Woke up at 3am because Aish, one of the Canadian girls, was talking in her sleep. Her mumbles continued for some time, then grew into tossing and turning, then thrashing, until at 4am she swung her legs over the bunk, dropped onto the floor, and sleep-sprinted out of the room in her knickers. Her friend Sarah jumped up and grabbed her, then must have remembered not to wake a sleepwalker, and simply followed her out of the dorm. I shrugged and fell back asleep.
I got up this morning, showered using hand soap for shampoo again, which is making my hair even shitter than usual, and got the train to the Catacombs. The queue is huge, but the sun is out, so I’m leaning on a fence drinking the leftovers of last night’s wine. Tried to strike up a conversation with a Smoggie couple behind but they don’t have much to say. There are six American frat boys in front. They’re wearing ironed chinos with white socks, and polo shirts with spotless Nike trainers. I didn’t like them on impulse, but we’ve been conjoined in the queue for 20 minutes now and I’ve realised they’re harmless. Their hearts are in the right place.
Two hours waiting and I finally got into the catacombs. I’d been queuing so long I’d finished my wine, got merry, finished my book, started a new book, sobered up and become hungover before I reached the ticket desk.
The catacombs house six million dead. To enter, you must descend an endless spiral staircase, carving down into the earth to horrifying depths. The thought of all that earth above me, all that weight somehow suspended over my head, made me shudder. The catacombs weren’t built to house the dead. It was originally part of an expansive mine, but was converted into a subterranean necropolis as the city ran out of space for the newly deceased. It took two years to unearth the six million and ferry their bones across the city to be re-interred in the mines. Every night for two years, torch lit processions of grim wagons, tumbling over the midnight Parisian cobbles, piled high with the skulls of the city’s old residents.
It’s a long underground trek to reach the bones, through uneven passageways with low ceilings. Every fifty metres or so there were large flagstones embedded in the wall, with the date of construction etched into them. 1860. 1782. The further I walked, the dates ticked back, the passages increasingly ancient, traipsing back through history.
Eventually, the passage opens into a small room propped up by circular stone pillars. Therein lies the entrance to the ossuary, flanked by black columns, and above the gateway there is carved a warning:
ARRÊTE! C’EST İCİ L’EMPİRE DE LA MORT
STOP! THIS IS THE EMPIRE OF THE DEAD
I was grinning ear to ear. How spectacularly macabre. I ducked inside. Immediately beyond the gate, the walls are no longer formed from stone and brick, they instead consist of row upon row upon row of painstakingly arranged bones, endless ranks of skulls and femurs, stretching away into the darkness. It’s uncanny.
The first bald skull I stopped to gawp at made my own, still-meated head spin. This papery husk before me was once a real person, with their own dreams, phobias, a sense of humour and a favourite sex position. Now they are an oval of bone in a stack. One day I will be too; we all will be. It doesn’t make me sad though. Life is only given meaning by the fact it ends. I know I’ll be a skeleton one day too, and my name will be forgotten, and that’s not a bad thing. It just is.
The human mind is astonishing in its ability to become used to its surroundings. Seen one skull, seen twenty. Seen twenty, seen six million. I endeavoured to maintain the initial awe I felt at the sight of that first skull, but as I wound through the labyrinth of the endless dead, the skulls became as bricks in the walls: I stopped noticing them.
I was scuffing along down the calcium avenues being all morose and thinking about death, when a guided tour overcame me, and I was swept up in its chittering crowd. A Disneyfied tour operator bounded before us, frothing with tales of the dead. He showed us a crowded heap of plague victims, and in one pile marked with a solemn plaque reading 1789 – 1799, he showed us those that fell afoul of the French Revolution. The white toothed tour operator then noticed me, loitering, the unpaying freeloader in his class, and scowled at me until I withered away, hissing into the shadows.
Some time later I emerged from the catacombs up a painful stairwell that near finished me off after two days of constant walking, and the underground almost gained one more corpse. A guard at the end checked my backpack, and I assured him I hadn’t stolen anyone’s bones.
Right now I’m drinking a lonesome beer beneath the Eiffel Tower. It’s gorgeous sunshine. There’s a tiny spider on my leg. I’ve blown it off three times, it’s appeared back again and I’ve decided to leave it to wander. It’s dutifully spinning a web on my knee. Good luck catching flies there, my friend.
The Eiffel Tower is stunning, and I’m truly surprised at how un-disappointing it is. The century-long saturation of media coverage damages its impact not even slightly. I’ve not much interest in describing it – it’s been described a thousand times, and I prefer to write about things that are lesser known, so I can get my grubby mitts all over them and conjure an original image in just the shape I please.
But, if you must know what the Eiffel Tower is like, here:
I’m so alone here. It’s sad, but at the same time I kind of like it. I like the sadness, I like being alone. My self worth is low these days, post You Know Who, and being lonely and drunk is about as much as I feel I deserve. I’d feel guilty if everything worked out wonderfully.
I’m bitter, recently, but I’m happy in my bitterness. I can’t pinpoint when it started. I think it’s just a certain tiredness. I’m jaded with everything, and before you jump in, yes, I know I’m so young. I’ve just done a lot and met so many people in such a short space of time, and after a while it becomes a repetition. You start living the same conversation for the twentieth time. And making the same mistakes.
Note from present Dan: A bit heavy I know; I was blue. We all get low sometimes, I’m just the fool who writes it down and publishes it. I have since cheered up.
So now at the end of it all, I’ve found myself atop the Arc De Triumphe. I’m looking down at the city, all the little black cars and zipping furious mopeds, watching a homeless man push a shopping trolley across a pelican crossing, and ringlets of smoke drifting lazily from clustered chimney tops. The catacombs are in my head. It makes me love Paris even more. All this life above, and the dead below – all the previous citizens that once upon a time rushed around here all hectic, opening their shutters and yelling from stalls, drinking and laughing and fighting on the lamplight cobbles, now resting silent below our feet. One day we’ll all join them, and new happy feet will tread the earth above our skulls, until it’s their turn, too. Again and again, over and over, everyone in such a mad rush.
All around me on this great Arc, people are craning for photos, calibrating the Tower behind them, all smiles. I’m witnessing history being made – these photos will adorn albums and mantelpieces forever, down generations, until all that remains of us are yellowed photographs for great great grandchildren to stroke and smear with greasy young fingers.
Everybody wants to be remembered. Nobody wants to end up like my friend Erasmia Antikidis, or the old bones down below. That’s why we take photographs, that’s why we become clamouring tourists – we are aware of how precious every moment is, we understand it’s all so fleeting, and we do our best to capture it, even though in the end of course everybody knows that what has passed is now, and always will be, past. Time makes fools of us all, and that doesn’t have to be a sad thing. Be brave, and smile, cry if you need to, and look for the next adventure. There is so much joy out there, waiting for you. Can you feel it?
People really aren’t so complicated. Everyone just wants to be loved. I want to be loved too, and I have been before, and I will be again.
Thanks, Paris. You’ve been wonderful.
Drink, Play, Loathe – Day 4, Barcelona