In the 6th century BC, the Greek city Sybaris banished both noisy tradesmen and roosters to beyond the city walls. In 44 BC, Julius Caesar restricted the times during which clattering wagons could be driven down city streets or through residential districts. And in 1595, a Londoner could face charges for disturbing his neighbors with noise while beating his wife in the middle of the night.
It’s not hard to imagine that as cities grew and industry rose that noise followed, and I doubt anyone would argue with me that todays’ cities with their incessant honking, street musicians, police whistles, and general milling about of thousands of people doing whatever it is that thousands of people do are not exactly peaceful places to be. And then there’s the smell.
As a suburbanite, at least for the last eight years or so, I can assure you that it’s noisy and smelly here, too. For one thing, my neighbors have windchimes that tinkle away in the breeze seemingly right outside my office window. In addition to that there’s an interstate not too far away with plenty of traffic rushing by, a train track well within loud whistle blowing distance, and this one black dog that barks and barks and barks.
So, I understand why city-dwellers would occasionally wish to seek escape in the countryside where the air always smells sweet and there is absolutely no noise at all. Or at least that seems to be the expectation in France, where tensions between country and city folk have been on the rise in recent months.
With the pressure to socially distance during the pandemic has come a surge in those city dwellers who can afford to do so investing in getaway properties in the French countryside. And that has led to complaints. And lawsuits. Truly ridiculous lawsuits.
In the fall of 2019, one farmer was sued for $5,000 because her ducks had the nerve to be quacking too loudly. Another suit sought to silence a rooster who liked to greet the morning earlier than his new neighbors preferred. A small-town mayor received a request to exterminate the local cicadas because of their droning. He opted instead to erect a six-foot tall cicada statue, because I suspect he is my kind of guy.
In other cases, the plaintiffs were more successful. A pond was ordered to be drained because of excessive frog croaking. A horse was handed a restraining order because his poop was too smelly. It was getting beyond ridiculous.
And that’s when French lawmakers stepped in. Without amendment and with unanimous support, the Senate passed a bill from the National Assembly on January 21 that protects the “sensory heritage of the French countryside.”
Secretary of Rural Affairs Joël Giraud is pretty psyched about the move calling it a “real victory for rural communities.” And I suppose it is, though certainly not one this practical historian would have thought necessary to proclaim. Essentially, what the French government just did, what the city dwellers of France just forced its own government to do, was to deal out a little tough love and tell its citizens in no uncertain terms (well, maybe a little uncertain, because who really says things like “sensory heritage”) that if one wishes to enjoy the French countryside, then one should expect to take a good whiff of France’s fresh dairy air.
In other words: Life stinks. Deal with it.