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While walking around Paris for the last month, I’ve became fascinated by the highly fossiliferous limestone that comprises so many of its iconic structures. At one point I thought, Hmm… The City of Light is built with materials of death. I had no idea how much farther that thought would take me.

Without abundant death we wouldn’t have asphalt, concrete, marble, travertine, chert, oil, gas, coal, asphalt, limestone, dolomite, and countless other requirements of civilization. So, given the unusual abundance of limestone in use here, I wondered where it came from. Naturally, from my 21st-century perspective, I assumed that all of it had been quarried in some other place: hills outside of town, perhaps. Lutetian limestone, it’s called, and it’s a relatively new rock: only a few dozen million years old. Younger than dinosaurs. It’s also known as “Paris stone”, and has become quite the fashion item lately.) What I hadn’t figured was that nearly all of this building stone, for many centuries, was extracted from beneath Paris itself: a sum large enough to build a Great Pyramid.

I didn’t learn any of that until we visited the Catacombes a couple days ago.

The Catacombes are bone banks called ossuaries. They occupy abandoned quarries beneath Paris and contain the remains of more than six million people. Many of the deceased were likely the same men (and women? probably) who carved out the quarries, mostly in the first several centuries of the last millennium. It must have been quite a project since these withdrew enough rock to assemble Notre Dame, thousands of other churches large and small, bridges, city walls, and homes—and left beneath the streets of Paris more than 300 kilometers (100 miles) of tunnels, including rooms and vaults that together comprise a vast man-made cave system. Top to bottom, a vertical cross-section of Paris looks like this:

  • Surface — streets, buildings, parks
  • Metro tunnels
  • Sewers
  • Quarries

Fossils are bones of stone, I explained to my kid. And limestones are stones of bone. Here in the Catacombes, down hallways that go on and on and on and on, the bones of dead Parisians are stacked into walls, with an artistry that makes one wonder what was going on in the heads of the masons. The walls facing the visitors are built mostly with femurs and skulls. The femurs are stacked and interlocked, with the knee knuckles outward, course after course forming a pattern like stitches in cloth. These are interrupted by horizontal lines of skulls, and usually topped with a final row: a crowning course of human heads. No concrete, grout, or other adhesive material anywhere. Here and there some arm bones might be used, but femurs and skulls were clearly the preferred structural material. Behind these walls behind lie loosely the rest of the bones: remains of remains.

The masons were priests. The bones were gathered from the city’s cemeteries, which had become rotten with an abundance of corpses as the end of the 18th century approached. That’s when it was decided to move the bones down into deeper graves. The quarries were empty, so the bones came down. The whole project went in stages, running from the late 1700s to the middle 1800s. The priests, whose jobs already required exceptional respect for the dead, were conscripted for the work.

The pictures in my collection (e.g. the one above) aren’t the best I’ve taken. Most of the light was provided by dim illumination in the catacombes itself, or by cell phones. If you wish to know more (and I recommend it), here is a pile of fascinating links:

Since one walks through the tunnels in the company of guides and other people, it is less creepy than you might think. After a while, endless aisles of bones also tend to make the bones themselves ordinary. Yet one wonders: Is this skull Robespierre’s? Danton’s? Both lost their heads to the guillotine, but down here all heads are equally ordinary and anonymous, fully respected, but still just building material.

A lesson: different as we are in life, we are remarkably identical in death. Skulls tend to all look the same. So do other bones. One can say, These were babies once. Then laughing children. They grew up, learned about life, and lived long enough to produce more babies and get work done. And what they’ve left is no different than what everybody else leaves.

What makes us animals is that we eat other living things. (We need their carbon.) We live on things that lived. And we build with them too. Death supplies us. In turn, we supply as well.

What makes us different is who we are, and what we do when we’re alive. Life is for the living. And so, it turns out, is death.

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paris in the rain I don’t think I’ve ever loved Paris in the rain more than I do right now. It’s 6:40am, and I’ve been up since 5am, when I got tired of failing to sleep on sweat-soaked sheets. Last night was one more to endure in the heat wave that has been with us for nearly the whole month we’ve been here.

There’s no AC in our little apartment, as there isn’t in the Paris Metro, the RER (the other main underground train), most apartments, and most restaurants. One of our favorite restaurants has only been making salads and other cold food arrangements, because the heat in the kitchen is unbearable for the staff.

But about 20 minutes ago a thunderstorm rolled through. Bright blue flashes blink down the two shafts that comprise our view (one is a small courtyard behind a library, the other is floored by the back work areas of two restaurants), thunder rolls, and rain plinks on surfaces above and below.

The wind is cool and a huge relief. I’m keeping the windows open (they’re the size of doors and swing open the same way), and covering the sills with towels. Hope it stays cool after the storm blows over. That will make working on a hot laptop a little easier.

I’ve been wondering why AC is so rare here, and I think the attitude is about the same as the one that non-tropical Southern U.S. cities have toward snow-removal equipment. The irony is that it does get hot in Paris, and it does snow in Greensboro and Richmond.

Anyway, the storm is fading now, and I’m going to try sleeping again.

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When I got my first French consulting client in 1994, I found an indispensable guide in the book French or Foe, by Polly Platt. So I made sure we had hauled it east from my office bookshelf in Santa Barbara, and took it with us to Paris, where I began reading it again today, the first full day of our Summer here.

The book was fresh when I got it, and is now sixteen years old. Many of the companies mentioned are long gone, and the Internet was still off in the future when she wrote it. (She instead gives praise to Minitel, a brilliant and doomed creation of French telephony.) But still, the book is brilliant and — for Americans new to France — useful to a degree that verges on the absolute.

So I wondered if she was still around, and looked her up on the Web. Alas, she died on 26 December 2008, in Vienna. But I also discovered that in 2000 she published a companion to French or Foe titled Savoir-Flair: 211 Tips for Enjoying France and the French. I’ll pick that one up tomorrow, if I can find it.

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Tomorrow we fly to Paris, where I’ll be based for the next five weeks. To help myself prep, here are a few of my notes from conversations with friends and my own inadequate research…

Mobile phone SIM recommendations are especially welcome. We plan to cripple our U.S. iPhones for the obvious reasons AT&T details here. Our other phones include…

  • Android Nexus One (right out of the box)
  • Nokia E72 (it’s a Symbian phone)
  • Nokia N900 (a computing device that does have a SIM slot and can be used as a phone)
  • Nokia 6820b (an old Nokia candybar-shaped GSM phone that hasn’t been used in years, but works)

Ideally we would like to go to a mobile phone store that can help us equip some combination of these things, for the time we’re there. The iPad too, once it arrives. It will be a 3G model.

Au revoir…

[Later…] We’re here, still jet-lagged and settling in. Here are some other items we could use some advice on:

  • “Free” wi-fi. This is confusing. There seem to be lots of open wi-fi access points in Paris, but all require logins and passwords. Our French is still weak at best, so that’s a bit of a problem too. One of the services is called Free, which also happens to be the company that provides TV/Internet/Phone service in the apartment. Should this also give us leverage with the Free wi-fi out there? Not sure. (Internet speed is 16.7Mbps down and .78Mbps up. It’s good enough, but not encouraging for posting photos. I’m also worried about data usage caps. Guidance on that is welcome too.)
  • Our 200-watt heavy-duty 220/110 step-down power transformer crapped out within two hours after being plugged in. We want to get a new one that won’t fail. The dead one is a Tacima.

Again, thanks for all your help.

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