Notes from the Paris Underground

The thing about the forbidden parts of the catacombs is that they are not catacombs at all. Anyone who has been to the legally-accessible-for-a-price passage near Denfert-Rochereau is familiar with the long, narrow hallways that take you to the “Empire of the Dead,” as well as the many tempting, gated sections that branch off from them.

Next time you go, though, pay particular attention to them. Those hallways are far more interesting than the bone art to which they lead, simply because of their hidden expansiveness. When you speak of the catacombs, you are really speaking of a seemingly endless network of old quarry tunnels.

A friend of a friend brought me and a few others to a hole in the ground along an old rail track somewhere near the Porte d’Orléans. This man – we’ll call him Jean – has been visiting the (let’s just say) less accessible parts of the Paris underground for going on eight years. As we trudged through waterlogged hallways for about twenty minutes, he took as much pride in his navigational skills as any paid tour guide.

And I suppose he was justified. Despite having Jean as a guide, this trip to the tunnels felt much more exploratory, simply because there was no yellow tape. Simply walking past long dark corridors had the thrill of avoiding a cold and clay-covered death, by virtue of the fact that I could have gone down them. I imagined that Jean, in his many forays beneath the streets, had seen it all, which was exciting.

After walking a while, we ended up at a table in from of a sculpted stone castle – the sister of the one you see in the tourist catacombs. This one, however, is crumbling, and on this particular night was decorated with little plastic chevaliers along its ramparts. We sat on the stone benches encircling the table.

There was something perfectly uncivilized about it, at least until we lit candles and placed them in the tiny iron chandelier that hung from the plafond. And then brought out the wine, beer, cheese, saucisson, and cigarettes. And then began discussing the movies we’d seen recently, and how they were mostly shitty.

And like that, it was like we were in someone’s apartment, warm and dry above ground. It was as if, so far underground, time and place ceased to matter. The only cultural context I had was my very French company and the very French snacks they had with them.

After the bottle of wine was finished, we moved on through the other parts of the catacombs. As we progressed, we began to encounter rooms and passages that were more reminiscent of early twentieth-century cement bunkers than the 19th-century hallways that brought us to them. These larger rooms were covered with graffiti that was often themed by room (i.e. la plage, or the impressive murals in the cinema room).

We were alone, though it was clear that the space was well-frequented. It was unsettling, in a way, kind of like visiting ruins. I mean, I suppose they were ruins. Ruins in which phantom taggers linger to spray paint murals of Spongebob Squarepants, as if thumbing their noses at the French resistance that once called the tunnels home. They could beat the Nazis but Nickelodeon was still able to sneak in through time’s back door.

Eventually, we settled again in a room that Jean said was “the end – for people without a guide.” We brought out the snacks and alcohol again and picked up where our last conversation had left off.

Though I enjoyed the fun of ignoring (not really breaking) the law, and of getting my feet wet and hands dirty, I realized that – at last – I was kind of tired of Paris.

The catacombs are a big reference point for people who have never been to Paris, and are certainly a big part of the city’s physical and historical infrastructure. That we could be so blasé about slicing up saucisson in a room half an hour below a world capital seemed revelatory. If I could float about comme d’habitude in such an eccentric location, what difference did it make where I was? And, more importantly, what is the significance of Paris in my life besides providing a context for and subject of endless drunken musings with friends both French and American?

We, as Americans, like to pretend that living in Paris brings us in closer proximity to the past, and thus provides us with a somehow more intimate understanding of it.

And yet the thing about the forbidden parts of the catacombs is that they are not catacombs at all. They are waterlogged hallways. They are cement walls. They are little plastic chevaliers. When you put yourself in the vacuum of the Paris underground, you begin to understand more clearly than ever that all the city’s history has been spray-painted over. But you also realize that what’s beneath the graffiti pales in comparison to the conversation that fills your ears, to the wine that softens your tongue, and to the cold quarry water that slushes in your boots.

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