Here’s an idea you’ve probably never thought about: What does Paris sound like?
I’ll be honest. I’ve lived here for five years and made audio podcasts for three… but I’ve never considered the sound of Paris.
Sure, I know there are some pretty telltale siren sounds from ambulances and police cars. I know that the chatter at the bistros will typically be in French. And I know there’s a lot of horn honking, even when the traffic is light.
But what does Paris really sound like?
This was the question I was forced to consider as I began production on the audio for my new memoir, Paris On Air. You see, I’m not just making an audiobook, I’m making an audio experience with ambient sounds and various characters reading their lines.
The ambient sound is what I set off to capture this week.
I started down by the Seine River. What noise does that make, anyway? And how could I capture it?
I began under the Pont Louis Philippe and got really close to the water, by an old boat moored to the right bank. I sat with my back against a railing, pressed record on my microphone, and I truly listened.
And it was fascinating. If you were sitting there by yourself, I’d wager that you’d probably concentrate on what you could see. And fair enough, it’s an incredible sight, with those grand buildings looming over the north side of the Ile Saint Louis.
If you were with a friend or a loved one, you might instead be focused on the conversation, or your picnic, or something else.
Me, by myself with my little recorder, I was totally concentrating on the sounds. Quickly, I noticed that the boat had a little motor that was making an intermittent ticking noise. Somewhere behind me, on the quay, I could hear the approaching footsteps of a woman in heels. As she neared me, I could hear the pitter patter of her little dog’s footsteps. A bike whizzed past. The men playing pétanque laughed over the clangs of their boules. All the while, the Seine swooshed steadily in the background.
I was wondering if this would work as background noise for my audio experience. Would people be distracted by the lady’s heels? Or would they just concentrate on the spoken words, much as we would in normal conversation?
Somewhat irritated by the ticking motor, I pressed stop and decided to capture the sound of the Seine further down river. The water levels are currently a little higher than normal, and so the entrance to a bateau mouche station was abandoned. I climbed over a chained fence and walked down the steps until I was just centimetres from the waters edge.
I placed my recorder close enough to capture the sound of the waves lapping against the steps. When a speed boat passed, the water splashed angrily and noisily against the quays. The perfect sounds, exactly what I needed for the scenes that take place by the Seine (and there are a few: I proposed to my wife on one of the bridges, that’s the first page of the book!).
There are quite a few scenes in the book talking about how I like to walk through Paris and the things I’ve discovered. My idea is to have the sound of Paris playing over the words that I speak. So I figured I should just walk through the city with the microphone in front of me, as if it was some kind of divining rod for finding underground water. I pressed record and just walked.
And all the while, I wasn’t focused on what I was seeing, I was thinking just about the sounds. I walked from the Pont Louis Philippe to the Pont Neuf and then back on the other side (an amazing walk if you’re ever in town – there’s a map further down).
The sounds I captured were more interesting than I’d have guessed. As I walked through the tunnels on the recently pedestrianized quays, the pigeons cooed as they tussled with one another. Their flapping wings echoed through the tunnels. Electric scooters whirred as they zoomed past me.
In the distance, a church bell chimed (something many of you have noticed in the background of my podcasts).
I was surprised at just how often I could hear sirens. At first it irritated me, because I didn’t want the sound to distract listeners from the story, but in the end I accepted that it is very much a part of the sound of Paris.
I stopped for a break in the charming Square du Vert-Galant where birds (that weren’t pigeons) were chirping in their hunt for sandwich leftovers. The sound of the rumbling barges (yes, the barges rumble – I would have guessed they were silent!) interrupted the steady rolling of the Seine.
I continued my stroll along the south side of the Notre Dame on the Left Bank. A teenager skateboarded past me while bouquinistes laughed. I passed by tourists speaking languages I couldn’t decipher.
By the time I got to the Ile Saint Louis, the cafe terrace chatter was distinctively French and surprisingly boisterous for an afternoon. As I crossed the Pont Saint Louis, a street musician played some kind of instrument I’d never heard before, fading into the wind as I walked past.
And then, back to the Quai de l’Hotel de Ville, I emerged from the fairytale part of Paris and into the traffic of the highway, with all its usual scooters, car horns, and delivery trucks.
My tour was over and I was intrigued and surprised by my catch. The sound of Paris. Not quite accordions and 2CVs rocketing along the cobblestones, but perhaps not so far off.
In the coming days, as I continue to record this audio experience, I’ll be out again collecting background sounds. I’m curious to see if the sound of the Marais or Montmartre are different to the sound of the river and its surroundings.
And how does it change at night? In the morning? Who knows. But I look forward to finding the answers.
If you’re curious about the sounds of Paris, I’d recommend you order a copy of my audio experience. It’ll be out in April, narrated by me.
And, next time you’re in Paris, take a minute to think about the sound of the city. I am sure you’ll enjoy it.
Paris On Air: Audio Experience
Pre-order your audio experience. It’s my memoir, but in audio format. Imagine: Just like a very long podcast!
Prefer the paperback book? Or both? Or the e-book? All available via this link.
PS: I took a lot of pictures and videos on this walk, you can find them all on my Instagram stories here.