Wherever you are when you are reading this article, pause for a second. What do you hear? The sound of someone typing on a keyboard in another cubicle? Some light easy listening music playing in the coffee shop? The hustle and bustle of commuters in the bus? The muted hubbub in the library?
We rarely truly pay attention to the various background sounds around us, yet they are part of our environment and clue us in constantly. Like scents, they evoke memories too. For instance, I always associate loud car alarms and crowing roosters to Central America. From Nantes, where I grew up, I remember the sound of the tramway slowly breaking at the stop—my parents live close to the main public transportation hub.
So, what sounds do I associate with Canada?
The metallic voices through the loudspeaker at the drive through
I don’t think I have ever ordered anything at the drive through, yet every time I walk by a fast food joint, I overhear bits of conversation, words broken up. “May I… order… please?” “… want sugar with…?” “Small… large?” Somehow, customers and employees understand each other, and a few meters further, a brown paper bag is handed out at the window. Amazing.
The loud “beep beep” of the plow truck
On a cold winter night, it’s pitch dark outside and the house is finally quiet—it’s late, way too late, you should be in bed as well. Half asleep, you’re surfing the web, when suddenly a loud “beep” pierces the silence. You are startled but you smile. Phew, the plow truck is finally clearing the driveway. For five minutes, all you can hear is the unpleasant sound of the shovel scraping the asphalt, then the loud “beep” as the truck backs out, dumps the snow, and comes back. And then it’s quiet again. And snow free.
The crack of ice melting
It sounds like a joke but yes, melting ice makes a sound—not when it melts per se but when it breaks and crashes to the ground. There is a reason why we have so many “caution – ice falling” signs in the spring, although arguably they are pretty useless. The ultimate ice-melting-sound experience for me was at the Perito Moreno glacier, in Patagonia, where huge chunks of icebergs would crash into the water. It’s not as dramatic in Canada but yes, ice makes sounds.
The silence of suburbia
I’m often surprised to see how quiet residential neighborhoods can be during the day. We live on the main street of a crescent, so you can hear cars driving by all day, even though the traffic is light. But walk up a street or two and it’s dead quiet. People are at work during the day, there are no stores around and no pets either in the yard. I never thought I could experience the sound of silence in the city.
The school bus dropping kids off
When I first came to Ottawa, I couldn’t believe the yellow school buses, the same one as in The Simpsons and all the classic American movies, actually existed. School-aged kids get off early here, around 3:30 p.m. If they are young, parents wait for them at the curb, otherwise they walk home alone in our quiet neighborhood. Every day it’s the same thing: the bus stops, for a minute or two your hear kids shouting, calling each other, singing or just being silly, and then the bus drives away minus one, two, three or four kids.
Accents and foreign languages
Just today, I heard French, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Arabic, Tagalog, Italian, Spanish, what I believe was Russian and maybe Thai. No, I didn’t attend an international conference—I just went grocery shopping and picked up a package at the post office. Canada is a multicultural country and you can (over)hear almost every language on earth, including dialects.
“For English, press 1, pour le français, appuyez sur le 2”
Because Canada is a bilingual country, most businesses and all government agencies offer services in both languages. When you call a 1-800 number, you will invariably be greeting by this pre-recorded message.
Emergency vehicle sirens
On clogged and congested roadways, especially around rush hour, it’s common to hear firetrucks, paramedics or police vehicles trying to get through, sirens at full tilt. The sound of the sirens is very different from their French counterpart—it’s louder, it seems, and carries a stronger sense of emergency.
So, what sounds do you hear on a daily basis?