the distant roar of traffic on the 401 – Canada’s busiest highway, the “ker-dunk, ker-dunk, ker-dunk” of a skateboarder surfing the sidewalk – the edges where the slabs meet causing a rhythmic jolt as the wheels pass over them, the throaty growl of a Harley-Davidson, its rider spread-eagled in languid arm-chair stance, his “pudding basin” helmet a metaphorical middle finger to the prosaic concerns of health and safety. Sometimes you can hear the electricity zing past overhead as it travels along the wires strung between telegraph poles.
A rip-tide of warm air sucks at us as a rig thunders past, hot dragon-breath hissing loudly, engine labouring through the gears as it heads for the nearby Sobey’s warehouse. A shiny red Kenworth tractor hauls the load, full of character with its American-style cab and steel exhaust stacks rising like antlers. Back home we called them “lorries” and their cabs were flat-nosed, with the driver sitting over the engine rather than behind it – the compact design and smaller turning circle better-suited to roads built on ancient paths and trackways of bygone Britain. My four-year-old son waves to the truck driver and the blast of a bullhorn rends the air in reply. We feel the vibrations in our shoes.
Away from the main road and the continuous sigh of rubber on asphalt, nature takes over the auditory narrative. Cicadas fill the air with their incessant high-pitched call; hypnotic and soothing, it provides a backing track to everything else. Down at the marina, the gulls screech to one another – their aggressive laughter echoing around the boat-studded floating pontoons. The breeze carries the soft metallic clink of hooks on poles from the bristle of gently rocking masts and the lake licks at the slipway with wetly tantalising slurp-slop-slapping sounds. Further down the shoreline, the rhythmic swish of water tirelessly displacing and replacing small stones signals where the rocky foreshore gives way to beach.
As dusk settles across the vast Canadian landscape, the sonorous honk of geese arrowing their way across the purpling sky signals the hour on the wildlife chronometer. Night falls fast here. In the gathering darkness a coyote howls.
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations.
Read Aisha's other Expat Focus articles here.