"The man who is traveling and does not yet know the city awaiting him along his route wonders what the palace will be like, the barracks, the mill, the theater, the bazaar. In every city of the empire every building is different and set in a different order: but as soon as the stranger arrives in the unknown city and his eye penetrates the pine cone of pagodas and garrets and haymows, following the scrawl of canals, gardens, rubbish heaps, he immediately distinguishes which are the princes' palaces, the high priests' temples, the tavern, the prison, the slum. This, some say, confirms the hypothesis that each man bears in his mind a city made only of differences, a city without figures and without form, and the individual cities fill it up." — Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
I liked Paris (the city) a lot during our long walk to and over and around the Seine River, but Matt and Paris (the bunkmate) seemed to love it, and for a moment I worried I had become too desensitized to the great wonders of Europe; had I seen too much to even appreciate Paris? They remarked at how romantic and grand it all was, its ornamental stone bridges and its riverside walkways, its ornate buildings and Corinthian columns, its gold statues and big beautiful boulevards, its gorgeous gardens and lengthy lawns, and I agreed, it was all so spectacular, but it was also so .... familiar ....
It occurred to me in an illuminating instant that Paris felt like home. Not that it felt like a place I could live, but that it felt like a place I did live: the District of Columbia.
Washington, DC may be the last vast European city, which is a statement I'd scoff at in younger days but now stand staunchly ready to defend. The District was dreamed up not by Americans, but Europeans, subjects of the English crown, statesmen with their worldly travels and their enlightened ideals, their holidays in France and their dying dreams of bringing that Old World charm to America. And they brought that in the form of a Frenchman himself, Pierre L'Enfant, who they shipped stateside to design them a second Paris, a little slice of Europe on the East Coast, to plan and pitch a Paris on the Potomac before those statesmen died and their dreams with them. And their descendants who headed west in search of gold and wealth, they carried with them no memories of Europe, just want and a little cruelty, who knew none and had none of that Old World charm. They headed west and they forgot the great cities; they instead pillaged the earth and built from its remains crude constructions, cities of concrete crafted for industry and progress, never people and pleasantry.
Sure, Washington wasn't Paris, the whole place maybe a touch less grand, less worldly. But it was all there: the beautiful bridges that connected the District to its Virginian neighbors, the idyllic waterfront with its winding trails, the angels announcing your arrival and the lions leering as you leave, the Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial just whitewashed replicas of Paris's own palaces.
Walking around Paris that night, I saw the Supreme Court and the Botanic Gardens, the National Mall and Union Station and the many circles, Dupont and Logan and Thomas with but minor variations, I saw the slanted boulevards cutting clean across the tight grid, and though these places went by different names here, though they served entirely different functions, they felt the same, they were the same, and for this, it felt like home.
And it made me appreciate DC all the more. I'd taken my home for granted, I realized, gotten too used to the grandeur. For every Eiffel Tower there was a Washington Monument, for every Notre Dame Cathedral a Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, for every Sacre-Cour a Franciscan Monastery and for every Place des Vosges a Crispus Attucks, and for every overlooked Parisian prize a Masonic Temple, or a Meridian Hill, or otherwise the castles of Catholic University or the catacombs of McMillan, just fifty steps from my front door. DC had alleyways that bested Paris's remaining few, and parkways, too; it had architecture that could astound and art that could awe, mighty museums and magnificent monuments that I'd forgotten were so rare in the world, so markedly missing from Matt's San Diego or Paris's Wisconsin.
Realizing that DC and Paris were something of sister cities, maybe mother and daughter, didn't mean I couldn't still enjoy the latter, for similar as she was, she still had her own wonders to discover. But first, food. We were all hungry, so we found a nice bistro in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower—the Eiffel Tower!—and scanned the menu posted out on the terrace's tall easel.
"I think this should work," I said to Matt and Paris, confirming that the meat-heavy menu had at least a few vegan offerings.
"Ah, it's great to hear some English," came a voice from behind the easel.
I poked my head around it and found a girl sitting out on the patio by herself, glass of wine in hand, swirling it in shallow circles as she looked up and smiled. "Where are you from?" I asked.
She was from Jacksonville, Florida, in Paris for four days, accompanying a family she nannied for—aren't you an au pair while in France?, I lamely joked—and was relaxing in the Parisian dusk while the father and mother and daughter spent a little family time out on the town. We all introduced ourselves and asked if she wanted to join us for dinner.
"Sounds great," she said, and minutes later I was squeezed into a cozy booth with Lauren, Matt, and Paris in Paris, and I marveled at the making of it all; just twenty-four hours earlier, I knew none of these people—my very being battered and bruised in Bruges, Belgium—and yet here I was, one dusk later, in a new city and a new country with new friends, and I felt grateful for the great company and good fortune. The good food, too, and the good weather: though a little brisk, the four of us later headed out to the Eiffel, faithfully following its bright light through the night, coming upon it with a collective "woah," necks craned to take it all in.
I didn't expect much from the Eiffel Tower. I feared I'd been deadened by its imagery over a long quarter-century. How wrong I was: seeing the icon in the flesh—in iron—it felt surreal and magical, impossibly large and oddly inevitable, like the thousands of photographs one sees over a lifetime outside of Paris have always alluded to that very moment, of being there and seeing it for oneself—here I am, and I've been waiting for you.
Is there any more iconic edifice in the wide world? I think not; if so, I know not. We stood there, similarly struck, as the tower began to sparkle, its lights turning to a twinkle a little before twelve, and then we continued on, four fleeting friends tapping short steps along the cobblestone—midnight in Paris.
We walked Lauren back to her hotel and said our goodbyes that night, a goodbye for her and another for (bunkmate) Paris, and then we slept and woke again and Matt and I made plans to meet up at another hostel later that night. In the meantime, I had writing to do and he had sights to see, so we parted ways.
My morning walk took me past the Louvre with its great glass pyramid. All around it, tourists climbed atop these small stone squares, where they'd raise one arm and pinch their hand like a little lobster claw, pointed downwards, while they smiled and commanded their companions to "make sure to take the photo from a good angle!"—this all, apparently, was a thing; there were patient lines of people, in lines, to climb sixteen inches up onto a platform and get themselves photographed while, well, holding the pyramid in some clever foreground-background mindtrick, maybe?
People are so silly sometimes.
Others weren't comfortable being so silly, so instead they'd climb the perch and stand grimly, arms crossed, flat lips and dim eyes: their most photogenic face, or the one that best communicates "I don't care"? There were a lot of these photographs of feigned in difference in Paris—everywhere in Europe, everywhere in the world, but definitely in Paris—men (always men) who most certainly did care about how much they looked like they didn't care, men who thought it manly to stand underneath the Eiffel Tower and not show excitement, to lean up against a statue and shrug. Of course, it's perfectly fine to genuinely not care about these things, but I found myself puzzled at the "hey bro, I need you to take a photo of me like this in front of this thing" line of reasoning.
I wandered through the gorgeous Luxembourg Gardens and eventually found a place to sit and write, where I began to write and didn't stop writing until my arms ached and my wrists whined. It was afternoon, and so I passed the afternoon doing all the things you'd expect one to do in Paris, the typical sights and then some. I toured a Parisian sewer and I strolled along an old railway-turned-park, and I rented a bike—or rather a whole network of bikes through Paris's bikeshare system—and pedaled around Paris with pleasure until the sun set.
I met Matt back at the hostel and we got a round at the pub downstairs. Hanging by the bar as we sipped our beers, we were joined a little later by one of the bartenders, pulling off her work-issue tanktop and flipping it inside-out at eleven to signify, I suppose, that she was off-duty.
Her name may have been Svetlana; I don't remember this but that's what Matt called her. She was from Estonia and had come to Paris four years earlier, and she was friendly and pretty and outgoing ... but also awful. I didn't realize this at first, but as we talked travel and Matt shared his next stops, Barcelona but also Greece, Svetlana asked precisely where, and for how long, and he said Athens for a day and Mykonos for three.
"Ahh, terrible!" she shouted in disgust, literally spitting with passion. "Terrible plan!"
"Why is it so terrible?" he asked.
"Mykonos is awful! And Athens only for a day? Athens has so much history, and Mykonos, bleh! It's just a shitty beach town."
To be fair, Mykonos was just a beach town, but that's just what Matt wanted: a beach town to spend a few days partying and relaxing. And though Athens undoubtedly had history to spare, neither Matt nor I had ever heard much praise for it.
Matt defended his choices, and I watched in horror as Svetlana continued to insult his itinerary, either not realizing or not caring, more likely not caring, that it was his actual itinerary, that he had his flights booked and his rooms reserved and that what he needed at this point wasn't aid in making a destination decision, but support in what he had chosen, or just silence.
There was a moment when it sounded like she realized how rude she was being—"I'm sorry, I'm being very critical, aren't I?"—but just a moment: " ... it's just that you're going to have a really awful time."
She wouldn't relent, becoming doubly, triply, infinitely more offensive as she shared what she didn't like about Mykonos: the clubs and the music but also the gays, that she didn't "have a problem" with gays but found them "too girly" in Greece, and somewhere around this point I decided it was time to turn in. "Well, I'm off to bed," I said abruptly, maybe mid-sentence, I didn't really care.
"Noooo," she wailed, "stay, stay! Get another drink." I pulled away, unwilling to even go through the pleasantry of entertaining the thought, and winked a sympathetic, apologetic goodnight to Matt at Svetlana's other end.
I kept as busy the next day as I had the day before, busier even, biking around the boulevards and checking more off my lengthy list of things-to-do-and-see-in-Paris. The city's businesses had all but shut down the day before, groceries and cafes and restaurants and shops all shuttered on Sundays, so it was a different Paris that Monday morning, teeming with life, and tourists, too, and for the better part of the day, I was one of them.
I picnicked under the Eiffel (ate the second pot brownie, totally forgot until later that night when I realized all I'd gotten from it was empty calories) and wrote lengthy lists of things-to-do-and-change-once-back-in-DC; I explored Paris's outer edges and drank in its familiarity. I headed to the Montamarrse hilltops at sunset for panoramic views of the majestic city, and I coordinated with Matt to meet at the Eiffel Tower, once more, before midnight.
We stayed at different hostels that last night, empty beds still proving hard to come by, and aimed to meet where we'd stopped that first night, north of the Tower, at 10:30 sharp. I left Montamarrse at ten by bicycle, and it felt wonderful to navigate Paris's empty streets in such a familiar fashion. Once again, I felt I knew this city: I knew its roads and its traffic patterns because they were my own, I recognized its monuments and my monuments as I neared the water, I closed my eyes and savored the soothing sensation of wind on my arms, smiled at the scraping sound of rusty chain on grimy gear, of pedals click-clacking in the night, sounds I'd come to miss on my pedestrian journey through Europe.
It felt good to bike, to know where I was going, but also to be meeting a friend, however new. It all felt so normal; I'd done this a thousand times before. I was home, heading to the same old monuments but just taking a different route—why, I haven't taken this street before, but I trust it'll spit me out on Independence or Constitution, and I know the way from there.
I did know the way—it wasn't hard to find the Eiffel Tower shimmering in the night—but couldn't locate Matt when I got there, the underbelly of the Eiffel all crowded and dark. I waited a while and wandered in vain, but Matt's phone didn't work abroad and the chances of catching him ebbed with the minutes, and around eleven I called it quits and did what we'd come to do together, anyway: head up that great old tower.
I took a lift to the top, crammed into a tight elevator with a dozen others, and we raced to the apex, admiring the impressive iron latticework as we went. The iron all glowed honey in the incandescent lighting, and we seemed to just keep climbing, impossibly high, and just as I became tempted to utter the awful "are we there yet?" the doors hissed open and the passengers poured out onto the narrow landing.
It was cold up there, windy and positively frigid, but the views were astonishing and the sheer myth of it all no less magical: I'm on top of the Eiffel Tower! I squeezed in next to a thousand cameras and the fleshy tripods that held them to catch a glimpse of the city below, stood for minutes watching tiny cars trace arcs around the city's rotaries and wind up its wide streets into hazy darkness, and then, frozen and tired, I waited patiently in the long line to descend, perched atop the Eiffel as the clock struck yet another, my last, midnight in Paris.
Paris was expensive, and as the train strike dragged on, I was eager to ensure my escape. So early the next morning, I walked to the train station to reserve a seat eastbound, out to Strausburg, a border town on the edge of France where a friend had a friend I'd arranged to meet up with. Seat reserved for early afternoon and wallet thirty euros lighter, I headed downtown for one more order of business in the great city of Paris: before leaving, I had a mass grave to see.
The Catacombs of Paris are world-famous, a legendary tunnel of bones stretching for kilometers. They're macabre, to be sure, yet I found myself oddly drawn to them; I couldn't imagine leaving Paris without taking a tour. Ordinarily I avoid lines at all costs, but I hurried over and waited patiently like the rest, arriving a little past nine and queuing up behind the hundreds who had arrived even earlier than I. Others followed in my wake, hundreds and eventually thousands, and the line began to crawl once the doors opened at ten, so slowly that it made sense to sit, until finally I was at the doors a bit beyond eleven.
The line moves so slowly because the good folks at Les Catacoumbs only admit two hundred souls at a time to join the millions stacked along the tunnel's walls, because it would be dangerous and unpleasant and damaging to pack in many more. And though the wait was long, I was glad for the extra space once I arrived, happily surprised at just how quiet and calm it was down below, A steep, spiraling staircase brought me and a few others to an underground lobby, where we ambled about the wall reading the history of the catacombs in which we stood. I'd learned a little about Paris's underground during my time in the Parisian sewers the day before—it really is a fascinating underground—yet one network was entirely independent from the other, two twisted threads of yarn knotted and frayed and hidden quietly underneath the beautiful, sparkling city.
I followed this thread, learned how it wasn't always hidden, how the tunnels around me were carved about my quarrymen mining for minerals along Paris's once smaller perimeter, about how these tunnels grew too wide and too long and the city above them too large and too heavy, about how they began to cave, great sinkholes in the earth. And then there were the cemeteries, a different problem altogether, overflowing and spreading pestilence to their neighbors, heavy graves literally sliding through the earth and breaking into unsuspecting cellars. These problems needed a remedy, and so their remedy was each other: the graves were evacuated and their remains stacked neatly to bolster the treacherous tunnels, and thus the Catacombs were born.
Tunnels of stone led me to tunnels of bone, a lone skull announcing my arrival in hollowed, hallowed ground. It was every bit as grim and macabre as I'd expected, but it was something else too: respectful, sacred. The Catacombs I'd learned of in school were constructed with quick, shoddy work, gravediggers dumping the deceased in giant piles to be forgotten. They were making a landfill, not a burial ground. Yet the bodies I saw were all so carefully placed, rows and rows of limbs stacked like rough lumber on the floor, climbing high and interrupted by a single row of solemn skulls, and then more limbs and more skulls, a pattern that ran the whole great length of the tunnels. And there were fountains down there, and not just fountains but statues and plaques and memorials and ornate archways.
In one gallery stood a baroque replica of an imposing building. It was a prison, I learned. It was carved carefully and artfully into the stone, and it was built by a former inmate of that former prison. Having spent years trapped inside it, he found himself, later in life, once more encased in a rocky cellar, a place with neither sun nor birds, and here, for reasons unknown, he carved his old home. And when he finished, he was proud, and for good reason. And he wanted to show his work to others, to exhibit his prison of life within a prison of death, and so he once more picked up his carving tools and began chipping away at the stone again, this time building a staircase to heaven, or at least a relative heaven: the surface of Paris, with its light and its life. But he flew too close to the sun, missing it as dearly as he did, and in his haste it all collapsed, and he was bludgeoned and buried by boulders of his own making, and there he joined his fellow inmates of the Catacombs all serving their eternal sentences, just one more bundle of bones amongst the millions.
It was all sobering, not just in its quiet and darkness but in the way it forces you to confront mortality, quite literally, in face-to-face fashion. You walk through the holy halls and you feel wholly spooked, and you turn and you stare a dusty skull in its empty eyes, just blackened sockets where living, dilating eyes use to reside, and you stare at this thing which is now nothing more than just a thing but used to be a who, a he or a she with a story of her own, a life that was lived and later lost. And you realize that you, too, will one day be this, that after all your trials and triumphs, you will inescapably, inevitably, be reduced to nothing more than a blank skull and little pile of bones, or otherwise the smoky stuff of ash, that death comes to all and all includes you.
Zadie Smith puts it beautifully: "Imagine being a corpse. Not the experience of being a corpse—clearly being a corpse is the end of all experience. I mean: imagine this represents an absolute certainty about you, namely, that you will one day be a corpse ... oh, I can easily imagine carrying a corpse! See myself hulking it some distance, down a highway or through a wasteland, before unloading it, surprised at its ever-increasing stiffness, at the way it remains frozen in an L-shape, as if sitting up to attention. Imagining that reality—in which everybody (except me) becomes a corpse—presents no difficulties whatsoever. Like most people in New York City, I daily expect to find myself walking the West Side Highway with nothing but a shopping cart stacked with bottled water, a flashlight, and a dead loved one on my back, seeking a suitable site for burial. The postapocalyptic scenario—the future in which everyone's a corpse (except you)—must be, at this point, one of the most thoroughly imagined fictions of the age ... By contrast, the future in which I am dead is not a future at all. It has no reality. If it did—if I truly believed that being a corpse was not only a possible future but my only guaranteed future—I'd do all kinds of things differently. I'd get rid of my iPhone, for starters. Lead a different sort of life."
And beautifully still: "What is a corpse? It's what they piled up by the hundreds when the Rana Plaza collapsed in Bangladesh. It's what lands on the ground each time a human being jumps off the Foxconn building in China's high-tech iPhone manufacturing complex. They spring flower-like in budded clusters whenever a bomb goes off in the marketplaces of Iraq and Afghanistan. A corpse is what individual angry, armed Americans sometimes make of each other for strangely underwhelming reasons: because they got fired, or a girl didn't love them back, or nobody at their school understands them. Sometimes—horrifyingly—it's what happens to one of 'our own,' and usually cancer has done it, or a car, at which moment we rightly commit ourselves to shunning the very concept of the 'corpse,' choosing instead to celebrate and insist upon the reality of a once-living person who, though 'dearly departed,' is never reduced to matter alone."
Near the end of the Catacombs, or rather the end of its accessible arm, for there are millions more interned deeper still, I spotted a few skulls with mandibles intact, a few rotting teeth still grinning ghoulishly. It's strange staring at any skull, stranger still when you've grown used to skulls without jaws—maybe they look less like us?—that these final faces were jarring. Not only did they have eyeholes through which they once saw, but they had mouths through which they once spoke. Those very teeth were once seen by the world in a way the skulls all around never were ... those very teeth once chewed food and chattered in the cold. I left the Catacombs with these faces in my memory, with abstract, aimless thoughts of life and death and bodies and corpses echoing through my mind as sharply as my footsteps echoed through those cavernous tunnels.
"It's argued that the gap between this local care and distant indifference is natural instinct," Zadie Smith concludes of corpses near and far. "Natural or not, the indifference grows, until we approach a point at which the conceptual gap between the local and the distant corpse is almost as large as the one that exists between the living and the dead ... When an Anglo-American child looks at the world she sees many strange divisions. Oddest of all is the unequal distribution of corpses. We seem to come from a land where people, generally speaking, live. But those other people (often brown, often poor) come from a death-dealing place. What a misfortune to have been born in such a place! Why did they choose it? Not an unusual thought for a child. What's bizarre is how many of us harbor something similar, deep inside our naked selves."
I arrived at the train station, among the living, in the early afternoon. My train to Strausburg wasn't listed on the departure docket, that great flapping flipboard spitting out Frankfurt and Barcelona and Amsterdam but not where my train ticket promised to take me, not where I'd paid thirty euros and an interrail pass to go, to leave for that afternoon. The train strike had struck.
I headed to the ticket windows, which were already bustling with dozens of travelers scrambling to find new routes to their destinations, and I stood patiently at the back of the line, annoyed but understanding. The line moved slowly, and it grew quickly, and a fidgety man behind me brushed against my back. I stepped forward.
A moment later, another bump. I turned halfway and saw him all shouldered against me, and he smiled, and I stepped forward once more to give him a little room. Yet the second I moved, he shuffled forward to claim his gained ground, once more staking out the space mere inches from the back of my head! I waited, doing my best to ignore the hot air on my neck, waited still as the woman in front of me moved up another foot. I thought that maybe a better buffer between me and her would set the right expectations for him, that if I left a little room in front of me, maybe he'd leave a little room in front of him.
It was a silly notion, of course, for I had already left ample room in front of me. The moment I moved once more, he rode my back forward, and I snapped my neck back with a glare. It didn't seem to do much; instead he seemed to think that was my signal that I was moving too slowly and it was okay for him to pass me, and so he subtly sidled up next to me and perhaps try to circumnavigate my person with tiny little steps, I can't really be sure, for after thirty seconds of watching him work at this, watching him slide next to me as though he were being carried by ants, I stretched my arm out along a nearby railing for a good lean, in the process halting his forward progress.
We went back and forth along that structured line, railings shepherding us left and right and left again, and with every step he pushed up against me, as though if he bumped into me enough I would simply disappear, or maybe that if he and I worked together to eliminate every last bit of breathing room in between us and the ticket window the line would somehow move more quickly, as though maybe the reason it was all taking so long was because people were gumming up the works with that one extra step to the window. I don't know what he was thinking, though he did his best to try to tell me, commiserating in French with a tone that said "any day now, right?", that boring banter impatient individuals employ to pass the time.
Finally, after the hundredth bump against my shoulder, I wheeled around and said, calmly but firmly, "patience." It seemed like a good bet—I knew it approximated the French word for "wait"—but it didn't seem to register, so I drew a little invisible circle outside of me and said "space," and pointed to a spot on the floor outside of that circle and then back at him, and then again: "patience."
I felt like a terribly obnoxious American, but the understanding smiles of those around me suggested they had seen it too, all the fidgeting, and the next time I moved forward, I thrust a flat hand out behind me in a great universal halt to the man behind me, an unequivocal "though shalt not pass," and he obeyed. The queue crawled forward in ordered silence.
I reached the counter some time later and did my best to communicate my predicament, and the friendly operator did her best to communicate the difficulty I'd have in getting to Strausburg soon with any certainty. Everything was tentative and expensive, in any direction, really, and we eventually struck the plan altogether, and I asked her to simply get me out of France that evening; I didn't care where, anything east would do.
She found me something: a connection in Dijon and a late arrival in Bern, and I hurriedly accepted before someone else scooped up the seat. And then I fled from France.