NOTE: The Author would like to gently point out that his observations are his and his alone, and they are not meant to be some sort of factual record on what Paris is. This is simply a collection of observations on what he experienced for 8 days in Paris during the summer of 2011. It is meant to be an honest account of his feelings and experiences, but should not be taken as complete truth to what Paris and France are. How could it? That's ridiculous. With that... PREVIOUSLY: PART 1: TOUCHING DOWN PART 2: MEETING THE LIZARD KING PART 3: MY NEMESIS, THE METRO PART 4: BLUE SKY RAIN PART 5: THE GINGER WINS PART 6: KEEPERS OF THE CITY
My body aches, either a sign of the growing years or the lack of physical shape I possess. Perhaps both. Either way, our next day in Paris won’t be an easy one. It’s not as if the walking isn’t going to stop. We have much to see, and much to take in. And it starts with what will become the longest wait of the week.
Early on, while researching Paris, I asked several friends about their own experiences of this lighted city. During one such conversation, my eclectic friend ZZ passionately declared that I mustn’t exit the walls of Paris without first submerging myself below the streets that house it. More specifically, I needed to visit something called The Catacombs.
I’ve always had a bit of fascination when it comes to the macabre and the morbid. It’s an interesting dance I have with death and all it encompasses. On one hand, I’m absolutely terrified of what comes with that inevitable moment. But, there’s also another side of me that feels no discomfort upon surrounded by it.
This most assuredly has everything to do with my childhood, when death and the peculiar facets of business in death were around me in plentiful ways. For one, my uncle worked at a cemetery. If that wasn't enough, he also lived there. Literally. It wasn’t as weird as it sounds, though admittedly I’m a bit biased. Essentially, he was the foreman at a large Memorial Park in the suburbs of Chicago. Someone needed to live just beyond the various plots, as due to the nature of the situation, someone had to keep watch at all times. As I understand it, part of the deal included free rent.
Now, if you were a young man trying to start a family, certainly the advantage of a nice house with free rent would be far too appealing to turn down. So naturally, he lived there for several years while he built for his family's future. This meant we celebrated occasional Christmases at said house, which included playing whiffle ball in the backyard, all while the remains of past lives sat there, mere yards away from our home run marker. Young children, at the forefront of life, surrounded by death. The contrast was not lost on me.
In my later years, I would work summers at the cemetery. And on my other side of the family, my Grandmother worked at a local funeral home that we occasionally strolled into en route to picking her up after work.
Point being, I have quite a few experiences with deathly remains.
The Catacombs lie below the dirt-laden Parisian streets, underneath the sewage and savagery that Paris holds.
The line to enter this House of Death didn’t seem long, certainly no longer than the one awaiting us at Notre-Dame. Difference is, this line didn’t move. In fact, by the time we paid our fare and started descending the cold, hard stairs, morning had eclipsed into early afternoon. It was an exhausting test of patience, as I couldn’t understand why they were letting only a few people in at a time.
I’d understand soon enough.
The spiraling stairs from days ago returned again, a friend that stayed at the party a bit too long. I popped on my audio guide and prepared for what was sure to be an interesting excursion.
Everything seemed pleasant enough, and the stairs passed by quicker than they should have. But it was about at the bottom of the staircase, just at the foot of the Catacomb entrance, when an unfamiliar panic took hold of me. Because once the audio guide meticulously went through how much of the earth was indeed above us, I suddenly got a sense of paranoia. This was odd, and although it passed fairly quickly, I had never felt this way before. But something about the thought of being crushed amongst all of these bones terrified me. And yet, there was nothing I could do about it.
I entered the Catacombs.
It’s impossible to describe the quiet hum of death unless you’re familiar with it. There really is something in the air. I’ve been to The Sistine Chapel. I’ve been to Notre-Dame. I’ve been to The Louvre. I’ve been to The Vatican. But of all the places of tourism I’ve been to, the silence inside the Catacombs is unparalleled. No one speaks. Not a word. Not of body. Nothing.
I immediately remember to thank ZZ for warning me that the Catacomb caverns were cold. He’s right. They are. And they’re filled with the damp air of history. In the distance, the dripping of water can be heard. It would be startling if it wasn't so obvious. It’s like something out of a clichéd Halloween ghost story. The dripping is impossibly slow, and the plopping sound that echoes out tells you all you need to know about the size and shape of each drop. Wet. Thick. Murky.
It starts innocently enough, with a few beautiful sculptures by various artists. That someone would take the time to carve such intricate pieces in this place is beyond me, but I’m grateful they did. I’m reminded of how easily art is lost in this new digital world.
Slowly, we make our way through a maze of webbed paths. The ground is noticeably uneven, and I sense I’m some sort of actor in a distant period piece. I feel stark and vulnerable.
The darkness, the one that seemed impossible to navigate at first, now seems comforting. Your eyes really do adjust.
It is after a few moments of rummaging through these tunnels that the bones begin. Bones of the departed. Six million to be exact.
They’re stacked against one another, a symbol of their shared final resting place. Individuality isn’t an option here amongst the bones.
The history of the Catacombs is an interesting one, filled with less insight by the originators than you’d imagine. Paris had quite a deathly issue at hand in their past, as many of the city's cemeteries were being overrun with corpses. Paris still counted on well water for their daily deluge of usage, and you can imagine this caused quite a bit of problems once the bodies started deteriorating in the ground. Health issues abounded, and suddenly the notion of getting buried became one of wealth.
Eventually, a solution presented itself with the birth of The Catacombs, and many human remains deemed "regular" were transported there. The detailed history is a bit more fascinating, and I recommend you check it out HERE.
Regardless, it's amazing to me that The Catacombs have been a tourist attraction since the 1800's.
All in all, it takes about an hour to go through the entirety of the Catacombs’ public offerings (the tourist-approved section we see is only a portion of the whole). The audio guide drones on, and it’s hard to focus on the narrator’s words while looking at the never-ending piles of skulls. I do catch one story about a private party once held here, shrouded in secrecy and the kind of invite-only musings that we all secretly wish to be apart of. Dancing with the ghosts of Paris is beyond alluring for me, but I move on and make my way toward the exit.
We finally rise above the past and into the present with a few more steps. The sky seems brighter, but not necessarily better.
It takes an odd person to appreciate the beauty of what we just witnessed… and I certainly did.
What I instantly think is that there is much left in the day. And suddenly my body doesn’t hurt as much.