Tagged: catacombs

Bones, Bonbons and Bits of Advice

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📥  Politics Languages & International Studies

Dear Reader, I may have worn you out with that last marathon post, but bear with me- I did, surprisingly, get round to other things aside from work.

It’s always seemed to me that Paris is a city whose mercurial moods reflect those of the onlooker. On Saturdays when I was determined to shake off the shackles of work and was full of the joys of exploration, the sun beamed indulgently over the gently lapping olive waters of the serene Seine, the bridges golden, reminiscent of Bath, and I truly believed that Paris was the most romantic, poetic city in the world. But when I was tramping home from work, brain buzzing with work and frustrated by power outages on the Metro, drizzle saturated my hair into limpness and all the buildings were grey and grubby and the mould in the corner of my ceiling frowned down at me. Often I just wanted to go home- properly, permanently home, like I had been up until ten months ago. It didn’t help that Munich and Paris really couldn’t be more different in most aspects, so the adjustment process continued for quite some time. Munich felt small and walkable, compact, peaceable- Paris is broad, flat, spread thin, with a constant simmering tension beneath the delicate layer of everyday life, the fraying threads of law and order. In Munich everyone seemed cold but thawed when spoken to, yet in Paris people can be surprisingly sharp and acerbic. Münchners were practical rather than pretty; Parisiens prance and preen. And the languages require entirely different mindsets- German is concise, packaged in bitesized chunks like Kit Kat bites, whereas French requires so many little bits to link it all together, like a rather optimistic Lego structure. I am, however, completely biased- German has always been so logical and so much easier to me than French. I love how every single syllable is clearly enunciated. French is more of a challenge because all the words seem to blur into one mass of liquid sound- but now, at the end of my time in Paris, I do seem to have got to grips with it, when the speaker isn’t firing linguistic ammunition at twice the speed of light, that is. It’s a work in progress...


With only four months at my disposal, my aim was to get a general overview of Paris and see the things I wanted to see rather than the things I felt obliged to see, as I wouldn’t have time to do everything anyway. Among my favourite places was the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery, the final resting place of Edith Piaf, Oscar Wilde and Frédéric Chopin, to name just a few. It is absolutely enormous, with several tiers of hundreds of stunningly ornate graves and small stained-glass chapels studding the hillside. Oscar Wilde’s surprisingly Egyptian tomb is even surrounded by protective glass panels, covered in the fervent lipstick kisses of his admirers. A must-see.


Another slightly macabre sight is the Catacombs of Paris. My boyfriend and I had to go there three times before we were permitted to join the queue, which took an hour and a half- but it was well worth the wait. The bones of six million Parisiens, overspill from the overcrowded 18th century cemeteries, are piled up in former underground stone quarries which follow the course of the streets. There are solid walls of yellowed thigh bones, cracked, grinning skulls, organised by their cemetary of origin. Biblical and Latin quotes echo grim sentiments of the fragile mortality of man. It was a strange experience- the sheer volume of bones lessened the emotional impact, becoming dehumanised, almost prop-like. A Goth couple, handling the skulls as though they were innocuous as popcorn, were actually doing a photo shoot, posing with them. Shudder.

Naturally I revisited bits of the usual Parisian tourist circuit, joining the milling crowds under the Eiffel Tower and taking artistic (using the term lightly) photos upwards through the latticed structure, the lifts shooting up and down like beads of bright paint. The eggshell dome of the Sacre Coeur glowed hot and white in the afternoon sun. They say many things about Paris, and one of them should definitely be this: spend an afternoon there, and you start believing you’re a photographer. Fortunately, unlike people, beautiful buildings look good from (almost) any angle. For those of you who are Paris-bound, some words of advice:


  • Use common sense- avoid being out at night on your own. Trains and streets are liable to get rowdy.

  • Start the house hunt early, for obvious reasons. I cannot stress this one enough!

  • Make the most of your EU citizenship and/or student status to gain free entry to many museums and galleries, and enjoy feeling like a cultured grown-up for a couple of hours.

  • Beware: if you are of a certain temperament, viewing ‘Les Misérables’ may evoke the desire to burst into song in the street, thus rendering sightseeing a much more dramatic experience.
  • Bear this in mind: Paris isn’t quite like anywhere else you’ll have ever been before, or are likely to go again. In my mind, it wrestles Berlin for the epithet ‘poor but sexy’. It is, above all, an experience- probably neither wholly positive, nor wholly negative, but an intriguing mixture- and you may never feel like you fit. As Roman Polanski said, “In Paris, one is always reminded of being a foreigner.” Hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world will fly into Charles de Gaulle, buy a beret, put on a coat of red lipstick and tuck their hair into a chignon (and that’s just the boys), fancying themselves as Parisiens, but they’re just play-acting; they may learn the language to perfection and follow all the latest trends, but they can never hope to attain that certain something which all true Parisiens seem to be born with- a disdainful, haughty allure, a negligent, edgy elegance, never trying too hard, but getting it just right. As my team manager rightly said, “To survive in Paris, you’ve got to have attitude.” So toughen up and return the stares.

  • Last but not least: take the M14 line to Bercy Village, where you will find a shop called ‘La Cure Gourmande’. It is a veritable wonderland of sweet delights. Feast your eyes upon marbled chocolate ‘olives’, wonderfully fragrant lemon biscuits, slabs of creamy chocolate, square slates of fudge in dreamlike flavour combinations and Willy Wonka-esque lollipops, packed into rustling paper bags and ribboned boxes depicting quaint pastel scenes of Victorian France. Whatever you choose, it’ll be the right choice.

Alors: bon voyage, bon appétit, bonne chance. 🙂