Sometimes unexpected sounds float through my open window. Waking in the middle of the night, the city is so silent, I can hear my own heartbeat. And then….

Rooftops of Carcassonne

The dulcet tones of a donkey braying float into my bedroom! If this had happened in the village, it would not have surprised me. There, I regularly listened to owls hooting, roosters crowing, my beloved Merle serenading. Dogs barked in a call-and-response chorale across the village, just like in “101 Dalmatians.” Often, I traced the route of a sputtering scooter up the hill then down, around the vineyard, past the cemetery, over the bridge, stopping at the main road, then passing our house before heading up another hill and out of ear shot. I figured the extreme early riser was a young bakery apprentice and sent mental congratulations for his or her regularity.

But a donkey? The center of Carcassonne is dense. It looks denatured, absent of greenery; it seems as if the only trees are the plane trees lining the boulevards where the walls of 1260 once stood and those around the center square. But looks are deceiving in Carcassonne. The place is a warren of often-lush inner courtyards–that includes the neighborhoods outside the Bastide, which aren’t as old but still older than, say, anything in North America.

They’re still no place for a donkey. Maybe, I thought, the donkey is at the farm on the fertile floodplain that cuts through town. A park lines the riverfront, so that, while the regular floods dump mud and make a mess, they don’t encounter buildings to damage or lives to ruin. The path stretches the length of some farms, or maybe it’s just one farm, I don’t know. I buy from their market stand on Saturdays, but the really chi-chi Carcassonnaises drive their Mini Coopers over to the farm to buy direct. Someplace around there is an enclosure with plenty of trees for shade, with different animals. I don’t usually go that far, and I don’t remember whether they have a donkey. Between me and them is a very, very steep hill. Did the braying sail over that?

The animals are just a little farther.

I also have been charmed by the sounds of young men singing. It started at 7:30 one morning, and at first I wasn’t sure I was hearing it right. But yes, they sang several of what seemed like hymns and finally ended with “La Marseillaise,” of course. They were the parachutists at the military caserne a few blocks away (and the caserne, quite beautiful, was built in 1721, well before the advent of parachutes), practicing for a parade. In summer, packs of them would pass me running along the riverfront, and I am astounded at how they get younger every year.

The other day the 89-year-old lady in the apartment below me was singing a song to her dog. I don’t like her dog; it barks and barks and barks and barks. But as much as it barks, it is actually outdone by the dog above, which can go on for a good 45 minutes without pausing for a breath and which is owned by a lady who is 94 (and deaf). I didn’t recognize the song, but I found her singing, unlike her dog’s, to be adorable.

Not a single level step

When we stayed in l’Ancienne Tannerie for a few months, while renovating our current home, we became accustomed to its own sounds. I never heard a word from the upstairs neighbor, nor did I hear her TV or her walking around, but I could hear her cats bound about as if they were tigers and not small fur balls. The sudden rumble would startle me, but it didn’t ever bother me. With the windows open, I could hear freight trains faintly click-clack through town in the middle of the night, which reminded me of the house I grew up in, where freight trains would clatter much more loudly (though they weren’t any closer and were perhaps even farther away) through the dark, and so the sound is comforting.

Quite a surprise to find a door up there, under the old wallpaper.
The little building leads to a very scary cave. This used to be the town tannerie.

When we were shopping for an apartment to make an AirBnB, I visited almost 100 properties. There were a lot of dumps, and many of them would have lacked charm even after complete renovation. The place we bought needed a ton of work, but it also had a ton of charm. And, actually, so did some others.

You don’t see lamps like that every day. And marble steps.
Different building. A sink? A bénitier (holy-water fountain)? In the entry to a residential building.

One day, when I was coming out of our by-then-renovated AirBnBs, there was an elderly lady standing on the sidewalk. I asked if she was OK or needed anything. She said she lived there and was waiting for a ride to pick her up. I introduced myself as a neighbor, saying we had bought a place next door. She perked up. “I’m selling, too,” she said. “Want to see?” Of course, I did. I can’t get enough of looking at real estate.

Layers of buildings.

The ground floor had been a beauty salon–her beauty salon–and was for sale, too. A glass wall at the back looked onto an inner courtyard that was covered by glass. We ascended some stairs to her place, which was nice enough, with fireplaces and authentic cement tiles, but it was laid out inexplicably over different levels, so you had to go into the courtyard and up some stairs to get to the kitchen, then up other stairs to the bedrooms. I noted that there were windows onto the courtyard–windows that belonged to the utility room and toilet of my apartment. They didn’t open, but they provided natural light to the interior of my building.

Another one.

She finally sold. And some years later, I heard voices and realized they were coming from that inner courtyard on the other side of the safety glass. A man, speaking French. A woman, speaking Chinese. Children, laughing and playing. The woman often seemed to be on the phone in the middle of the night, probably talking to family back home. I felt a kinship with her, trying to keep in touch with loved ones in inconvenient time zones, connected only by a very tenuous phone line.

It is hard to make out from this photo, but there’s a view of la Cité. This place had a great terrace.

My office now overlooks another courtyard, with a big tree that gives me a scrim of green. It’s home to a merle, who doesn’t sing much, several pigeons and some feisty magpies. Saint-Vincent tolls every 15 minutes, plus the angelus three times a day (and I no sooner typed this than it started up). Sometimes it plays hymns, of which I recognize a few. Sometimes, it just rings chaotically, and as long as the upstairs dog can bark.

Around and around.

There are those who savor the silence of blocking out the world. But I enjoy the signs of parallel lives around me. The honey-colored cat on the roof across the street. The neighbor crooning. A couple of times, a round of of “Happy Birthday” (well, “Joyeuse Anniversaire”) coming from who knows how many blocks away. The singing/running boys–I mean young men–of the caserne. It reminds me of “Rear Window,” without the murder.


Are you city or country? Do other people amuse you or bother you?


11 thoughts on “Do You Hear What I Hear

  1. We live in a condo in suburban Midwest United States. Often our neighbors will be enjoying a meal and lively conversation on their back deck. This bothers my husband immensely, but I like to hear people enjoying themselves.
    Our home abuts a nature conservancy with walking trails. We can sometimes hear walkers having a ‘private’ chat. I have certainly learned to moderate my voice.
    Can also hear coyotes, owls, and turkeys. Also raccoons which make their way up to our deck to empty the bird feeders. I like it all.
    Your town is lovely. I would love to visit one day.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for this. I have missed you.
      I live in a little mountain village in British Columbia, Canada and the sounds out my bedroom window on a summer morning are of children playing. I’ve lived here 20 years now and can’t remember a time without.
      But donkeys and roosters are as good, I think. When I lived in Greece I would walk over the mountain to the civilization side and the sounds that met me would be a donkey or two braying, roosters announcing themselves in the world, and the bells of the goats. I miss them all. Now I walk my dog on a forested trail and all summer I’ve heard a rooster crowing in the distance. He’s not legal here because people value their sleep more, but I know who keeps him. Next summer I should really encourage them to add a donkey.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. How delicious. I would love all the sounds, too, and the community that it represents. I can hear my sister’s family a little ways away on our farm, on the other side of the creek and a farm – voices (usually calling wayward dogs) with indistinguishable words. We try to text each other warning if we’re shooting target practice…Keep these coming – I always feel like I’ve just spent 5 minutes in France, without the jet lag!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s funny–even when the exact words are indistinguishable, I can tell whether they are in French or in English (and then whether American or British), or Spanish or something else. Each language has a different music.


  3. We’ve plenty of noises in our village, and I do enjoy at least some of them. There’s an old lady out the front who is starting to suffer from dementia, but she’s in a happy place and always laughing and joking with passers-by. Out the back there’s incessant DIY, sometimes until 11pm – he stops if I ask him, has no idea of time! Then there are the churchbells and of course the ‘mobylettes’ and the barking dogs. I’m not very fond of the last two…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Carcassonne has two “hearts”–la Cité, the fortified medieval city on the hill, and La Bastide, the formerly fortified medieval city across the river, built by Louis IX, or St. Louis, in 1260 to house the refugees who had been expulsed from la Cité in 1209. Our apartments are in the Bastide. It’s also where I now live. It’s far less touristy, but it has a central square lined by cafés and restaurants, there’s a market three times a week and les Halles (covered market) Tuesday-Saturday. If you want to live and breathe the history, la Cité is wonderful, and I go there regularly (maybe once a week?) just to walk around, even though I’ve lived here for 20 years and know the place like the back of my hand. It’s amazing. It’s so amazing that lots of people go there–it’s the same level of touristy as Sarlat or Roquefère or Saint-Rémy. That’s a different vibe than la Bastide, which is more of a Walter Mitty experience of feeling like you’re living the French life.
      Re our AirBnBs. I see from the photos that L’ancienne Tannerie has had quite a few déco changes. The photos for La Suite Barbès are the ones we had done by a professional photographer, so I guess it hasn’t been changed.
      La Suite Barbès:
      L’ancienne Tannerie:

      Liked by 1 person

      1. This information is so useful – thank you! Your Airbnbs are lovely. We actually had La Suite Barbes favorited until we decided we wanted to stay in La Cite. I’m keeping an open mind, though. Thank you again! I also looked at your Mirepoix post – also very useful. Much appreciated!

        Liked by 1 person

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