ne of the best names for a bus stop in France is called Puits Sans Vin. This means a well without wine. I thought, wow! Some wells have wine? In fact, it means more nearly a watering hole without wine. Ah, you say. Language. The bus stops are written inside the bus, one after another. A couple of stops before your desired one, you can line up the stop pictured on the interior with the name of the stop actually written on the stationary stop outside. Then you can be sure they correspond. So how can a bus stop become a treacherous thing?
Welcome to Italy.
Perhaps it was the fault of the catacombs where we were headed, Italian catacombs which inspired the French catacombs, which—well, read on!
Imagine yourself seated on an Italian bus. Do you speak Italian? Me neither. No names of bus stops inside the bus. Happily, when my daughter and I were visiting, it was a warm day. She’d stick her head out the window to read the name of the stop in Italian. Fortunately, we knew the name of the one we wanted. Mom! It’s here! We flew out of our seats just in time to descend. (You descend these modes of transport in French. I think we just get off in English.)
Our destination, the catacombs, perhaps explains our difficulties; perhaps this parleying with the dead was unseemly for the spirts of the Italian bus.
We chose one of several catacombs, the Catacomb of Callixtus, located on the Appian Way. It is very historic as you can imagine (around 3 century AD) and holds a crypt for, among others, St. Cecelia, patron saint of music, and several popes. What’s interesting is that these crypts disappeared from view until about 1854. Here’s a clip, including new discoveries.
Now, what did you notice that you didn’t notice? Namely, there are no bones. Now I asked the docent about this and she said all the skeletons had turned to dust. Creepy, that. But true? Other folks on YouTube say that the skeletons were stolen. Okay? Initially, apparently a dead body was wrapped in a shroud and placed on a ledge, which may or may not have then been sealed.
When my daughter and I descended into the bowels of the place, we clung tightly to the group because a labyrinth it was. We stumbled upon a clearing where it seemed most certain Mass had been celebrated, since these catacombs are purported to be places where the early Christians hid to say Mass. (Some say no, just poor people down there.)
I, for one, appreciate the ambiguity or unreliable narrative that we are getting with regard to these catacombs. And you will see why shortly.
BACK TO FRANCE
Now, historians maintain that the French catacombs had been inspired by Italy. But there were no clandestine religious services nor actual burial grounds, and instead, were created by an administrative act. Cemeteries, such as Saints Innocents, offended the populous by their terrible odor, and according to report, “In houses close to the cemetery, broth and milk went sour in the space of a few hours,” and most importantly for a French person, “wine turned to vinegar.” (The Catacombs of Paris by Gilles Thomas.) So, in 1786, just before the French Revolution, bones began to be transported to old underground quarries, with ritual pomp and circumstance: “at nightfall, funerary carts draped in black sheets, accompanied by torchbearers, followed by priests wearing surplices and stoles and chanting the Office of the Dead, would make their way to service shafts to dispose of [their] loads.” (Thomas)
WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT THE CATACOMBS?
Imagine a literature class, taught by Mme Salvato, featuring the short story. Does Edgar Allen Poe come to mind? In this delicious story, we have a first-person narrator who tells us in no uncertain terms that a man named Fortunato had insulted him beyond endurance. And that during carnival revenge would be extracted. The narrator then meets up with Fortunato, who had dressed himself up as a Fool for the grand occasion.
DID YOU KNOW (ASIDE)
The Tarot was invented in Italy and features the Fool, decked out like a jester. And it is said that the Fool is the protagonist who makes his way through the various cards (not to mention life). So here goes Fortunato on his journey.
WHERE IS FORTUNATO GOING?
Well, now that you asked, the narrator is taking him down into the family catacombs. For a good reason, at least from Fortunato’s point of view, because the narrator has a casque or barrel of a delicious sherry down there called Amontillado. (The students: “What’s sherry?” Me: “Porto, like your parents serve when friends arrive.” They nod, look at each other. We got this.)
Our narrator is wealthy, so surely not petty. His family has a coat of arms. But how do you account for this statement: “Few Italians have the true virtuoso spirit.” I ask the kids, so, any virtuosity in Italy? Let’s start with painting. Sculpture? Violins? And now the game is afoot. We have an unreliable narrator. Isn’t this great? Of course, the students are annoyed. Seriously, we are barely coping with this 19th century vocabulary and now he doesn’t mean what he says?
Here’s a link to the story.
Question: What is a teacher to do?
Answer: Off to the catacombs.
Now, naturally, we are in France, remember, so not during school, no, no bus is possible. Well, Saturday it is.
We stand in line, eating our picnic lunch; noon is the time when the lines are the shortest. Real French people are indoors eating a nourishing lunch. And then it was our turn. Down we go. Very different in feel from the Italian catacombs. Big Latin plaques saying, basically, you will die, bwahaha. Many rooms with bones placed just so. And so many, many bones.
Here’s a clip.
Did you notice the bones? So artfully arranged. It is like an alternative world down there. I remember the little baby bones behind the convent. The darker side of the City of Lights.
The students who were thrilled at the idea of an outing, found the experience a little sobering but weird enough that it had been worth their time. When we returned to class and to Fortunato, the students had a much greater appreciation of how creepy it must have been for the Fool who went blithely towards his own death (don’t we all, fools that we mortals be).
I will simply say that in the story it doesn’t end well. But we do admire Fortunato because once he realizes what is going on, he stops talking. This refusal to give our narrator any satisfaction shows that the Fool’s journey winds up in an interesting place, a place awaiting us all. Might as well seize the day in the French way.
EMPIRE OF DEATH
I couldn’t resist the headline from the Smithsonian for those of you history buffs. It is an underworld down there, literally and figuratively, a kingdom unto its own, not only a resting place for millions of bones, but a kind of momento-mori, an amusement park of sorts, if you will, for the living.
HOW DOES GODOT FIT IN ALL THIS?
The American saxophonist Wayne Shorter helped me out with this conundrum with his song, “Dead End.” The title is at odds with the fact that he has composed something. You would think that “Dead End,” would be, like, nothing. Silence. Or hemming and hawing. But the dead end, at least in his song, is not dead at all. Just like the tramps in Godot don’t go anywhere, but the play goes all over the place. Maybe creativity is like that. Many dead ends, paradoxically, with life in them anyway.
May our bones be everlasting.