Thursday, February 02, 2006

Breaking the Walkman Habit

Lending my ears to the Romans

by Carla Diana

[See Photo]

ROME, February 27, 1997 -- "What do those people [Image]
have against us?" the grocery store owners on the
Piazza Santa Apollonia wanted to know when the exchange
students from Brooklyn started frequenting their store a
few years ago. It seems that the Canadian students who
were on the same block were able to be friendly despite
the language difference, but the Americans walked in
stone-faced, picked items off the shelves and handed over
the amount of lire that appeared on the cash register,
avoiding eye contact at all costs. Our program director
reassured the Signora that the students' zombie-like
demeanor had nothing to do with her, but was merely a
defense mechanism that New Yorkers carried with them
everywhere, especially in unknown territories.

My friends and I listened carefully to the anecdote and
have made an extra effort to greet the locals with warm
smiles and friendly small talk, but there's one habit
that'll be tough to break: the Walkman.

I'm sure Italians own personal stereos, but you wouldn't
know it from looking around the streets of Rome. Outdoor
social life is clearly an important part of the culture,
evidenced all day long in the markets, in front of
doorways, in the cafes and open squares. Residents have
told me that the Italians love their electronic gadgets,
but cell phones are much more common than headphones.
Clearly they'd rather be in touch than absorbed in a
personal musical trance.

In our attempt to absorb as much of the local culture as
possible, my housemates and I have begun leaving home
without our personal stereos. It's a noble attempt, but
there's no saying how long it will last. Personally, I'm
already jonesin' for escape -- to replace the noise and
distactions of the city streets with the soothing sounds
of my favorite tunes. (I've made a personal note to avoid
the Sex Pistols since I don't know how well the
carabinieri will react to that sideways nodding thing I
like to do with my head.)

What is it about headphones that makes them essential
artillery in New York? Music can make the urban jungle
seem a little tamer, and the ability to choose specific
aural sensations gives one a greater sense of control.
Since the sprawling metropolis requires lots of foot
travel, tuning out helps the miles go by more easily.
There are lots of plusses, but possibly the best
explanantion for this New York habit is that it gives
people to ability to be in public without "being" in
public. Shutting out noise means that your environment
becomes a detached backdrop for your own personal music
video. You can watch the world go by to a dramatic
Beethoven soundtrack without having to respond to others.
Voices can be ignored, and strangers can see that
approaching you for a response will be difficult, if not
impossible, to do without accosting you.

Despite my cravings, I've decided to hold out and use my
personal stereo while indoors, and only at times when I
really need the isolation to get through a boring chore
or concentrate on a difficult drawing. In the meantime
I'll do like the Romans and enjoy the storekeepers'
shouts, the church chimes, and even the drone of the
constant stream of Vespas racing down the cobblestone
streets.

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This column is an etown.com exclusive.

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