Concettina Died and Other Stories of the East Side

Five Days in Paris: Day 5, posted March 22, 2009 at 07:28 PM


Memorial cross at the catacombs. Click all images for larger.

We started our last day with another tartine and coffee near the Odeon Metro stop. The train took us to the 13th, to the famous catacombs. What a strange, jaw-dropping experience we had there. We were a bit stupid about finding it, though. The guidebooks were vague about where to find the entrance, so when we emerged from the Metro we turned to an on-street map, and I turned on my phone to Google Maps. When we finally picked our heads up and looked around we discovered it was directly across the intersection where we were standing. So much for cartography and technology.

Human bones

We laughed off our idiocy and got on the line to enter. After a long narrow spiral staircase down into the quarry, we came to a very long "gallery"--a narrow stone tunnel winding up and down and left and right, leading deeper and deeper under Paris. Eventually we came to the ossuary where the de-interred have found their final rest. It is hard to describe what lies within. As you begin the journey through the caverns of the dead, you are shocked by the sight of hundreds of bones piled five feet high, filling a small room. The bones hold themselves in place with walls made of tibias and femurs, punctuated by skulls. Everything is dark and dim and dank. Your gravelly footsteps echo in the silence. And then you continue on around a corner to see another grouping of small rooms of bones. Some have monumental plaques of poetic or religious texts. Some are walled off with geometric arrangements of skulls. Some simply have the bulbous ends of tibias and femurs piled from floor to ceiling in a macabre geometry of sockets and plugs. And then you continue on around a corner to see another grouping of rooms or a long corridor of bones. Some sections are more brightly lit, so you back up from them to take a picture and back into another wall of bones. And then it just keeps going--another cross monument in another grouping of rooms of bones, another circular section of walls of femurs, another corner around which death lurks like the darkness itself. This lifeless, lightless repetition takes on longer rhythms, more time, more remains of actual humans--lives piled up like kindling. Soon you are overwhelmed. Suddenly somehow you've just viewed the skeletal detritus of tens of thousands of people--it's absolutely harrowing. The ceiling is damp and dripping water, the sound of which gives the place an eerie soundtrack, your footsteps still shuffling in the gravel. The weight of so much death holds you otherwise silent. And after room after room after room of this, finally you emerge from the ossuary to the long stone corridor leading out. You ascend 80 steps on another tight stone spiral staircase, open your bag for a guard to prove you didn't steal any bones, and pop out into the Parisian sunlight.

Memento mori

The exit from the catacombs is blocks away from the entrance. You'd think there'd be a sign directing you back, but you'd be wrong. We found ourselves in the middle of a sidestreet and had to guess which direction to head. We guessed right, luckily, and found a little spot for a late-morning coffee.

We got back on the train and headed to the Place d'Italie. Megan had recommended an artisanal honey store called Les Abeilles, in the 13th. It was in a cute little neighborhood with little shops and lots of families milling about and running Saturday errands. Les Abeilles is a tiny store, filled with little jars of honey and lorded over by a gruff, burly man who seemed to resent having to speak English--which he did with perfect fluency--with us. When Stephanie tasted a chestnut-infused honey she said, "Oh that's delicious." The shopkeeper refused the compliment with a shrug, "The bees don't know how to make bad honey." Ah. I bought a small jar of eucalyptus honey for Patsy, and some nougat and suckers for the office. On the way back to the Metro we stopped at a corner patisserie. We shared a delicious savory cheese pocket and a long stick of dough filled with chocolate. Scrumptious.

We returned to the Place St. Sulpice to go to another patisserie, the famed Pierre Hermé. I bought 25-euros-worth of macaroons--12 little ones and 1 big one (which I ate for breakfast the next morning on the plane).

Next stop was L'Artisan Parfumeur on the Boulevard Raspail. It's another branch of the store we had visited in the Marais, and having now tested some of the testers, Stephanie was ready for a perfume purchase. She bought a fancy fig-scented perfume, and I bought a couple of scented candles as gifts. We were both charmed by the sweetness of the salesgirl who tried in vain to correct our horrid pronunciation of everything in the store.

Having loved Midi-Vins so much the previous night, we decided to return for lunch. The proprietors were delighted to see us and we sat at the the same table as we had the night before. The place was packed with neighborhood families, with gorgeous children of every age scattered throughout the room. I had a huge slab of foie gras to start, followed by a delicious rare steak served in a rich camembert sauce. It was actually the heaviest meal in the world, and while I loved eating it, afterward I felt like it had kicked my ass hard. One more reason to not take a five-day vacation is that you never have time to just eat a light meal on the run--you're just trying to squeeze in as many gourmet meals as you can. We had, in fact, started referring to ourselves as Those Gluttonous Italian-Americans. Anyway, Stephanie had an all fish lunch: a mackerel filet to begin, served cold with lemon and red onion, then she had a splendid calamari entree. The squid were filleted in long strips then grilled with red and yellow peppers and served in pepper oil and paprika over rice. Freaking delicious. I had a dense, dark chocolate mousse for dessert; Stephanie had a creme caramel. I was in a lunch coma afterward.

The window at Midi-Vins

Stephanie's drawing of the window at Midi-Vins

We rolled ourselves back to the hotel, then went to the cafe next door to write in our journals. Three extremely attractive young people sat next to us, and intervened on our behalf when the waiter didn't understand that Stephanie wanted soda with her Campari. As they left they asked where we were from and made small-talk about Atlanta. Who says Parisians are rude? I love Parisians!

After changing our clothes, we set off for the Opera Garnier where we were seeing Paris Opera Ballet. I had bought tickets through a London-based reseller called Keith Prowse and had done it on trust that I wasn't being scammed for quite a bit of cash. It was fine and I retrieved the tickets from will-call as promised and we entered the grand building and began look around. The opera house is such an over-the-top building--the very definition of gilding the lily. We bought champagne and walked around surveying the environs like we were King and Queen of the World. Once inside the theater we marveled at the excellence of our seats. It's actually a pretty small house, so any orchestra seat is a good one--but ours were nicely forward and central. Thank you, Keith Prowse.

Stephanie outside of the opera house

Me outside of the opera house

The ballet itself--Angelin Preljocaj's Le Parc--was a mixed affair. The good parts of the work--I'd say 60% of it--were very good. And the bad parts were rather bad. So on the whole, I liked it but didn't love it. On the good side: the three pas de deux, the group dance in Act I, the costumes, the sets, the music (all Mozart), and the exceptionally high quality of the dancing. The two leads--Delphine Moussin and Yann Bridard--were really terrific and well-suited to one another. In the final pas de deux the two lovers exchange a kiss that literally sweeps the girl off her feet and they twirl around the stage with their lips locked, rotating faster and faster as her legs fly up into the air and he holds her up. It's a magical moment that was nicely illustrative of the music. The corps seemed very well-rehearsed, with unity and fluidity throughout the performance. The boys seemed particularly flexible, with deep extensions usually reserved for the girls. Among the not-so-great qualities of this evening-length work: long moments of attempted stillness and tension that came off instead as static flatness. Like other Preljocaj works I've seen, the lighting for Le Parc consists almost exclusively of very dramatic long-raking horizontal spots, which basically results in never being able to see the dancers' faces, and the frustration of seeing their bodies move in and out of the light, so you never see a complete gesture or step from start to finish. That may be part of Preljocaj's choreographic concept, but it's frustrating and, to me, doesn't work. And worse, the whole work was very dimly lit (except for the ensemble dances of the first act). It was so dim that afterward I suggested to Stephanie that they should change the name from Le Parc to Le Darc. Anyway, on balance, we liked it, and going to see such high-quality performances is always a pleasure.

And a final note of advice to Paris Opera goers: dress lightly, no matter the weather. The house is very warm and Americans in the audience who are used to air-conditioned halls will find the temperature stifling. In combination with the dim light of this performance I found it soporific.

With the ballet over a bit earlier than expected--due to no intermissions--we arrived at our final dinner of the trip a half-hour early. No matter--the cool professionalism of Macéo is unfazed by such surprises. They seated us right away. Carter and I were sent to this restaurant in the 1st arrondissement four years ago by one of his friends, and it was the best of the many great meals we had. This second visit did not disappoint. The dining room is large, well-proportioned, and brightly lit, with blond wood floors, white walls, and white tablecloths and dinnerware. As last time, the service was excellent: attentive, not friendly, but warmly efficient.

Stephanie ordered the vegetarian menu, wanting to ease up on the heavy meals we'd had all week. On the contrary, I ordered two extremely rich meat dishes. Stephanie began with lentils with red pepper and onion in a lemon vinaigrette, served with a chilled poached egg atop and baby asparagus crowning it all. Her second dish was a curried vegetable ragout, with turnips, parsnips, artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and white beans, all in a frothy broth. I started with pressed rabbit that had a strikingly porcine flavor, served with a lightly mayonaissed tuna and a big forkful of mixed greens. Then I had veal shoulder that was very supple and rich. It was huge and served on a bed of shredded cabbage. We both had delicious cheese courses to finish: a smooth roquefort, a nutty camembert, and a dense goat cheese with a melty exterior and wrapped in a gooey herbaceous skin. Mmmmm. Our wine was perfect with the cheese--a medium bodied red (Pierre-Marie Chermette Les Trois: Moulina Vent Roches 2007). We ate leisurely and somewhat quietly in comparison to the yakkity Parisians all around us.

From Macéo we walked to Cafe Ruc for a drink. But after being ignored for too long a time and on realizing that Stephanie had lost an earring, we got up from our table, looked in the street for the earring, which we did not find, and left. We crossed the Pont Des Artes one last time, and retook our seats at the little cafe next door to the hotel. We drank armagnac, marveled at the gorgeous couple to our left who were looking at each other so moonily that surely the whole world must have been in love at that moment. We retired to Room 51 of the Hotel de Buci for one last night. It had been another great day, but twinged with melancholy for being the last.


We packed and checked out early. Sunday morning coming down.

Last view of Paris from the cab

Pouting on the plane

We took a cab to CDG. We were early, got right through security, ate a shitty airport breakfast, and then settled into row 21 of a 757. We entertained ourselves with our seat-back games and movies. I played videoke, watching Singin' in the Rain with no sound and reciting all the lines myself. We again had the three seats in the row just for the two of us. Nice to travel during a recession. Jack Daniels carried us back to the US in his uniquely American way.

Journal and Jack. All the photos from the trip can be viewed here.)

Paris was everything I expected it to be for this second visit--easy to know on a map, but endlessly soulful and mysterious, with new treasures slowly revealing themselves. It's beyond beautiful, and it's so willing and generous as a host. It welcomes you without reticence no matter what part of town, what time of day, or what language you speak. One thing I found funny was that Stephanie relied on me to guide the way through French language communications. Me! Last time, I leaned hard on Carter, and in the opening days of the trip on Beth. But without a better speaker this time my extremely limited tourist French had to suffice. And when you're relying on it, you try harder. And little things Carter said and little bits of French cinema sometimes would come trickling in like a distant radio broadcast to remind me of a word or a phrase or even just a pronunciation. One of these days I am going to study French.

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