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   Paris Catacombs
Tuesday, January 29 2002

setting: Paris, France

We'd grown used to the idiosyncrasies of the Hôtel Practic, so we'd decided to spend another night there. But since tonight was to be our last in Paris, we decided to spend it back at the Hôtel Nesle. On the way over, we stopped for café at a brasserie near the Louvre. A day or so ago I'd decided that I liked the ritual of drinking a tiny little shot of café at a brasserie bar. But since I was clearly an American, I had to be very clear to the bartender that I wanted a conventional French café and not watered-down faux American coffee. I had to sympathize with him though; he's probably dealt with his fair share of idiotic American tourists who asked for one thing but expected something else.
After checking in at the Hôtel Nesle, Gretchen and I split up. She went off to a coffee shop to write post cards and I went to the Musée d'Orsay to look at art. The Musée d'Orsay is housed in a converted train station and features a spectacular central atrium. The art housed within is from several wildly different eras, including both sides of the "19th Century Modernist Revolution." One gets a better sense of what there was for Impressionists to rebel against when one looks upon the gloomy Neo-Classical canvases typical of pre-Impressionist painting.

A Cézanne being copied in the Musée d'Orsay

Funky designs made with bones in the Paris Catacombs.

When I was done with the museum (it goes fast when you're doing it by yourself), Gretchen and I walked nearly all the way to the southern fringe of Paris in the 14th Arrondissement, stopping at a brasserie somewhere along the way for a conventional French lunch (I had the fish soup and a beer). Our principle destination for today was the Paris Catacombs, a large complex of subterranean building stone mines that were subsequently filled with the bones of some six or seven million Parisians.
The story behind the catacombs epitomizes (in both a positive and negative way) the wisdom that one shouldn't shit where one eats. The story of the catacombs begins many hundreds of years ago, when Parisians discovered that it was easier to remove building stone from beneath the city than it was to import it from outside. But after many years of this mining, there was no longer enough stone beneath Paris to support the city, and it began to collapse in places. In this case, the variation on the theme of "don't shit where you eat" reads "don't mine the foundation to build the roof."
After the mines had been suitably reinforced to prevent further collapse, their utility grew out of the paradoxical state that had made them good mines for building stone: they were simultaneously remote from and near to the city. Their first application was as a final resting place for the dead, which were so deeply stacked in surface cemeteries that they were posing a health hazard for adjacent communities (and actually changing the contours of the land). Later, during World War II, they served as a home for the Resistance (who, like the dead, needed to be in Paris but also apart from it).
The Catacombs have many entrances of varying kinds throughout Paris, but for the official Catacombs tour, the entrance is a small green building on Place Denfert-Rochereau. There, a five euro entrance fee allows you to descend a tightly-wound steel staircase sixty feet down into the yellowish-cream-colored stone. It's a color that's already familiar as the color of Paris.
Once we made it to the bottom, Gretchen and I allowed some distance to develop between ourselves and the group of people in front of us. This was important because she had to pee really bad and there are no bathrooms in the catacombs.
After walking hundreds of feet horizontally through the ground, we started passing gated side tunnels (each of them labeled with marble "street signs"), we came out into a number of wider "rooms" - most of them with supporting columns in their centers to hold up Paris, some of these painted in the "timber and stucco - Shakespeare lived here" style.
Then, beyond a seated Catacombs employee, was a sign announcing that we were about to enter the Empire of the Dead. There was also another sign saying that we could touch the bones all we wanted but that photography was forbidden. Gretchen was outraged, saying, "That's just so they can sell post cards."
It was an empire of the dead alright, tunnels stretching in various directions, lined with neat stacks of human bones reaching nearly to the ceiling. I couldn't tell precisely how far back into the stone the bone piles reached, but in many places the piles appeared to be 10 feet wide or more. It was a little surprising to see human bones used as a plentiful building material, with skulls serving as "ink" for drawing designs upon the "paper" of the compact mass of long bones. It was all done in such a straightforward manner, building, making art with the remains of dead people. It was hard not to be impressed by the sheer mass of dead humanity. "Wow," said Gretchen, "it shows you that nothing really matters. This person could have worked hard, and this guy suffered from chronic acne, and this one didn't get her poetry accepted in the Paris Review, and it just doesn't matter." "Well," I argued, "they're part of this work of art," I said. Clearly, though, Gretchen didn't think having her skull serving eternity as a pixel in a decorative cross was much of achievement. Especially as a Jew. There's a huge difference between making a part of a work of art and being a part of a work of art.
It wasn't long before I was taking pictures, flashbulb and all, and getting away with it. The hired guards obviously had no desire to enforce the posted photography rules.
We were among the bone piles for so long that we gradually grew weary of them. My attention was drawn to other things, particularly the proto-stalagtites forming where water dripped from the ceiling. They were an eighth of an inch long, a quarter inch wide, and entirely hollow in the middle, giving some indication of the age of larger stalagtites that one finds in natural caves.
Finally the bone piles ended, and we found ourselves in a series of subterranean rooms equipped with interesting reinforcing elements, particularly arches. At the end of the tour, we all climbed out of the Catacombs on another spiral staircase, surfacing in a random building two metro stops from where we'd begun. We could have easily snuck out with a skull or a femur, but I don't know how I'd explain such things to a customs official.
Gretchen and I were tired from all the walking and the stairs, so we ducked into a nearby church, kicking back and looking at the anomalous Turkish detailing under the roof.
Gretchen decided to go see a movie called Tai Chi Master (dubbed from Chinese into French). I knew I couldn't survive a movie, especially one in French, so I took the Metro back to the hotel and took a prolonged nap.

In the evening, Gretchen and I still weren't sick of Indian food, so we dined at Chez Gandhi. Everything was going well with our meal until two of the waiter guys (one of whom claimed to be drunk) started chatting with us in a mixture of broken French and even less understandable English. They wanted us to be sure to know that they shared a special love for people from the United States and that they felt very very bad about the World Trade Center thing. Yeah, cool, in case they were worried, we didn't think they were terrorists. At this point they poured a few complimentary Indian liqueur drinks and got to telling us all about themselves. One of them said he had studied in Pakistan and become a lawyer (so why was he a waiter in a Paris Indian restaurant?) and the other said he could barely read his own name. As they processed my Mastercard, the reason for their friendliness was revealed. "In Paris Indian restaurants, the tab is not complete, not like other restaurants," they told us. Ah, so this was why they liked Americans so much. Americans don't know any better and frequently left tips. Evidently our waiters were concerned that we were a little wiser than your average American and might not leave a tip. So, what the hell, we left the fuckers a tip, but doing so didn't make us feel good (as leaving a tip normally does).

View a gallery of pictures from this adventure.

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