When I was in Paris in the fall we went to the Catacombs. I don't know what I was expecting. If I'd read anything about it beforehand besides where the entrance was and that it was a collection of bones (understatement of the century) perhaps I'd have been more prepared.
You enter at one part of the city unaware and bubbly and emerge blinking and stunned at another.
As we waited in line to buy our tickets I started to get nervous. I think it was mostly down to the signs posted that suggested young children and those with a weak heart or 'sensitive or nervous nature' should reconsider. I asked myself, 'am I of a nervous nature?', 'am I a child?', 'am I scared of being way down underground Paris in a tunnel of bones?'
It turns out that the answers to the above questions are all yes.
The signs tell you there are 130 steps down into the depths and 83 steps to come back up. They also tell you it is a cool 14 degrees Celsius and that there are no toilets. Please consider: deep down under Paris, cemeteries' worth of bones, dark and creepy, a bit cold and nowhere to pee. Of course there's no toilets...that would be weird, disrespectful somehow, but isn't it a strange curse of human nature that the moment someone tells you that you'll be freaked out and may want to pee your pants that you immediately need to go real bad. We all three did. And we all three held it, giggling nervously.
As we descended, following the winding, dark corridors it became eerily silent. It felt like the scene in Eclipse when all the unsuspecting tourists served themselves up for vampire dinner. We joked that if we saw Dakota Fanning we'd be out of there. There were also a couple of Chilean miner references as we tried to imagine them jogging up and down their subterranean prison.
The reality of it was more sobering. It took forever to wind our way down; first navigating slippery stone floors with little light and low tunneled stone ceilings dripping water, then taking the steep 103 stairs further down. As we finally entered the catacombs proper the urge to pee, cry, shiver was overwhelming. No more jokes came to mind as I looked at row upon row of what was left of thousands of people. Femur bones artfully stacked with knee joints forming designs, skulls of all sizes placed periodically, vacant eye sockets and cartilage-free noses looking down through time; strangely similar and familiar. It made me feel sad and small and painfully miniscule and human; transient.
We passed row upon row of bones, encroaching and towering over the pathway they formed for we tourists to gawk and sigh and gasp at the truth of the matter. Tears stung my eyes and found their way down my cheeks as I thought of all the lives lived, love and hardship, disease amid joy, hunger, belief, hope and the myriad elements of the human condition reduced to the bones surrounding us.
No one talked. We just kept walking through the bones, translating quotes from the Bible, philosophers, Shakespeare on the demise of we humans, on the gift of life, the beauty of our days here among the living, the inevitable truth of time passing and leading us here.
I suppose this is not the most uplifting topic for the new year. But it is true. And it makes me think about how to live this one life I've been given. Is there an original thought out there? Is there an feeling no one has ever felt; a dream longed for by no one else but you or me? The answer is no. Make your life what you can. Make it the best. Live it to the fullest. That's what I took from being hit by the realization of all those bones.
When we came out on the other end the path spit us out across the street and into the waiting arms of a shop. The nice French guy with a slight Australian accent to his English had done the smartest thing you can ever imagine. He had a sign in the window offering the use of his toilet for a euro. Either that or you could buy glow-in-the-dark skeletons, creepy bone masks, catacomb t-shirts, macabre books and deathly trinkets and go to the bathroom for free. My friend bought me a little button that says, 'I survived the catacombs.' And I did. And now the rest is out there. Worthy of more than mere survival.