Somewhere in Vienna, Beethoven must be rolling in his grave. To most people in the world, “Für Elise” is a beautiful piece of music written by one of the greatest composers in history. Here in Taiwan, however, this song only means one thing—Bring out your trash!
Whenever we hear the tune blaring in the neighborhood, my mom scrambles around the house gathering up bags of trash, runs out the door, down the three flights of stairs of our apartment building, to the yellow garbage truck at the end of the lane. On her way, she meets neighbors laden with trash bags large and small, running toward the same destination. They are all running because, like the ice cream trucks of our youth, these guys don’t wait.
The truck is painted school-bus yellow with flaring lights like the kind you see on ambulances. There are two large speakers mounted on top of the cab, where an electronic version of Beethoven’s “Für Elise” is pumped out at top volume in a continuous loop. Why “Für Elise” was chosen and not some other random piece of music is a bit of a mystery. However, this practice has been in effect since the beginning of time. For me, this means since the late 70’s and we were told not to ask so many questions at that age.
Running out to catch the garbage truck gives us a rare chance to catch a glimpse of our neighbors, maybe even strike up a conversation or two. Standing by the truck, I quietly judge them by the things they throw out. “Boy, they sure have a lot of beer bottles! Well, at least they recycle.” “This woman is throwing out a huge bag of men’s clothes! Could she have gotten into a fight with her husband and asked him to move out?” “Here comes the guy upstairs who’s always singing off tune on his karaoke machine!”
As my neighbors and I head back to our separate lives in the world of high-rise apartments in densely-populated Taipei, I think about how “Für Elise” is actually a big part of our daily lives here. This is because the garbage is picked up twice daily: once in the afternoon for the stay-at-home crowd, and once in the evening for working men and women. The garbage needs to be collected daily because being in the tropics, the heat and humidity rots the trash almost immediately. That means if the decaying waste stays in the house for more than a day, the resulting stench would be strong enough to melt the white ceramic tiles off of all the classic Taiwanese kitchen walls, not to mention the hoards of unwelcomig houseguests like flying cockroaches that would flock in and set up permanent camp.
When living in a city that’s crowded with several million other people, having a chance to come out and greet your neighbors everyday makes this place seem a little smaller and friendlier. For this reason, perhaps, Beethoven can rest in peace.
P.S., While doing research for this article, I came across some information on another piece of classical music that is also played on garbage trucks in different parts of Taiwan. The piece is called "Maiden's Prayer" by Polish composer Tekla Bądarzewska-Baranowska. Here is a video link: