Caution, Falling Ice, Ottawa
Caution, Falling Ice, Ottawa

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 on 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 with 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, and 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 neighbourhoods 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 ones 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 neighbourhood. Every day it’s the same thing: the bus stops, and for a minute or two you 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 greeted 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?

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  1. Colleen Brynn March 30, 2015 at 11:48 am

    A couple of these would also apply to the states, but definitely the English 1, French 2 thing! I always quietly appreciate when different companies try to get original and say “to continue in English, press 9”. Haha!

    1. Zhu March 30, 2015 at 9:51 pm

      😆 so true! This simple twist always makes me go “huh? oh yeah…”

  2. Gagan March 31, 2015 at 3:35 am

    So that yellow bus is really there 🙂 Well I hopefully look forward to that.

    1. Zhu March 31, 2015 at 3:55 pm

      Yep, just like in movies 🙂

  3. petite yaye March 31, 2015 at 3:40 pm

    J’ai complètement intégré l’appel de muezzin 5 fois par jour, le bêlement des moutons, le klaxon du camion poubelle qui annonce son passage. En revanche impossible de me faire aux nuits entières de récitation de coran en hurlant dans les mégaphones, aux cuillères jetées dans les bol en fer, aux discussions téléphoniques plus que bruyantes et à l’atelier du soudeur métallique sous mes fenêtres !

    1. Zhu March 31, 2015 at 3:59 pm

      J’aurais un peu de mal avec une nuit entière de récitation de Coran (ou de n’importe quel livre, hein, Harry Potter, la Bible, Tintin ou les Mille et une nuits!)

  4. Cynthia April 1, 2015 at 4:49 am

    “Suite à un arrêt de travail spontané, aucun train ne circule sur la ligne 3” “Suite à l’agression d’un chauffeur, le trafic est fortement perturbé sur le RER B” “Suite à un colis suspect la station Alma-Marceau est fermée au public, les trains ne marqueront pas l’arrêt”

    There’s never a day without problems in the RER/Metro or with the SNCF 🙂

    1. Zhu April 1, 2015 at 7:53 pm

      Oh, I was reading and I could hear the voice in my head!

  5. Holly April 2, 2015 at 7:37 pm

    I was the same about the yellow school bus. The rules about having to stop for them amazed me too!

    1. Zhu April 2, 2015 at 11:00 pm

      Yes, this is one rule people take very seriously.

  6. Pingback: Snow Quiet – This is What Happens When it Starts Snowing

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