Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Okay The Catacombs. And Amy.

Saturday would have been Amy Krouse Rosenthal's 52nd birthday. I'm really affected by her death, because I liked her writing so much and because she was barely any older than me. I strongly wish to remain alive. I suspect that she did, too.

Meanwhile, two weeks ago, while I was in France, I took a tour of the Catacombs. It was not entirely what I expected. Actually it wasn't at all what I expected. I knew the bare bones of the story: that Paris has vast underground caverns left over from hundreds of years of limestone quarrying--the Left Bank is essentially a honeycomb. (These caverns feature in the plot of a book I like very much.) Also, a long time ago they started storing peoples' bones in some of the caverns.

Now what I really wanted to see was some of the empty caverns. What I did see--what the public is allowed to see--is mostly bones. Human bones. Six or seven million people who once walked the earth.

If you should wish to tour the Catacombs--no one else in my family did--please believe me and sign up in advance for a guided tour. For safety reasons they can only let a certain number of people down into the catacombs at any one time--once they've reached that number, which I imagine happens quickly, they only let people down in them as people exit the other side (you exit a few kilometers away from the entrance). On the day I was there, the line of random tourists stretched around the block--several hundred people, probably a wait time, I was told, of five or six hours. Meanwhile I was part of the 1 pm tour--oops, here's twenty people cutting in line, sorry guys. Only not sorry. Also the guided tours get to see some extra bits.

Paris has been around a very long time, enough so that the cemeteries, even back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, were beyond full. Remains were stacked in layers; they polluted the city water supply. So over the course of nearly a hundred years, Parisians excavated each cemetery (there are now none within the city limits) and piled the bones inside the Catacombs. They did it systematically. Each cemetery has its own section, marked by a plaque. The workmen made walls of human thigh bones, neatly stacked, divided by lines of skulls face-out and even occasional decorations--a heart or cross of bones. Then all the remaining bones--arms, pelvises, fingers, toes--were thrown behind the wall of femurs.

In some places the backfill stretches 50 feet.

You walk and you walk and you walk, and all the time you walk between bones. You start to count, staring at the tips of the femurs--one, two, that's one person; one, two, that's two--but it's not hundreds or thousands, it's millions. They estimate that 3 times the current population of Paris lies beneath it in the Catacombs.

Robespierre is down there. No one knows where. A whole bunch of guillotined revolutionaries are. "We know they're here," our guide said, "but--" Everyone looks alike when they're down to their bones.

It's sobering because it's all of us. "Nothing more is promised," Lin-Manual said in his Tony acceptance speech sonnet. "Not one day."

I visited my sister's family in Charlotte this weekend. In celebration of Amy Krouse Rosenthal's birthday, and shimmering, too-brief life, I took my small nephews to the local bookstore and bought all of Amy's books I could lay my hands on. One for me (Textbook) and three for them. I cuddled the boys in my sister's big chair and I read them Uni The Unicorn, and Exclamation Mark, and That's Me Loving You.

And now I'm sitting down to my new novel. It's a consolation we writers have--if we are very lucky, our words live longer than we do.