The bells, the bells

We can’t avoid this, Zagreb. We have to talk about the bells, the obsession with bells. It is not a mild obsession; kicking off at 6 in the morning they continue on til 10 at night. Usually, they are regular and seem to follow a schedule, but then there are those that just clang away at any god damn time they please.

Zagreb clock

And they are god damned. They come from the churches. All the churches. And you’re never more than a block away from at least one church. The 6am bells go off – DING, DING, DING, DING, DING, DING – and shortly afterwards the church two streets away, which is on a time zone that differs by some ten or twenty seconds (possibly due to relativity), will ring out its excitement about it being 6am – IT’S 6AM EVERYONE! DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! DING! – like an echo. This can go on for a few minutes as all the churches in the neighbourhood catch up.

I'm gonna shake up this town
I’m gonna shake up this town

I have wondered why they don’t synchronise their clocks? Is that too action-hero for them? Or would the combined clanging of all those bells shake the city to its foundation? Especially at midday when, for reasons I don’t understand but kind of ‘get’, the clang-a-langing goes on for an extended period of time unrelated to the number 12. If all the churches coincided their 12 o’clock bells these structures – both Hapsburg and communist brutalist – could be considerably shaken up.

The midday shake-up is by far the most epic. Midday is first signalled by the firing of a cannon – a motherfucking cannon! – from the old upper town. If it fired a real cannonball it would fly right over our roof. BOOM! Every pigeon in the city starts up in a cloud of shitty grey. You can hear it for kilometres around and it’s guaranteed to startle you. “Is it midday already?” you say, looking at your phone. And then the bells, the bells kick in, and it’s clang-a-lang-lang for the foreseeable future.

The most interesting and incomprehensible bells are the ones that pop up during the day at random times, say, at 20 minutes to 7 or quarter past 5. I guess these are related to church services of some kind. You’re never far from religion anyway in Europe and the bells – while helpful for telling the time – are also a constant reminder of the presence of the church. Not of god, but of the church.

Atheists in Norway have the right to climb a tower and yell out ‘god does not exist!’ once a week – cos, hell, everyone should be allowed to foist their opinions onto the city, right, not just the churches? And other groups across Europe have petitioned to have the noise pollution from bells reduced.

City soundscapes evolve and change. Traditionally, London Cockneys are born within earshot of the Bow Bells, but that would be a small range of people today. Who can hear anything over the cars, buses, vents, air conditioning, planes… who can hear anything over the sound of their iPods? I complain, but I like this relic of the city’s past, a reminder of time passing, an admonition that you should be doing something else – maybe not going to church, but something else. If you hear the bells twice in one Facebook session, you’ve been on too long. What can you do in the space between bells? Write 1000 words, read 100 pages, run 10 kilometres, make 1 phone call to your mum… live a full life.

But I don’t have any more time left to speculate. The 7 o’clock bells have just rung out and it’s time to go.

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Nat Newman

Nat Newman is an award-winning writer of short stories, content, podcasts, feature articles, drunk text messages and, soon, a novella.


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