Contemplating life amongst death: a claustrophobic freakout, and perspective, in Paris’ catacombs
The Paris catacombs are 200 miles of small underground tunnels filled with the bones of 6 million people. If you’re claustrophobic, as I am, then this is quite literally a nightmare to visit. And yet, if you’re a bit of a curious weirdo, like I am, then there is little you can do to avoid the appeal.
I survived, obviously. But barely. Descending the 19-meter spiral staircase, you reach a point where you ask yourself if the journey into the depths will ever end. It’s a little too long . . . a few too many disconcerting steps down into a giant underground graveyard. This is where the panic/internal declension began: a little flutter in the stomach, mixed with confusion about how long you can possibly continue down these steps without becoming dizzy. And, if you’re like me, this is mixed with a little curiosity: who made these steps? Were they in really good shape? I mean, they’d have to be in good shape. Right? And probably Vitamin D deficient. (Turns out these were old mining tunnels.)
I thought I’d feel better when we reached the actual catacombs, but I was wrong. The spiral staircase ends . . . only to be replaced with what seems like miles and miles of tunnels so small, a person slightly taller than me would have to seriously worry about injuring his or her head. This is where the claustrophobia began to sink in, and that little flutter in my stomach became legitimate heart palpitations and shortness of breath. “This is a test of my character. This is a test of my character” I repeated to myself over and over. Also, a test of my sanity. I barely passed.
The catacombs themselves are incredible. I have a sick fascination with cemeteries already, and was a little too excited to see the mummy museum in Guanajuato (or any mummy, for that matter) so it comes as no surprise that I was fascinated by the overwhelming quantity of human remains. Heart palpitations slowly receded. Interest took over. The slow, eerie dripping of water from the tunnel ceiling was almost calming. Amid the bones of 6 million people, you’re faced with the bitter reality of our mortality: the most real thing we, as humans, can grasp. Claustrophobia became a concept of the mind, and an inferior concern when looking upon my fate. Not to sound too down, or anything.
And, of course (because this is the way life works) as we are leaving the near-empty catacombs, we snap what is one of my favorite photos of us during our time in Paris. A photo of a happily married couple during their vacation in Paris? A perfect contrast to the location in which the photo was shot. Such is life, and its irony.
Paris Catacombs 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, 75014 Paris, France +33 1 43 22 47 63 http://www.catacombes.paris.fr/