Gertrude Stein once said: “America is my country and Paris is my home”. Comparing America to Paris is like comparing Lady Gaga to Edith Piaf. Though Gaga has mass appeal and is truly amazing, I would rather spend my nights seduced by the romance of La Vie En Rose.
Paris is like my little black dress. It suits me better than anything else in my wardrobe. It’s in Paris that you can sip wine alone in a cafe and not look like a friendless alcoholic, but rather une femme que est tres mysterieuse. It is a feminine city where beauty is savoured in art, architecture, nature, fashion, physique, gastronomy, family, leisure and just about every other facet of human existence. Of course, I say this with stars in my eyes… I’ve just had a picnic under the Eiffel Tower and spent several hours perusing the masterpieces in the Musee D’Orsay.
However, there is also a sordid history of rebellion, war, plague and poverty. Or, so I have been told by Hugo and Dumas. But, one only needs to visit the catacombs to gain perspective of these atrocities. I highly recommend a visit to the catacombs. Beneath Paris lies a complex network of metro lines, sewer systems and tunnels. During the early 1900’s, the French parliament was unsure of what to do with all of the bones exhumed from the mass grave sites. Literally, millions of bones were strewn about Paris, getting in the way of development. The government decided to exhume these bones and (in their French style) hired an artist to arrange them along the walls of the old limestone mines. (These are also the tunnels that the French used to retreat to during the occupation of Paris in WWII.)
The entrance to the public catacombs can be found in Montparnasse. I would recommend arriving early as there is usually a long line-up and the last entry is at 5pm.
After descending thousands of winding stairs, you will arrive at a stale damp tunnel below the sewers and metro lines. Above the threshold reads: “Arreter. C’est ici, la empire de la mort“… which literally translates to “Stop. It is here, the empire of the dead”. Entree mon ami!
Femur bones are stacked 10 feet high and 20 feet deep along each wall for miles. To gain scope and sequence… each human has only 2 femur bones… my perception of mortality is enhanced every 10 metres.
The skulls are arranged in hearts, linear patterns and other various designs along the way. Several people stop and weep at the gravity of it all… no pun intended.
I ascend from the underbelly of Paris on to a quiet street. I want to yell out; “Do you know what’s down there? Right under your perfect Parisian lives?!” But, I don’t because the underbelly is better explored than narrated.