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Shhh! Madrid Says Stop Racket


MADRID — Visitors to Madrid have much to marvel over: splendid architecture, sizzling nightlife, great food and people who scream at each other.

The Spanish penchant for loudness -- mouths, TVs and myriad other outlets -- kicks in early and stays. Listen to 4-year-olds at play, or men talking soccer over a pre-luncheon vermouth. And until now, exploding decibels were OK.

But Madrid's city hall, itself blamed for much of the racket in this city of 3 million and facing elections next spring, has launched a blitz to encourage quiet.

"SSSHHH. Control your noise" as the campaign is called, began Sept. 13 and is due to last through the end of 2003.

Fingers raised to their lips, a dozen blue-clad mime artists have begun to roam bustling streets with a choreographed skit urging children and adults to speak softly. Two city landmarks, the statues of Cibeles and Neptune, appear in posters with the same hushed pose.

City hall says a planned Web page will offer these and other hints for making Madrid acoustically gentler: wear slippers around the house, refrain from slamming doors and don't remodel your apartment at night.

Placido Perera, head of noise at the city's environmental protection unit, insisted that reminding grown-ups not to yell isn't insulting: . "There are a lot of things that are just common sense, but which people don't embrace as such."

Perera, whose first name means placid, said that after 30 years of studying noise, he's concluded that Madrid is indeed loud, although probably no worse than other major European cities.

The noisiest of 23 spots in Madrid that are monitored nonstop -- Paseo de Recoletos, a downtown thoroughfare -- peaks at about 71 decibels, he said. Noise becomes potentially hazardous to people's hearing at about 80 decibels.

What sets Madrid apart, Perera said, is that residents whining about noise often have themselves to blame. The campaign aims to curb things like speaking in bellows, honking a split second after a traffic light turns green and vociferous late-night carousing along narrow streets. "These are very Spanish behaviors," he said.

A busy Spanish coffee shop at breakfast serves up another prime example of the national din: diners struggle to be heard as plates rattle, the television blares, and coin-spitting slot machines bleep and whir.

Why all the yelling in the first place?

Tongue planted firmly in cheek, the late Spanish poet Leon Felipe addressed the issue in 1942 in an essay titled "Why Spaniards Talk So Loud." He said one reason may be they descend from Rodrigo de Triana, Christopher Columbus' lookout who spotted land and simply did his job. "Tierra!" he cried.

Sociologist Alberto Moncada says it may be about projecting power and starts at a tender age.

"We start screaming from the time we are in day care," said Moncada, who happens to live right above a day-care center and reports epic shouting matches. "We are not taught not to scream."

Among adults, he added, "there is a sort of notion that talking loud is a show of personality. What I see is that when people speak slowly and in a soft voice, it's as if they feel humiliated."

Perera says Spain is an example of a Mediterranean culture in which nice weather leads people to spend lots of time outdoors, where louder discourse is a necessity. The problem is they take those decibels back home with them, or to the office.

In Madrid, of course, not all the noise is human. People are so weary from Mayor Jose Maria Alvarez del Manzano's seemingly endless road work and construction -- and the drone of jackhammers and bulldozers -- that one joke says Madrid will be a great city when it's finished.

In one downtown district, people have hung banners over their balconies proclaiming themselves victims of acoustic contamination.

But Perera denied suggestions that City Hall is trying to shift blame for the city's noise problems to the people who put up with them.

"We're not passing the buck to anyone," he said.

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