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Imagine my surprise on the eve of a recent trip to Paris when my teenage daughter announced that she wanted to visit with the former residents of the city – the dead ones below ground. I’d been to Paris before, several times, and managed to see all the wondrous landmarks the city has to offer, blissfully unaware that Paris even had catacombs. But while I was picturing us scaling the heights of the Eiffel Tower to marvel at the city below or strolling side by side down the Champs Elysees just to say we’d done it, she had discovered a world below the city, she wanted to see the Empire of Death.
Why I wondered, with all of Paris to see would one choose to go underground, but having no real reason to refuse, other than sheer dread which I was determined not to show, I reluctantly agreed. After all, our plan had been to do two tours – she would pick one and I would pick one. I chose Versailles, technically outside of Paris but close enough, she chose the Paris Catacombs.
Trying to find things we have in common has become our goal, learning to accommodate each other’s differences, our mantra. It’s not easy. We have learned to, if not celebrate our differences, at least respect them, always keeping a careful watch out for things we can savour together. Each expands the other’s world, which can be rewarding but often requires leaving comfort zones behind; sometimes it works and other times you just have to appreciate the effort.
Where it would never occur to me not to follow the rules; it would never occur to her not to question the rules. It’s our natures. I first became aware of this when she was eight and required to make her bed every morning. I am a neat freak; neat is not a word that exists in her lexicon. To me, her room was so messy it was scary. How can you find anything in this room was a constant refrain of mine.
With a neatly-made bed in the room I could manage to overlook the chaos surrounding it; strewn clothes on the floor, half-empty cups on the nightstand, notebooks haphazardly sliding off the desk, god knows what under the bed. I would just focus on the bed whenever I was in her room. It was progress – a step in the right direction. I was happy.
That was until I noticed strange indentations in the shape of a body on the comforter – the puffiness depressed, clearly from a sizeable weight. When confronted, she admitted that she never actually slept under the sheets and comforter but on top of them, giving the appearance every morning of having dutifully made her bed when in fact the bed had never been unmade.
Silly me! I had never specified that she must also sleep in the bed – a technicality that didn’t occur to me. An obvious oversight on my part.
When she was nine she grew suspicious of the tooth fairy, largely prompted by the amount of money her friends were getting compared to what she got. Sensing an opportunity, I volunteered that the tooth fairy must pay a premium for extra white, vigilantly brushed and flossed teeth. Unconvinced, and seeing through my shameful ploy, she waited a week after losing her next tooth before telling me. Naturally, the next morning there was money under her pillow, but alas the tooth fairy had been outed. Can nothing be easy?
As she has grown older, we’ve grown accustomed to our rhythms and routines and along the way perfecting the art of negotiation. That spirit of accommodation is why we’re here today, early on a gray morning, waiting to start our tour of the Paris underground.
We already have our tickets so we head to the front of a long line of people hoping to get in, people who did not get their tickets in advance. A daily limit is imposed each day, something to do with safety, so the demand for tickets far outstrips the supply.
A young man – I’d guess mid-twenties; thin, glasses, hip-looking greets us as we approach, he has clearly been waiting for us and introduces himself as Philipe, our tour guide. He briefly introduces us to a family of four from California; mom, dad and two teenage boys. The long line behind us agitates. Philipe gestures for our small group of six to start down the stairs, he wants to get the tour underway and probably has several more to do before the day is over.
My hand clutches the black railing as we go round and round descending a spiral staircase, feet clank loudly on the metal steps, I feel the dampness begin to invade my pores. Philipe asks if anyone has claustrophobia. I understand the question once our feet touch the bottom and we’re encapsulated in a narrow tunnel with a low ceiling and dim light. We are given a minute to acclimate. I am seriously glaring at my daughter right now, every inch of me already regretting my earlier democratic notions, but the look of sheer excitement on her face quiets my tongue.
There are people ahead of us in the tunnel and behind us on the stairs so there’s no delaying, we have to maintain a steady pace and keep moving forward. Tiny rivulets of water trickle down the wall creating a canopy of darkened pathways on the stone, cool air embraces me before it rushes down the tunnel as if impatiently looking for a way out. Loose dirt rolls along under my shoes when I walk. You can almost feel the tunnel walls squeeze in. All the noise and traffic and bustle occurs one hundred feet above our heads – down here there is only silence and darkness and non-activity.
This, we learn, is where the quarrymen spent their lives digging out the limestone to build the city of Paris and its famous landmarks like Notre Dame and the Louvre. That signature look, of creamy stone facades topped with gray slate roofs lining grand boulevards, that defines Paris, achieved by centuries of quarrying the limestone underneath. The labor was backbreaking, accidents common, and blindness caused by years of working in poor light, afflicted many. The beauty of Paris clearly came at a price.
It’s chilly in the tunnel and surprisingly crowded. Tunnels spill into larger cavities where guides, their groups of ten or twenty tightly huddled around them, explain in various languages, the history of what they are witnessing. Young French schoolchildren scurry by, delighted to be liberated from a morning at school, and seemingly undaunted by their surroundings.
Plenty of people have been lost down here. Phillbert Aspairt, famously disappeared in 1793 and wasn’t found for eleven years, his corpse clutching his keys, just feet from the exit that he couldn’t find in the dark. Others who went exploring, lost their way and have never been found. There are almost 200 miles of tunnels, an underground realm of immense proportion – illegal to enter since 1955 except for the one mile open to the public.
As we walk along my daughter tells me all about the cataphiles. Those Parisiens who enter the catacombs illegally on a regular basis. They come to throw parties, show movies, draw graffiti or just explore. There is an entire network that regularly assembles down here – they assume alter egos totally changing their identities. She is intrigued. I am horrified. Why would anyone want to party down here? Don’t they know about Phillbert Aspairt? But of course that’s the attraction of the place: the danger, the mystery, the anarchy. An escape to a place where there are no rules, no one telling you what to do.
When I was her age I had spent a summer with a backpack on my back, roaming through Europe with my best friend, staying in hostels, trying to survive on ten dollars a day. Paris had been the highlight. So when I first envisioned this trip I was eager to relive that experience (without the hostels) and have her follow in my footsteps, see what I had seen – what I had deemed worthy. She, of course, had an entirely different agenda. I hadn’t seen it coming.
By this point, my sense of direction has totally abandoned me. Crazy thoughts run through my mind. Is there enough oxygen down here for all of us? Do the lights ever go out? And then what do we do? I’m scrambling to come up with a plan for that contingency when suddenly we come across a stone inscription above a doorway that ominously warns: “Arrete, c’est ici l’empire de la mort!” (Stop, this is the empire of death).
There’s no turning back now, this is what we’ve come to see. This is what everyone has come to see. Is it curiosity? Fascination with the afterlife? I don’t understand the attraction, but based on the number of people down here and in the long line above, there’s no denying it.
The catacombs were created over 200 years ago when Paris ran out of space to bury its dead. Existing cemeteries in churchyards throughout every neighborhood were bursting at the seams, spreading death and disease. When a wall of St. Ignatious Cemetery collapsed spewing decaying corpses into a neighbor’s basement, action was required.
The solution was to empty all the cemeteries of Paris and transport the remains into the long-abandoned underground quarries. And so for decades, under the shadows of night, solemn processions of black-draped wagons weighed down with bones rolled slowly through the streets on their way to unceremoniously dump their contents down wells into the quarries. These bones would lay in haphazard piles to later be stacked and put on public display. This is what lies ahead of us.
What’s wrong with tulips? That’s what I’d like to know. Why doesn’t she like tulips? My original plan for the morning had been to visit the Tuilleries Gardens but instead I’m here.
We press onwards through the opening forced to ignore the wisdom of the stone-chiseled warning above. My daughter leans forward straining to see, like a child yearning to get on the playground. I feel pressure on the small of my back as she distractedly pushes me forward, clipping the backs of my heels with her shoes, almost stumbling over me.
The minute we go through the opening we are surrounded by the dead. Entire chambers filled with skulls and bones. Femurs stacked like firewood. Densely-packed piles from floor to ceiling; tibias, skulls, vertebrae grouped by the cemetery from which they came; their only means of identification. Broken skeletons; no doubt shattered by their journey.
Parchment-coloured skulls positioned ear to ear down a long corridor atop the scrolled end of femurs; some missing jaws, others pock-marked, still others turned away as if bored by the constant flow of the living passing by. Some are stacked in the shape of a heart by the stackers – attempts at humour? Artistic expression? Affection?
There are other groups already here. This is clearly the area where people linger staring at the bones. And there’s plenty of room as you walk along the pathway following stack after stack of endless bones. People can go at their own pace taking in the largest necropolis in the world.
Six million former residents are down here and they outnumber the current residents above ground almost three to one. Some of the bones belong to well-known people such as Victor Hugo and Robespierre, most belong to ordinary citizens, all randomly scattered by the democracy of death.
As I walk along I feel innumerable eye sockets staring at me – taking my measure. Silent and watchful and unblinking. I am trespassing; an uninvited guest. In the dim light it’s hard not to be in awe of the sheer quantity of bones, and I can’t stop myself from wondering who they were and what their lives were like. What demands did life place on them? How did you live? How did you die? If you could do it all again, would you do it differently? But that’s just me getting lost in my head. As I look around I realize not everyone shares my reaction – in fact most people react just the opposite.
My daughter stands a few feet away and is taking a selfie with a few of the pitted skulls, holding up her iphone as she smiles and bends her head affectionately in their direction, an instant clique of best friends. Their mouths gape open as if smiling. I’m guessing her facebook feed is exploding with these photos. I feel I should apologize for the ignominy of it all, but to whom? Besides, the other members of our group are also madly clicking away on their iphones and posing in similar fashion. A young man, possibly in his early twenties, picks up a skull, holds it in the air slightly above his head Hamlet-style, and says, “to be or not to be, that is the question,” to the general amusement of his friends. Another, wanting to join in the fun, solicitously pats its head.
Me? I just can’t shake the feeling of irreverence. I am unsettled by the involuntary nature of their plight; the indecency of their predicament. What is merely a curiosity to my daughter, providing her with an insulation she is not even aware of, resonates more deeply with me, who is without similar armour. Why? Is it age?
I can’t look around without asking myself what it all means. Is there some lesson to be learned here? My silent question just hangs in the air. Being reduced to a stack of anonymous bones raises so many questions and yet there is only silence. I am seeking some morsel of wisdom that is not to be found. There are no answers written on the walls – no truths echoing down the tunnels, nothing to be extracted from this spot except limestone. Our tour guide tries to keep us moving because there are so many others behind us wanting to take their pictures.
We’ve been down here what feels like an eternity but in fact has only been forty-five minutes. I’m silently rejoicing that this subterranean walk is almost over, my commitment fulfilled, my dignity intact. We can now make our exit – intact and upright. I should probably thank my daughter, the value of the tour for me is my renewed appreciation of what I have now – my life, the people I love and each day that lays before me full of promise.
Out of the corner of my eye I spot the stairs leading back to life and people. I’m making my move towards it when my daughter turns to me and exclaims, “stacking bones, what a neat summer job that would be.” Here we go again. But at this moment I just smile to myself and wonder at it all. I know our complicated tango will continue, but for now, we’re headed to the Tuilleries Gardens to see the tulips and the sun is shining.