Paris: Under the Bones of the City

The Catacombs.

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In all my previous trips to Paris, I’ve never been to the catacombs. They run all over the city, though there is only one tourist sanctioned section – home to the bones of old graveyards. The bones did not start here – they were moved because all the city graveyards were overflowing and unsanitary.

When I was younger, the tunnels held no interest for me. Why go look at a bunch of skulls in a wall? Now that I’m older and wiser, I decided that it might be interesting to see what the collected dead look like.

The outside entrance is nondescript, accessed off the ligne 4 at Denfert/Rochereau, and the line is short but very slow. They only allow two hundred people maximum in the tunnels at any given point, and they control how many people can go down at a time. The result is a fitful wait – mine was almost an hour, and I got there not long after they opened. Tickets are 10 euro, and another 2 if you want to get the souvenir coin. I did – it made me think of the gold coin Greeks would give to Charon, the ferryman on the way to Hades.

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Entrance fee, map, and *spooky music* the "other" entrance fee...

Entrance fee, map, and *spooky music* the “other” entrance fee…

There is no elevator, nor handicapped accessible way to descend. It’s a steep spiral staircase, and packed earth slopes.

I found I really liked how quiet everything was, once I broke away from the gaggle of talkative teenagers in front of me. Echoes get muffled, water drops sound amplified, and there is the stillness of undisturbed earth. It’s not an accurate term, I guess – undisturbed earth. They built the tunnels, after all. These are not naturally occurring caverns like in a mountain. These are labyrinths built by man. And the first third of the walk is not all skulls and crossbones. Rather, it’s an explanation of the geology of Paris, the great ancient sea and the limestone it left behind.

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After some more dimly lit corridors, passing by miniature cities carved into the walls, the quarrier’s footpath (a natural well where workers could rinse off the dust), you hit a wonderfully creepy sign above an archway. It reads:

Arrete

Ici c’est l’empire de la mort

“Stop. Here is the kingdom of the dead.”

So foreboding – I thought it was great.

And sure enough, upon passing through the archway, the walls are lined with bones. Primarily femurs and skulls, which confused me after awhile. I asked one of the caretakers I found where all the finger bones were. In response, he shined his flashlight to the back of the catacomb walls, explaining that ribs, fingers, and all the pesky bones which didn’t stack well got thrown to the back. Poor bodies – their ribs and wrists akimbo forever.

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After awhile, I could see why, at the entrance, there is a sign saying that children or those who suffer from claustrophobia might have problems. The lines of bones go on for far longer than I thought they would – each stack marked with a notice of the original graveyard. Most of the Parisian graveyards got emptied here, and it shows.

I went through several different emotions walking the tunnels. I was curious, then sad, then reflective, then superstitious. I got most superstitious whenever I saw that some idiot had graffitied on a skull. That is going to be a problem after they die – I can see the original owner of the skull showing up and beating the newcomer for his disrespect. It can’t be good luck, to deface the bones of the dead. That’s ancient law, isn’t it?

And I felt bad for all these bodies, just stacked economically along the corridors. Thousands of bodies, thousands of souls, now a tourist attraction. I took a selfie or two, but it felt weird to have the bones around me. I suppose if you don’t put stock in the power of the dead, or believe in an afterlife, then the whole thing would probably be no more than a notable historical decision. The graveyards – the Court of the Innocents most notably – were unsafe and dirty. Better to store all the bones and then bury people outside the city.

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That got me to thinking about how many bones have settled “on top” of the Catacombs. These bones are a couple of hundred of years old (roughly), and they go on for a good long distance. What about our bones – how many more millions of people have lived, died, and been buried? How many bones have turned to dust under ours, before our fancy caskets made disintegration a slower process?

See? It’s a morbid, but important, conversation to have with oneself in the dim light of the dead eye sockets. They probably didn’t wonder about such things. Most of them were probably poor, wrapped in a sheet and buried en masse. Death was far more prevalent and immediate back in the 17th and 18th centuries.

This is reflected in the poetry on the wall.  There are couplets about the uselessness of fighting death, but they’re upbeat. There’s a real sense of “Carpe diem!” down in the Catacombs, probably because no one down there is carpe-ing anything.  The very real end of life is calling out in stone for the living to go out and treasure what they have, since once interred that is the physical end. There is also a real sense of peace – that a life of hard work has met some sort of justified end. I find it comforting, frightening, and helpful all at the same time.

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Above, it’s drizzling. The line still stretches out.

That’s all for now – I’ll write about the evening in my next post. I think the dead deserve their own little post in the world of the “living”- if being online can be considered thus.

As we are, so all things must be.

As we are, so all things must be.

Feeling Literary

I was standing in a sort of courtyard. A plain, ordinary courtyard filled with ordinary things: a car, a tree, a bike. People shuffled around the street and sparrows hopped from crumb to crumb.

And in that ordinary moment, I remembered some Tennyson: “I am part of all that I have met / Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough / Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades /For ever and for ever when I move…”

The day to day living is the same here as in America – I have written this before. Me in a courtyard in China is just like me in a courtyard in America, though I might be a little more confused in the Chinese courtyard.  Nevertheless, my feet are here in this courtyard. And my feet were on top of Emei mountain, and in the streets of Shanghai, just as they walked the Golden Gate Bridge and jogged the streets of Chicago.  And I think part of what Ulysses feels in “Ulysses” is that pull of wanting to be himself elsewhere, of recognizing the pull of the world and how it resonates in his heart. The horizon is a tantalizing thing because it promises differences, but what I think we hope for is that we will be different.

“Ulysses” is sad – he’s reflecting on the need to prove himself in his twilight years; that it is better to go out and fight than grow old at home. My cynical side notes that it’s easy for him – he’s got his son who inherits the kingdom and can do the work in his absence. I am lucky that I get to travel to work, but I must work.  I have no husband or children to carry on my legacy. That’s another difference – Ulysses is old, and I am not. I cannot go out and seek the way I would want to because I have student loans – shackles which will stay with me until I’m as old as he was. OH! So when I am as old as Ulysses, and my debts are finally paid, then I too can “sail beyond the sunset, and the baths of all the western starts until I die.”

Now there’s the melancholy necessary to appreciate this poem, coupled with the optimism of knowing that I will not stop because things are difficult. Optimism in the face of challenges – that sounds pretty good.

“Ulysses”

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vexed the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honoured of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers;
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breathe were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.

This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle —
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and through soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.

There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil’d, and wrought, and thought with me —
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads — you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

 

 

 

….Now how do I get out of this courtyard?