I’ve been in hundreds, thousands of tombs before. I’ve ransacked graves by the dozens, dug up crypts and ossuaries and mausoleums, unburied corpse after urn after sepulchre, and brought light into hundreds and hundreds of resting places over the years. Usually, however, I then have to put down, usually with force, the inhabitants of those graves, or kill the evil demon who’s causing trouble from them, or vanquish the angry wizard who’s claimed the local cemetery. Because, of course, all of the tombs I’ve ever been in have been in video games. Despite all of the zombies I’ve bludgeoned with mighty maces of magic, I had never actually stepped foot inside a real grave, one where real, actual bones that used to belong to living beings were interred.

Yesterday, I went to visit the Paris Catacombs, where not just one human, but an estimated six million human beings’ remains are buried. The Catacombs (as I learned after a line wait of about two hours, the longest line I’ve waited in on this trip — but I really wanted to go in) are part of Paris’ vast underground quarries. The materials for building all of those gigantic houses and palaces I’ve been seeing had to come from somewhere, and of course they were all built before intercontinental shipping had really been developed. So the builders of Paris, hundreds of years ago, went down, where they happened to find a steady supply of limestone, thanks to the region’s 45 million year history as a former sea. There was gobs of the stuff, so they dug down, pulled it all out, and built the lovely Paris that I’ve been touring the past few days.

Unfortunately, of course, that left the city with a big empty space underneath it, which started causing problems when houses began falling into sinkholes and whole city blocks started sinking into the earth. Around 1777, a department was set up to survey all of these underground passages, and great maps were made of all the sites, and pillars were built up in important places to make sure that Paris didn’t fall down completely. The result of this, however, was that Paris still had a big area of open underground space. Thanks to the newly formed quarries department, it no longer threatened to collapse, but it was just sort of sitting down there, with nothing in it.

Right around this time, however, Paris was having another problem: Dead people. The city’s cemeteries were filling up, and one in particular, the Cimetiere des Saints-Innocents, had become a major health problem. Local residents had made the city close it, but for the city as a whole, that was a very unpopular decision. Where were all these corpses going to go?

And so, in what’s so far my favorite ingenious flash of insight in Paris’ history, someone said hey, we’ve got these bodies, we’ve got all of this space — how’s about we put them together. And thus you get the Catacombs, a (very small — it’s only about 1/800th of the total quarry area) section of this underground space that is almost completely claimed by human remains — yard after yard of skulls and femurs and skeletal leftovers.

The journey there is actually scarier than the site. The line’s not scary — it was just annoying, though I brought my iPhone and did a lot of reading while waiting. But once you buy a ticket, you descend down a narrow circular stairwell for what must be a few stories, and then the walk through to the quarry begins.

The passage down below is narrow and dark, and it isn’t made clear at all just how far you need to go to see the ossuary itself. So basically, picture me walking along, into what seemed like an increasingly smaller stone hallway, expecting at any moment that I’d turn a corner and see what I knew was eventually down there: Piles and piles of skulls and human bones.

The walk was long, long enough for me to think about just what I was doing, and just why it was so unsettling. This is when I considered that I’d done this many, many times before, though of course it was only in video games. In video games, you’re usually given the goal of unearthing a grave to conquer a dead baddie, and of course at this point I do it just because it’s what you do. But walking down into a real grave (the mother of all graves — did I mention that six million figure yet?) inspires a whole series of emotions, of which panic is only one.

I assured myself that there wasn’t anything to be afraid of here — unlike in a video game, bones wouldn’t rise up out of the grown and unleash some menacing moan before swinging an axe at me. Workers had been down here for hundreds of years, these bones were placed here on consecrated ground after that, and since then, tourists have been coming down for hundreds of years after that — even Napoleon himself came to visit at one point. Nope, in this case, the fear was all in my head, just the thought of the unknown. That was a fear I could conquer, so I moved on.

Before the ossuary, there is first evidence of the workers from the quarry, both practical and even artistic. There are a few underground wells used for various purposes, with cleanly built stairs going down to them. And there is a set of two fairly intricate sculptures of foreign landscapes, built by a quarryman who apparently had an artistic bent and the time to use it down in the depths. The quarry documents say he was a former prisoner in Minorca, which is what the carvings themselves portray. That’s a wild little story — who allowed him to just carve these things? And what meaning for him! To be imprisoned in a place, learn it from memory so well that upon escaping, you decide to carve it out of the walls of underground Paris yourself.

After that, finally, the Ossuary. At this point, there wasn’t any fear at all — the people who put this place here knew just how morbid it was, so they’ve taken as much care as possible to make it as respectful a resting place as a gigantic pile of bones can be. And yet, the people who built this were also French, so while the tone is reverent, it’s also artistic. There’s an inscription above the door to the entrance:

“Stop,” it says. “This is the empire of the dead.”

After that, it’s nothing but skulls and bones. The stacking is very ornamental, actually — I presume there are other bones down in the piles, but all you can see around the outside are skulls and what I believe are femurs. The years haven’t been too kind to the piles, either — obviously there are signs everywhere to not touch the bones, but various visitors over the years, old or new, have stolen skulls, broken them in various places, and otherwise ruined some of the setups. There are also signs to not take flash photography, so I didn’t, but I gave some angry looks and grumbles to people who ignored the signs and did.

At various points along the 750 meter walk through the ossuary, there are plaques and stones put up with various quotes about the fragility of life. It’s all in French, so not a lot of it came across to me. But I tried to dissect my feelings as carefully as possible while I walked through the twists and turns full of skulls and bones, and what I came up with was “restful.” Yes, morbid — as you’d imagine, a display like this draws some weirdos, and various rituals and concerts have been interrupted down there over the years. In 1897, a group of French noblemen and women were discovered holding a macabre ceremony in one of the galleries, and the two workers who let them sneak in to the place were immediately fired.

But overall, I felt this was a pretty satisfactory place to spend an eternal rest. Almost none of the bodies down here started here — aside from a few people that were buried here during the revolution, most of these remains came from other, overflowing cemeteries in Paris. And there’s certainly an argument (which, honestly, is the one I’d make if pressed) that your body is your body, and your soul is your soul, and after death, your body really has nothing more to do with it. But I didn’t feel that those buried in the catacombs got any worse of a lot in death than anyone else. At the very bottom, at one point when I was completely alone, maybe four stories under the busy city streets of Paris, surrounded by the bones of the dead, I thought it was nice and cool and quiet and safe. When it comes to resting places, what more could you really ask for?

The walk back up to the surface, on the other hand, was much different. You could almost smell the city coming back down at you, and everyone walked quickly at that point, almost giddy to return. You ascend up a staircase of exactly 83 stairs (the signs warn you to take it easy, and there’s a defibrillator at the top, just in case), and then emerge onto a small Paris street, about a half mile and four blocks away from the little door you entered to begin. There’s a gift shop (trust me, as a person who’s been a tourist for two weeks now, I can promise you there’s always a gift shop), but just standing in that street, I can say I felt glad to be alive. I made a mental note to buy a round of drinks for my friends next time we went out, just because I had all of my bones and flesh and could do so. The Paris Catacombs might not be a bad place to spend eternity, but hopefully I’ve got lots of things to do before eternity actually begins.

I did two other things of note today as well. First of all, I finally went to a supermarket.

Here in France, I’ve actually had a hard time finding what you might call the commercial life. Oh, I haven’t discovered any lack of commerce — the streets of Paris are full of little shops and cafes and retail stores and chocolatiers. But in my experience and my travels around the world, those things only go so far. Eventually, you need to come across places where real business gets done. Not places where people can buy breads of all kinds and hand-made soaps and towels, but places where people can buy milk and eggs and the things they actually need, and towels that are probably made in China and cheap, and that you just need because occasionally you have to sop up a spilled dish, not just lay out when company is around.

In short, I wondered if France didn’t have these things, places like Target and Ralph’s and all of those American stores where getting in and out is simple and easy and relatively cheap. In my experience, you need those kinds of places — the little shops and cafes are nice, but at 10pm in the evening, when you just need to make a Target run for some dish soap, the little shops won’t help you.

So I was glad to finally ask the receptionist at my hostel where I might find a grocery. And though I had to walk around for about an hour longer than her confusing directions had told me to, I finally came across a French supermarket, the kind of store that on the West Coast we call Ralph’s, in St. Louis we call Dierberg’s, and on the East Coast they call Wegman’s.

It was my first time really visiting a supermarket in another language, and as I tweeted yesterday, it made me feel dumb. The standard stuff I found easily: Bananas, milk, juice, bread. I know what all of those things look like, and it doesn’t matter what they are called. But I soon found that I didn’t know quite as much as I thought I did. Those little containers look like yogurt, but I don’t recognize that word on them — is it possible I could be buying cleaning products instead? These microwave dinners look a lot like microwave pasta, but I’ve never heard of this brand — what if it’s completely terrible, or even gets me sick in a foreign country? Hey, that raw chicken looks good — wait, is that actually shrimp?

I ended up just going for a few standbys, and abandoning the rest. I decided I would be adventurous back in the cafes, not a supermarket. The final humility was conferred when I went to the counter to check out. The clerk rang me up and then asked me something in French that I assumed was if I wanted anything else from the store — a standard question in American supermarkets, useless as it might be. So I plainly answered no, and stood there for a few seconds. She gave me a confused look, and repeated herself, and suddenly I realized that I heard a “dies” in there. “Dies,” I thought. “That sounds like ‘diez,’ which is 10 in Spanish. Oh! Ten! She’s telling me the price!” She had told me the price, and I had calmly answered “No,” as if she would give me my food for free.

I sheepishly fished out my money, and just sort of gave a little bow and a badly pronounced “merci” as she gave me my food and change and let me go.

The other thing I did was finally get to visit with my friend Patrick Beja. He’s a podcaster, and he was sort of hosting a meetup of podcasters and their listeners in a bar in the middle of Paris, and he kindly invited me along. This was phenomenal — since I’ve been here in town, I haven’t actually talked with anyone for more than 30 seconds or so. Most of my conversations, as I believe I’ve related here already, have basically been like that quick chat with the cashier above.

So it was great to finally talk to Patrick for a while — he of course is way smarter than me, and knows French and English well, so we had a good chat about what we’ve been up to lately. I also got to hang around with he and his fellow podcasters, and I spent a lot of time just listening to them speak in French, discussing — well, I’m sorry to say I mostly don’t know. I didn’t want to bother Patrick talking to his friends, though I did really appreciate being around them, and just feeling like I belonged for a little bit. That sounds pathetic, I guess, but putting myself in a completely foreign country alone for a week may have had slightly more of an effect on me than I guessed it would. I’m not bawling my eyes out, but it’s been educational.

Another thing that’s been educational is trying to speak, even in English, to someone from Paris here. I did have a few conversations last night with people that I met, and even when we did understand each other, I found myself thinking twice about everything I said, working hard to make my meaning clear rather than just talking. As I told Patrick last night, I am a writer. Language is my number one tool. And being deprived of it, or even hampered by it, is an interesting experience for me.

I’ve never been the kind of person to really walk up to random strangers and start talking, even in the US, but I have always prided myself on being witty and urbane when I needed to be. In a foreign country, however, all of that seems to go out the window. My main goal is just understanding, and even that fails most of the time. Riding home on the train last night, I was just putting my ticket into the turnstile, and a girl (French women are almost universally exceptionally gorgeous, by the way) whose ticket had just not worked in the turnstile next to me, stopped me and asked me something in French, pointing at my ticket and then the turnstile.

I thought she was asking me where I got my ticket from — I told her, in English, “No, I can’t help. You’ll have to go to the information booth over there,” and I shooed her in that general direction. She gave me a shocked look, like I was crazy. “Are you serious?” her look asked. I didn’t understand, I apologized again, and went through the gate.

Only later did it occur to me that this pretty and probably very nice woman was asking if she could duck through the turnstile after me, asking if she could jump in on my ticket rather than buying another one. Of course I would have let her — I’ve given the Paris Metro system plenty of money this week, probably way more than I should have. Instead, I pointed her to the local authorities like a chump. I could have been witty, I could have been urbane, I could have shared something with this girl, our own little secret against the (French) Man trying to make us pay for the Metro.

But nope, I ruined the whole thing. Maybe when I get back to the US, if something similar ever happens, I’ll remember this little episode. And instead of painfully rendering myself inexpressible, I’ll get her meaning, give her a wink and wave forward, and lead her on through the gate with me.

Posted on Sunday, April 15th, 2012 at 6:23 am. Filed under general.
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