I am aware that my version of Paris is not what everyone experiences when they come to France. I like the pretty things, the old streets, the lovely cafés, the beautiful museums and moments. I don’t really care for the flashy party side of Paris, nor do I feel particularly enticed by the high fashion side of the city (beyond my love of shopping). I am constantly discovering entire new sides of the city, whole communities that I never knew existed.
Sometimes seeing these parts of Paris involves getting off the beaten path, I mean WAY off. There are miles of catacombs that form a labyrinth under much of southern Paris. A small portion is open to the public, where you see the artistically displayed bones of the deceased that overflowed the cemeteries of Paris during its various plagues. But the vast majority of these are forbidden to the public. But of course in France, nothing tastes sweeter than the forbidden fruit. Sometimes I wonder if the government forbids things merely to sweeten the daily life of her citizens. The police do little about many of these minor infractions. Entering the off limits catacombs falls under this category. Thus when one of my friends obtained a map from a man online who facilitates illegal adventures into the ancient underbelly of Paris, I attempted to proceed discretely in obtaining a headlamp from the father of the family that I work for. I told him I was going on an expedition, and without missing a beat, he assured me that he loved touring the catacombs and used to go regularly. Just another law abiding Parisian.
I was told to wear clothes I could get really dirty and a headlamp. The plan was to hike around underground for a while, then have a picnic. First, we had to get to the entrance. This involved jumping a fence and walking down abandoned railroad tracks before descending down a hole in a pile of trash under an overpass. For the first couple minutes I am doubled over before emerging into a narrow pitch-black passage where we start walking. Periodically we would find ourselves wading through water that reached mid thigh, then we would be military style crawling on our stomachs through a particularly narrow passage. And why? Because the catacombs are like nothing I have ever seen before. Graffiti, but of the very interesting sort, covers walls of some chambers leaving huge murals in brilliant colors. At one point we come across a castle carved out of a corner of the wall. The passages have street signs just like the ones above ground and periodically you come across painted signs mimicking the ones all over Paris saying, “J’aime les catas, je ramasse” (“I love the catacombs, I clean up my trash”). We picnicked by candlelight at a table that was constructed who knows when out of big stones and chunks of wood. I never really knew where we were, but the guys, with the aid of map and compass, directed us through the maze of black corridors.
Yet the most interesting part of the catacombs was the people who inhabit them. They arrive late in the evening and many pass all night there, in a sort of odd camaraderie. We passed those who seemed intent on doing inner city spelunking, complete with all the accessories. Then there were those who just come to relax with friends. At one point we came around a corner and found the carved castle I mentioned. It was ablaze with light from the candles lit all around it and a group had gathered who had the appearance of being regulars. When we would pass people in the passages there would always be a sort of instant politeness and friendliness that does not exist above ground. Yes, I suppose many of the people we bumped into were partially enjoying obscure nature of the catacombs for less wholesome consumptions, but I don’t think that has to negate the friendliness of all of them.
Everything is different below ground and it is another world, as impossible to imagine when you are out of it as the Paris I know is to imagine when inside. As one man told us Friday night as he was attempting to lead us off course and stay all night with their merry group, “In the catas, up is down and down is up. Nothing is the same.” This was said in an attempt to debunk the indications of Timothée’s compass, but I find it a very fitting phrase to encapsulate the atmosphere on the whole.