September 11, 2012

I remember on of the many news segments played after 9/11 in the hours — days — of 24-7 broadcasting after the planes flew into the towers, showing people gathered in solidarity all over the word. In Paris, an old and kerchiefed French woman held a sign that read “Today we are all American.” Eleven years later, it’s good to look into the faces I see and remember that we are all a part of one global community.

I spent the morning underground. Did you know that there is a vast network of tunnels and caverns beneath Paris? Apparently, Paris has been mined for its limestone during several different historical periods, dating back to the Romans. When buildings and streets began caving into these subterraneous spaces in the mid-1700s, there was an initiative to explore and map the extent of tunneling, as well as to reinforce unstable areas. (Is it estimated that there are over 280 kilometers of tunnels!)

While there was plenty of room well below ground, Paris was becoming more and more crowded on the surface. Hundreds of years of expiring Parisians led to (literally) overflowing cemeteries, creating an (understandable) health risk. And so, in 1785, the bones of some six million Parisians were moved to the abandoned tunnels beneath the city. For years, funereal processions marched the bones to their final resting place, an ossuary which had been blessed and consecrated by the church for that purpose.

To visit the ossuary, I walked for quite a while along the dark tunnels of stone, eventually arriving at a doorway that read “Stop! Here is the Empire of the Dead.” And beyond that doorway — thousands upon thousands of skulls. Spooooooky.

I was taken aback not only by the sheer number of bones, but also by their presentation: stacked impeccably into long and high walls of femurs and skulls, with the remaining bones piled high behind these retaining walls… I stared into the sockets of several skulls, trying to imagine who it was that had lived and loved through the absent eyes… and I was again reminded of Isaac Newton’s epitaph “Here lies what was mortal…”

Side story: there was a miner by the name of Décure who enjoyed crawling into unused mining shafts to carve small buildings into the limestone. He did this in his spare time — while the other miners went above ground to eat and sleep and live the rest of their lives, Décure stayed below, carving. When he finished his masterpiece, Décure starting widening his tunnel and hewing stairs into the limestone so that people could come and see his work. This proved fatal, however, as his tunnel collapsed and killed him. What an interesting life. (Décure was killed in the collapse, but his carvings survived; you can see them on the way to the ossuary.)

After lunch, I went on a guided walk, focused entirely on the French Revolution. ALL OF THIS HISTORY IS BLOWING MY MIND. It Is all so incredibly interesting, so complex, so enlightening, so uplifting, so horrible. Remember that summary I wrote? “The French Revolution in a Really Long Paragraph?” Well the part about the actual uprising is a bit more complicated then I may have made it sound (I believed I summed it up with something like “the people went batshit crazy”). Today’s guided walk focused on this time, visiting several sites of importance while talking about the history. Featured characters today were Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Danton, Jean-Paul Marat, and Camille Desmoulins, and featured topics were the French Enlightenment and the rise of intellectualism, the demystification of the monarchy and the church, the influence of the American War of Independence, the bread riots, and the idealistic and existential philosophy of the young and liberal members of the middle-class. So many causes and effects, so many rises and falls, so much idealism, so much reality, so much change. So. Many. Stories.

By the end of the walk, I felt physically exhausted by all of the things I had learned, and also by the fact that I had probably already walked about fifteen miles since the morning. I had wanted to visit St. Chapelle (stained glass windows, Jesus’ crown of thorns) and the Conciergerie (where Marie Antoinette was detained for the seventy-four days prior to her beheading), but I just didn’t have the mental or physical capacity to continue exploring. And so I instead sleepily walked to the Metro, on my way to Agathe’s (my Couchsurfing host for the next three nights).

I’ll write about my new lodgings and the end of my evening later, but I do want to share one quick story before I pass out. I had seen posters for a classical music concert, to be held tonight at St. Chapelle’s. It sounded great, but I decided to skip it in favor of sleep. But then, when I took the steps down to the Metro on my way to Agathe’s, I came upon a twelve-piece string ensemble playing Vivaldi. And so I leaned against the wall for a bit as commuters raced by, accompanied by a couple of crazy people, closed my eyes, and listened.

Tomorrow: Giverny and the Lapin Agile!

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