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Empire de la Mort

(Don’t forget to check out the video!)
The catacombs were the first thing we wanted to visit during our short time in Paris. The city has a 130 mile maze of limestone quarries beneath its streets. In the late 1700′s, cemeteries were literally saturated and overflowing with decay, and the solution was to exhume and relocate the bones to these quarries. Over the years, the remains of over six million Parisians were stacked in the tunnels.

We eventually located a small, nondescript building that housed the entrance to the catacombs. A small sign warning that the visit is “disadvised to the people suffering of cardiac or respiratory weakness and of nervous disposition” set the tiniest bit of anticipation in motion as we descended a long spiral staircase 130 steps straight down. At the bottom a graph shows the depth of your location compared to the subway, and we tried not to ask ourselves questions about earthquakes in France. A series of dark, empty tunnels eventually led to the beginning of the ossuary, where a sign above the door warned, “Halt! You are now entering the empire of the dead.”

Those in the tunnels with us all stopped within the first 50 feet to view the first collection of bones and skulls, many totally disregarding the flash photography ban. We hung back to let them pass, but not so far to leave us totally alone. Stone plaques commemorated the dates and cemeteries from which certain piles were transferred. Other plaques were inscribed with death-themed maxims in French and Latin. We were able to understand just enough words to know that most were fixated on the fleetingness of life and the certainty of death. We examined the brow ridges of the skulls, guessing whether they were male or female, how old they might have been when they died and what their lives were like before they were deposited in the dark and damp empire de la mort.

The paths continued and the psychological edge from simply being in the presence of human remains shifted into wonder at the sheer volume, piled even into even the smallest corners. After a while your mind just stops trying to process it, until you realize that it took less than an hour to become comfortable walking next to the remains of six million people.

19
Jun 2012
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Food in Paris

Continuing our tradition of compiling all of our food photos from one leg of the trip into one blog post, here is what we ate in Paris. Two days, a handful of meals… not much time to delve into French cuisine. One of our breakfasts, which consisted of coffee, orange juice and chocolate croissant next to an outdoor market, was just too pleasant to interrupt by taking the camera out. And it didn’t help that we were so hungry one afternoon that we walked into the first cafe we came across. It turned out to be an expat place that sold cheeseburgers and American grocery items. Good thing we had such a great feast in Toulouse!

18
Jun 2012
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Eiffel + Arc

Although the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe were not on our priority list, we found ourselves in the general neighborhood of Eiffel late in the afternoon on our first day. We bought some cheese and wine from a nearby shop, sat on the lawn and watched the crowds, then wandered across the Seine for a much better view of the tower and watched some breakdancers for a bit.

We realized the sun was setting soon and that would probably be a great time to head over to the Arc, which is at the crest of the Champs-Élysées. Although the war memorial is 200 years old, cleaning and restorations in recent years made the limestone seem golden in the evening light. It was an unplanned end to the day, and one of our favorite memories of Paris.

18
Jun 2012
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That’s Where You Are: Arc de Triomphe

We got to the Arc de Triomphe just before the sun went down and spent enough time taking photos that I realized we were needing to change the camera settings as the light changed. So I got the idea to walk up Avenue de la Grande Armée to the next waist-high stop light to try to get some video footage that could be sped up as the sun sets. I originally thought the sun was setting fast enough that the light on the Arc would significantly change within just a few minutes. Ten minutes later I wasn’t so sure that it did, but a better ending walked right in front of us.

17
Jun 2012
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A Tiny Slice of Paris

We had only two full days in Paris before our flight to Tbilisi, which is far too short to really see much, so we didn’t go crazy rushing around the city trying to pack it all in. We picked only two things we really wanted to do (visit the Catacombs and Musée d’Orsay), made sure they happened, and anything else was gravy. Here are a few fun photos that don’t have much of a story behind them.

17
Jun 2012
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Cigarettes: mandatory. Respirator: optional.

(Click here for the video.)

Between a half day in a tattoo studio (more on that soon) and eating some wonderful buckwheat crepes with our friend Sharla, we just happened to walk through the square at Place du Capitole where Toulouse Graffiti Jam 3 had just started. Half of the square was transformed into a maze of plywood walls with paintings in-progress by over 30 artists, while a live DJ spun French hip-hop and timely tributes to Beastie Boy MCA, who had passed away less than a week earlier. Most of the artists were native to Toulouse and Paris, while others came from UK, Spain, Italy, and even Atlanta and LA.

Graffiti seems to be a reoccurring theme, even back to our first day in Reykjavik. It continued in Glasgow where I thought to myself, “…can’t tell if there is a lot of decent street art here, or if I’m just from the midwest and don’t know whats normal.” In Paris, I spotted an Invader tile mosaic strategically placed next to one of Hector Guimard’s Metro station entrances. The artist who tattooed me in Madrid (… also more on that soon) started sneaking out to spray paint when he was 13, and even had plans right after my appointment to go paint some walls with friends who were in town from northern Europe.

I was vaguely familiar with a couple of the French artists at the Toulouse event, which made it exceptionally cool to just happen across giant pieces of their work in public.

The first was a giant floating one-eyed head by Leopold Geb. I recognized his style from seeing a few of his drawings online. When I searched around enough to find out his name, his tumblr linked to an artist I had met with earlier that day.

Then there was a piece by Vincent Abadie Hafez, also known as Zepha. Zepha’s work is composed with broad-stroked and impeccably (impossibly) balanced writing, influenced by arabic calligraphy. That writing was instantly recognizable in giant gold brush strokes amidst darker layers. I loved it enough to get a decent photo, not even realizing it was actually unfinished. When we walked through again a couple days later, it was covered in an almost-opaque red except where he had encouraged random viewers to rub it away with their hands. This revealed an under-painted circle of lettering he had put down beforehand, which I think told an interesting story about this type of art.

Graffiti has roots in defacement. And the defacement side of graffiti is sadly still kicking. The territorial pissings of taggers exist in every city we’ve been in. It defaced legitimate street art in Reykjavik. Our first view of the Eiffel Tower was through the harshly scratched-up glass of a Paris Metro car. The lift room for the tower at Sagrada Familia was filled with carvings of every kid who ever had to stand in line. At Vardzia, the nearly thousand year old frescos outside the tiny cave-church are barely out of reach, but the feet of saints and angels are almost erased by names and pledges of young love.

To say the graffiti at this event is something completely different is an overstatement. Street art culture has evolved to form a collective conscience that keeps most of it on dilapidated buildings and other urban decay. It’s also become respected enough as medium that artists like Geb and Zepha now display their work in galleries. Another artist that was there, TOTEM2, does commissions for advertisement murals. But none of them honed their talent on municipal plywood in this much sunlight. They retain their credibility as street artists because they still get out at night and make art in the street.

Maybe it’s getting hard to use the word “defacement” any more when so many of those surfaces are being improved. But Zepha brought that term full circle in Toulouse, where the finished product of his work would only be fully realized through literal defacement by the public– ironically, the only defacement taking place at a graffiti exhibition. He described it on his site as “Calligraphic text and then covered… To be newly discovered by curious hands.”

-T

15
Jun 2012
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Toulouse Miscellany

A little collection of photos from Toulouse. A view of the city from Sharla’s semi-supersecret location, the Pont Neuf at night, all the used Converse your heart desires (every vintage and second-hand shop had piles of them), delicious food, political stickers on the street (we were there a few days after President Hollande was elected).

The last photo is a stunning culinary find from a subway stop convenience store for the price of just a few Euros. Back home, these things grow wild and are difficult to find even if you know what you’re doing. If you’d rather have someone else do all the hard work for you, not very affordable. Alicia rehydrated them and cooked them for dinner. Yum!

14
Jun 2012
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A Day in Carcassonne

We took the train southeast from Toulouse to the legendary medieval city of Carcassonne. The train ushered us through the countryside and red poppies waved to us for the entire length of track. We had lunch at a cafe in the square of modern Carcassonne, then headed up the hill towards the huge walls.

For a while, we wandered around between the outer and inner walls, and sat in the grass and just enjoyed the sun and being together. Then, we went inside the city. It was… ok. There were a lot of overpriced restaurants and tacky souvenir shops. We decided not to pay the hefty entrance fee to go into the actual castle, because it was unclear what we were going to see there other than some sort of video. None of the books about the city sold in the tourist shops featured any photos of the inside of the castle, either, so we thought we’d save our pennies and skip it.

We did end up digging into our pockets to pay the entrance fee for the torture museum. It was centered around the inquisition, and had a few interesting (horrifying) items and an admonishment at the end about how we must all be vigilant to keep these and other human rights atrocities happening again. But it was obvious that most of the items on display were reproductions, many of the mannequin-centric vignettes were in poor condition, and labels on the exhibits had barely comprehensible English translations.

The best thing inside the city walls was the somewhat small and very old (consecrated in 1096) Basilique Saint-Nazaire-et-Saint-Celse, where a Russian men’s quintet was performing chorales. We spent nearly an hour listening to the music and examining the detail of the stained glass and crypt carvings.

Despite the actual place we went to see being the very definition of “tourist trap,” we did our own thing and had a nice afternoon. We picked out a few marvelously tacky postcards for friends (and a few nice ones for grandmothers) and rushed back down the hill to catch an earlier train home.

14
Jun 2012
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