down with the left & the empire of death in Montparnasse

A day of descents. And the left. Sarkozy wants, says the Communist Party, in language we have not heard in NZ for many years, unionist language – he is deaf to the cries, a nauseating move, perpetuating and exacerbating sexual inequality, parents taking jobs from their children – to raise the retirement age. The leaflet handed out as we left Jules Joffrin Metro station by matronly ladies. Reds.

We went to the Left Bank, Rive Gauche, were subjected to the worst puppetshow with the dirtiest puppets and the most distorted soundtrack ever, popped up in Montparnasse, and went down and down and down. Into the kingdom of death. The catacombs. In fact, it was quite uncanny, no sooner had we climbed the stairs from the Metro and crossed the road than we were, after a short queue, again descending. The whole business, a bag check notwithstanding, rather casual, as if a tourist attraction run by afficianados and amateurs. In front of us an American goth, with an unusual piercing through the nape of his neck, and his very unholed girlfriend, along to support a hobby?

The descent was dizzying, a tight spiral staircase, stone. And a long narrow passage lit every ten or so paces in a darkness so intense that it seemed to creep in every five, the shadows approaching and receding quite as dizzying as the stairs. Another couple ahead said the passageway in was at least five hundred metres. Five hundred. Before the possibility of escape. The ceiling was low and the thought of people ahead and people behind both breathing and acting as potential obstacles should a sprint to the exits be necessary made me want to do just that, get out.

The tunnels went through various parts of the old quarry to which bones had begun to be transported in the eighteenth century, the quarry marked out with informative placards but not the reason the goths and we were there. Then an auspicious sign announcing not that we ought to abandon hope but that we were entering death’s demesne.

What a relief to be in this ordered space of fibulas and tibulas and skulls set neatly as Swiss woodpiles after the hell of the way in. One could suddenly breath. And take one’s time. Lovely engraved mottos and quotations along the way. Skulls. Pelvises. Crossed bones. Bones lined up so that the ball-joints lined up. In one alcove a reminder of what it had been like, a pile of disordered human remains, as it arrived here for storage, in the old quarry, and I ought to mention the sculptures hewn out of the rock by workers down here which preceded the walls of bones.

There was a memorial to a poet and words of many poets, mainly classical. Then biblical quotations came to dominate as we continued.

Death who dominates only those she destroys. The silent eternity. The paradox of life’s end. Keep the day of your death in mind. Live each day like it’s your last. Water dripping. In one alcove into a raised bowl carved from the rock, like a font for holy water. J. later said, You know we went under the Seine? I didn’t want to mention it…

Getting out was just as claustrophobic as going in. 83 steps, steep, spiralling, the Spanish in front of us stopping to breath and using up all the air. Behind us more people. I thought of the digital counter where we entered, up to 377 with us. 377 breathers in all these hungry bones. You know it also floods, this network of tunnels deep underground?

Once out, we crossed to a small cafe and because it made financial sense rather than paying 50 cents to use the loo as a non-client to buy a coffee and use it for free. The owner spoke excellent English. His maternal forebear, he said, once we declared our intention to visit the Pantheon, designed the dome they thought could not be set on the structure, broadening the four supporting pillars. He built the model housed in a sideroom at the Pantheon to prove it could be done.

Lunch at a another Traiteur Asiatique, we hit the Tour Montparnasse, the one and only highrise in central Paris before rising high was outlawed, as the weather turned bad, and it was expensive to go to the top anyway, more than we’d been led to expect, eleven Euros an adult, so we jumped on the Metro. We saw the Sorbonne and walked around it. Were struck by the austerity of the Pantheon. A very big house for very little actually going on. Except for Foucault’s Pendulum, a metal thread connecting a pendulum from the apex of the dome to within feet of the floor, set up to prove to the senses the rotation of the earth, with each languid swing changing the angle of approach to a dais marked with radiating lines to measure the difference.

We descended another spiral staircase to the crypt and visited smiley old Voltaire downstairs and Rousseau, his hand reaching outside his wooden casket with a flame. Also other French worthies, died for ideals, served France, ideals of the revolution, writers served France, and so on.

Home to bolognese and a game of chess.