12 September 2017

Sink or Swim in the Metropolis

The other day, I saw a scene in public here in Berlin which made me think. I was in the S-Bahn (commuter train) on a weekend traveling from one end of the city to the other. I was sitting in one of those 4-seater cubicles, and the remaining three seats, as well as the four seats across the aisle, all seven seats were occupied by Israelis. In the midst of them was another Israeli, which based on her equipment, was a tour guide, and she was guiding this group of 7 through the city, and they were using public transportation to move around. It was summer, so the windows were open, and she was trying to explain something to the group. So she was talking, and talking in a voice that was loud enough for everyone to hear. But apparently, she was too loud such that some elderly passenger was rather disturbed. This is where the amusing part begins.

See, it turns out that this elderly woman was German, sitting one cubicle in front. She was reading a newspaper, or at least trying to. She of course doesn't understand Hebrew. So she just gestures and gesticulates that she is irritated, by making faces and staring at the group. Of course the Israeli group doesn't care, and continue on. The elderly German woman's two other companions also start noticing, and they turn around, but none of this really makes an effect. So they just give up.

Then, a few moments later, the Israeli tour group becomes quiet. I guess they just ended their conversation. The elderly German woman shows some positive gesture, except this time a beggar goes through the train and asks for small change to passengers while trying to sell newspapers. Of course he announces his presence in a loud manner, and the elderly woman gets annoyed again.

In my head I was thinking, if she really wanted to travel in peace and quiet, she should take a taxi. She is in Berlin after all, a large metropolis. Things are loud here. If she wants quiet, then the city is not for her.

I do understand that Germans are fond of their indoor voice. But this is a changing and disappearing cultural norm. In another occasion, I was in a regional train traveling to the countryside, and this time, younger middle-aged German women were rather rowdy. This was a Sunday, but they were heading to the countryside to go party, and they already had their alcohol with them. It was loud, and yes I couldn't read my book, but I do know I am in a public place, and so tolerance for human behavior should be high. Of course I was glad when they left the train, but at the same time, when they were loud, I didn't make a big deal out of it.

There are loud and quiet places in the city. I suppose it's better to be aware of that fact, and simply embrace it, whenever one is in a loud place. Visibly gesticulating your displeasure when you want the train to be quiet so you can read your newspaper just makes you look pathetic. If you are that easily disturbed, then just take a cab.


  1. I've been on both sides of the fence. I usually don't mind city noise, may it be a crying baby, a loud group of teens or a bunch of drunk guys. That said, I get irrationally annoyed is EVERYBODY is quiet but a single person. For example in the train, if the cart is quiet but for a passenger having a loud conversation on his cell, I'd get annoyed.

    1. Zhu,

      Hmm, I do see your point. And I could imagine I would be annoyed too, if there is a single person being very loud when everyone else is quiet. I suppose it has more to do with maintaining equilibrium than being loud per se. It has more to do with whether one can sense how one's surroundings are like, or not.