Thursday, 4 May 2017

Neighbourhood Listen

We’re in Buenos Aires, where we’ve rented an apartment in the old district of San Telmo.

“Please don’t have any parties,” the owner said. “There are families with children in the block.”

We can see what he means. There are, indeed, children in the building. The house has probably been around well over a hundred years and pre-dates any ideas of sound insulation between floors. Plus our apartment, like many in these parts, is built around its own courtyard, a boon on hot days but an arrangement that means that the happy sound of children’s laughter carries into our new home easily enough to confirm that what our landlord says is true.

It’s all very South American. In a country where children seem to be seen as a blessing rather than an irritating interruption to career progression, it’s all to be expected and really quite charming.

What we didn’t expect so much was the clear evidence that, in a city where adults enjoy a famously enthusiastic nightlife, the children, too, never seem to sleep.

The cheery trill of children’s voices seems as likely to be heard at 1.00 am as any other time. And what are they doing up there, immediately above our bed? Hammering is just hammering, I suppose, and if you took a siesta during European notions of a sensible time to hammer, then you might want to catch up with DIY in the middle of the night. But wouldn’t it be easier to rearrange the furniture by daylight?

Some of the sounds defy interpretation. That scratch-scratch-scratch, that had me wonder if there were rodents hiding in the walls may, I suppose, be someone laying carpets – but it does seem unlikely, though with the furniture moving, it might be possible. But why the formation marching? How many people are there up there? Not just the children, of course, for adults come in for animated conversations at random hours through the night and, from the tone of voice, these are not the angry chidings of parents desperate for sleep, but adults calmly discussing the sort of family matters that absolutely, positively, must be discussed at 3.00 am.

If they are aware of the sounds downstairs (and I suppose they can’t fail to be), they probably have similar questions about our tango based lifestyle. Why are there never any signs of life in the morning? And why do they hear us falling into bed anytime between midnight and 5.00 am? But the only reason they can ask these questions is because they are awake to notice. At 5.00 I hear feet by the bed upstairs (the pattern of the footsteps has given me a fair idea of the geography of the roiom above ours). Is our mysterious neighbour, like us, just settling down for the night, or are they waking to make a start on one of the several jobs that people here have to get by in a hostile economic climate? I fall asleep myself before the footsteps gives me a clue as to the answer.

In London the absence of any notion of privacy, at least as far as audible intrusions go, would drive me mad. Here, though, I find it all strangely soothing. I lie, barely awake, as some sort of family conference starts overhead. Perhaps they are arguing about where to put the armchair. I hear it set off scraping across the floor and then, already, I am asleep.

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