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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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Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse

On Saturday in Toulouse, we attempted to go to Carcassonne, but when we got to the station, the train tickets were sold out. So we bought our tickets for Monday instead, and wandered around town. We came across Cathédrale Saint-Étienne, pushed open a huge door and stepped into the dark entryway.

The Cathedral was cold and damp, dimly lit by the grey morning skies, and the carved stone floor was easy to trip over as it had been worn down unevenly by millions of footsteps over the last thousand years. Of all the houses of worship in Europe, it’s not considered a jewel of either art or architecture (in fact, it is considered to be rather oddly cobbled together over the years), but we were still in awe of the tangible saturation of time and devotion.

14
Jun 2012
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Toulouse Hospitality

In January, Tony scheduled a tattoo appointment for May 11 in Toulouse. An old friend of his happens to live there, so he emailed her to see if she would like to meet us for coffee while we were in town. Sharla, her husband, Laurent, (and fancy kitty friend Eugenie) ended up hosting us for five days. Despite the fact that Tony hadn’t seen Sharla in over a decade, Alicia had never met her, and neither of us had met Laurent, we had a great time. Sharla took us to a sorta-almost-secret spot to look out over the city, to a great crepes place, and on an evening walk through the park. Also, she makes really, really good granola.

Laurent’s parents, Jean-Pierre and Anna, were determined that their son’s American guests would have the opportunity to sample the best of French cuisine, so they hosted us for lunch on Sunday. After meeting their teenage and half-century old tortoises, we had champagne and sampled a variety of canard delicacies. There was magret séché de canard (salt-cured duck breast), three types of duck sausage, crispy fried duck skin, and some foie gras Jean-Pierre potted himself. Then came wine and salad and delicious cassoulet, which featured more duck sausage and duck legs. Then five different types of cheeses, ice cream and chocolates for dessert, and a sampling of the sole remaining bottle of Laurent’s grandfather’s homemade plum liquor.

It was a marvelous feast and we enjoyed every bite. Toulouse duck is far and away more delicious than any wild Mississippi River duck. Thank you Sharla, Laurent and family very much for your kind hospitality!

(The dinner photos in this post are courtesy of Jean-Pierre.)

13
Jun 2012
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Xampañería

For several days in Barcelona, we had been lamenting the fact that it would be a long time before we could walk down a street and see a familiar face. Alicia said, “I just want to run into someone I know today. Anyone. Wouldn’t that be so nice?” Late in the afternoon of this particular day we were tired and getting a little cranky. After walking way too far to check out the zoo, which ended up being more than we wanted to pay for “maybe this will be cool” late afternoon entertainment, the decision was made to just go back to our hostel on the opposite end of the city.

The closest metro stop was a few blocks away at Barceloneta. We walked less than a block and a familiar face showed up! That lightly bearded face belonged to Kristian who works at our hostel. When you meet him you feel like you’ve known him for years. Case in point – he immediately introduces us to Michael and Panos, whom I assumed were old buddies of his, but it turned out that he just met them at a Greek restaurant earlier that day. He was taking them to his favorite place, which he only referred to as the xampañería and invited us to come along. I had no idea what a xampañería was, but it sounded like a place where they serve champagne… so yes, let’s go there.

Five minutes away from where we met, he took us down a quiet, seemingly unused block to an unmarked bar with people literally spilling out the front. Kristian dives right into the crowd and forms a channel for us to push our way to the back and find a counter to lean against. The interior is unpretentious. A few cured whole hams hang from the ceiling among the industrial light fixtures and a large wooden sign revealing the name of the mystery bar – Can Paixano.

His xampañería turns out to be a cava bar. Cava is Catalonian champagne. It is pink, bubbly, delicious, costs about €1 per glass, and it’s the only thing served at Can Paixano other than the small plates of cheese and hot sausages they pair it with. Michael brought us up to speed with Greek politics. Kristian told us about leaving his home country of Cyprus in search of adventure elsewhere, which currently finds him in Barcelona. We told him a relatable story.

12
Jun 2012
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Barcelona: Streets and People

A collection of people and street scenes in Barcelona, including a minor peaceful protest we encountered and a huge banner demanding that a leader of the protests be freed from jail. We loved the city and all of the unexpected beauty around every corner.

06
Jun 2012
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Edible Barcelona

Most of these pictures are from Mercat St. Josep. You’ll see our favorite cheese (tetilla gallegago look up the translation if you want to learn a fun new Spanish word), bountiful produce and seafood, racy chocolates, “our” neighborhood bakery, and the harsh reality of delicious animal products. For our veg/vegan friends, we included two shots of some graffitti you might like.

05
Jun 2012
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Beach and Paella

We only had a few days left in Spain and still had not eaten any paella. So we spent a day walking the beach and picked a nearby paella restaurant at random. Alicia is not a big fan of invertebrates, but we both definitely found the pile of rice and tentacles and shells and tails and legs the be among our most delicious experiences to date.

05
Jun 2012
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Parc Güell

We visited Antoni Gaudi’s Parc Güell one evening. We started at the top of a very large hill (a series of escalators were very helpful in getting us there) and watched the sun set, then wound our way down to the main terrace. It was a fun end to a long day.

05
Jun 2012
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Sagrada Família

Sagrada Família was one of the places we knew we had to visit this year, even before we had any sort of an idea where were going or when. After a good night’s sleep, we headed down to the center of the city and planned to do nothing else that day.

It was gorgeous. We spent the entire afternoon with our necks craned back, staring at the column forest, the impossibly complex facades, and the tiny details of the relief carvings in the doors.

Sagrada Família has been under construction since 1882 and is scheduled to be completed in 2026. We’re thinking it would be worth a trip back to see it.

02
Jun 2012
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