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This past weekend I attended a flea market. Flea markets are often bustling, crowded, and filled with noisy people and solicitous hucksters. Not this one. It was partially housed in a lake community’s clubhouse which was softly decorated, airy, and gently lit. The sporadic crowd lazily worked their way through the aisles. It was actually one of the most relaxing flea markets I have ever experienced……….until……..there’s one in every crowd……….the serenity was suddenly cut short by one vendor in the far corner activating these flashing gewgaws that played loud, tinny music. The entire room had to be subjected to this blaring intrusion, all because of one hawker.
This scenario immediately reminded me of my lunch a few days earlier. It had been a frustrating day at work and I was looking forward to the midday lull. My plan was simple: Some sushi, some soothing Japanese tea, the newspaper, and a few sedate moments to escape my stress. Those of you who partake in sushi would surely agree that sushi restaurants are usually low-key, reserved, almost austere, devoid of any unnecessary visual distractions, and most importantly: quiet. Virtually all of the ones I’ve patronized have no music, or play soft, calming, Asian music.
Well those plans went right down the tubes. Why? Because once again, there’s always one. Seated on one side of the restaurant were two women, 19 years old give or take, cackling loudly and mercilessly. Their shrill, incessant voices filled the entire restaurant. It was like trying to meditate next to an active smoke detector. There were other people in the restaurant, but only the high-pitched blather of the two young women could be heard piercing through the Zen-like tranquility.
I’m actually in debt to the two imps because their obnoxious prattling set the stage for this article, namely how the sonic ambiance contributes to or detracts from our dining experience. There’s a saying that you don’t know what you have until it’s gone. Quietude would definitely be one of those things. My encounter in the sushi restaurant poignantly alerted me to how something as simple as the noise level could make or break a meal.
Other than people on-the-go who require an expedient, practical meal, dining out, even a simple lunch, is about more than the food. Going out to eat is stress relief.
It’s a time for us to be able to sit down, not have to cook or clean anything, be served, relax, and take a break from our harried lives. Depending on the day, I might appreciate the opportunity to unwind even more than the food. Quiet and reposed surroundings are the ideal milieu for enjoying our food and restoring ourselves on an even deeper level than physical nourishment.
Nothing disrupts the serenity of a meal more than a clamorous environment. This is why I’ve always hated those typical American chain restaurants, (aside from the egregious food). I’m not talking about the fast-food burger/taco/sandwich joints, (whose function is solely utilitarian), but the mid-level, family-oriented, TV-advertised, American chain restaurants. I’m sure you get the picture without me having to mention names. These places are completely inimical to a peaceful meal. For starters, they are not designed or decorated to absorb sound. Rather, the absence of plush materials results in an echo chamber. God forbid there wasn’t music playing; and it’s never soothing and usually too loud. Inevitably there will be clattering from the kitchen, babies crying, servers yelling, a TV buzzing, and/or noisy patrons strewn about the place. Their overpriced, under-alcoholized drink specials are almost worth it to benumb oneself from the raucousness. The bottom line is these eateries are not conducive to civil dining.
Now before you accuse me of snobbery, I am not implying that you need to frequent an upscale or fancy restaurant to achieve a placid dining experience. There are plenty of eateries at all price levels that can deliver peace of mind as well as a decent meal. But the typical American chain food restaurant is frequently not one of them. But then again, noise pollution can be found anywhere. What would have been a quiescent and simple lunch for me at the sushi restaurant turned into a Chinese water torture of the ears.
If you’ve followed my column you know I’ve discussed this before…….and I know I’m not only beating a dead horse but the fossilized remains…….but Americans have lost something in humanity’s connection to food. Other cultures, especially European, (although it’s eroding as they’re poisoned by trans-Atlantic influences), approach food more leisurely, more respectfully, and more meaningfully. The antithesis of the fast-food drive thru, a meal is not about scoffing down calories between meetings, or shouting above the cacophony in the latest gimmick-driven, chain restaurant. It is a time to replenish our bodies and our souls in a comforting, amenable environment, at a laid-back pace. It may be spent in quiet solitude or more often with the camaraderie of friends or family. But either way it’s a time to free ourselves of the trappings of everyday life, collect our thoughts, nourish both our bodies and minds, and take time to smell the proverbial roses. And, I must add, it’s done without imposing upon others’ respite. Now that is music to my ears.