Further adventures in Paris

My original plan for organizing my Paris posts is getting harder to implement now that the easily-categorized food post is done. Which are “artistic” shots (I pompously decided I’d devote an entire post to photos I thought were artistic) and which are depictions of things we did? Some of the animal pictures (how did I even amass so many pictures of wildlife in a city?) even overlap with “activities”. Basically the problem is I just want to gush about everything all at once. But I think that’s an indicator that I had a really wonderful time, so I suppose it’s a good problem to have. I hate to tell you, though, that there’s a whole other leg to this journey AFTER Paris and if anything there are even more pictures from Nice, so this dilemma is going to repeat itself and you guys are going to be looking at my vacation pictures for weeks!

Right, so, I’ll try to pull my thoughts together and today talk about some of the important – to me – places we went and things we did. In my last post I mentioned I went to Paris with dreams of doing three things:

1) Order and drink grapefruit juice.
2) See the catacombs.
3) Visit Shakespeare & Company bookstore.

I’ll start with #3 because it happened first. So, I was an English major and one of my favorite books is Ulysses, which Shakespeare & Company is tangentially related to because it was named after the Shakespeare & Company that was owned by Sylvia Beach, who first published Ulysses. (That’s not confusing at all, right?) Both stores were (and the current one remains) hangouts for hordes of important writers. It follows therefore that I needed to go there even more badly than I needed to go to City Lights before I’d ever been to City Lights (which I’ve now been to many times).

I arrive on the scene.

I go in.

I browse. (I know Lisa G/K is going to ask me what I bought, so I’ll beat her to the punch: Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island, which I liked, but not as much as the two books I bought in Amsterdam’s American Book Center.)

I go upstairs and take pictures I’m not supposed to be taking (because Sylvia Beach Whitman, the daughter of the original store owner, who was named after Sylvia Beach (not confusing, right?) still allows writers to live upstairs in the “library” section of the store, photography is not allowed up there). BUT I COULDN’T STOP MYSELF. I AM A TERRIBLE PERSON.

There are several painfully adorable little writer alcoves.

Finally I dragged myself back out of the store, where Mark was waiting for me and drawing. (Mark had a sketchpad permanently attached to his hand in France.)

If I ever move to Paris, I’ll be spending many a rainy afternoon in Shakespeare & Company…it’s just my kind of place.

Moving on to #2 on my list above, Mark and I returned to the catacombs, which had been closed for VE Day the first time we went, and after standing in line for over an hour in some drizzle, we finally got in. Some things you might want to know about the catacombs before visiting:

  • They are not open on public holidays (see my prior post).
  • They are not handicapped accessible. This attraction would never be allowed in the United States. The only way down is 130 stairs, and the only way up is 83 stairs in a very tight, very small spiral staircase.
  • The tunnel is over a mile long, extremely darkly lit, slippery in some spots, and ends in some random location nowhere near where you began. Basically, you’ll be lost when you emerge.
  • There are lots and lots and lots of bones. The bones of 6 million people. Many, many bones. Really, more bones than I imagined. Lots of bones.

The first part of the tunnel is an old quarry, which is where this picture was taken. I’ve been puzzling over this picture for the last couple of days, though. At first I didn’t think anything of it; it was clearly a picture of my shadow taking a picture of Mark’s shadow. Mark’s making the animal shape with his hand and you can see the shadow of me taking the picture. Except I’m NOT taking his picture. The picture was taken with my Canon 60D and I always use the viewfinder to take pictures, that is, I always hold it up to my eye. Even if I HAD used the LCD to take the picture and had held it away from my face (which I didn’t), it’s a dSLR – you’d be able to see the shadow of it in my hands because it is very much larger than my hands. And my arms don’t even seem to be properly attached to my body. It’s not the shadow of someone else because I know that Mark and I were alone in the room because we wouldn’t have been acting goofy or disrespectful if anyone else had been there, and besides, that’s the outline of my hair and I specifically recall lining up the shot so both of our shadows were in the picture. So I had no idea why I’m dismembered and don’t seem to have a camera…which seems impossible considering I HAVE A PICTURE.

If you go to the catacombs and you are interested in taking pictures, take a camera that is very good in low light levels. I had to use ISO 6400 and switch to my 50mm f/1.8 lens just for the extra sensitivity. Neither flash nor tripods are allowed. After getting through the quarry part, one of the first sets of skulls you come to are three skulls lined up to the right of a fairly bright light. Take a picture of these skulls because that’s the best light you’re going to get in the whole tunnel.

These are two of the same three:

Same location, further back:

I didn’t see anyone disrespect the “no flash” rule, but what people were doing was illuminating the bones with flashlights in order to be able to take pictures. Mark, who was sketching the whole time we were there, was annoyed by this because it kept messing with his lighting, and he thought it was the same as using a flash and therefore not allowed. However, I think possibly the “no flash” rule is more for the sake of ambiance than the typical museum reason of being damaging to artwork (and certainly not the typical theatre reason of being distracting to the performers!) and that therefore flashlights may be allowed. And what I did was wait for someone to come through and shine a flashlight on a location for their own photo and I’d steal their illumination for my own. Just go prepared for the far-from-ideal situation as far as photography is concerned, if it matters to you.

I’ve been rambling on about practical concerns, but what did I think of the catacombs? They were even better than I’d hoped, actually. I’d become a little worried when I realized they were more popular than I’d thought they were (before arriving, I didn’t realize the lines were always an hour or longer to get in) that they might be too touristy or commercialized. They are emphatically not. They were actually much closer to what a younger, more naive Renae thought they were be like than the older, jaded Renae, who was going to kick something if she saw one more goddamn McDonalds or Starbucks in Paris or Amsterdam. They are very real. You don’t get much more real than walking through a dark tunnel lined with the bones of 6 million people. You’re not supposed to touch them, and you don’t want to touch them, out of respect, but if you are like me, you’ll be backing up trying to line up a shot and you’ll back right into the other side of the tunnel and you’ll realize, “oh, I’m casually leaning against A WALL OF HUMAN BONES”. It’s a moving experience, even if at the end of the two kilometers you’re a little tired of looking at bones. And I like bones.

So we’ve gone through two of my three goals, right? What about le jus de pamplemousse? D’accord, d’accord. I don’t WANT to show you this picture because no one looks very attractive drinking a beverage while photographed from below. One day I’m going to show Mark how to compose a portrait photograph. This is what NOT to do, but it’s also moi, bois du jus de pamplemousse! And DAMN did it taste good!

I’d said that other than my three goals, all I wanted to do was just be in Paris. What else did we do? Most of it I’ll save for a later entry with my artsy pictures, but here are a few other things we did, almost all of them discovered just by walking around.

Walked by the Moulin Rouge…that red moulin being the first windmill seen on my trip despite having come straight from Holland!

Climbed the stairs of Montmartre.

Walked around aimlessly and turned around to find myself in the shadow of one of the most famous pieces of architecture in the world. (Quelle surprise!)

Walked around aimlessly and found the “love locks” I’d first read about on David Lebovitz’s blog, then saw on Jes’s blog a few weeks ago. (I think Jes and I managed to have practically the same Paris vacation. 🙂 )

Went to the garden of the Rodin Museum.

I love this picture of Mark sketching the Thinker.

I told you he was permanently attached to his sketchpad on this trip, like all trips. In fact, some of our best memories are just sitting outside a cafe, sipping wine, me watching Mark sketch or ink.

Or walking along the Seine at night, holding hands.

Whew, okay, that’s enough for one post! More Paris to come, like it or not.


  1. Jes Said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    Hehehe we did have pretty much the same vacation–love it! That photo of the shadows in the catacombs is CREEPERS though. Shudder/awesome. Looks like a totally fantastic time–I’m guessing you got to actually go into the Rodin museum?! Le jealous! 🙂

  2. Josiane Said,

    May 24, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

    I think I have figured out why your shadow looks dismembered: your body’s shadow and your arms’ shadow are on different walls, which is why they’re not lining up perfectly. Hm, but that wouldn’t explain why your arms seem to be extended while you held the viewfinder to your eye… Le mystère reste entier!
    I had never seen septembre written as 7bre. Interesting!
    Your pics are bringing back so many memories! Some from the last time I was in Paris, with my gentleman friend, others from the time I’ve lived there (for a few short months) with my ex. We were living in La goutte d’or, a lively neighbourhood nearby Montmartre, not touristy at all, filled with immigrants, pretty different from the rest of Paris, and yet, still very Paris at the same time. I loved it and miss it a lot…
    Oh, if you’d like to see some of the pics my gentleman friend has taken in Paris last time we were there, a few of the faces that stood out for him are compiled here: http://www.fractale-framboise.com/2009/07/les-visages-de-paris/ I particularly like the last one!

  3. renae Said,

    May 26, 2012 @ 6:16 pm

    Josiane, you are probably completely right about the arm shadows not lining up because they are on different walls. Still don’t know why the camera is not casting a shadow thought!

    I’ll have to check out La goutte d’or next time I’m there – I like neighborhoods with a lot of ethnicities.

    Your gentleman friend’s pictures are fascinating!

  4. Becky Said,

    May 27, 2012 @ 11:07 am

    I love it! I’m going to Paris (and Amsterdam) and I need ideas. Maybe we’ll go see the skulls. Thanks for sharing. Keep it up!!!

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