Yesterday I missed the manifestations. I went to the Sorbonne, which was completely sealed off and guarded by the police. Everytime I asked a policeman where the demonstration was, he claimed not to know. But apparently there were over a million protesters all over France, tear gas, and property damage. There’s a video and audio slideshow here, for those who are interested.
I did search for the manifestations. I really did. I just kept getting distracted by museums and churches (St. Severin, in which 100 or so elegantly clad Parisians were celebrating a confirmation).
There were also the shops; for instance, the antique game shop on the rue Vavin run by two gracious elderly women. On offer were portable chess sets, ball-and-maze puzzles, antique playing cards with portraits of the the kings, queens and "jacks" of Poland, Bohemia, or Bavaria, and myriad dice games for bored sailors.
So instead of the manifestations, I’ll tell you a little about the Alliance Francaise and the catacombs.
On Wednesday, I started at the AF, on the Boulevard Raspail. I am in the intermediate class, with several Germans, a Brit, and some Spaniards. Professor Anatole is slim, perhaps in his mid-40s, and animated. He speaks quickly but clearly, and illustrates everything with extravagant hand-gestures — perhaps because that’s the French way, perhaps because it helps the students follow him. He seems to love his job. Most of the foreign-language teachers I’ve met have been cheerful folks.
My theory is that there’s something joyful and délicieux about teaching languages. The language teacher meets people from all countries and walks of life, and gently guide them to a deeper understanding of your own culture. Plus, there’s plenty of loose talk. Freewheeling conversations of daily events and political topics are encouraged, since strong opinions lure people out of their shells.
On Wednesday, for instance, we discussed the causes of juvenile delinquence. Today we debated whether "Marriage is the most beautiful proof of love." I tried to attack the problem in the French manner of using reason to analyze the affairs of the heart. My argument had three parts. When I tried to express it, the result was garbled nonsense. I hate being made to speak, because I am a perfectionist, and feel a sharp stab of agony whenever I make a grammatical mistake in any language. But the grammar is coming back quickly.
The afternoons are free, and they’ve been glorious: sunny, cool, and bright. Yesterday I visited the catacombs. You enter through a nondescript dark-green building facing the place Denfert-Rochereau. Then it’s down 130 narrow, twisting steps to an large underground quarry that was transformed into a catacombs in the late 18th century. Bones were taken from Paris’ overflowing, diseased cemeteries and stacked neatly in a series of underground galleries. The process of cleaning out disused (or suddenly valuable) cemetery land and moving the bones underground continued into the 1860s. The remains of untold millions of humans are stored here, including (somewhere) the remains of the composer Rameau, Louis VIX’s finance minister Jean-Baptist Colbert ("The art of taxation is to pluck the maximum amount of feathers from the goose with the least amount of hissing."), The Man in the Iron Mask, and Antoine Lavoisier.
The bones are stored in recessed side galleries. The outside layer of bones seems to be human femurs. Skulls are placed within the wall of kneecaps at various points to make designs — lines, X-shapes, or circles. The bone-galleries are held in place by cross-shaped stone reinforcements at the front, which are inscribed with sayings — some wise, some sententious — about death and the hereafter. When there are no other visitors around, the silence is absolute, except for the sound of water dripping intermittently from the ceilings. After climbing the 83 steps to the exit, your bag will be searched by a guard, to make sure you haven’t taken any bones with you. I gestured to a skull and a few arm-bones on the table next to the guard. He told me that was today’s haul, with an expression of world-weary disgust on his face.
I’ll post more from Paris in the next few days, since my feet are blistered from too much flanieren.