All-night trance at the Louvre: Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds in Paris

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While all my friends back home are exploding Instagram with gaudy illuminations of the Sydney Opera House for the Vivid festival, Paris has taken the less-is-more route, preferring to make its most visited modern monument simply disappear. The massive photographic mural superimposed on the glass panels of the Louvre this month melts the imposing pyramid into the Baroque palace behind it, a trompe l’œil that has been delighting and confusing tourists and locals alike.

You’d have been forgiven for wondering why 300 twenty-something hipsters were queuing impatiently outside the non-existent Louvre entrance at midnight on Saturday, at a time when many Parisians in their age-bracket would be lining up for a sticky-floored nightclub. But this sold-out, all-night concert was far from just another Saturday at the iconic museum. This was the first time I’ve wiled away the wee hours from midnight til dawn reclining under the vast expanse of sky glimpsed through glass, all the while lullabied by two world-renowned electronic music producers improvising six hours of minimalist trance: Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds.

Despite their impeccable reputations, I’ve always been skeptical about these two pianist-composer/synth-knob-twiddlers, particularly the Berlin-based Frahm. I always assumed it was soft-core experimental classical music to recommend to people who blurt out they like Philip Glass. And as for Arnalds, isn’t all music coming out of Iceland good – and isn’t it all good in the same way? I went along to confirm my suspicions, hoping – as a long-suffering insomniac – to at least nod off from boredom as the repetitive loops turned my brain to crême brûlée. (Hated Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep album, by the way.)

I have to admit I looked at my watch a few times throughout the night. Here’s how it all unfolded.

12:36 “I’ve seen Nils three times,” a French fan boasts to his friends behind me. Everyone in the queue is dressed the same and roughly the same age. We shuffle into the disappearing-act pyramid like 300 Alices through the looking glass. I enjoy the otherworldly experience of descending the spiral staircase into the darkened underground lobby of the Louvre while it’s devoid of tourists frantically seeking out the Mona Lisa. An army of striped Paris Plage deck chairs greets us, along with disc-shaped floor cushions. I count no fewer than twelve keyboards (including mellotron, Fender Rhodes, Roland, pump organ and toy varieties) for the two performers, crammed on a small makeshift platform. I’ve come straight from an orchestral concert at the Philharmonie and am already fading. ‘Wake me up if anything interesting happens,’ I instruct my date, though it’s hard to shut my eyes with the magnificent rococo palace looming over us, etched on the inky sky – so peaceful just hours after eleven people were simultaneously struck by lightning in a Paris park. (That happened, by the way.)

01:01 The usual wash of delicate piano and electronic fuzz. When organ clusters take over the enveloping chords, I’m drawn in long enough to open my left eye and observe the two boyish soloists; Arnalds with his backlit blonde halo and white t-shirt; Frahm in black, blending into the shadows.

01:42 ‘We didn’t really know what to do tonight, so we’re just playing together,’ Frahm addresses the crowd. The crowd approves. Musically, it seems to be about treading water, conserving energy for later. I’m not hearing anything particularly engrossing – some of it even sounds suspiciously new age, like in those guided meditation CDs – but I admit I do feel uncharacteristically relaxed as I sink into my canvas chair. Every time I’m about to drop off, applause bounces sharply off the marble surfaces, ripping me out of my reverie.

02:14 The sound I like best so far is the security patrol’s walkie-talkies sporadically blipping along with the gentle whirl of synths. Relieved I was only semi-conscious for some sort of poetry reading. I mumble to my date: ‘Just imagine if Ben Stiller were here.’

02:33 I don’t think this is what people refer to as ‘deep listening’ exactly, but I notice there’s a point I stopped tuning out and started tuning in.

03:19 A hypnotic slow groove brings me unexpectedly to my feet and compels me towards the stage. I tiptoe through the bracken of skinny hipster limbs along the floor. Up close, standing and swaying in a trance bubble, I realise just how riveting Frahm is in live performance as he moves decisively between Juno synth and Steinway, instanly banishing the stereotype of steely German techno nerd.

03:44 I appreciate the contrast of sock-dancing on marble and the abrasive clink of Heineken bottles on marble.

04:03 Arnalds seems to contribute more delicate touches to the duo’s sonic identity, but when they’re both on keyboards the energy builds in waves; it’s easy to understand why they have collaborated together so intensively. Dripping with sweat, Frahm takes a break from block chords to towel his face. The white stairs behind the stage have been transformed into a rippling light show – when did that happen? ‘It’s getting a little crazy,’ Frahm pants into the mic. ‘We’re going to calm things down a bit…But we’ll get back there later,’ he assures us.

04:17 ‘Nils is taking a break; he’s sweating too much,’ Arnalds jokes. A more reserved performer than Frahm, he dedicates a solo number to his grandmother who, he explains, insisted on playing him classical music when he was all mixed up in death metal bands. It was only after her passing, he recalls, that he truly started to discover what she had encouraged him to listen to, nurturing his signature austere strings-and-piano sound.

04:33 My date departs. Pause pipi; no one even tries to sell me Ecstasy or similar. It’s the best classical rave I could have hoped for. No one tries to dance with me when I’m sleeping. And who needs glow-sticks when we’re just waiting on the Parisian sunrise refracted through a giant glass pyramid? Chilled trance prevails.

04:58 I hear dozens of white Stan Smith Adidas sneakers slapping marble and am persuaded to open my eyes. What brought on this sudden deck-chair exodus? As it turns out, the duo are brandishing the white toilet brushes that have become quite the party trick in Frahm’s live shows. The crowd knows what this means. Arnalds and Frahm proceed to strike and scrub the strings of the grand piano, their shadows writ large on the walls.

05:23 A chord change provokes wild applause for some reason.

05:26 Even in the most repetitive material, as in Hammers, Frahms varies his pianistic touch from staccato jazz attack to gentle caress without losing steam; his face is contorted with concentration as he sings along. A fresh towel materialises.

05:40
‘Hopefully we’ve laid out calculations correctly for our idea to play with the sunrise in Paris,’ Arnalds announces as the first light grey strains of encroaching morning goad the musicians on for the final sprint.
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An abrasive drone oscillating between F and F-sharp builds to a roar; delicate organ chords creep in with the first rays of light. Even the groggiest struggle to our feet for a standing ovation/sun salutation. Staff promptly inform us that breakfast is served – for those who reserved and paid extra. We shuffle out and rug up against the chill morning air of the deserted square courtyard. I hardly spoke to anyone the whole night but somehow feel I became friends with them all through the power of shared experience and the clear musical rapport and close friendship between the two soloists – not for nothing have they released a film entitled Trance Frendz documenting their prolific collaboration. (I would have called it TechnoBromance, maybe volume 2?)
I calculated a maximum of two hours and fifty minutes’ uninterrupted shut-eye before a yoga class I would almost certainly fall asleep in. Guess whose music I played as soon as I got home to help me nod off?
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Mélissa marked herself safe during Paris Terror Attacks

#myfuckbuddyandionlytelleachotheriloveyouwhentheresaterroristattackinparis, and it’s a little like that with this long-dormant blog, which was supposed to be dedicated to concerts and the arts.

In Montmartre, it resembles a Sunday morning like any other. I run to Batignolles, I do yoga, I run back to Montmartre, I invite my neighbours over and make us all raspberry-lychee hempmilk smoothies. Tonight’s concerts are cancelled. I pace around my apartment (I moved, by the way, and have room to pace) trying to decide when to go lay flowers out front of the Bataclan.

A reporter friend calls at the right moment to ask if I’d be willing to do this on film and answer a few questions to which I don’t have answers. At least I won’t be alone, and therefore safer, I reason, and ask if my bike can be somehow integrated in the footage – vélo vanity. I stuff roses in my bag and a candle in my pocket, enjoying the touch of the sun and ignoring the sirens as I coast down Boulevard Magenta.

I’m introduced to a British TV presenter who looks and acts like Roger Moore-era Bond, and two other friends-of-friends who agreed to be interviewed, Cécile and Sophian. Bond fixes Cécile with a steely gaze and brandishes a firearm-shaped microphone in her face. “Will you think twice before you go out on a Friday or a Saturday night from now on?” She shakes her hair: “I don’t think so. You cannot know, so it’s better not to think about it,” she shrugs frenchily.

Right on cue, screams. A surge of people fleeing outside. “Move! Move!” I’m dragged down onto the tiled floor of the terrasse. Writhing bodies and upturned tables are rugbied on top of me. I’m slight enough to slither under the red leather bench, trapped. The sound of glass smashing everywhere, more screams, tables flung sideways,  pools of chocolat chaud. Nothing deafening, something that could be interpreted as muffled gunfire, but how the hell should I know what that would sound like?

“Melissa, Melissa! I’m so scared!” she’s gasping. Across glass-encrusted mosaic, I try to get a grip on my friend’s hand and on reality. Human tide deposits me inside the café and I stumble down the stairs into the basement storeroom with a dozen or so stunned bodies. Another reporter is filming the baby clutching Papa’s arm, then takes flattering close-ups of my bleeding glassed knees as someone scrabbles behind me for an alternate exit. “Where’s Phoebe? Where’s Phoebe?” I’m whispering to the reporter.

After some minutes, we all agree that it was a false alarm. We sheepishly, shakingly, shuffle up the stairs and out into the chill night air. Répu, less than ten minutes earlier a sea of grieving, heaving, living bodies, now completely deserted. I locate Phoebe as she reassures her father on the phone. The restauranteur barks at us to get the hell out of his completely trashed establishment.

Sophian points out the damage he contributed bashing the glass partition with a table to improvise an emergency exit. “I didn’t see it, but it was very impressive,” I pat him on the back. He leads us to the welcoming Simon’s rather nicer-than-mine apartment around the corner, where several people caught up in the panic huddled around his flatscreen on a spacious Scandinavian sofa to wait for their heartrates to go down. I borrow disinfectant and tweezers and pick shards out of my it’s-nothings. The host shakes my hand warmly as I head off. “Nice to meet you, see you at the next attentat.

I wonder what happened to the bitty old lady who was sitting at the table opposite me with her dog, and who looked exactly like her dog. I wonder how all those bitty old ladies who look like their dogs are responding to the tragedy and the state of fear that is pulsing through the city. And I wonder what happened to that tea I’d ordered. We never laid our crushed flowers. I glance at Cécile who had declared on camera minutes earlier that she would never be scared to go out and kick up her heels on the battlefield. No comment.

These false alarms will continue happening all over Paris. It’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to me, and it wasn’t even real, and thank Hermès it wasn’t real, even if the fear was real. From this disaster simulation machine, I perhaps gleaned some vague idea of how I might react for real. And I’m torn up inside for the people who don’t get the ‘it was all a dream’ ending.

I cycled back to Montmartre in a daze. But pedalling uphill on adrenaline is as easy as clicking my heels three times and I was home free before I even knew it. On the way, I realise I forgot my helmet, and have to stop myself mulling over which death I’d have preferred. A rollerblader cradling his takeaway pizza in its box takes a tumble at the crossing up ahead. What doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger?

Bon courage, Paris, je t’aime.

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And a fun time was had by all: Le Festival du Merveilleux, at the Musée des Arts Forains

Rue de Noël IlluminéeIt’s not too often you enter a museum and re-emerge feeling like you’ve had the time of your life at a carnival. But that’s more or less the raison d’être of the Musée des Arts Forains (Fairground Arts), a vast space formerly one of Paris’ oldest, largest wine warehouses. It still has a bacchanalian feel about it, a sense of glee and discovery hanging in the air along with strings of fairy lights in the long, cobblestoned courtyard (le Théâtre de Verdure) intersected by a disused tram track.

This eight-hectare, leafy pavilion in Bercy is little known even to Parisians: a private museum founded by eccentric actor and collector Jean-Paul Favand. It can usually only be visited for functions and guided tours reserved in advance. But over Christmas and New Years’ the doors (and even the old rides) are open to some 70,000 members of the public, so that this magical menagerie from the Belle Époque comes alive during the museum’s Festival du Merveilleux.

La montgolfière à l'éléphant du théâtre du MerveilleuxIt lives up to its name all right, somewhere between a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory (there is actually a preserved shop-front from an old candy store) and trip to a Coney Island funhouse. This is the place to take a fellow traveller complaining that they don’t like museums. As you walk around the exterior towards the entrance, dozens of plaster caricature busts grin down at you — mostly legendary old actors who give new meaning to the concept of ‘celebrity heads’. Once inside, you won’t know quite where to look first. I took in the original Mortier organ piping away in one corner, the piano-playing unicorn in the other and the elephant ready for liftoff in the ornate hot air balloon of the Théâtre de Merveilleux. ‘Am I in a David Lynch movie?’ I pinched myself, passing a row of distorted mirrors — like I needed to appear shorter than I already am.

Surely this is the only museum in the world where the sound of shrieking children on the loose couldn’t bother me — where it even adds to the magic of the place. (There were collective squeals of delight as a magician showed off his tricks.) Woody Allen discovered his inner child here in a scene from Midnight in Paris, during which his wide-eyed American protagonist had travelled back in time. And sure enough, it feels like we’ve turned back the clock to this era between 1850 and 1930, when carnivals thrived and from which date most of these theatre props and costumes, cabaret curios and Music Hall intrigue.

collection de Sculpture de têtes en plâtreNot least because every inch of the place is covered in old-timey frescoes or draped in brocade. You can actually feed the open-mouthed clowns and take a spin on the ancient, creaking rides, all painstakingly restored. (One ‘attraction’ is included in the price of admission.) Try the Manège vélocipédique, a bike-powered carousel created in 1897 back when bicycles were still a novelty. Or opt for the smoother gondola ride in the opulent Salons Vénitiens. Perhaps the most titillating diversion is La Course de Garçons de Café, where you get to race wine-toting Parisian waiters — something I’ve always wanted to try out with live waiters in Paris.

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I wandered outside and noted approvingly that a group of street performers had disguised themselves as a giant Gollem that lurched around the courtyard trying to eat children, with acrobats and accordionists joining the fray. I had my photo taken in the old painted head-through-the-hole booths, cherishing the one of me on the toilet. There was no magician on hand to wave a wand at the typically French system of purchasing meal coupons to exchange for some barbe à papa and vin chaud and turn three queues into one.

Tombées du Camion: Montmartre’s valley of the dolls

IMG_9217Here’s a French riddle for you. I’m standing in an 18sqm chamber, hundreds of eyes following my every move, yet I’m completely alone. Where am I?

Tucked away in a forgotten passageway, between the upmarket fashion boutiques of Place des Abbesses and the fall from grace to the seedy strip of Pigalle, you’ll stumble upon one of the most unusual and captivating spaces in Paris: Tombées du Camion. It will seem like you stumbled upon this mystery shop even if you set out intent on going there. From the métro Abbesses, one of the deepest in Paris, you face a dizzying 36m climb up a brightly decorated spiral staircase. The first thing that comes into view when you emerge is an antique carousel, the white whale of the Sacre Coeur looming beyond. Just a five-minute cobblestoned stroll away, hidden treasure awaits.

IMG_9259I pass hour after happy hour behind the counter — miraculously, gainfully employed in France — but never know quite how to sum up what we sell there. To step inside this bizarre bazaar for the first time is to step out of synch with the rest of the modern world. Time stops; I feel a little dirty checking the clock on my iPhone4, by far the newest thing in the store.

So don’t be surprised if it takes a moment to recalibrate as you contemplate this concrete cave of vintage ephemera, illuminated by industrial lamps and lined with old wooden boxes and oversized specimen jars — everything in its right place. Lots of things. Strange things, hoarded from the cobwebbiest corners of factories in secret locations around France. Unused wooden bar tokens, bicycle-shaped sunglasses from the Tour de France, packets of toilet paper circa 1950s, now objets d’art repurposed to have no purpose. Most items are fabrication française, like the Gauloises issued to French troops in World War II (consumption not advisable), a cloud of nostalgia now that everyone in the smoking capital of the world puffs on electronic cigarettes.

Sift through postcards that play an old song when you place them on a turntable; plunge your hand into a beaker of miniature plastic babies. And if you feel hundreds of eyes on you, don’t be alarmed. The eyes are an idée fixe: beady taxidermy eyes, disembodied dolls’ eyes that wink inscrutably from under thick lashes; round ones in delicate blown glass, perennially surprised. And that’s not all. Once you’ve had you’re fill of eyes, you can move on to all manner of mismatched body parts: heads, arms and legs and even white plastic femurs, the oldest items in this macabre catalogue dating from 1900.

You would have to come to the conclusion that Charles Mas, the procurer of this vast array of bibelots, bits and bobs, is a grown man who plays with dolls. When we met for my job interview I was expecting an elderly miser with a pipe. But the guy who drives the camion of Tombées du Camion — enigmatic and intense, never glimpsed without his leather biker jacket — embodies a new breed of brocanteur.

“Je suis un peu maniac,” he warned me at the beginning of my trial. No shit. Looking around the store, improbable combinations of knickknacks in meticulous patterns along the walls, it would be hard to disagree. But it’s also immediately clear that there’s a sense of humour behind the way they are brought together, in harmony or discord, anachronistically, sometimes in poor taste. Like the naked rubber belly dancer (my favourite item to demonstrate) next to glinting crucifixes priced at 33 euros.

Charles is the kind of man who will look you straight in the face and tell you that there’s poetry in a ping-pong ball — a stretch even for a Frenchman. And the strange charm of his concept store is, it’s completely believable. He’s not afraid to get all literary about it either, likening the way people respond to these unassuming artifacts to the madeleine de Proust; how a trinket worth almost nothing (represented by the French ‘madeleine’ sponge-cake) can impart profound joy and trigger memories.

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For me, it’s a bit like working in a surrealist supermarket, or in an Escher painting, where every item could repeat ad infinitum. Even though it’s a bit magic as far as first jobs in France go, it’s still a job like any other. There’s a first time for everything, even the banal: cashing my first French cheque, washing French piss off the sidewalk etc.

Tombees yeux dentisteBut excursions outside the ordinary are frequent. A typical day will likely bring a woman who buys a brooch in the shape of a sexy stilettoed leg for her amputee friend. Or a Brazilian artist inflating female condoms in-store after squeezing some delicate celluloid babies inside. An elderly man enquiring if we have doorknobs, poignées de portes, disappointed to learn we only carry coffin handles, poignées de cercueils. (I’ve amassed a pretty strange vocab list.) A surprise visit from the boss, who will breeze in for as long as it takes to explain the function of a WTF item (that metal rod is actually for crushing sugar cubes) and assign a task I’ve never been asked to perform elsewhere (polish these rusted antique keys with steel wool — but not too much, or they won’t look authentic).

It’s fun here. The eyes wink at me. And I wink back.

Tombées du Camion has just opened its second stunning boutique at the Marché aux Puces, Marché Vernaison, allée 1, stand 29. Du samedi au lundi, de 10h à 18h. Venez voir!

Photos of Tombées du Camion Abbesses by Louise Carrasco

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Einstein beached on the Paris Plage

PHOf61d8cc4-7851-11e3-be87-e16971b4b8a2-805x453It’s generally considered a faux pas for concertgoers to fall asleep mid-performance. Certainly most composers would be offended to catch you napping as their opera plays out on stage. But most composers aren’t Philip Glass.

Even he could be forgiven for losing track of time in his marathon 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach, which received its premiere in France at the Avignon Festival. “We didn’t even actually know how long it was,” the world’s most imitated living composer thinks back to the first performance 37 years ago. “The first night, it turned out to be about five hours!”

But when I nervously joke that he could have faded out at the 180-minute mark, he retorts that “the point of writing music and experiencing music isn’t to make people comfortable necessarily.” That said, audiences are permitted to zone out, nod off or take a breather outside as part of this immersive theatrical odyssey, which just finished its six-day run at the Théâtre du Châtelet for the Festival d’Automne, reminding Parisians that the doyen of American minimalism had what he describes as a “formation française” here under the strict tutelage of Nadia Boulanger.

In four-and-a-half hours, then — give or take — this iconic opera unfolds in hypnotic sensory overload. Rarely performed because of its length and the resources required, Einstein on the Beach was staged in Paris in the revival of Robert Wilson’s original blazing production. (The legendary director’s body of work was a linchpin of this year’s Festival d’Automne à Paris.) “The thing that brought us together,” says Glass of his collaborator and fellow iconoclast, “Bob,” “is that we experienced time, space and movement in a very similar way.”

Just don’t go expecting anything as conventional as a plot. One wonders what would happen if Einstein’s theory of relativity were applied to Glass’ and Wilson’s behemoth. The chorus intones endless strings of numbers; amplified instruments pulse with nervous energy; as the music hurtles through time, Lucinda Childs’ freeze-frame choreography creates the sensation that time might stop altogether. Einstein himself appears onstage as an amateur violinist sporting a curly grey-haired wig and cardigan, sometimes portrayed by a woman.

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But how does this extended meditation on life, the universe and everything fit in with the operatic tradition? “That’s a good question, and I’ll give you the truthful answer,” Glass explains: “We had no idea it was an opera!

“You could call the piece anything you wanted to, but the only place we could perform it was an opera house. People began to talk about it as an opera. It was a discovery for us as it was for everybody else.”

Glass did eventually turn to more traditional forms, including an opera about Ghandi, Satyagraha, in 1980, but “the people who liked Einstein were upset because they thought it was going to sound like Einstein. I disappointed them with Einstein and then I disappointed them again!” he chortles.

The most disappointed witnesses to the notorious 1976 premiere were “some older people who were really unhappy,” Glass recalls. “That’s a normal state of affairs. The younger people embrace it; the older people are kind of terrified that this was even allowed into a theatre.”

At 76, he’s now reached the age of those elderly complainants, observing how the work has evolved in the public consciousness. “It had a big effect, but the funny thing is that the reactions of the audiences today are not that different. And partly that’s because the rest of the world of opera didn’t change very much. People thought this was going to change the world. Well, it didn’t.

“The demands of the piece, I can see now, must have been very great on the players, on the performers, and on the audience. It must have been like crossing a bridge through a country that is unknown. We didn’t know where the piece was going – we were too much a part of it.”

No longer part of it as a performer, Glass finally has the luxury of relaxing and watching – if one can call it a luxury. “I was in the orchestra pit playing the piece every night. I never sat in the audience and looked at it. That happened to me very recently.

“And you know what? I really liked it!”

But try as I might, I can’t get him to admit to falling asleep.

Readers in Paris can watch the entire performance filmed live at the Théâtre du Châtelet

 

Einstein on the beach au Théâtre du Châtelet

Soaked to the bone: a not-strictly-legal descent into the secret Catacombs of Paris

Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort”

1602104_10203116135248469_848792991_oIt’s just as well my new year’s resolutions don’t bar me from taking part in silly and slightly dangerous high jinks around Paris. My proper French hangover had hardly worn off after le réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre when the first harebrained adventure of 2014 presented itself: a formerly dreadlocked acquaintance invited me to join his five vigorously dreadlocked friends on their nocturnal crawl through a forbidden section of the catacombs.

“D’accord!” I chirruped, without a moment’s pause to think about what such an expedition might entail. “Just a leisurely stroll around the Empire of the Dead,” I told myself, happy to forgo a long queue in the cold outside the carefully maintained public face of Paris’ sprawling underground ossuary. With construction commencing during the 1780s in disused quarries as a solution to the irksome sanitation problem of overcrowded cemeteries, the catacombs comprise a 321km labyrinth of caves and tunnels housing the remains of six million people — half the population of the City of Lights thriving directly above.

A ‘cataphile’ is not somebody with a loyalty card for the Café des Chats, but a passionné who frequently makes the journey between the worlds of the living and the dead. In doing so, they risk being caught by a police task force charged with patrolling underground (something I wasn’t aware of when I took the plunge, scout’s honour). Some devotees make amateur maps to distribute within an exclusive community, some dig their way into hidden sections; others organise secret film nights or even flame-throwers’ parties, turning these subterranean dungeons into their personal playground. Some respect the space; others don’t.

My cataphiles were of the respectful variety, leaving not so much as a cigarette butt or breadcrumb behind (yes, we ate down there), and insisting that they would never add their own tags to the long stretches of graffitied rock face crowded with leering skeletons and SpongeBob SquarePants. The team came well prepared, I noticed as I glanced at the photographer strapping on her thigh-high military combat boots, then looked down sheepishly at my own rainbow children’s sneakers and yoga pants. Oh well, allons-y, I guess.

1559502_10203116131088365_668358842_oFrom our rendezvous at the 14th arrondissement Alésia métro — after nightfall, of course — we scrambled down to an abandoned railway and marched along the track until the group leader (who prefers not to be named) pointed to a rocky hole in the ground. My heart sank a little when it became apparent that I would be spending most of the evening wading down narrow passageways up to my knees in cold, cloudy-brown water, but we remained in high spirits despite grisly surroundings, greeting every other explorer we stumbled upon with the customary “Bonne année!” My non-dreadlocked companion fixed me with an intense look and pledged that he was responsible for my life, moments later splashing me with mud as he raced ahead. Even at under five feet, easily the shortest in the group, I often had to Quasimodofy as I stooped and squeezed my way through uninviting openings.1518673_10203116137288520_454846250_o

Long corridors led to chambers equipped with stone tables and benches. At each one we wiped our hands on dry patches of clothing and ripped into the supply of baguettes and beer (bon appétit), pointing headlamps under our chins to tell jokes and ghost stories — a strange yet comforting camaraderie. A visitor long before us had chiseled the outline of a skull into the wall and set tea lights in the eye sockets; thankfully not the most romantic candlelit dinner I’ve had in Paris.

An hour after our initial descent, already deep inside the belly of the beast, and we had yet to see any real human remains. Unlike the restored 2km segment of the catacombs accessible to the public, where bones line the passageways in patterned formations, most of the skulls here have been stolen, our ‘guide’ explained. I was just starting to feel disappointed when we were ushered through a crawlspace; suddenly I found myself on my hands and knees atop a sea of femurs. Tastelessly, a member of the group clacked two together like a heavy metal drummer; another picked up a brainpan and suggested it would make a good ashtray, before gingerly placing it back on its bed of bones. A few femurs had been brightly painted and stood upright, macabre totems.

2014-01-03 21.37.13 2014-01-03 21.47.14The mood and purpose of one space could differ vastly from the next. We went from a cavernous, film-themed graffiti room to what appeared to be an eerie shrine for a young girl who left us too soon; a flawlessly pretty teenager smiled up at us from a photograph placed next to a preserved rat floating inside a beaker. The entire randonnée took around five hours. But according to one cataphile within the group, people camp down here for days on end — some to get high, some to immerse themselves in silence, and some to commune with the dead.

I got nervous each time the guide, who has been exploring the catacombs since he was a teenager, stopped in his tracks to look at the map (the Paris street names directly above us are etched onto the walls) or herded us back the way we came after taking a wrong turn. We piped reggae and rap (what else?) through mobile phone speakers to keep energy levels high, facilitate a swift exit and avoid getting separated, at last clambering out just before midnight. On a whim, the group decided on a different route back to civilisation, jumped a stone parapet and narrowly missed the police who, we later discovered, had been stationed along our original path. It felt good to take in the crisp, cool air. And even better to take a bath.

Photos by Claire Narkissos. Un grand merci to the group that allowed me to infiltrate their field trip.

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