Wednesday, November 19, 2008

one too many yoricks

There's nothing quite so romantic as wandering with your boyfriend through the bowels of Paris, beneath the water lines and metro rails, and discovering thousands (literally) of scattered cadavers of long-forgotten Parisians.

After spending a great week sight-seeing and stuffing ourselves full of baguettes and hot chocolates, Patrick and I decided to make a final stop at the acclaimed catacombs of Paris on his last full day. Known as being one of the most macabre places in Paris, I had wanted to visit but was also a bit reluctant to go - especially by myself. It's not really an outing that I felt comfortable proposing to my other visitors - "Hi! Welcome to Paris! Wanna go check out some dead people?"

So after getting incredibly lost because of my innate inability to read a map, we descended 80-some steps into sub-terranean Paris. Apparently, these caves and tunnels make up about 185 miles of dark, damp, turning avenues that put all haunted houses that I've ever visited to shame. Lit only by small installed lights, the whole experience is a little creepy.

Most of these tunnels were used as quarries for limestone in the 18th century, but due to expansion, overcrowding, and risk of disease, many Parisian cemeteries had to exhume their inhabitants and move them out of sight and out of mind to make way for their more lively and contemporary compatriots. So, the bodies were arranged in organized, precise piles that line the corridors.

I don't remember how long it took us to walk through the entire "exhibit," but it was long enough for me to really ruminate on the bleak significance of it all. I'd never seen a real human skull before and now I was completely surrounded by hundreds of years worth of Paris' deceased. It was overwhelming and most of all ... real. As life continues to grow, change, and adapt on the streets above this underground city, these dry bones are a strong reminder that for each of us our time on the surface will too come to an end. All that we've done, all that we have, everything that we think defines who we are now, at this moment, is so easily forgotten when cast against the course of time. Who knows who these people once were - their skulls resting on other people's bones, resting on still more unknown remnants. But they are the Paris of the past and were, in some way or another, the catalysts for the Paris that lives and breathes today.

So if you have a strong stomach and not afraid of the dark, the catacombs are a really worthwhile place to see.

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now?

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