Honoring the Dead+Some Musings on Differences

Travel Blog 5: Live Travel, or Die Blog

I’m going to get a little macabre, extremely irreverent and even a little bit weird. It’s more of a thought experiment than an actual thought, though I’ve arrived at a certain idea: We should create more museums for the dead. 

All dead, all recently dead, all the long-buried, all the faceless masses laid in mass graves. I find it cruel indeed that only a few get the option of being publicly interned, or I guess the term would be *ex*terned. Every man, woman and child should be long remembered in death, even if its for the sake of tourists paying $15 a pop to see the remains.

Deep underground in Paris, in the tunnels of old sandstone quarries, the famous Catacombs of the city house thousands of bones stacked like a macabre example of rock striations. From one layer are femurs, then skulls, then femurs, then skulls. These are the bones of the overflowing dead of Paris’ past. Some cemeteries had been used for nearly 10 centuries. Some were destitute and couldn’t afford a grave, some, more than likely, were well off enough to find a plot, but so many of the bones were mixed together in the late 18th century when the cemeteries were so overfull they were causing massive health concerns for all the people still living on this mortal coil. 

So these overflowing graves had their bones transported under the cover of night, to not scare any of the locals. With all the grace and dignity they could offer to piles of rotting flesh and bones, they lowered them into the quarries.

Now, why would they stack the bones up like that? Whose sick mind would think that would suite their old Christian Moralism? Well, it wasn’t nearly so much of an impetus of dark intentions, but of a kind of artistry, or more than likely, a commercial sensibility.

See, after decades of moving the bodies, the catacombs, named with an eye towards marketing after the old Roman catacombs, was opened to public perusal by appointment. There have been visits by kings, by aristocracy, and even once a macabre orchestra that played well into the night for a group of crazy bourgeoisie. 

So what more needs to be said of the tourists who visit the catacombs, other than they are a continuation of a tradition for Paris’ dead. 

You can visit their great dead in the underground of the Paris Pantheon, where although visitors are asked to maintain respect, one is not ignorant of the voyeuristic nature of visiting the corpse of a person long-since dead, even if its someone you so completely respect. My appreciation for Victor Hugo, Rousseau or Voltaire runs deep, but yes, I will get a kick out of standing three feet from their limp corpse. Even beyond their work which lives on in our records, the body, even as it’s decomposed into just another ragged set of bones, still has meaning.

They were the shell that held the ideas, they were the frame that created the faces we recognize. I can go to Victor Hugo’s house, now turned into a museum, and read purple descriptions about the great man’s life and accomplishments, but it will never be as visceral an experience as being so near the great man himself. 

And what about all those who remain nameless? Well, one should wonder about the boundless graves in the old gravehards from here to America. I like walking graveyards, especially the ones old enough that the names on those stones or crosses have worn away. Personally I would rather be a femur and skull, one set among thousands, contributing to a massive work of art.

I’m the type of guy who will chew your ear off if you give me the chance, or maybe if certain planets align, or if Venus is in retrograde, or if you want to chat about what’s happening in America.

And I also like looking at the differences between nations. The cultural gap does not need much explaining here, as its been covered in depth by many other blogs. Suffice it to say I’m not used to eating lunch from 1 to 2 and dinner from 7 to 10. What they say about the French being rude depends on how well you speak French. Say “bonjour” or “bonne soire” to everyone, and you’ll usually be fine from then on. My French, despite years and semesters in both high school and college, is still worse than rusty. It’s led to a fare share of awkwardness.

I had a long conversation with a young woman from Tours who was staying at the same hostel as me. She was on the cusp of taking tests she needs to pass to become a primary school teacher (ages up to 10), for which her multi-hour exam began at 8 a.m. So of course she deserves all the praise for taking the time to speak with me. My French still struggles to be coherent, so she took up the task of comprehending my rambling, formless rants. 

What marks my conversation, for me, was her own trials and worries. The exams for her to even begin the preliminary portions of her teaching career are exacting, and even when she get’s to her training period, two days in school and two days learning, she can expect to make a salary of 14,000 to 18,000. Consider, the standard of living for salaries are different in France. There is also little room for growth, especially compared to engineering, an educational track she was on just a year or two ago. While she is still at the low end of pay, it is a livable salary in most parts of France save Paris. The government also offers extra monetary incentive for those who volunteer to teach in less well-off areas. 

And still, she compares it to what’s in America, with a bevy of stories about teachers in certain parts of the country that work multiple jobs in order to afford their living situation. I wonder to what extent such articles have a cooling effect on French teachers who seek to raise their standard of living, as if pointing out “it can always be worse, just look at the U.S.” Not much, my compatriot says. France and its history of consistent revolt and revolution still maintains in the form of strikes, of which workers have a legal right without fear of retribution or layoffs. Everyone strikes, from the railway workers to teachers.

The main difference in this kind of anti-establishment attitude seems to me to be where in France the quest is to create a government that reflects the values of the day, in the U.S., our petty revolts revolve around trying to eliminate many facets of government altogether.

Next time, I’ll tell you about my long, semi-disastrous, semi-enlightening bike trip through Normandy. Stay tuned.

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