Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Hitchhiker's Guide to Edinburgh

Having recently relocated to Edinburgh, I have been getting used to the new everyday sounds around me. No longer am I surrounded by the German language, but by English. The morning birdsong outside my window was replaced by a disorienting sound of seagulls, their melancholy screech echoing around the communal greens of tenement living. Police sirens sound different here too. The German police cars' perfunctory two-tone missive has given way to a sliding wail interrupted by a punctuated monotone, and in its third movement, erupts into a sound like a car accelerator wired to a wah wah pedal. In Germany, the siren went wonkily out of tune in direct relation to its distance from me as it sped away, reminding me that I was an outsider, out of synch with my surroundings but enjoying it.

Over the last 14 years of living abroad I realise my ears have become trained to believe that English is a rare occurrence. I automatically eavesdrop on stranger's conversations, lingering on their words. Something has not told my brain to stop doing this, so I am a sounding board for anyone's conversation.

I think: There is someone speaking English, that's unusual, I wonder who they are and why they are here?
Of course as anyone with experience of being an expat knows, you may feel the opposite, especially if living in Berlin: English speakers again, the place is verily overrun with 'em!

I stare for a moment too long and realise I am intruding.

Then there are the new sounds in the flat. The fire alarm goes off, there is even a detector in the kitchen, toast is the culprit. We can't get away from the ear-piercing sound, it is in every room and even the stair. My children run around in a panic, hands clasped over ears and escape into the garden. There is no deactivate button and we are told later that you must fling a towel towards it in the hope that it stops. Later, on a walk through the meadows, bordered on one side by glass fronted luxury flats, a man is balanced precariously on a stool in his showcase kitchen, waving a towel frantically upwards.  I smile in recognition. I have been initiated into that kind of Highland fling. I don't think this is what he wanted the world to see through the glass, though.

Then there is the sound that is inaudible to the human ear. We have mice. I now realise why there are so many cats prowling the greens. I won't buy a trap that kills. We try a humane trap, but it seems that the Edinburgh mice are clever fellows and won't fall for that. I am sold a plug that emits high-pitched frequencies that will stop mice nesting. I wonder if death would have been better than animal sound torture, but then the Edinburgh mice, astute creatures they are, must have taken to wearing ear-plugs as I catch one scuttling under the washing machine at night.

Tenement living also brings close proximity to the sound of our neighbours. The reliable sonorous chimes of a grandfather clock are incongruous to the occasional screeching of its owner, an elderly lady from the ground floor flat telling off our children for scaling a wall. What we know so far of our Spanish neighbour is relayed to us by an alarm clock that doesn't turn off in the morning, and a security alarm setting loudly at night.

Intelligent mice, useful towels, all we need now are Babel fish! I find myself struggling for English words again, and asking myself, "What was the English word for that, again?" The effort of communicating in a foreign language, though, falls away when you relocate. It is as comforting as going up a few togs in an eiderdown. You can enjoy the nuances of your own language, rather than casting around for scraps. Funnily enough, it was in the "famine" rather that "feast" environment in Germany, that I really first learned about the English language, teaching English as a foreign language. Now that I am back in the UK,though, I realise it is my own language that has to be brushed up.






















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