The Paris Catacombs. Who Knew?

When I first visited Paris in the early 80’s, one of many things I did was visit the catacombs beneath the city. You can wander for miles down there, amongst the bones of more than 6 million people. It’s grisly, but fascinating.

I really enjoyed the adventure, right up until the moment when the power went out, and I was plunged into the most profound darkness I’d ever experienced before or since. Suddenly I felt as though the bones were, I don’t know, aware, or something. I felt outnumbered. I instantly grabbed the hand of the person closest to me. I have no idea whose hand it was. Fortunately the lights came back on about a minute later, or I might very well have lost my mind. Instead, I had a nice nervous giggle. That is one of those travel memories that stay with you for life.

So, I was quite fascinated when I came across an article entitled, The Secret History of Paris’s Catacomb Mushrooms. It discusses the fact that many of Paris’ iconic buildings were built from limestone quarried from beneath the city. A lot has gone on beneath the Paris streets indeed.

The article does discuss the well-known ossuaries down there. After several cemetery cave-ins in the late 1700’s, the bones of those Parisians were stacked in the quarries and remain there to this day. But there is even more to these catacombs than that.

It seems that they were used by members of the French Resistance to hide their activities from the Nazis, and also as a hideout for deserters from Napoleon’s armies. Quite a fascinating history. Who knows who or what is down there today.

But what is really interesting, at least to me, is that someone discovered that the Parisian mushroom thrives down there. It likes the temperature and the moist environment. Back in 1880, the article says, “more than 300 mushroom farmers worked in Parisian quarries to produce 1,000 tons of Paris mushrooms each year.”

Apparently these mushrooms were very flavorful and popular. But when they started building the Paris Metro above the quarries in 1896, most of the mushroom farmers left, because the quarries were already getting dangerous due to disrepair. Now there are no mushroom farmers under the city.

The Paris mushroom has survived, but it is mostly produced in China. One half of one percent of all Paris mushrooms are produced in France, and those are now mostly grown in an industrial setting. They don’t taste remotely as good as they once did.

What a pity. I do love a good ‘shroom. Especially one with an intriguing history.

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Extremes

The most profound silence I have ever experienced was in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. Miles from civilization, the quiet takes on a character one does not usually experience, to the point where the flapping of a raven’s wings startles you.

The best thing I have ever eaten was a seafood pasta dish called “frutas del mar”, while sitting on the banks of the grand canal in Venice.

My biggest regret was transferring from Warren Wilson College instead of graduating there, just so I could be closer to a boyfriend whom I broke up with a month later. Warren Wilson is the most amazing place on earth in which to get an education. I’ve left my soul there, on Dogwood Ridge, and have been trying to relocate to the area ever since.

The loudest noise I ever heard was 1200 of my fellow middle-schoolers screaming at the top of their lungs at a pep rally, just before both of my eardrums burst.

The most beautiful thing I have ever seen was the view of the mountain range from Craggy Gardens on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That’s where I want my ashes scattered.

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The coldest I’ve ever been was the time that I had to walk to my car in the pouring rain and 40 mile per hour winds because my employer refused to shut down the drawbridge during a hurricane, and I needed the money too much to get fired by taking a stand. When I got home, after driving past fallen trees and downed power lines, my lips were blue.

The ugliest thing I’ve ever seen was the look on a coworker’s face when he was delighting in another coworker’s loss of his livelihood.

The drunkest I’ve ever been was the time I woke up in the trunk of my car and couldn’t remember how I’d gotten there. Which is why I haven’t had a drink in 28 years.

The happiest I have ever been is any time I’ve traveled and arrived at my destination safely, with all my luggage, and am about to concentrate on simply experiencing my new location. That “brink of adventure” feeling simply cannot be beaten.

The strongest I’ve ever been was the summer I was in the Youth Conservation Corps and had spent those months doing construction work. That experience also went a long way toward teaching me that I’m capable of anything. One of the stupidest things the government has ever done was to stop funding that program.

The proudest I’ve ever felt was when I went days without sleep to help a friend raise money for the victims of the earthquake in Haiti.

The most darkness I’ve ever experienced was deep in the catacombs under the city of Paris, surrounded by miles of skulls, when the lights suddenly went out.

The brightest light I’ve ever seen was when I defied all advice and looked directly at a solar eclipse. That split second was also the most profound pain I’ve ever felt, and I was certain, as I fell to my knees, that my skull had been pierced clean through. They aren’t kidding. Don’t look directly at a solar eclipse.

The most awe I’ve ever felt was when I looked, for the first time, at the Grand Canyon.

The hottest I’ve ever been was in Nevada, but I didn’t know it. As a Florida girl, I’m used to gauging heat by how much I sweat, but this was a dry heat, so I didn’t realize it was 120 degrees out until I passed out.

The worst taste I’ve ever had in my mouth was the time I chugged some liquid Maalox which turned out to be several years old, and the ingredients had separated, leaving the medicine unmasked by flavoring. I think I vomited for about an hour.

The best smell I’ve ever experienced was smoked ham in a Virginia barn when I was already ravenously hungry.

The worst smell, by far, was Jacksonville, Florida before they closed the paper mills. I honestly don’t know how anyone could live here before that. It was sickening. Now it smells wonderful, thanks to the Maxwell House Coffee plant.