Friday, July 4, 2014

(Not Quite) Medieval France: The Catacombs of Paris

The Paris Catacombs are not medieval, but I’m considering setting the third of Christine’s mysteries underground, and the Catacombs provide the largest underground available to tourists today. To get to the ossuaries themselves, you walk through long underground tunnels, slick with moisture and smelling of earth and damp.

The fact that this particular underground houses the bones of 6 million of Paris’s dead didn’t deter me.  I tried the catacombs at three different times.  At lunch, the line rounded the block.  At 3:30, they informed me that I could wait but was unlikely to get in. So I showed up the next day at 9:30 for the 10:00 opening.  And waited.  I finally got in to the catacombs a little after noon. Though I had been within the first 200 in line (they only allow 200 in at a time), it didn’t matter.  They let the tour groups in as they arrive and since tour groups have 20 people in them, it doesn’t take too many tour groups to slow the line to a crawl. 

When I finally got into the catacombs, I was fortunate to have been allowed to hop in front of a group, so that there wasn’t anyone in front of me for a while in the long halls that led to the ossuaries.  When other people finally caught up to me, I was a bit amazed by their callousness.  Facing death can make people uncomfortable, and the people in the catacombs with me worked through their discomfort in numerous ways--loud jokes, complaints, feigned ennui. 

But the catacombs is a cemetery, and the dead, indeed death itself, deserves our respect.  There are many quotes in French and Latin throughout the catacombs to remind the visitor of this fact, but since the beautiful poems--calling the readers attention to remember the dead, to respect the fact that we all die, to attend to our short life on earth with care--aren’t translated into any other languge, the message is lost. Tourists wander the catacombs unaware that its an opportunity for reflection and inward seeking.

As I exited the Catacombs, I was struck by the number of people who had scratched or written their names on the walls.  As if to say, I too have been here, remember me, a scratching against the fear that we might live and after our short time be consigned to shared oblivion. To battle that, we talk too loud and scratch our name on some lasting surface, claiming I was here, I lived, I existed, read my name, remember me.  Those of us who don't take to graffitti write a blog.

To find out more about the Catacombs and to plan your visit.  Visit the website here. 

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