Thursday, February 4, 2010

Change Happens

For new posts, please go to my new blog: or follow the link on the right to A Life Less Ordinary.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

France Retrospective 5: The Catacombs

Paris is known as the City of Light, but it has its dark side. Many of those beautiful buildings aboveground are built of stone that was quarried belowground. Centuries of excavation left behind a vast system of underground tunnels and chambers.

As the city grew, it became evident that quarrying had to stop and the structures belowground had to be monitored and maintained to prevent cave-ins.

In the 1700's, when the need for expansion and fear of disease led to the removal of ancient cemeteries from the city's churchyards, where better to put the bones of the ancestors? The ground was duly consecrated, and cartloads of exhumed ancients were transported to this "place of eternal repose."

Shortly thereafter, the tours began.

We took the Metro--that modern "Underground" - to the Denfert-Rochereau station, found the Catacombs entrance, and descended a long spiral staircase into a dry, well-maintained tunnel. Somewhere along the line we viewed some exhibits in a series of small chambers.

As we walked along we noticed neat notations on the walls referencing the streets above. Tunnels branched off here and there, but these side-tunnels were all gated and locked. On the ceiling above us, a dark wavering line marked the route followed by tourists of an earlier era.

We were just as glad to have an unambiguous route marked out for us. The thought of touring here by torchlight reminded me of the chapter of Tom Sawyer where the two children are lost in the limestone caverns and watch in horror as their last candle flickers out in the darkness.

There was no real sense of claustrophobia in these tunnels. They are wide ,and as smoothly paved as many a French street. I did feel as if the ceiling was a little low for my comfort, and that may have come from a subconscious awareness of the weight of the city bearing down on these chambers.

Many repairs and reinforcements have been made to maintain the structural integrity of these tunnels. It must be interesting to be a public works official in a city this old.

All of this walking and atmospheric build-up was actually just a prelude to the main feature of the Catacombs. We arrived in a large chamber, scattered with exhibits commemorating various dead Parisians, presumably inhabitants of the tombs.

While scanning these plaques, I happened across la Princesse de Lamballe. For travel reading, I had chosen Antionia Fraser's biography of Marie Antoinette , so I immediately recognized this portrait of the Queen's friend. The familiarity of it set the tone for me--linking an abstract historical narrative with the reality of death.

How timely, since the cryps were right through this doorway. The archway warns: "Stop! Here is the empire of Death." Melodramatic? Yes. Accurate? Very.

We passed through and began taking in the graves. This is perhaps too dignified a term for what you see here--mass graves, piles of bones, stacked man-high and yards deep. These piles of bones are marked only with their place of origin. It's a genealogist's nightmare, all these human remains piled up like driftwood. Alas, poor Yorick, if he ended up here.

We were told that flash photography is not allowed, and my attempts to capture this sight from some angle that conveys its immensity are not entirely successful. The bones are artfully arranged--femurs and skulls were favored to create the walls, and we saw little else on our long walk.

The monotony must have gotten on the caretakers' nerves. To add a little cheer there are plaques everywhere chiselled with poems and homilies on the theme of mortality.

It's not really the place to practice one's command of written French, since the messages get pretty dreary. After a few like this, I felt like an ephemeral flower in the wind.

Our path turned and twisted below ground, and went on for a long time. It felt longer than it probably was. We came to view a span of stone wall with relief.

I had read somewhere that the bones of 6 million Parisians are interred here. After a while it struck me that 6 million people died in the Holocaust. This is a horrifying toll in human life, but it is a hard number to comprehend. Now I have a visual reference point. It took countless generations and all manners of death to produce this mass grave. War & genocide produced its equivalent in less than a decade.

Having made this observation, I was ready to be done. This is not the sort of place I will want to revisit, but I'm glad that I went.

Emerging from the catacombs and into a chamber with a soaring ceiling was a profound relief. It was a little less cheering when we realized that this is the site of a cave-in, and that the ceiling has been stabilized with epoxies and stone arches to hold up the part of Paris that's sitting on top.

We climbed an 18th-century staircase back up to the surface, and emerged into warmth and daylight as if reborn. We had no idea where we were (having failed to read the tourist brochure we were given on entry) but wandered off to find a Metro station. We stopped at a kid's clothing store and bought some gifts for friends back home--color! Life! What a relief.

The Paris Underground has also served as a site for covert activity; Nazi plotters and French Resistance fighters alike took cover there during WWII. Understandably, much of the Underground is now officially off limits and patrolled by security forces. This doesn't appear to stop a certain class of adventurer, but for that I will leave you to your own investigations.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

France Retrospective 4: The Marais

Breakfast in Paris--coffee and croissants at a streetside cafe table. We were the lucky ones, breakfasting at our leisure on a Monday morning, while the Parisians were on their way to work or to school.

The commuters went briskly by, using all possible modes of locomotion, from pedestrians to bicyclists to mororcylists to drivers. Three common vehicular encounters: vintage Minis, modern Minis, and Smart Cars.

We went for a long walk on l'Isle de la Cite and l'Isle Saint-Louis, and then continued down to the Marais district of Paris.

Unfortunately, our photos from most of this walk were lost in a technology glitch. There's no telling exactly what happened, but I think it involved reformatting a memory card, re-setting the date on the camera, and then probably writing over photos saved to my computer with new photos that had the same filename. I am not pleased but there's not much I can do about it. Quelle dommage!

Our images pick up again at Hotel de Sens which we happened upon by accident. We enjoyed admiring its stately facade and got a zoomed-in shot of one of its gargoyes.

During our walk we found an unusual little museum in the middle of town, where L'association Paris Historique is excavating and restoring an old mansion above ground, and a 13th century cellar with marvelous arches and pillars below ground.

Fortunately, I brought home a postcard which tells me this is the Maison d'Ourscamp on rue Francois Miron. For a small donation we were given a personal guided tour by a knowledgeable, English-speaking guide.

Since Paris is the home of so many world-class museums, it's easy to neglect a tiny site like this one. It was delightful, though, because its focus is small and manageable. We spent about 45 minutes there and came away pleased with having made this small discovery.

Just down the street we saw two half-timbered houses enduring yet another century of habitation in the heart of Paris. They really stood out from their surroundings, but of course that is because they are the oldest houses in this part of town.

Back in the 15th century they had a lot more company. An interpretive plaque on the street side of the building says that this style of house is very rare in Paris now, as most have been destroyed. And at one time the wooden timbers were covered over with plaster as a fire-prevention measure.

We walked down an alley and realized that one of these buildings is bulging in the middle and has been pulled together with metal braces to keep it from collapsing.

For pure visual fun, I enjoyed taking this picture of a sign hanging out front:

We rested our feet for a while, sitting on a wall in the sun outside the Hotel de Ville watching vast crowds of people hustle around town.

We continued on to le Centre Pompidou where we sat outside for a long time, people-watching.

I was quite disappointed that the pond out front with its funky sculptures was drained and ugly. Since I have precious little interest in modern art, this small failure became somewhat monumental in my mind. I also had very sore feet, so we decided against visiting the museum. Another time!

Instead, we stopped at a little market for a cold drink--Orangina is the best!--and then took the subway home to recover from our walk, have dinner, and cap off our day with a boat ride on the Seine.

Monday, June 4, 2007

France Retrospective 3: Le Jardin du Luxembourg

In France, most places are closed on Sundays, and even the markets and grocery stores that open have very limited hours. Our first full day in France was a Sunday, and we were just as glad to have an excuse for a slow start.

Our home base was on rue Gregoire de Tours, right around the corner from a grocery store and, better still, the public market on rue de Buci. We strolled the market, splitting up to acquire some bread and cheese and sausage, a dessert tart, and a box of luscious strawberries, chosen for their intense fragrance.

Since the weather was warm and sunny, we decided to walk to the nearby Luxembourg Gardens for our picnic.

The elegant building at the edge of the garden is now the upper house of parliament, but it was originally a palace, built for Marie de Medici. It was designed to resemble the Pitti Palace in her home town of Florence, Italy.

But that was way back in the 1620's. Now the former private gardens are a very popular public park, like a dreamscape of every park stereotype you can imagine.

Flowers in lush full bloom? Check!

Miniature sailboats crusing across an urban pond? Check!

Kids on a caurousel, jousting for the brass ring? Check!

People lounging on blankets in the grass? Check!

Sculptures, both modest and colossal? Check!

All in all, it was a great place to sit back, people-watch, and get into the groove of being in Paris.

Friday, May 25, 2007

France Retrospective #2: Overview of our Trip

Planning for our second trip began shortly after the first one ended. We had an opportunity for a timeshare "bonus week" which had to be used by April 30, 2007. On a whim, we asked if they had anything in France. We were told they had the last week of April, 2007 at Antibes. This was perfect: as far out in time as possible, and as near to Cagnes-sur-mer as any resort in our network; clearly it was meant to be. We immediately booked the week at Les Jardíns d'Ulysse.

We decided to fly an open-jaw itinerary, arriving in Paris and departing from Nice, to give us both regions while cutting down on the travel time within France. Having a full week in Paris opened up opportunities for "vacation rentals" which usually discourage short stays.

After comparing a lot of rentals, we selected a Left Bank studio apartment listed with for a 6-night stay. This gave us the opportunity to sneak in an overnight in another part of France before arriving in Antibes. But where?

I was intrigued by the restored medieval town of Carcassone but it was evident that we'd be too rushed if we travelled so far off our main route. Michael suggested Nimes and the more I looked into it the better it sounded. I wanted a sense of ancient history; where better than in a town with 2,000 year old structures still in routine use?

While Nimes is not directly on the route from Paris to Antibes, it looked as if we could have one action-packed day there, arriving around noon and leaving about noon the next day. This led to another dilemma: while there was plenty to see and do within the town, how could we possibly be so near to the ancient Roman bridge, Le Pont du Gard, without spending some time there? While it's possible to get there from Nimes by bus, the thought of all the logistics was getting very daunting. And that got me thinking about rental cars.

Knowing that there was no way I was going to be comfortable driving in the legendary high-speed traffic jam of the French Mediterranean, I knew I had to win Michael over to this notion. It took a lot of earnest thought and investigation, but in the end it made better financial sense to rent a car and drive to Antibes than to take the train. My intrepid driver was willing to take on the challenge, so the basic framework of the trip was complete.

And what about all those details? The famous sights, the museums, the day trips? We expected to spend our time in Antibes visiting my aunt, relaxing, and playing at being French, so there was little to arrange. Nimes is small enough to tackle ad hoc, and we knew we wanted a leisurely picnic at the Pont du Gard before driving to Antibes.

That left Paris, and Paris is certainly a challenge. A week there is really a very short time. We nixed day trips (Versailles, for example) because it made no sense to us to spend hours on trains getting out of Paris and back in again. Our planning came down to deciding what things we most wanted to do, figuring out the hours of the museums we wanted to visit (or re-visit), and prioritizing the top twenty or so other things we hoped to fit in if the opportunity arose.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

France Retrospective #1: Why France?

My close friends and family know the answer to this question, but I thought it would give a good context for blogging about my recent trip.

Put simply, France is in my blood. My American grandfather served as a US soldier in France during WWI. He met my grandmother there, and in due course my mother and my aunt were born. My grandparents then separated, and he remarried. In 1929 he returned to the U.S. with his new family and his eldest daughter--my mother. My grandmother and my aunt remained in France. This resulted in the curious situation of having a mother who is American in all respects, but an aunt who is equally French.

I can't tell you when I learned all these details; I can say that I don't remember a time when I did not know my mother's heritage was French. Unfortunately this didn't lead to any practical steps in my youth, such as learning to speak French or developing a correspondence with my French aunt. The real awakening took place for me in recent years, brought about in part because of my interest in genealogy. I began studying French with just enough success to grow bold: I would go to France!

In 2005 my first trip to France took place. After a week in Paris, we took the TGV to Antibes, and met my aunt at her home in the Riviera town of Cagnes-sur-mer. It was a delightful trip and we couldn't wait to go back. In the interim, worrisome things were happening--letters sent to my aunt came back marked undeliverable. Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with a very distant relative in Paris who caught us up on events and let us know that my aunt is now in a nursing home.

The main point of all this is that while we designed our trips as vacations, at the heart of each voyage is a lovely little French lady whose entire remaining family resides in the United States.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Graduate Degree for Michael

At Sunday's Commencement, Michael was awarded his Master of Public Administration degree. A repeat performance occured on Monday night, when the Public Administration graduation ceremony was broadcast.

Doesn't he look proud and happy? Rightfully so! I am only too familiar with the effort that was required to complete the course work. Countless nights and weekends, precious days of vacations, and the better part of several summers went into this degree.

Michael's career has been in the public sector since he was in his teens, when he decided against becoming a professional baker and became a technology professional at the University of Alaska. The applicability of the degree is self-evident. Given his years of experience, I wondered from time to time whether he was really learning anything new, or just getting the credentials to match his existing responsibilities.

In the end I think it was a combination of both things. Most of all, I think he gained from the thoughtful feedback provided by our friend and colleague Dr. Jonathan Anderson, the Director of the PADM program at UAS.

So, hats off to you, Michael, for your hard work and perseverance. I am happy for you, and so proud of you!