When I was a teenager in New Jersey, my father moved the family to a house in the country. It was surrounded by bucolic fields, he told us, full of cows and horses - a city kid's dream. What he didn't tell us was that just beyond the bedroom that my sister Joan and I would share, was the New Jersey Turnpike, one of New Jersey's busiest roads. The two of us lay awake that first night and wondered if anyone else had a father who could find a house in the country whose windows rattled from the vibrations of 18-wheelers. But as time went on, the incessant, fast-paced whoosh of cars and trucks became part of the fabric of our lives.
I'm reminded of this because my first two days in Paris have been spent in bed recovering from a bad cold or a not-so-bad flu, so I've had plenty of time to listen to the sounds of Paris just outside my windows. Sounds that normally blend together in a distant comforting rumble seem, in this forced period of inactivity, to stand apart one from the other.
The day begins with the far-away buzz of an alarm clock in some adjoining apartment and then the pealing of nearby church bells, an alarm from another century. There is the scrape of chairs as the family upstairs sits down to breakfast. A young man races down the old wooden staircase of our building, with the tap, tap, tapping of his beautiful French shoes beginning several floors above our own. Empty wine bottles are tossed hastily into the recycle container. The clatter of broken glass has hardly stopped when I hear the squeak of the hinges of the big front entry door, followed by the solid-sounding click of the electric lock.
The voice of a young girl in the courtyard, urges her father on: Viens Papa, nous sommes en retard. No, no cherie, he responds, we are not late. If she is going to the school around the corner, she probably is late, for the high-pitched squeals coming from the schoolyard are already starting to diminish as the children head for their classrooms.
By ten o'clock, the clothing store on the ground floor just below our apartment turns on its music. They have eclectic tastes and a French rap song can be followed by 70s disco number or 1950s American country ballad. Sometimes all you can hear is the bass line making a low, thumping staccato sound. This year, the store's rap music is in competition with the occasional rat-a-tat-tat of jack-hammers as yet another old, Marais building just up the street is being converted to yet another fancy retail shop.
By lunchtime, I make my way into the dining room to eat some soup. Rain drops tock, tock from the copper downspouts onto the roof overhang. There's the whoosh of tires on the wet payment, the whine of motor scooters, the whir of electric buses, the woo-waa of a fire truck siren, the swoosh of the street cleaning machines, the clatter of rolling suitcases. A man in an old wheel chair honks a trumpet horn to move people out of his way. There are people everywhere, and the hum of their conversation fills the air, almost drowning out the sound of the horn.
I take a nap and awake to the cries of the school children bursting from their classrooms, to be whisked away by waiting parents. Over the children's delighted shouts, I hear the wheedling of winter gulls and cawing of flocks of crows heading home to roost.
In the evening, the garbage trucks rumble to a stop just below our living room window. Amid the motorized clanging and banging of cans, Paris is divested of its refuse.
People on their way to restaurants and bars pass by now, leaving behind them snatches of conversations, arguments, laughter. They'll pass by again on their way home, their voices a bit louder, their laughter more raucous. Then little by little as the night wears on, silence descends on our part of Paris.
Tomorrow I expect to be out and about, immersed in the sounds of Paris and making some noise of my own.
For a sampling of some Paris sounds, click here.