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.

Oops, I broke it

I broke the internet at my office. How? I reset the router because I was having difficulty connecting to the internet over several days. Little did I know that the router used a static IP address as opposed to a dynamic one, and so there would be no connecting to the internet until the teenage techie for the school showed up and input the IP address needed.

I’m sure if Sondheim were writing it….

A weekend, disconnected

How oppressive! How disturbingly slow!

A weekend, disconnected

Since I have nowhere to go

Not the mountains, not the city

Just my dorm room and the rain

Might go running in self-pity

Geez, internal reflection is really a pain

Spend a weekend disconnected

Sit reflective till my eyes have gone cross

A weekend disconnected

Well….

I guess it’s not really a loss!

 

No offense, internet. But I was able to go over forty-eight hours without the world at my fingertips. I wrote my stories, listened to music. I rode my scooter and played video games.

Ultimately, my biggest concern was the gap in my blog posts.

I have come to the conclusion that there is little to worry about over a weekend alone. I used to get that antsy feeling when I didn’t check my mail everyday. But when I come back, inevitably there are few pressing matters which need me. Even Facebook – that bastion of interconnectedness – doesn’t grip me by the wrist anymore. I log on, make sure I haven’t missed birthdays and such, and take note of how everything moved along fine without me.  A true metaphor for life and death, hmm?

Alright, more China to follow!

 

A Birthday

This is the…fifth…attempt I’ve made at writing my birthday reflections.
#1 was all about me chronologically. It was boring.
(Summary: Hey all! I tried to get a small “cake” but forgot my phrasebook! Translation nightmare!)
Lesson learned: Sometimes I hide behind the events so I don’t have to actually reflect.

#2 was me trying to be all Hallmark about being blessed and it was goopey and made me gag
(Summary: I’m so blessed – a unicorn covered in hearts made of prayer. I can’t admit that anything is wrong or everyone will pounce on me for not being thankful!)
Lesson learned: I still worry about how I am perceived by others, and have a visceral reaction to the idea of blessings.

#3 was me trying to act selfless and talk about other people who share my birthday. I was horribly smug about how good I was acting.
(Summary: I know some truly excellent people who share my birthday. Look how wonderful I am by not talking about me!)
Lesson learned: If you’re aware that you’re not talking about yourself, you are probably still talking about yourself.

#4 was very dark and fell victim to a very bleak realism about life
(Summary: I celebrate my birthday to desperately try and prove I’m not going to end up alone in the world!)
Lesson learned: That unwrinkled linen, Neil Gaimen-esque woman just loves standing in the wings of my conscious brain, doesn’t she?

 

It’s hard. I have no trouble talking about myself when I’m doing things and going places. You might have noticed this blog, for example, is just me doing stuff. Such is life, right? I’m good at that kind of solipsism because it’s rooted in events.
And life is what a birthday celebrates – my life, or at least the idea that I get to participate in life. So what then, do I say? I believe in celebrating a birthday, and yet at present I feel no great desire to celebrate.
You know what I’m going to blame? The time change. It’s my birthday in China, but it’s yesterday in the States. Sort of. Stupid time zones, ruining my birthday joy.
If only it were that simple. The truth is I’m torn between the happiness I want to feel and the doubts over the future which have grown heavier on my horizon line. It’s not just my biological clock or my economic worries (though they’re both noisy and annoying) – or maybe it is. I don’t like admitting that I’m falling prey to the same fears as everyone else. I liked it better when I was scared of bridges and jellyfish – tangible things I could face. This whole “future of my existence” thing is far more nebulous and hard to conquer. It’s also far more normal.
It’s my birthday today. I am 31.

  • Does this preclude me from getting a family?
  • Should I stop traveling? Is this when I’m supposed to settle down?
  • Why is cake so hard to find in China?

These are the pressing questions on my mind. Especially that cake one – it’s not a birthday without a white cake with that bakery frosting and the little rosettes…haven’t seen them yet here in Wenjiang. And there are no bars that I have found – just a lot of hot pot and karaoke.
So perhaps it’s better to just push on. Today I began my existence. Let’s see if I can prove worthy of the honor.
Today I ran in the rain. Today I danced to a song I like. Today I wrote. Today I looked at pictures of those I love and smiled. Today I felt the tug of wanting more. Today I decided I wanted to do it all again tomorrow.
That’s what moxie is all about.

What the Buddha Sees: Day trip to Leshan

Before I go home for a week’s vacation, my boss offered to drop me off for a day trip to see the Leshan Buddha. This particular Buddha is the world’s largest (carved of stone), a great carving straight into the side of a mountain. He sits at over 200 feet tall.

Note: I find the modifiers on Buddha statues a little ridiculous. When I was in Hong Kong I saw the Big Buddha at the Po Lin Monastery, touted as the largest bronze sitting Buddha. I checked the Wikipedia page, and now it’s the “largest outdoor bronze seated Buddha prior to 2000.” That many modifiers really kills the power of the title, don’t you think? I mean, where’s the largest indoor bronze seated Buddha, or the largest after 2000? Or the largest outdoor bronze frisbee-playing Buddha? I bet Buddha would have loved Frisbee.

We left early. I had a rather rough digestive night (I blame it on the ice in my milk tea), so I was sipping hot tea and nibbling crackers most of the morning. I was not in a mood to climb, and yet that is exactly what the day called for. I fortified myself mentally during the two hour drive. I was also not prepared for the steep cost of the tickets – it was 170rmb to see the Buddha and the “Scenic Area” attached. I didn’t have that sort of cash, and had my student guide ask for the nearest ATM.

TRAVELER’S NOTICE: There are no ATMs at Leshan, and that includes the shopping street across from the site. The nearest ATM is at the tourist village, two bus stops north of the site.

Though I started in a sour mood, the scenic area was well worth the admission. Not historically accurate, The Oriental Buddha Park is a collection of Buddhas from all over China, most carved into the mountain. It’s a history and an art lesson all at once. I was enchanted – it’s hard to maintain a bad mood in a beautiful spot. Not that I haven’t done it before, but you have to work at it. And I love stonework. I love how time affects stonework, and the effort that must go into creating carvings in a mountain. I love the grace from hardness.

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The humidity was rising as we reached the flat top of the area, walking in and out of caves filled with a variety of Buddhas, some carved into the walls, others separate statues. I couldn’t figure out the signs to see the Leshan Giant Buddha, and my “guide” was less than helpful. Another student from Chengdu, this one had never been to Leshan, and didn’t know enough English to answer most my questions with anything other than “I don’t know.” This student also had a supposed medical condition where he needed frequent snacks, but then he did not bring any and did not want to eat anything but hot dogs (there were none to be found). When he finally demurred that he was “maybe a little dizzy” I forced him to buy some mini cakes. He was mildly put out.

After some more walking and looking at confusing signs for a little bit, we started down this very steep set of switchback stairs. I noticed that we were the only ones going down – everyone else was climbing up.

“Are we going the right way?” I asked at the halfway point, after I thought some of the stares directed at me were more hostile than normal.
“I don’t know…maybe.”
“Would you please ask someone?”
“Uh…ok.” There was a conversation with a climber. “He says we are maybe going the wrong way.”
“Ugh. Fine, let’s go back up.” We start climbing again, my mood slipping back to sour. But at least we caught it early. My guide has another conversation with the same man as we go, stopping. I pause.
“He says we can maybe go down this way.”
“What?!”
“Yeah, maybe…we can go down this way.”
“Well, can we or can’t we?” Uh oh, I’m using unnecessary enunciated English.
“Yeah, I don’t know…maybe.”
“Jesus!” I hiss and start back down, not caring if the student follows. It’s hard enough not knowing for myself where to go, but when my “guide” can’t tell up from down it’s more than infuriating. He was wrong anyway – we were going the wrong way. I realized it when we emerged at the foot of the Leshan Buddha and I saw that there was a huge, controlled line descending on the other side of the cliff face. That’s where we needed to go.

Like I said, it’s hard to maintain a bad mood in a beautiful space. I should put an addendum on that: it’s easy to fall back into a bad mood at a beautiful space. I had arrived surly, and worked out of it. All it took was the umpteenth utterance of “I don’t know…maybe” to get me right back into surly, accompanied by my stomach saying it was all better and why hadn’t I fed it breakfast?

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So I stood there, at the foot of the world’s largest stone Buddha, and furiously tried to not be in a bad mood. I wanted to be happy, but I was not. It was awful. When would I ever get back to this site? When would I ever be able to look out over the rivers at the foot of this ancient monument and reflect? Then I got sad that I was angry – a wonderful combination.

“Do you want me to take your picture?” I ask the student, more out of obligation than desire to be nice (if I’m being honest).
“Yes. Of course, sure!” He says. I do so – the Buddha is so big that to fit it all in you have to cut out most of the human subject’s body, but that’s fine. It’s a cool photo.
“Do you want me to take your picture?” The student asks, probably with the same amount of duty. I haven’t been a peach this trip either I know.
“Thanks,” I say, trying to mend the fence I kicked. I stand close to the foot of the Buddha, plastering a smile on my face. The student nervously laughs, moving between a stand and a squat.
“Maybe I can’t get all of you in the photo. You’re… so short and it’s too big, maybe.” He shrugs, with a second nervous laugh. I have clearly frightened him with my earlier snap. I take my camera back with a testy “That’s fine. I’ll just take one of myself.” I remind myself to breathe.

I look at the Buddha some more. There are plastic bottles of oil at his giant feet. I stare up at his serene expression, eyes half closed. He was built to calm the waters of the river. He was built because a monk thought that putting a Buddha by a river with a strong, dangerous current would fix the river. And according to some versions of the story, he was right. All the discarded rock which got thrown in the water altered the river’s flow. Buddha works in mysterious ways.

And then I could not keep my anger up. It’s hard to maintain a bad mood in a beautiful spot. You can do it, but it takes work. It’s easy to fall back into a bad mood in a beautiful spot. Then you have to make a choice as to whether to work out of it or not. I decide that being angry won’t solve anything. I’m not in a good mood all of a sudden, but I’m reconciling.

At the top of the switchback stairs (which I climbed in the correct direction), we walk past the top of Buddha’s head. I look out across the river. The large city has exploded there – I can see several dirty white high rises just off the banks of the far shore. Construction cranes are visible. A slightly brownish haze hangs in the air over the city. What this Buddha has seen, I thought, looking at the modern world before him. When he was built there was nothing but villages and trees and the river. The items are sort of the same, but there are fewer trees, and the city is massive and the sky is hazy. How much those relaxed eyes must have seen. Much more than I could ever hope to see.  I can see some of the clever irrigation, which has prevented the Buddha from eroding over the centuries.

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I stop to drink some water. A family smiles at me, a little girl with big eyes among them. They start talking to her, giving her slight shoves. I hear them whispering, and one of the words is “hello.” I smile at the little girl.

“Hello.” I say. The family beams, the little girl looks so very shy. “Hello,” I smile.
“Hello.” She says, finally. The father claps his hands and says something else. “My…name…is…Jenny.” She mumbles her name.
“Your name is Jenny?”
“Yes.”
“Hello, Jenny. My name is Jean.” She doesn’t look at me as her mother and father start peppering her with more things to say. I feel bad for her a little, but she dutifully speaks again.
“What are you do in China?” She take her time, each word broken by a rather long pause. I rest my head on my walking stick so that I’m eye level with her. I pretend that I don’t see the Mom circling with the camera.
“Wŏ shì lăoshī – I am a teacher.”
“Oh,” Jenny says, looking at me like I would look at a living dinosaur.
“Nĭ shì xuésheng ma – Are you a student?”
“Yes,” she whispers.
“You speak English very nicely.” I say. Jenny blushes. Feeling the pressure of being seen too much, I conclude with “I am going to go walking now. I am happy to have met you, Jenny. Goodbye!”
“Goodbye!” calls the whole family as I leave.

 

It’s a step in the right direction, anyway.