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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Impermanence

When I was 19 years old, I was in love for the first time, in Paris for the first time, and seeing the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame Cathedral for the first time. It doesn’t get much better than that. It was one of the high points of my life.

It didn’t take long to figure out that the love wasn’t going to last, but, as they say, I’d always have Paris. Some things you just assume will last forever. Some things, you think, will be as permanent as Mount Everest.

Watching Notre Dame burn broke my heart. That spire crashing down felt like it went right through me. Yes, they’ll rebuild, but it will never again be “my” Notre Dame. That’s gone.

We tend to forget that the things made by man are very impermanent. If a stretch of interstate highway was abandoned for 10 years, it would be so reclaimed by weeds and trees that it would be unrecognizable. Whole cities have disappeared with the passage of time. Buildings and bridges collapse. Towns burn. Tumbleweeds roll down what used to be main streets. Waters rise, winds blow, sand dunes encroach.

Most of us try not to think about it. It is hard, living in that state of awareness. Impermanence is scary. It reminds us of our own mortality. If Notre Dame can burn after having stood for about 800 years, then my fragile little body is toast.

But in many ways, that impermanence is actually a gift. While Notre Dame propped up my 19 year old’s sense of beauty and romance, I went on to have many other amazing experiences, and I’m sure that more are in the offing. Knowing that all these things are merely blips on the radar of the universe makes me appreciate them even more. What I am experiencing right here, right now, will be gone in a moment.

What a gift that I got to collect these memories, if even for just a cosmic second, even if they aren’t made of mountains, and will someday be reduced to dust.

Don’t forget to appreciate the now, dear reader. In the overall scheme of things, it’s really all that we have.

Notre Dame

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Weird Travel Syndromes

As an avid traveler, I’m not unaware of the inherent dangers of going to countries that aren’t your own. Getting caught up in political tensions. Breaking laws or making a cultural faux pas due to your own ignorance. Getting lost. The inability to communicate. Losing one’s passport. Misunderstandings. Being considered vulnerable and therefore getting targeted by criminals. I even knew someone once who got into a car accident in a third world country and wound up getting hepatitis from an unclean blood transfusion. Years later, she died as a result.

Travel is not for sissies. Do your homework. Take precautions.

But until today I didn’t realize that there were also mental health risks. The fear of losing one’s luggage is scary. But actually becoming psychotic? Yikes.

I heard someone mention Paris Syndrome this morning. It intrigued me, so I looked it up in the Font of All Human Knowledge, also known as Wikipedia. Now, be advised that none of the syndromes I mention in this post can be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But it fascinates me that they crop up enough to have actual names.

It seems that Paris Syndrome can occur when one visits that fair city and experiences extreme shock when it does not live up to expectations. I do remember that on my first visit, I was disappointed that all the food was not phenomenal, and surprised that most people on the streets were not wearing haute couture. But I got over it.

Not everyone does. Some people experience delusions, hallucinations, dizziness, tachycardia, and perspiration, among other things. It’s like culture shock, writ large. For some reason, it seems to happen to Japanese tourists more than any other group. I have no idea why.

From there, as often happens when surfing Wikipedia, I was led to an article about Jerusalem Syndrome. This one occurs when someone visits Jerusalem and experiences religious delusions. It used to be called “Jerusalem squabble poison”, and it has been occurring since the Middle Ages. Tour guides are trained to look out for it, in the hopes that they can nip it in the bud before the sufferer steals the hotel bed sheets, wraps himself up in them, and then delivers a nonsensical sermon at one of the holy places in the city. Good grief.

And then there’s Stendhal Syndrome. This one happens in Florence, Italy. It’s named after the first known victim, a writer from the early 1800’s. With this syndrome, one is apparently so overcome by the art of Florence, and the presence of the graves of notables such as Machiavelli, Michelangelo, and Galileo, that one experiences ecstasy, dizziness, and disorientation.

For the most part, these syndromes seem to resolve themselves when the tourist leaves the cities in question, but area hospitals are used to admitting patients with these symptoms. It’s enough to make you want to stay home.

Well, no it isn’t. But it certainly makes you think.

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A Mental Walkabout

Once upon a time, I’d visit a different foreign country every two years. Those were the days. Now, 60 percent of my income goes toward mortgage and utilities, and I don’t see myself ever being able to leave the country again. That breaks my heart, because travel is my reason for being.

Because of this, I’ve become really adept at doing mental walkabouts. If I close my eyes, I can remember exactly what it was like to walk amongst the pigeons in St. Mark’s Square in Venice. I can also explore the ruins of Ephesus, Turkey. I remember the sights, the sounds, the smells of all the amazing places I’ve been. I can transport myself back to the Mercado Hidalgo in Guanajuato, Mexico, and sample, once again, the Hungarian Goulash in Budapest.

The one percent may make it financially impossible for me to explore the world anymore, but they can’t take away my memories. Only dementia or death can do that. I’m terrified of dementia. Death, from my perspective, is simply another way to travel. (Not that I’m in any hurry to hop on that plane.)

Until then, I’ll travel in my mind. I’ll ride bicycles along the canals in Utrecht, Holland, and swim in the crystal blue Adriatic Sea. I’ll snack on fresh bread and local cheese in the Swiss Alps. No matter how dire my financial straits become, as the saying goes, I’ll always have Paris.

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Me, in Venice, with some feathered friends.

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Ping Pong and Paris

I was in my car when I first heard of the horrifying, senseless, heartbreaking series of events that occurred in Paris on Friday the 13th. I had to pull over to process the many thoughts that I was having. Concern for all my friends and family who live in the area competed with sadness that anyone should have to experience such tragedy. I also felt anger that there is still so much ignorance in this world.

But the most unpleasant thought of all probably won’t make sense to anyone but me. Ping pong balls and mousetraps.

If you’ve ever seen video footage of a ping pong ball being dropped into a room full of mousetraps with still more ping pong balls quietly poised on top of them, you know how quickly the scene becomes chaotic and unpredictable. The chain reaction is rapidly out of control.

This is the effect that terrorists count on. All they have to be is the first, destructive ping pong ball. Then they get to sit back and watch without expending any further energy of their own as all hell breaks loose.

A gunman opens fire in a Paris bar, and before you know it, a gentle and loving high school student who just happens to wear a hijab is getting beaten up in the school yard in some small town in Canada. People are slaughtered while enjoying a concert in France, and someone is pulled over by a cop in Oakland simply because he has dark hair and olive skin. One destructive group decides to make a murderous point, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants throughout the world, who are simply trying to improve their lives, are viewed with hatred and suspicion. These reactions divide us. Terrorists thrive on division.

Every time you react randomly to a very specific event, the terrorists win. Don’t hate all Muslims for what one group of very specific crazy people decided to do. Don’t hate all immigrants. Definitely do not hate everyone who is different from you. If you have to react to these awful events, make your reaction specific, not random. Focus on the actual individuals who perpetrated this crime. If we all point our energy toward them, we will be more like a spear that finds its well-deserved target, instead of a room full of ping pong balls that are bouncing willy nilly, accomplishing nothing but more destruction. The terrorists would fear that spear, as well they should.

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We Focus on the Tempest

On my bookshelf sits the book “Droll Stories”, a collection of 30 stories by Honore de Balzac. I’ve never read it all the way through. I really ought to. The stories within are mildly ribald by today’s standards. But in the 1800’s they caused quite a sensation, I’m sure. The only reason I have this book is that in the 70’s my mother worked at Heritage Press, the publishers of this particular edition, and when she asked for a copy she was told that as the mother of a small child it would be inappropriate to have it.

Oh, but that’s not something you told my mother. She disapproved of censorship in any form. After that she moved heaven and earth to get a copy of this book. It was the principle of the thing, you see. She gave it to me when I was in college. Not because she thought it was a particularly good read, but because someone had the gall to try to decide what would or would not corrupt me. If not for that I’m certain I’d never have heard of this book.

That’s the thing about censorship. It often has the opposite effect. It draws attention to something that otherwise would very likely sink into obscurity all on its own. For example, I would never have attempted to read The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie if it weren’t for the fatwa that was issued calling for his death for having written it. I found the book hard to follow and lost patience with it partway through. I suspect a lot of people read this book who wouldn’t have, simply because of the media furor.

I also strongly suspect that the movie The Interview would barely have caused a blip on the cultural radar if it weren’t for the fact that North Korea protested it so rigorously. Described as a gross-out comedy about the fictional assassination of their insane leader, this movie isn’t going to win an Oscar, let me assure you. Normally I’d give it a miss, but now I suppose I’ll have to get around to seeing it one of these days. It’s the principle, you see.

And how many of us in the world would have even heard of the paper Charlie Hebdo if some lunatics in Paris hadn’t tried to cover up their tasteless and extreme cartoons with the blood of their staff members? Honestly, I couldn’t have been less interested until that fateful day. Now it’s all about freedom of speech and the senseless murder of writers, so it matters to me greatly.

Extremists need to learn that if they don’t want people to see something, then the last thing on earth they should do is create a media storm. Everyone will focus on a tempest. Even one that’s merely in a teapot.

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[Image credit: theclaystudioofmissoula.org]

A Horrifying Anniversary That You May Know Nothing About

I’m 49 years old, and I’m just learning about something horrendous that happened on this day only a few years before I was born. I have no idea why this should be the case, other than the fact that I had a spotty and typically subpar Florida public school education.

I knew about the Algerian War in which that country ultimately gained its independence from France. That independence was hard-won indeed, and that war was extremely dirty on both sides– full of torture, disappearances, bombings and atrocities too numerous to mention. What I didn’t know about was the Paris massacre of 1961, in which at least 40, but quite possibly 200 people died.

On October 17th, 1961 in the city of Paris, 30,000 Algerians staged a protest about the Algerian War. According to Wikipedia, “Many demonstrators died when they were violently herded by police into the River Seine, with some thrown from bridges after being beaten unconscious. Other demonstrators were killed within the courtyard of the Paris police headquarters after being arrested and delivered there in police buses. Officers who participated in the courtyard killings took the precaution of removing identification numbers from their uniforms, while senior officers ignored pleas by other policemen who were shocked when witnessing the brutality. Silence about the events within the police headquarters was further enforced by threats of reprisals from participating officers.”

In 1998, the French government finally acknowledged the death of 40 people on that tragic day. In 1999 the national assembly finally passed a law that allowed the term “Algerian War” to be used. What a shocking level of revisionist history to participate in for nearly half a century. But I doubt that any government can escape that accusation. God knows America can’t. I know I will never gaze upon the Seine in the same way again.

I couldn’t even tell you about how I recently learned about this event. It got overshadowed by my utter disgust that it isn’t more widely discussed. It made me wonder what else I am blissfully ignorant of. We live in a world in which there are so many brutalities that more and more of them fall by the wayside. So I decided that on this day I would bear witness in my humble blog, because 200 lives, even one life for that matter, is too precious to forget.

Please join me in a moment of silence.

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I got this image from an amazing article that can be found here.

It’s No Honeymoon

I heard recently that the tradition of having a honeymoon after one gets married has some very nefarious origins. Back when abducting the bride from a neighboring village or tribe was even more commonplace than it is today, it was a good idea for the man to hide the woman for a couple of weeks. That way the girl’s family had a chance to calm down, and in some cultures be assured that she was now “damaged goods” and not worthy of reclamation.

The sad thing is that this isn’t ancient history. According to Wikipedia, bride abduction is common among the Hmong people of Southeast Asia, the Romani, the Tzeltal in Mexico, and it’s a long-standing tradition amongst the people of Kyrgyzstan. It’s also still done in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Kenya, Chechnya, Moldova, Turkey, parts of India and Bulgaria.

Most recently there was a horrifying abduction of 234 school girls between the ages of 16 and 18 in Nigeria. According to the Washington Post, rumor has it that they were taken into the forests and forced to marry members of the radical militant group Boko Haram. The group’s name literally translates to “western education is a sin.” “The group, for which Western education is anathema, has killed at least 2,300 people since 2010, according to estimates in journalistic and Amnesty International reports.”

When will the world stop looking at women as commodities? And what good can possibly come from relegating yourself to a lifetime of being, basically, a slave owner and a rapist? Is that your idea of happily ever after? Is readily available sex and housekeeping really worth all the misery?

Bride abduction is only one step above sex trafficking, which is also horribly prevalent throughout the world. When I was 19 I was approached by what I believe was a sex trafficker. I was in Paris, standing outside a museum, when a very good looking but strangely scary man approached me and asked if I wanted to go to a party. I said, “Uh, I don’t think my boyfriend would appreciate that.” And thank God my boyfriend arrived right at that moment. And the man ran, literally ran, away. I often think about that close call and what might have become of me. Because of this, stories like those in Nigeria strike a chord.

The frustrating thing about bride abduction, sex trafficking, and rape in general, and this is globally, is that most cultures view the victims as being culpable, tainted, and damaged, so even if they manage to get free, their lives are forever ruined, so many women simply resign themselves to their fate, which makes the whole sick crime that much easier to carry out.

Until we as a species educate ourselves and adopt a more sane attitude to these sex crimes and hold accountable the people who are really at fault, these women will be punished for the rest of their lives.

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Some of the Nigerian school girls.

[Image credit: hellobeautiful.com]

Location, Location, Location

The first time I fell in love I was 19 and in Europe for the first time. Everything was exotic and new and delicious and exciting. We held hands and made out and explored that world and each other, and everything was magical. So magical, in fact, that the rest of my life has paled by comparison. How can you possibly compete with being in love in Paris, Berlin, and Amsterdam?

The second time I was in love was in the virtual world called Second Life. In that amazing place the moon is always full, your house is always waterfront, everyone dances well and dresses well and is always young and gorgeous, and you can be in Morocco one minute and in the hanging gardens of Babylon the next. But you can ask anyone who has spent any time in Second Life and they will assure you that the feelings are real. The connections are real.

This time around I’m in love in Jacksonville, Florida, a city I’ve been trying, unsuccessfully, to get away from for the past 30 years. It’s not an exotic love. It’s not a gorgeous love. It’s a more realistic one, and perhaps that’s why the relationship is more rocky, more roller coaster-y, more uncertain, but priceless nonetheless.

What would love be like while dodging bullets in Compton, or on the crowded streets of Bangladesh, or starving in a slum in Rio de Janeiro? How much of love is strictly a function of location? I wonder.

Shanties gutted in the city

(Image credit: shesoverseas.com)

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.