Erik and I wanted to see the Catacombs. Doug was not so keen; he thought it ghoulish. But I was interested in the bone-filled tunnels that I had heard so much about.
Beginning in the late 1700s, bodies from Parisian cemeteries were exhumed and brought underground, where they were stacked in a miles-long system of Roman tunnels. They did this at night, and it took decades. Every time they hauled away another wagonload of bones, they were accompanied by robed priests, who chanted and prayed as they walked through the dark streets.
I'm not entirely sure why they did this; the brochure we got at the Catacombs said it was a way of opening up the city by emptying the graveyards and using the space for something else. (But for what? Flower gardens? Parking lots? Low-income housing?) But I've also read that it was done to prevent the spread of disease. In any case, over about a hundred years they moved about seven million bodies.
Touring the Catacombs seemed a little ghoulish to me, too, as well as a bit disrespectful--traipsing past all those dead bodies, or what was left of dead bodies--but I wanted to do it anyway.
So right after lunch (at a crepe stand across the street), we descended into the tunnels. We had climbed the 275 steps to the top of the Arc de Triomphe that morning; now, we went down almost as many steps underground.
The tunnels were dimly lit and narrow. At times, the ceiling was so low that Doug had to stoop. The limestone floor crunched under our feet, and the air was chilly and a bit damp. We walked single-file for many blocks, passing no bones at all, but occasionally passing little placards that told us which street we were crossing underneath.
Eventually, we reached a doorway over which was written, Arrete! C'est ici L'Empire de la Morte. (Stop! Here is the empire of the dead.)
And there the bones began.
They were neatly stacked--beautifully stacked, really. Long leg bones, mainly, walls of them, punctuated by skulls. Sometimes the skulls were arranged in a pattern--a cross, or a heart. I tried to imagine those workers who, hundreds of years ago, had arranged them so artfully and with so much respect.
A security guard had asked us not to take flash pictures, and so we didn't (which is why these pictures are so dark). But as we crunched and hunched our way deeper into the tunnels, we saw the occasional flash from someone else's camera. "What can it hurt?" I heard one American ask, as she took a picture of her boyfriend or brother posed next to a wall of skulls.
I tried to imagine taking such a picture, what one's frame of mind would have to be--"Hey, go stand over there by all those dead people. Now smile!"--but I couldn't do it. It felt weird enough just taking the dim pictures that I did. But I wanted to remember this place, the magnitude of it. There were thousands of bones.
We walked more than a mile underground (the tunnels of bones go much farther, but only a small bit is open for touring) and then I got caught in a knot of rude Americans. Doug, who was just ahead of them, was walking as fast as he could to put some distance between them.
I think it was a family visiting a daughter who was studying in Paris. The mother was a squat, loud woman with a braying voice that carried far in the tunnels. Doug later named her Ethel Merman, which might be an insult to Miss Merman.
There were two young women, and two young men, and I recognized them as the people who'd posed by the bones.
I tried to walk quickly, too, but somehow got trapped in the middle of the family as we headed toward the stairs. The corridor narrowed so that I couldn't pass. Ethel was complaining. "Why didn't you tell me I'd have to walk so far?"
"I'm hungry," said one of the guys.
"I have to pee," said one of the girls.
In the dark I rolled my eyes.
We began to climb the stairs toward the surface, and Ethel complained the whole way up. "These stairs are steep! If I'd known how much walking we were going to do, I wouldn't have come!"
"It's getting warmer," said a girl.
"No, that's just the warm pee running down your leg," said a guy.
It was right about then that I realized that not only didn't I want anyone to think I was with them, I didn't want anyone to even think I was American. If I could have burst into fluent French or Spanish, I would have, just to distance myself from them. Merde, I muttered, but I was unsure of the pronunciation.
I trudged up the steps and emerged, blinking, into the sunshine, where Doug was waiting. We leaned against a wall and waited for Erik. The Merman family bickered on the sidewalk over which way they should go and what they should eat. I willed them away. I hoped they hadn't stolen any bones. (Rick Steves warns against doing this. But I wasn't sure they would listen to anyone, even to Rick Steves.)
Erik emerged from the tunnel as the family was yammered and chattered their way down the sidewalk. Doug and I watched them go. I wasn't sure where we were headed from here, but one thing was certain: wherever we went, it would be in the opposite direction of the Merman family.
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