Am I really still in Paris? Above ground, people are chatting across cafe tables, arguing with the cashier about their grocery bills, and ignoring the homeless. Just bellow – just a few blocks away from our classroom – 6 million skulls lay packed against the walls of the underground tunnels – Paris’ catacombs. I was totally unaware of this, standing in the sunshine along Denfert Rochereau with my friends. Just behind us is the Denfert Rochereau tollhouse, which we knew better as Cafe Oz, the mega-Australian-bar/club. We descended the ever-familiar Parisian spiral stairs, which led to dropping temperatures and dark tunnels. I kept expecting to see skulls at my eye level as I rounded a corner. Fortunately the presentation was prefaced with a note of precaution to respect the dead.
Arrête, c’est ici l’empire de la Mort.
Stop, this is the empire of Death.
Whoah. As my roomie says, this is a little LOTR Dead men of Dunharrow…
Unfortunately, these creepy barricaded paths of darkness did keep popping up unexpectedly, and my imagination was worse than the bones. Maybe. I’m not sure. I was honestly stunned at the massive piles in a single “room.”
Just lying there. Undistinguished. Individuals defaced.
There were architectural designs that slowed me, there were short philosophical and religious phrases in French carved periodically, and there were altars that transformed the area into a crypt. But my mind was both numbed and disturbed at the infinitely numbered nothingness- and then disturbed again at the graffiti on one skull, on the graffiti upon exiting that dated from the 18th century, and especially because I paid to be a tourist of a sacred place. Isn’t it supposed to be sacred? Do I desecrate when I walk through cemeteries? But I’m remembering fondly the preciousness of life when I walk through cemeteries. In the catacombs, I’m entering an amusement ride. I don’t deserve to look at a single person’s skull. It’s too intimate.
So maybe I’m thinking too much about this, maybe I can’t separate the material from the spirit, or get over the fact that everyone dies, or something. But still. Eerie. My roomie said she saw a skull lying on the security guard’s desk when we had to open our bags upon exiting. And there was a skull souvenir shop across the street. Why do we think we can steal or purchase death? Where is the respect for life?
The next day, we took a day trip to Reims – the Champagne region. Another touristy attraction that took us underground. Apparently, the Romans dug quarries for chalk and limestone in the 3rd century, and then the monks at some much later date used the tunnels to connect to the cathedral of Reims, which is, like almost every cathedral in France seen thus far, called Notre Dame.
Every time I am faced with a new gothic cathedral, I cannot believe how magnificent the building is. This particular cathedral’s facade was incredibly ornate with gothic statues; the pointed archways inside were just tall enough to cap off my line of vision so that I felt drawn upwards into heaven; the medieval stained glass in the rosette windows were lovely hues of purple and rose.
I still prefer Cologne’s Dom… but I’m pretty biased about that. (But hey, isn’t that why you’re reading my blog? To know about my biases?)
Anyway, the champagne. The ironic descent into French caves. Instead of skulls, it was bottles of wine.
Our guide was American. I hope that he finds a better calling in life. Tour guiding is not his thing, and he knows it. His phony voice pretended like he was as legit as he looked in his suit. Once I had heard about “the family business kept for generations” and the “unique to the Tattinger family name” phrases about five times in the preliminary video, I was done. By the time we ascended the spiral staircase back up to the “mod” tasting room and were presented with a wall that listed all the names of the countries to which Tattinger exports their champagne to, my patience and eye-rolling was gone. Then they gave us what we came for: one glass of champagne. Even though the champagne was nice, the real highlight of the tour was a little british baby who kept sticking his hands in the bottles.
My roomie again used the perfect word to describe the entire affair: pretentious.
Despite my negative reflections on these experiences, I’m still having a lotta fun actually experiencing. What’s amazing is how different and how similar everything can be… caves for bones, caves for champagne. Caves for monks, caves for Romans. Tollhouses for taxing, tollhouses for raiding. Tollhouses for train stations, tollhouses for clubbing. How easy it is to forget why things exist in the first place.
Yeah, I’m thinking about Morality and Modernity / MacIntyre. (Or maybe just Peter?) Still.