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Parisian Thunder!

YESTERDAY, I CAME HOME to find that that the workmen had finished erecting the scaffolding on the apartment block on the left of my little courtyard. This was good news because can there be anything worse than the constant clanging of scaffolding poles? The bad news was that I discovered work had started on erecting scaffolding on the apartment block to the right as well.

All this portends weeks of endless noise as they begin to clean the front of these apartment buildings by sandblasting them. It’s not something I’m looking forward to!

Still, the sight of scaffolding on the apartment blocks in my courtyard is a little unusual so I though I would capture the scene.


I had just taken this picture from my balcony and gone back inside when the clouds darkened and it began to rain. During September we’ve been enjoying a glorious Indian summer in Paris but for the last couple of days the wonderful sunshine has been accompanied by uncomfortable humidity, a sure sign that thunder is in the air.

Parisian thunder from my balcony:

And thunder there was!

Thunder is not uncommon in Paris but I seldom seem to be in the right place at the right time to capture the sound of it – but yesterday was an exception. As the rain poured down and the workmen scurried for shelter I set up my microphones on my balcony and listened to nature’s dramatic performance.

After twenty minutes or so the thunder abated, the rain stopped, the sun shone again and life returned to normal. But what a dramatic twenty minutes it was!


Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau and its Sounds

I WAS RETURNING from an expedition to the Pont Marie, one of the oldest bridges in Paris, where I had been on my feet for a little over three hours collecting material for my Paris Bridges Project. It was a sultry afternoon, I was tired and in need of a sit down and some refreshment. I was heading for a café I often frequent when I’m in these parts when I happened upon a short, narrow, medieval Parisian street I’ve walked along many times but never really stopped to take much notice of, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau. For the first time, I was intrigued by this street so I paused to absorb the atmosphere.


Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau lies along the green arrow

The street runs parallel to la Seine and it’s bordered to the east by the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe and by the rue des Barres to the west with the Êglise Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais de Paris just beyond.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

Rue du Grenier sur l’Eau looking from east to west

As I’ve said, rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a short, narrow, medieval street and I was particularly intrigued by its name.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

In French, the word ‘grenier’ means attic or loft so to my mind, “street of the loft on the water” didn’t seem to make much sense. All became clear though when I got home and consulted my bible on these matters, Bernard Stéphane’s ‘Dictionnaire des Noms de Rues’.

It seems that in the early thirteenth-century, a Monsieur Garnier or Guernier owned some houses in the passage between the Êglise Saint-Gervais and the river. In 1241, all of these houses were acquired by the Knights Templar save for one in which Garnier’s goddaughter lived.

The records show that in 1257 the street was known as rue André-sur-l’Eau but by 1391 it had become rue du Garnier-sur-l’Eau. It seems then that the present day rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is a corruption of the fourteenth-century name, rue du Garnier sur l’Eau. So nothing at all to do with attics or lofts then!

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

Not only was I intrigued with the name of the street, I was also intrigued by its atmosphere. When I arrived, the street was practically empty save for the occasional passers-by pausing to look at the shop at the bottom of the street. Apart from the shop, the only one in the street, and the occasional traffic passing along the rue du Pont Louis-Philippe the street had a very medieval feel to it.

I was also keen to explore the sound tapestry of the street. After all, quiet streets in Paris are relatively rare things.

Those of you who follow this Blog regularly will know that I often use the technique of soundwalking to explore the city’s sound tapestry but the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau is not a street that lends itself to soundwalking. It’s a short street and it takes no more than a minute to walk from one end to the other. In my experience, the best way to capture the sound tapestry of a street like this is to do the reverse of a soundwalk, that is to say, stay in one place and let the street walk past you.

And that’s exactly what I did. I positioned myself in the narrowest part of the street, about two-thirds of the way up towards rue des Barres, and from there I began to record and to see what would happen.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

Sounds of rue du Grenier sur l’Eau:

As is so often the case, things seldom turn out the way one expects. My microphones revealed that, what appeared to be a quiet, medieval street was in fact a hive of sonic activity.

Ordinary Parisians passing by, some chatting to friends, some purposefully walking from one place to another, some carrying their shopping and looking rather weary and some simply strolling and enjoying the sunshine. Small children gambolling within sight of but not tied to their parents and testosterone-fuelled adolescents jockeying for position in life’s pecking order. And then there were the tourists, mostly in groups, receiving yet another commentary about yet another ‘site of interest’. The sounds of voices, footsteps, children running, a car horn, things falling over, a breathless jogger and rustling shopping bags were all now evident whereas they had been inaudible from further down the street. A bicycle rickshaw rattled past with the driver giving a fleeting commentary on the architecture. And another, more detailed, commentary came from an English-speaking French tour guide who was escorting a small party of Japanese tourists.

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

This commentary is actually worth listening to in some detail. The tour guide was talking about this timber-framed house. He tells us, or rather he was telling his tour party, that all the houses in Paris were like this until the seventeenth-century. Wood floating down the river was retrieved and used either as firewood or to make timber frames for the houses. The problem was that, because the streets were very narrow, a fire in one house could easily leap across and set fire to the neighbouring houses. To avoid this hazard, a law was issued around 1600 saying that the wood had to be covered with plaster. It’s only in recent years that some of the plaster has been removed to expose the wood. In the picture above you can see that the timber frame is exposed on the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau side of the house but the plaster remains on the rue des Barres side. This house is now a youth hostel but it’s so popular, especially in the summer, that guests are only allowed to stay for three nights.

I’m not quite sure how much of all this was absorbed by the Japanese tourists but it fascinated me!

Rue du Grenier sur L’Eau

I spent well over an hour standing in rue du Grenier sur l’Eau observing, but observing through active listening. I suspect that most of the people who passed by were aware to some extent of the soundscape around them but probably only as something in the distant background. For those engaged in conversation, these ‘background’ sounds would probably have passed by largely unnoticed.

For me though, the rue du Grenier sur l’Eau, small as it is, seemed to be huge canvas upon which was woven a colourful and captivating sonic tapestry depicting the fascinating contemporary atmosphere of this medieval street.


Soundwalking in Paris with Antonella Radicchi

LAST MONTH I HAD the privilege of spending a delightful afternoon in Paris with the Italian architect and researcher in urban design, Dr Antonella Radicchi.


Antonella Radicchi

Antonella studied at the MIT School of Architecture and Planning (USA) and at the Faculty of Architecture in Florence. She has taught and lectured both in Italy and abroad and since 2011 she has collaborated on research projects with Tempo Reale, the Florence based Centre for Music Research and Education. She has eight years teaching experience at university level and a distinctive record of publications in the field of soundscape studies and urban design.

Her primary research interests centre upon the interaction between people and the environments they inhabit focusing on the involvement of the population into the planning process of urban soundscapes through the development of open source platforms and open data sets.

Antonella is also the editor of the firenzesoundmap, an interactive, open source tool, which has become a collective sound map of the city of Florence through the involvement and the participation of the Florentine population, city users and tourists.

Antonella has kindly agreed to share her reflections about our meeting and also to share the Parisian sounds she recorded.

Soundwalking in Paris by Antonella Radicchi

I have been following the work on Parisian soundscapes by Des Coulam for quite a while and when I was about to leave for Paris in the middle of August I thought I’d drop him a line to ask whether he would be up for soundwalking in Paris. To my great delight, he replied offering to meet up the following Friday. We were to meet in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg at 2pm.

I couldn’t wait!

Since 2007, Des – who describes himself as “a flaneur, endlessly walking the streets of Paris, observing through active listening” and, […], capturing “that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed.” – has been recording and archiving the “contemporary sound tapestry” of Paris so carefully and comprehensively that the British Library has been acquiring Parisian field recordings from his archive. Yet, his interest in recording sounds dates back to Christmas Day 1958 when he woke up to find that Father Christmas had brought him a tape recorder!

His idea of a “contemporary sound tapestry” is extremely fascinating: he prefers “sound tapestry” to “soundscape”, which is the widely accepted term, since it always reminds him that our lives are immersed in a complex system of interwoven sounds. Des is used to exploring and binaurally recording the Parisian soundscape through “active” soundwalking, which is quite different from the traditional method – usually practiced along a predetermined path at slow pace with the main purpose of listening to the environment. Whilst Des soundwalks along a predetermined path, which constitutes kind of a reference, he records sounds as if painting a picture: if he hears something special, he immediately goes off the route looking for that, “giving the sounds time to breath and to speak as they all have a story to tell” – as he insightfully commented while we were soundwalking.

So, on August, 15th at 2pm we met in front of the Porte Saint-Michel entrance to the Jardin de Luxembourg and I was immediately surprised by this generous man who offered to let me conduct the soundwalk taking advantage of his binaural recording equipment, which I was very excited to experiment with as I have never used this method before.


Des’ binaural recording equipmentMarantz PMD 661 Mk11 sound recorder and Soundman OKM II Classic in-ear microphones

He also gave me lots of inspiring suggestions about how to soundwalk and about binaural recording techniques.


Me wearing Des’ binaural microphones and listening to Des’ suggestions about how conduct the soundwalk

Then, he was patient enough to answer to all the questions I asked him about soundscape studies, field recording and audio archiving techniques and we ended up debating and formulating hypotheses on the difference between listening to soundscapes in real time and listening to the recorded versions – which so far has remained an open ended question I am still thinking about!


Me and Des chatting about soundscape studies, field recording, and audio archiving techniques.

Finally, it was time to do some soundwalking and recording. We started with a first soundwalk at the Jardin du Luxembourg, which you can listen to here.

Antonella in the Jardin du Luxembourg:


My soundwalk route around the Jardin du Luxembourg

Then we moved to the Latin Quarter, close by the Pantheon and we did two more soundwalks, one along rue Descartes and one along rue Mouffetard, which you can listen to here.

Antonella in rue Descartes:


My soundwalk route along rue Descartes and Place Contrascarpe. Note the domed Panthéon on the left and the oval-shaped Roman Arènes de Lutèce on the right

Antonella in rue Mouffetard:


My soundwalk route along the rue Mouffetard from Place Contrascarpe to the Eglise Saint-Médard. Rue Mouffetard was originally a Roman road running from Roman Lutèce (now Paris) to Italy

I am very grateful to Des for the time he dedicated to me and for having so generously shared his passion and knowledge of field recording the Parisian “sound tapestry”. I came back to Italy full of energy and enthusiasm from the afternoon we spent together and I am still benefiting from that.

I hope I will have the chance to meet Des again to do more soundwalking together before too long.

And please, if you stop over in Paris, do not miss the chance to meet him. It will be a deeply rewarding experience!


La Fête de Ganesh 2014

LA FÊTE DE GANESH, along with the celebrations for the Chinese New Year and the Carnaval Tropical, bring an annual wave of colour and spectacle to the streets of Paris highlighting the city’s cultural diversity.

Indian communities across the world celebrate la Fête de Ganesh at this time of the year and yesterday I went to join the celebrations in Paris.

Fête de Ganesh 2014

The Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol

Genesha, the Hindu deity of wisdom, propriety and good fortune, has a temple dedicated to him in Paris, the Sri Manicka Vinayakar Alayam temple, in rue Pajol in the 18th arrondissement. It was from here that a colourful procession set off yesterday on its tour of the surrounding area.


Strands of jasmine were on sale everywhere

To experience la Fête de Ganesh is to experience a multi-sensory feast with the colourful costumes and the equally colourful sounds overlayed with wonderfully exotic smells.

Unfortunately, I can’t recreate the exotic smells for you to enjoy but I can share with you this year’s Fête de Ganesh in sounds and pictures and let them tell their own story.

La Fête de Ganesh 2014 in sound:



The Deity Ganesha has been represented with the head of an elephant since the early stages of his appearance in Indian art

Fête de Ganesh 2014

Fête de Ganesh 2014

This is the pile of coconuts that you can hear being smashed in my recording

Fête de Ganesh 2014

Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014
Fête de Ganesh 2014



Lunch after the parade …  if you can find a seat!  Then the clean up begins …



Rue des Ursins – A Soundwalk

IN THE MIDDLE OF a sunny August afternoon, a short, sharp, rainstorm forced me to take shelter in a café close the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. It was a small, rather sparse place but comfortable enough to take refuge in while waiting for the rain to pass.

Parisian summer showers rarely last for long and so when the rain stopped I left the café and began walking. I hadn’t gone far when I came upon an ancient Parisian street, rue des Ursins, where the Port Saint-Landry, Paris’s first port, stood until the twelfth century.

Rue des Ursins

Rue des Ursins looking from West to East

At the end of the fourteenth century, the City of Paris built an hôtel in this street called “des Ursins” in honour of a famous Italian family, the Orsini.

In 1400, the property was given to the French lawyer and politician, John Jouvenal, who from then on styled himself as Jean Jouvenal des Ursins, although he had no kinship ties to the Italian family. Jean Jouvenal des Ursins had been appointed as prévôt des marchands de Paris in 1388 and for a time he was also the King’s advocate in Parliament. The hôtel, which was partly rebuilt in the early sixteenth century, was demolished in 1637.


Rue des Ursins in 1900 – Eugène Atget

The rue des Ursins was for a long time divided into the rue Haute des Ursins, rue de Milieu des Ursins and rue Basse des Ursins, but in 1881 the street was consolidated into its current name, rue des Ursins.

Rue des Ursins

Rue des Ursins today approximately from where Atget took his picture

I know the rue des Ursins very well so I might have walked past it without giving it a second thought but on this particular day I didn’t. As I approached the western end of the street I was captivated by the sounds I could hear so I went to investigate and to listen.

Rue des Ursins

Rue des Ursins – A Soundwalk:

Rue des Ursins

Although the rain had stopped, its echoes dominated the soundscape. Rainwater gently dripping off the roofs of the buildings either side of the street together with water trickling into the drains seemed like a long sonic reflection of the storm that had now passed. Save for the shimmering sounds of the traffic passing along the adjacent rain soaked Quai aux Fleurs, the sounds in the rue des Ursins may have been sounds familiar to Eugène Atget or even to Jean Juvenal des Ursins.

Rue des Ursins



The Pont au Double and its Sounds

FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to the Pont au Double in the heart of Paris close to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.


The Pont au Double is 45 metres long and 20 metres wide and it links the 4th and 5th arrondissements of Paris from the Île de la Cité to the quai de Montebello.

Pont au Double

Work began on the first bridge to cross la Seine at this point in 1626. Designed by the French architect, Christophe Gamard, the bridge was deemed necessary as part of the development of the Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris.

Hôtel Dieu

The Hôtel Dieu today seen from the northern end of the Pont au Double

Originally, the Hôtel Dieu was situated on the opposite side of the parvis Notre-Dame (the square now known as Place Jean-Paul II) from where it stands today. Then it was next to la Seine but during the Middle Ages the hospital had grown in an unplanned and rather chaotic way. By the early part of the seventeenth-century the Hôtel Dieu was grossly overcrowded, often with four patients to a bed, and in order to provide more space a part of the Hôtel Dieu had spilled over la Seine to occupy a parcel of land on the Left Bank. The new bridge was seen as a way of connecting the two parts of the hospital.

Pont au Double

The bridge was completed in 1634. It was a stone bridge on to which a two-story building was constructed which was used as extra hospital wards for the Hôtel Dieu. This building occupied almost two-thirds of the width of the bridge. It was decided that the remaining one-third should be open for public use for which a toll was levied. The proceeds from this toll were used to pay for the bridge. The toll to cross the bridge was a ‘double denier’, a denier being a medieval coin taking its name from the Frankish coin first issued (as the denarius) in the late seventh century. In English it is sometimes referred to as a silver penny. It was from this ‘double denier’ toll that the bridge took its name, the Pont au Double.

In 1709, the original bridge collapsed and it was replaced with a new bridge, which survived until 1847. The Pont au Double we see today was opened in 1883 as a one arch cast-iron bridge designed by Henri-Prosper Bernard and Jules Lax.

Pont au Double

The other day, I went to explore the Pont au Double and I began by seeing what I could find under the bridge.

Pont au Change

The first thing I discovered was that this is one of the embarkation points for the Bateaux Parisiens, one of the many tourist boats that ply la Seine. And it is the sounds of tourist and other boats passing that dominate the soundscape under the bridge.

Pont au Change – Under the Bridge:

Pont au Change

I was also reminded of two pieces of history as I was exploring the underside of the bridge.

Pont au Double

These steps leading down to the quai de Montebello reminded me that in the seventeenth century steps like these also emerged from the bridge onto the quay and la Seine. It was from here that the nuns from the Hôtel Dieu used to spend up to nine hours a day doing their washing and that of the sick and infirm from the hospital above. I was also reminded that in the seventeenth century this would have been rather an obnoxious place to be since the hospital poured its waste directly into the Seine around here.

Pont au Double

The plaque in the wall bearing the legend ‘1910’ reminded me that this was the height to which the Seine reached in the Great Flood of Paris in January 1910. Although the water threatened to overflow the tops of the quay walls that line the river, workmen were able to keep the Seine back with hastily built levees.

Pont au Double

Having explored underneath the bridge, I climbed up the steps from the quai de Montebello to explore the bridge from above. From here it is hard to imagine that in the seventeenth century hospital wards belonging to the Hôtel Dieu would have occupied two-thirds of this bridge, on the left-hand side.

Pont au Double

Today, the Pont au Double is a thoroughfare for tourists heading to or from the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. These days, no toll is required to cross the bridge but a pourboire, or a tip, is always appreciated by the street musicians who can often be found on the bridge.

Pont au Double – On the Bridge:

Pont au Double

In my Paris Bridges Project I’m not only looking to explore the history of each of the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits, I’m also trying to seek out the characteristic sounds of each bridge and trying to identify any sounds that might be unique to each bridge.

The soundscape under the Pont au Double with the sounds of tourist and other boats passing was fairly predictable but I found the soundscape on the bridge really quite interesting.

The young lady pictured above wearing her tap shoes and playing her ukulele together with the accordionist, who was reluctant to be photographed, gave a colourful perspective to the soundscape but it was the sounds at the beginning and at the end of my exploration on top of the bridge that really fascinated me.

Square Jean XXIII

At the northern end of the Pont au Double is the Square Jean XXIII, a park named after Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, Papal Nuncio in France from 1945 to 1953, who subsequently became Pope Jean XXIII. I began and ended my exploration on top of the Pont au Double here and it was here that I found two very similar but contrasting sounds. The chorus of the tourist’s voices, mostly Chinese (or were they Japanese?) outside the park at the outset seemed to contrast beautifully with the chorus of the birds hidden in the foliage in the park at the end of my walk across the bridge.

The sounds of the boats passing under the bridge, the sounds of the street musicians and the sounds of the tourists on the bridge are certainly characteristic sounds of the Pont au Double but they are transient sounds, they come and go, they vary day by day and similar sounds can be heard on and around several other Parisian bridges.

For me, it is the sounds of the birds that are the unique sounds of the Pont au Double.

Pont au Double


The Gare de l’Est and its Sounds

THE GARE DE L’EST is one of the six mainline railway stations in Paris. Designed by the French architect, François Duquesnay, it was opened in 1849 by the Compagnie du Chemin de Fer de Paris à Strasbourg, the Paris-Strasbourg Railway Company. In 1854, the service was expanded and the Gare de l’Est also became the western terminus of the Paris – Mulhouse Railway.

Gare de L’Est

The Gare de l’Est today

October 4th, 1883, was a key date for the Gare de l’Est because that was the day that saw the first departure of the original Express d’Orient from the Gare de l’Est bound for Istanbul.


The first Orient Express in 1883 – Image via Wikipedia

Run by the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits, the original route was from Paris, Gare de l’Est, to Giurgiu in Romania via Munich and Vienna. At Giurgiu, passengers were ferried across the Danube to Ruse, Bulgaria, to pick up another train to Varna. They then completed their journey to Istanbul (then called Constantinople) by ferry. It wasn’t until six years later, on June 1st, 1889, that the first non-stop train left the Gare de l’Est for Istanbul.

Gare de L’Est

The Gare de l’Est was renovated in 1885 and again in 1900 and then in 1931 it was doubled in size with a new extension built symmetrically with the old station.

Gare de L’Est

‘Strasbourg’ by Lemaire

At the top of the west façade of the original part of the Gare de l’Est is a statue by the sculptor Philippe Joseph Henri Lemaire, representing the city of Strasbourg.

Gare de L’Est

‘Verdun’ by Varenne

At the east end of the station, the newer part, is a statue personifying Verdun, by Varenne. Both Strasbourg and Verdun are important destinations served by Gare de l’Est but Verdun in particular reminds us the role the Gare de l’Est played in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War.

The railway network from the Gare de l’Est stretches towards the east of France and it was from this station that thousands of French troops, the poilus, were despatched to the Western Front in 1914.

We can get an impression of the contemporary scene from a painting that hangs in the western concourse of the Gare de l’Est by the American painter, Albert Herter.

Gare de L’Est

Le Départ de poilus, août 1914 by Albert Herter

Herter painted this in memory of his son, a volunteer in the French army, who was killed at Bois-Bellau in the last few month of the war.

The painting includes the artist himself, on the right holding a bouquet in his hand, while his wife is on the far left with her hands clasped together. These two figures draw our eye towards the centre of the painting and their son, standing in the doorway of the carriage with a flower in his gun and his cap held high. His enthusiasm is in stark contrast to the tears of the women on the platform.

The painting was given to the Compagnie des Chemins de Fer de l’Est by the painter as a gift in 1926.

Gare de L’Est

In this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, the Gare de l’Est is hosting a photographic exhibition, Visgaes et Vestiges de la Grande Guerre, by the photographer Didier Pazery.

Gare de L’Est

From the exhibition, Visgaes et Vestiges de la Grande Guerre, by Didier Pazery.

After the death in 2008 of Lazare Ponticelli, the last of the Poilus, Didier Pazery made pictures of the old front line and of artefacts belonging to the Meaux Great War Museum. The exhibition includes some of these pictures together with portraits made ​​between 1996 and 2007 of the last survivors of the conflict.

Gare de L’Est

From the exhibition, Visgaes et Vestiges de la Grande Guerre, by Didier Pazery.

Before moving on to the sounds of the Gare de l’Est, there is one other feature of the station that has a connection with war, this time with the Second World War.

Gare de l’Est

This innocuous looking ventilation shaft on one of the platforms of the station hides something that the thousands of passengers who pass through this station each day are probably completely unaware of.


Image via the compelling website

There are a series of bunkers under this platform. Built just before the outbreak of war and with space to accommodate seventy people, they were intended for use as bomb shelters, to protect against gas attacks and as a communications centre. They are all still intact but not open to the public.

Gare de L’Est

On my visit to the Gare de l’Est I was very much aware of its history, the Orient Express, the poilus and the bunkers, but I wanted to explore the station as it is today and particularly its contemporary sounds.

The Gare de l’Est and its sounds:


Gare de L’Est

The Gare de l’Est is a big station and its glass roof is listed as a monument historique. I don’t know whether its clocks share that distinction but, if not, perhaps they should.

Gare de L’Est

The movement of people within the station seems to pass in waves as trains arrive and depart.

Gare de L’Est

And in between train arrivals and departures people do what they always do, they sit and wait.

Gare de L’Est

My exploration of the sounds of the Gare de l’Est took an unexpected turn when, in the midst of a very hot and very humid early August afternoon, a short, sharp, rainstorm of tropical proportions appeared seemingly out of nowhere.

Gare de L’Est

I learned pretty quickly that when it rains the Gare de l’Est is far from waterproof. Not only did the rain splatter the trains waiting at the platforms but it also bounced off the entrance to the platforms as well.

Gare de L’Est

And it also seemed to permeate through every available nook and cranny.

Gare de L’Est

But the rain soon passed and the station was quickly returned to the balm of a summer’s afternoon.

Gare de L’Est

I couldn’t help wondering though how the sounds I’d recorded in the Gare de l’Est in early August 2014 would compare to the sounds to be heard in the same station one hundred years ago in August 1914 as a generation of young men set off to a conflict from which few would return.

Gare de L’Est



Le Tour de France 2014

IN JULY EACH YEAR, the Champs Elysées hosts two major events, the défilé, the large parade on 14th July, the centrepiece of La Fête National, and in the last week of the month, the final stage of the Tour de France. Both events occupy the whole of the Champs Elysées from the Arc de Triomphe to Place de la Concorde and both attract large crowds. But while the former is of largely national interest, the latter commands a global audience.


The Champs Elysées from on top of l’Arc de Triomphe

Image via Josh HallettFlickr:

The Tour de France is the world’s largest annual sporting event and it’s the greatest free show on earth. Only the Olympic Games and the FIFA football World Cup, which take place every four years, attract a bigger audience. Each year some 12 million spectators watch le Tour along the route each spending on average six hours at a time at the roadside. But that number is tiny compared to the television audience. This year, 121 different television channels across the world broadcast the race in 188 countries to a worldwide television audience of 3.5 billion people.

Running for three weeks from Saturday 5th July to Sunday 27th July, this year’s Tour de France, the 101st, comprised 21 stages covering a total distance of 3,664 kilometres. There were nine flat stages, five hill stages, six mountain stages with five altitude finishes, one individual time trial stage and two rest days.

I follow le Tour every year but for a long-time ex-pat like me, this year’s Tour was extra special. The Grand Départ, the first stage of le Tour, is always a showpiece often taking place in countries outside France. This year, the first three stages took place in the UK, but more that that, the first two stages took place in Yorkshire, a place where I lived for twenty years and a place I know very well. With Day 1 of le Tour stretching some 190 km from Leeds to Harrogate and Day 2, 201km from York to Sheffield, the local wits quickly dubbed this year’s Tour as le Tour de Yorkshire!

After leaving the UK, le Tour travelled to France and, with a detour into Belgium, paid it’s respects to the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War by racing through Ypres, Arras and the haunting plateau of the Chemin des Dames.


Le Tour de France route 2014

I didn’t go to the start of le Tour in Yorkshire but I did go to the finish in the Champs Elysées on Sunday.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

And there I found that the UK theme continued in the shape of a couple of London buses.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

Since 1975, the final stage of le Tour de France has ended in the Champs Elysées and the format is the same as with all the other stages of le Tour.

First comes the caravane publicitaire, the colourful and noisy procession of sponsor’s vehicles. The numbers vary from year to year but there are usually around 250 vehicles in the procession, they arrive 90 minutes before the race riders and it takes them 40 minutes to pass.

Then comes the race itself. This year the final stage began at Évry just to the south of Paris and it finished with eight laps around the Champs Elysées. Copying last year’s 100th edition of le Tour, the route up and down the Champs Elysées was extended to include a circuit around the Arc de Triomphe and a fly-past by the Patrouille de France as the riders arrived.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

After the vibrancy of the caravane publicitaire and the excitement of the finish of the race comes the ceremonie protocolaire, the awards ceremony.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

The podium waiting to be pushed into place for the ceremonie protocolaire

I record the end of le Tour every year in the Champs Elysées so I’m very familiar with the routine. My first task is always to walk up and down the avenue looking for a vantage point from which to record. This is not always as easy as it sounds.

I usually record the sounds of the caravane publicitaire from just beyond the finish line but because the public address system is so awful finding a spot from which to record the commentary is much more difficult. It often takes quite a long time to find just the right place but once I’ve found it I usually head off to a café I know just off the Champs Elysées where I’m guaranteed a seat, a cool glass of beer and a TV to watch the riders’ progress. As soon as I see the riders arrive in Paris I head back to my recording pitch and take up position.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

To actually see any of the race it’s necessary to get there early, occupy a vacant place and then spend several hours waiting for something to happen. The enthusiasts get themselves very well organised.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

France Télévisions always have by far the best view with their outside broadcast cameras hoisted on cherry pickers stretching across the road and more cameras in the helicopters flying overhead. Their pictures are shared on the big-screen televisions situated at various points around the course.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

A France 3 OB camera ready to be hoisted over the Champs Elysées

On Sunday I spent just over six hours at work in the Champs Elysées, waiting for and then recording the caravane publicitaire, searching out a site from which to record the commentary and recording the race and the ceremonie protocolaire. Altogether, I recorded just over three hours of sound a good part of which has now been consigned to my Paris Soundscapes Archive.

For those of you who haven’t got three hours to spare, here is a flavour of the end of le Tour de France 2014.

Le Tour de France 2014 in the Champs Elysées:

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

And what about the commentator and that distinctive voice, the voice of the Tour de France?

For those of you who may have wondered, his name is Daniel Mangeas and he’s been the commentator of the Tour de France, and other cycle races, since 1974. He commentates on some 200 events a year. For le Tour he spends two hours at the microphone presenting the riders at the start of each day’s race and then he drives to the finish to commentate on the last 50km of the race. He was, of course, in Yorkshire for this year’s Grand Départ and this being le Tour de France, he commentated in French. I can’t help wondering what all those Yorkshire Tykes made of that!

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées

On 5th July, 219 riders set off on the Grand Départ from Yorkshire in the United Kingdom. After three weeks, 3,664 kilometres and for the winner at least 89 hours 59 minutes and 6 seconds on the bike, 164 riders arrived at the finish line in the Champs Elysées on Sunday. Some riders didn’t make it to the finish, Mark Cavendish, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome being perhaps the most notable to crash out en route.

Tour de France 2014 -

Vincenzo Nibali

The Italian, Vincenzo Nibali won the Tour de France 2014, a race he led for eighteen days out of twenty-one. This year also saw a return of French riders to the podium with Jean-Christophe Péraud and Thibaut Pinot finishing second and third respectively.

The last stage on the Champs-Elysées went to Marcel Kittel just like last year. The German outsprinted Alexander Kristoff in a spectacular final sprint on the Champs-Elysées.

Peter Sagan won the Green Jersey for the best sprinter, Rafal Majka won the Polka-Dot jersey for the best climber, Thibaut Pinot won the white jersey for the best young rider and Alessandro De Marchi won the prix de la combativité. AG2R La Mondiale won the team prize.

And spare a thought for the man who finished last, the lanterne rouge, Ji Cheng, the first Chinese rider to compete in the Tour de France. The fact that he came last, just over 6 hours on aggregate time behind the winner, doesn’t mean that he was the worst rider in the race. Like many riders, Ji Cheng is a domestique, whose job is to sacrifice his own position in the race to protect his team leader, to supply him with food and drink during each stage and to chase down riders who break away from the peloton. Ji Cheng won the affection of the crowds because he did his job so well.

Tour de France 2014 - Champs Elysées


La Fête National 2014

LA FÊTE NATIONAL forms the centrepiece of the Parisian summer. It’s the French National Day and it commemorates the 1790 Fete de la Federation, held on the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. It also marks the start of the French holiday season. In Paris the day starts with the défilé, the parade of military and civilian services, marching down the Champs Elysées to be reviewed by the Président de la République and his army of guests.


The Défilé at a glance courtesy of RTL

In the Champs Elysées this year the défilé comprised 3,752 men and women from the military and civilian services, 285 vehicles, 82 motorcycles, 76 dogs and 241 horses from the Garde Républicain. This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and among those taking part in the défilé were representatives of 80 countries who fought in that conflict.

This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the founding of l’armée de l’Air, the French Air Force and, in a spectacular display of precision flying, 54 aircraft led by nine Alpha Jets of the Patrouille de France, the French aerobatic display team, approached over La Défense in the west of Paris and flew along the Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the Avenue de la Grand Armée and into the Champs Elysées.


Being both a sound and an aircraft enthusiast I record this fly-past each year and this year I decided to record it from the Esplanade de la Défense.


The green arrow indicates the direction in which the aircraft fly and the yellow arrow indicates the position from which I chose to record

The aircraft fly-past:


The green arrow indicates the fly-past route from la Grande Arche de la Défense to the Presidential review stand at Place de la Concorde

Getting 54 aircraft of different sizes, weights and speeds into exactly the right place at exactly the right time is a complex business but each year the French Air Force accomplishes it faultlessly.

If the défilé in the Champs Elysées is to proceed seamlessly, the first aircraft, the Patrouille de France, have to appear over the plus belle avenue du monde trailing their bleu-blanc-rouge, blue, white and red smoke, at exactly 10.36 am and the last aircraft must arrive 8 minutes and 30 seconds later. For this to happen, the aircraft have to arrive at la Grande Arche de la Défense at precisely the right time, at the right speed and with exactly the right separation between each aircraft or groups of aircraft even though they are all flying in from different places.

The way they do it is similar to the way that air traffic controllers bring commercial airliners in to land at busy airports. The aircraft are directed to fly a given route at a given speed and then at a pre-determined point they are fed from different directions into a single stream taking into account their size, speed and wake turbulence.

For a military fly-past like this one over the Champs Elysées though there is a further complication. Some of the aircraft fly in clusters; the Patrouille de France for example flew in a formation of nine aircraft, the large E3F aircraft with its flying radar dome had three fighter aircraft flying close behind it and the KC135 tanker aircraft had two fighter aircraft flying either side of its tail. These clusters of aircraft have to get into formation and effectively fly as one aircraft as they turn into the stream.

Once in the stream and heading for the Champs Elysées the pilots, as well as keeping a constant height and compensating for the wind speed and direction, must maintain their allotted separation from each other. While it’s just about acceptable for an experienced fast-jet pilot to fly a relatively small fighter aircraft dangerously close to a much larger four-engine tanker aircraft for example, it would be catastrophic for a smaller propeller-driven aircraft to try to do the same, the wake turbulence from the larger aircraft could overturn the smaller aircraft in the blink of an eye.

It was with all these things in mind that I settled down to record the aircraft fly-past.

La Fête National 2014

The Patrouille de France passing over my recording position in La Défense

I was fascinated to watch how all the aircraft entered the stream. The turning point was just beyond la Grande Arche de la Défense and just as with the approach to commercial airports, they approached from the left, the right and from straight ahead.

The Patrouille de France were the first to appear from the far distance. Nine Alpha Jets in perfect formation with their landing lights blazing from the front and blue, white and red smoke issuing from behind. Alpha Jets have a very special sound and by the time they passed me the next cluster of aggressive fast jets were approaching.

From then on it was pure theatre – clusters of aircraft turning in from the left followed by more coming from the right punctuated by those coming from directly ahead, all with perfect timing, perfect separation and all culminating in a faultless display of military might over the Champs Elysées.

If you listen to the sounds I recorded you will probably notice several things. Of course, you will hear the distinctive voices of each aircraft as they pass overhead but you will also hear the subtle differences in the critical separation of the aircraft clusters. In the relatively quiet separation pauses you will hear the sound of young children. As with my recording of the same event last year, I find that the juxtaposition of the voices of innocent young children on the ground and the mighty war machines flying overhead speaks volumes. For those of you with an eye for detail, you will also find that the time taken from the first aircraft passing overhead to the last is exactly 8 minutes and 30 seconds, exactly as it should be.

All these aircraft passing in what I call a fly-past, is officially known as the Défilé arien d’ouverture (the opening aerial parade would be a rough translation) but that implies that more was to follow. And indeed there was.


At 11.20 precisely, a stream of 36 helicopters was scheduled to pass over the Champs Elysées in what is called the Défilé arien de cloture. Still at my recording position on the Esplanade de La Défense I waited until they appeared.

Getting the helicopters into a stream is much less complicated than with the aircraft. All 36 helicopters approached me from over la Grande Arche in a single line and I could see all of them as they passed over me and headed to the Champs Elysées.

Défilé arien de cloture – The helicopter fly-past

The stream of 36 helicopters included 21 from l’aviation légère de l’armée de Terre, 6 from l’armée de l’Air, 3 from la Marine nationale, 3 from la Gendarmerie nationale and 3 from la sécurité civile.

La Fête National 2014

In previous years I’ve spent the afternoon of la Fête Nationale visiting the Franciliens accueillent leur soldats displays that pop up around Paris. But this year I came upon something a little different.

Bearing in mind that this year is the centenary anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War I went to the Jardin des Tuileries where I came upon a display of First World War vehicles and memorabilia including men and women dressed in costumes of the period.

La Fête National 2014

But what really caught my eye were two magnificent examples of original Taxis de la Marne, Marne Taxis.

La Fête National 2014

What we now refer to as Marne Taxis were originally the Renault Type AG Parisian taxicabs designed by Louis Renault and built between 1905 and 1910.

The 1,205 cc, two-cylinder, 12 horsepower, Renault AG was a robust motor car for its time but it became really popular during these years thanks to a car-rental company who ordered 1,500 of them to which they attached a new invention, the taximétre or, taximeter, which automatically calculated how much the passenger had to pay.

La Fête National 2014

But this little taxicab was about to achieve a fame far beyond that which could be imagined.

La Fête National 2014

By the beginning of September 1914 Paris had lost its glitter. War had been declared, the Germans were approaching the capital at an alarming pace and the French Government had decamped to Bordeaux leaving the defence of Paris to its military governor, General Joseph Simon Gallieni. Retiring from the army in April 1914, Gallieni was recalled in August to oversee the defence of Paris. His only directive: to defend Paris to the last.

With the German army perilously close to the city, fate took a hand. Confusion on the German side, almost inevitable in the fog of war, together with a stroke of good fortune for the French revealed that there appeared to be a gap in the German defences. In order to take advantage of this, Gallieni needed to move his troops quickly. With the rail lines nearly crippled and few army motorised vehicles to hand, Gallieni instructed his staff to commission all of Paris’ taxis to drive French troops to the front.

La Fête National 2014

On the evening of 6th September, hundreds of taxicabs assembled on the Esplanade des Invalides and by morning they were heading off for the front. By the end of the following day some 600 taxis, each making several runs, had delivered over 3,000 troops. The taxi drivers, like taxi drivers the world over, insisted on being paid for their efforts but, after some hasty negotiations and in a spirit of patriotism, they finally settled for 27% of the full fare for each trip.

The troops that the taxi drivers delivered became engaged in what we now know as the First Battle of the Marne, often known because of its significance as the Miracle of the Marne. It was fought from the 5th to the 12th September and it resulted in an Allied victory against the German army commanded by Chief of Staff, Helmuth von Moltke. It was also the prelude to the stalemate that was to ensue for most of the next four years.

La Fête National 2014

Looking at these two original Marne Taxis in the Jardin des Tuileries it was hard to imagine that they had actually taken part in this momentous event.

But both were obviously well loved, well cared for and in pristine condition: a fitting tribute to their contribution to the Miracle of the Marne.

La Fête National 2014


Passerelle Debilly – The Bridge of Spies

FURTHER RESEARCH FOR my Paris Bridges Project took me to the Passerelle Debilly, a stone’s throw from the Tour Eiffel and one of the four “passerelles piétonnières”, or footbridges, to cross la Seine within the Paris city limits.


Like some of the other bridges in this part of Paris, the Paserelle Debilly owes its existence to one of the great Expositions Universelles, or World’s Fairs, held on and around the Champs de Mars in the late nineteenth-century. Built as a footbridge for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly was originally positioned to connect the Army and the Navy exhibition halls on one side of the river with the Old Paris halls on the other.


Exposition Universelle 1900 – Passerelle Debilly and the Armées de Terre et de Mer Exhibition Hall.


The Passerelle Debilly was designed by three French engineers Jean Résal, Amédée Alby and André-Louis Lion. Jean Résal held the position of Ingénieur en chef des ponts et chausses, a prestigious civil engineering post dating back to the seventeenth-century and an especially important post during the late nineteenth-century redevelopment of Paris. Résal was a pioneer of building metallic bridges in the late nineteenth-century and his work includes as well as the Passerelle Debilly, the Pont Mirabeau, the Pont de Bercy, the Pont Notre-Dame and the magnificent Pont Alexandre III.

The construction work for the Passerelle Debilly was undertaken by the firm of Daydé et Pillé, specialists in metallic construction who also constructed several other bridges in Paris.

Passerelle Debilly

Passerelle Debilly From Downstream

The construction work was completed and the Passerelle Debilly was opened on 13th April 1900. To begin with the name of the footbridge was ambiguous, it was called both the Passerelle de l’Exposition Militaire and the Passerelle de Magdebourg. It was only later that it was formally designated as the Passerelle Debilly, after General Jean Louis Debilly who was killed in the Battle of Jena (La bataille d’Iéna in French) in 1806.

The bridge of course was designed as a temporary structure to serve visitors to the 1900 Exposition Universelle. But in 1903, after the Exposition had been deconstructed, the bridge was taken over by the City of Paris and it became a permanent fixture but not before it was moved some two hundred metres upstream opposite the rue de la Manutention, closer to the Pont d’Alma and further away from the Pont d’Iena, the bridge named after the battle in which Jean Louis Debilly died.

Passerelle Debilly

Tour Eiffel from under the Passerelle Debilly

The Passerelle Debilly we see today is the original bridge save for several new coats of paint and the addition of the tropical hardwood walkway. It’s 120 metres long and 8 metres wide and it stretches from the Quai de New York on the Right Bank to the Quai Branly on the Left Bank. The bridge comprises three spans anchored on stone piers with the central span forming an arch with an intermediate deck of 75 metres and two half-arch end spans of 22.50 metres.

Passerelle Debilly

Passerelle Debilly anchored into one of the stone piers

At either end of the Passerelle Debilly are columns decorated with dark green ceramic tiles giving the impression of waves made by the French ceramic company, Gentil et Bourdet.

Passerelle Debilly

Having successfully survived its temporary status after the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly came under threat again in 1941 when the Président of the Architectural Society no less characterised it as an “accessoire oublié d’une fête passée”, a forgotten accessory of a past event. But the Passerelle Debilly snubbed its nose at this intervention and survived to become listed in the supplementary registry of historical monuments in 1966.

Passerelle Debilly

Regular readers will know that I have embarked upon a Paris Bridges Project; a project to explore all the thirty-seven bridges that cross la Seine within the Paris city limits. My exploration includes not only researching the history of each bridge but also seeking out the characteristic sounds of each bridge.

On my visit to the Passerelle Debilly I began by recording the sounds under the bridge on the Quai de New York side. I sat on a metal rail, as far under the bridge as I could get, with the metal frame of the bridge and the wooden walkway above my head and began to record.

Sounds under the Passerelle Debilly:

Passerelle Debilly

The sounds of boats passing each leaving their sonic footprint in the form of waves lapping on the edge of the quay, a boat moored to my left creaking as if held prisoner and crying out for some means of escape, a sonic glimpse of a tourist guide over the public address system on a passing tourist boat, the testosterone-fuelled sounds of a passing motor-cycle, half-heard conversations of teenagers, and the occasional, almost imperceptible, footsteps echoing from the tropical hardwood floor of the bridge above seemed to be the characteristic sounds from under the Passerelle Debilly.

But the characteristic sounds of any place are as varied as the places you listen from and so I decided to venture up onto the bridge to see what I could find.

Passerelle Debilly

Standing on the bridge, I set up my microphones on the downstream side of the bridge pointing upstream across the broad swathe of tropical hardwood lining the floor of the bridge, something those walking across the bridge in 1900 would not have found. From this position I was able to record everyday life passing by.

Passerelle Debilly

I found three distinctive sets of sounds on the bridge.

Sounds on the Passerelle Debilly:

Not surprisingly, the sounds of footsteps on the wooden floor on the bridge were much clearer than the muffled sounds of footsteps I’d heard earlier from under it. It was interesting to observe the variety of shoes that passed by, not something I would usually take an interest in, but I became quite expert in recognising which shoes would make an interesting sound and which would not. The repetitive sounds of tourist boats passing underneath the bridge were ever present of course but it was the snatches of half-heard conversations in a variety of languages that I found really fascinating. Who were these people, what had brought them to this place and what stories had they to tell?

One distinctive sound that I might have expected was conspicuous by its absence – the sound of vehicular traffic. Save for the inevitable screeching motorcycle in the distance, from the centre of the bridge the sound of traffic was almost imperceptible – a rare thing in Paris.

Passerelle Debilly

While the sounds of vehicular traffic were pretty much absent from the centre of the bridge, the sounds of the river traffic were certainly present. I’d heard the sounds of the boats passing from under the bridge and from on the bridge but, since there was so much river traffic at the time I was there and since the sounds of the boats filled the air, I thought I would try to listen to them from a different perspective. I changed my microphones for a pair of tiny lavalier microphones, the same as TV newsreaders wear, which I lowered down from the edge of the bridge so that they were hanging midway between the bridge and the water.

Passerelle Debilly

Sounds of the passing boats from between the bridge and the water:

From this perspective I still caught some of the sounds emanating from on the bridge (the microphones were omni-directional) but I was able to capture the sounds of the boats passing underneath with a clarity that would not have been possible from on the bridge. Listening through my headphones I heard snatches of conversation from on the boats often before the boats had actually emerged from under the bridge and most surprisingly, I heard the sound of music from a boat berthed on the Quai Branly which was quite inaudible from my previous recording position on the bridge.

Passerelle Debilly

One of the things I’m trying to do in my Paris Bridges Project is to not only discover the characteristic sounds of each bridge but also to try to seek out the sounds that might be unique to each bridge. Finding the unique sounds can be quite a challenge because the sounds are often not immediately obvious and sometimes they can be almost imperceptible to the casual listener.

Passerelle Debilly

At the Quai Branly side of the Passerelle Debilly is the Port de la Bourdonnais, a place where some of the large restaurant boats that ply la Seine are berthed. The bridge runs over the top of the port with steps leading down to the quay. Under the bridge, beyond the steps, is a wall behind which run two railway lines of RER Line ‘C’. It seemed to me that the sounds of an RER railway line running under the Passerelle Debilly could be the unique sounds of the bridge that I was looking for so I stood under the bridge, listening and waiting.

Presently, I heard the very faint sounds of a train passing behind the wall, sounds too faint to capture without the aid of contact microphones (microphones designed to pick up sounds from solid objects) but the sounds were definitely there. Since I wanted to capture these sounds but I didn’t have my contact microphones with me I resorted to ‘Plan B’.

From where I was standing, the rail lines were completely hidden from view but a few steps further along the Port de la Bourdonnais metal grills appear in the wall.

Passerelle Debilly - RER Line ‘C’

I approached one of the metal grills and discovered that it was just, but only just, high enough for me to reach and so with the dexterity of a cat burglar I managed to get my tiny lavalier microphones through the grill and lower them down the other side. I waited to see what would happen.

Sounds of RER Line ‘C’ passing under the bridge:

Standing at the end of two wires protruding from a hole in the wall attracted more attention from the passing tourists than I’d bargained for but I pressed on regardless and I was pleased with the results.

I was struck by the near silence in the tunnel between the trains despite the everyday sounds around me on the outside of the wall. The only time this silence was disturbed was when a very large tourist bus passed behind me, rather too close I thought.

For me at least, these were the unique sounds of the Passerelle Debilly.

Passerelle Debilly

Located as it is close to the Tour Eiffel and the site of the 1900 Exposition Universelle, the Passerelle Debilly is well used to hosting visitors.

In 1900 visitors came to witness the latest in architecture, machines and inventions including such things as the new Art Nouveau, the Grande Roue de Paris Ferris wheel, Russian nesting dolls, diesel engines, talking films, escalators, and the telegraphone, the first magnetic audio recorder. Today, visitors still come to experience what Paris has to offer and a good number of the visitors, now as then, will pass over the Passerelle Debilly.

But there was a time when the Passerelle Debilly was more than just a passing attraction for tourists.

Passerelle Debilly

For those of us of a certain age and for whom memories of the Cold War are still vivid, the Passerelle Debilly, when viewed from a certain angle and in a certain light, has a rather sinister look to it. It’s perhaps not surprising then to discover that the Passerelle Debilly was a meeting place for spies and particularly secret agents of the former East Germany. In 1989, a German diplomat working for the Secret Service of the Democratic Republic of Germany was found dead on this footbridge several days after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Knowing that gave me a whole new perspective on the Passerelle Debilly – The Bridge of Spies!

Passerelle Debilly



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