BEHIND THE SCENES with Katharina Smets

How did Senza Parole come to be?

Do you know what Paris syndrome is? It's an actual diagnosis - yearly about a dozen tourists, mostly Japanese, suffer psychiatric breakdowns when they visit the city.

I don't know if this is entirely true, but I think it's because the shocking reality of the French metropolis can be very different from their high romantic expectations, which we secretly all have when we think of Paris. There is a clash between the idea of Paris's history, symbols, and beauty and the gritty daily reality of the city. And I like to challenge my own ideas too, to get myself in some kind of trouble so I can't possibly predict the outcome of the story.

I had the luxury to wander around in the French capital thanks to a writers' residency. On one of my purposeless trips through the city I stumbled upon this curious garden in the middle of an island in the Seine.

Tell me about the process of making the piece. Did the story structure form while you were recording, or afterward?

Although I'm a radio producer in the first place, I love applying literary tools to non-fiction sound and stories. I set rules for myself before I go to work, to make a frame where I can hang the story. I knew I wanted to work with a certain kind of very close voice-over, a voice that would resemble my own thoughts in the moment. So I started to write right away, during the recording. I wanted to remember the small but meaningful details, like red underwear, a cup of hot coffee on the stool, socks in sandals.

When I was idling around and looking for some kind of structure in the big city, I stumbled upon the philosophy of a French garden. The whole idea of a classical French garden is that you compose a safe structure that keeps the chaos outside and gives everything in the garden a place and a meaning. There is the symmetry, the beautiful game of perspective and flight lines in the infinity, with a strong political meaning, too. I don't think you can hear that in the piece, but it was in my mind as I made the story.

Also, I didn't want to use any other music than the sound that would naturally drop in on the story. The music made out of noises is my attempt to structure the city, to arrange my thoughts and also just to play around with rhythm and sound.

Travel plays a starring role in this story. What role does travel - and wandering, meandering, getting lost - have in your work more generally?

"Meandering," I love that word. "Brooding" is another one like that. I have spent quite some time meandering, wandering, brooding on my own. But I'm very rarely lost. I know what I want to tell, but not necessarily how. So I take an extra detour. I write things down, I reread books, Google sentences, record some more noise that doesn't seem to be directly related to the story. And then I notice that - thanks to this one extra bend - the story comes together.

I have been working as a reporter for years, and I know how to direct a story from A to B in the shortest way possible. But that doesn't necessarily grasp the clumsiness, the hesitation, the humor that is so peculiar about human behavior. That takes time and attention.

Traveling on my own is a perfect excuse to challenge my notions about the world. I'm about to spend a month in Detroit (for a residency). I will probably get a bit lost. But I need the detour, the discomfort, the search for meaning to pour the story.

For you, what is the relationship between making audio stories and having adventures? Would you have spoken with the woman on the island if you hadn't had a microphone? Would you have bought her the garden pail?

The question of what was first: the radio producer who had to learn how to make people talk, or the person who is genuinely interested in the human story behind everything? I guess the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I love making conversation. Also with people I don't know or people that scare me in the first place. I mean conversation , not just chatting away. The best way to grasp the soul of the conversation is by recording it of course, because then you can keep the real rhythm, the emotion, the meaningful silence.

I bought the garden pail partly for the story, but mostly I thought I would go back with something nice in exchange for the chocolate. After the piece aired on the Dutch radio I got a call from my mum. She liked the story, but said I could have helped the homeless woman better. I could have taken her to a shelter for example. She could be right, but I tried to make this piece about human communication, without being condescending, without judging.

The awkward, sweet moment when Liliana handed me a piece of chocolate: she shut me up with this one gesture. When you look someone in the face, you cannot deny the existence of the other person and from that moment on you are - in a way - reponsible. Maybe it's naive, but I believe in a primordial phenomenon of gentleness between people.

"Senza Parole," the song! How did you decide upon that (lovely) ending?

That cheesy song! I'm glad you liked it. I'm quite fond of reusing something that you could consider kitsch in a very honest way. I was listening back to the tape I recorded when I noticed it, that Liliana was saying "senza parole" every time we had an awkward moment of silence. She wanted to tell me something, and I was trying to figure out what it was.

So I just googled it. And there it was. A love song. Which is to say: I think it is a song about how two people sometimes feel things that are too beautiful or too painful to put into words.

This is a story about non-verbal communication. What is left when you don't speak the same language and come from two very different worlds. So all you can do is laugh uncomfortably, eat chocolate and sing.