Descending into the Parisian Catacombs

Who wouldn’t want to walk down 135 stairs into tunnels full of dead people on a random Wednesday afternoon? Well me being me, I was up for anything and my roommate Meredith and I decided to adventure into the Parisian Catacombs. I hadn’t heard about the catacombs in Paris until one of my favorite Youtubers, FunForLouis, had gone with his Live the Adventure crew into the thousands of tunnels under the city to see the bones of the departed. They stumbled through water up to their waist and ducking their heads in order to fit into the small tunnels. I had no idea what to expect when my roommate and I got onto the line outside the entrance of the Catacombs (it was a pretty long line to get in, so if you’re thinking about going make sure you get there early).  IMG_6732

Winding through the tunnels, I was amazed to see the seer amount of bones just on display. For what seemed like kilometers (it was only about 2), the the tunnels led me deeper and deeper into them. In the old quarries from when Paris was being built, the tunnels were lined with heads and all different types of bones. I had no idea more than 60 million bodies were houses under the streets below were I have been living for the past 4 months. The city continued to collect bodies within these tunnels between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when graveyards were being closed because of sanitation reasons. A majority of the bodies came from “Cimetière des Innocents” graveyard, but soon the number grew and included bodies from the surrounding hospitals, people dying on the street, and from local morgues. During the French Revolution, the catacombs were used a final resting place for victims of the war.

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The cold, stale air added to the eeriness of the walk, as Meredith and I stared in wonder about the lives of the people in the Catacombs. I could not help but think about they types of lives these people had. Were they children? Mothers? Fathers? Bankers? Lawyers? Being living on the street? What were their stories? Who were they? It is easy down there to just get lost in the volume of the bodies, but all of them had lives just like us. Lost in history, their bodies had been placed here due to just circumstance. Do their families know they’re here? Where are the relatives now? Do they even have relatives? You might think I’m over thinking these questions, but these people never received a proper burial and I doubt they knew their ruins would be on display for hundreds of years after their death.

It was interesting to see all the bones displayed in different formations and to hear how the bones get rotated every so often to ensure they don’t get damaged. Maybe it was the dreary, rainy day or the fact that I was tired from taking a final exam earlier that morning, but I left the Catacombs with an unsettled feeling. But I enjoy eerie things (shoutout to American Horror Story) so descending into the Parisian Catacombs allowed me to get my fix of creepy things during my time here. If you’ve been to the Catacombs in Paris or somewhere else, let me know your thoughts!

P.S: We were not up to our waists in water and the walk was very easy!

Happy travels, Cynthia

Utopia56: Volunteering at a Parisian Refugee Camp

I never know who I am are going to meet to meet in life, and on my way back to my apartment from Charles de Gaulle Airport was one of those times. My roommate and I shared an Uber with a woman who was on her way to volunteer with refugees in the 19th arrondissement of Paris. Never would I have thought that the experience would help change my outlook for the better.

In the metro system and the streets of Paris, I constantly see women and children huddled together on a blanket with a few items asking for money. Many of them hold make shift signs saying “Famille Syrienne” and have heavy eyes looking into the walkways. Whenever I pass them, my heart always go out to them and hope that their situation is better than the life they left behind in Syria. I think about where they are coming from and if they lived in similar conditions that I have seen in my travels to Ghana and Cambodia, or if they have family back home. I am the type of person who acts on my feelings and when the woman from the Uber told me about an organization that help refugees, I automatically signed myself up to volunteer.

The organization is called Uptia65 and it’s located in the heart of the poor region of Paris. It is surrounded by old, vandalized buildings with make shift housing for multiple families. It is crazy to think that a 20 minute metro ride from the Eiffel Tower, people are just starting their new life in Paris. The refugee camp is not much to those who walked by and although it’s on a busy street it is hard not to notice the sad state of it. There were security guards surrounding the camp and fences huddled together with blankets being used as shelters for the people who could not get into the camp that day. It broke my heart to see the people laying on the ground trying so hard to stay warm in the cold, March weather.

I was welcomed into the camp by smiling volunteers who were surprised to see a new face coming to help and I was shown around the camp with explanations on the work being accomplished there. The organization helps mainly male refugees from South Sudan and some Middle Eastern countries, although there are some families staying at the camp. Due to territorial conflicts, the security guards were there to help stop any fights that may break out. The men can stay at the camp for two or more weeks while they start to get on their feet. They are given new clothes, food, shelter, and access to social workers to get the right immigration or mental health information the men might need. The camp serves close to 400 men at a time and with the help of only about 10 volunteers a day, there is so much work to be done.

I was immediately put to the task of helping to hand out clothes to the new men who arrived at Utopia56. It was set up like a store where the men can pick out their own clothes that we take out of the bins. It is a quick process to look at their ID cards to see what clothes they have already received and what clothes they might need in the future. Because it was still pretty chilly, many needed better pants or long shirts.

At first the job was overwhelming due to the language barrier, the volunteers do not know much English and the refugees do not know much French, but through hand gestures we were able to communicate. It was fun to try to help the men figure out what clothes they wanted although at times it did get frustrating. Some of the men didn’t know their size or were not happy with any of the clothes that we available for them to choose from. Some of the men were picky about style, but some seemed so grateful to even have a jacket. Those were the men, to me, that made the volunteering experience so worthwhile. To see the look on their faces when they got the new clothing and to laugh with them about some of the ugly clothes they had to choose from, made the word “refugee” that much more relatable.

Being from the US, immigration and the “refugees crisis” are always on the political agenda and people seem very divided on the subject. Many times, the people who have the loudest voice against the idea of an open door policy are those who are the most ignorant and uneducated about the subject. We get so caught up with the word “refugee” that we forget that these people are just looking to survive and to live a life they are proud of. These people just want to have a life that we have been fortunate enough to have. They are not looking to steal from our government or take up our resources; they just want to live a life they deserve. To live a life human beings deserve.

When I mentioned to my family back in the US that I spent the afternoon volunteering, they responded with: ‘wow those people are so lucky to have you helping them’. But in reality, I am the lucky one. I had the privilege to help those men get back on their feet and to feel good about themselves even when they have been put in such a shitty situation. I had the opportunity to be more educated on what life is like in a Parisian refugee camp and to gain another perspective on life. I spend so much on travel and new experiences, but volunteering with these men reminded me that some experiences are priceless and sometimes three hours is all it takes to change multiple lives: theirs and mine.

Happy travels, Cynthia

Finding Balance Abroad

In January of this year, I was setting of on my biggest adventure yet- Paris, France. I would be living in the 19th arrondissement in a Parisian flat and getting a taste of what it is like to live abroad for a total of four months. Now that my time here is almost over, the thought of going home is bittersweet. I expected to travel to different countries and learn about the different cultures while I am in Paris, but I did not expect so many other things.

I have been able to travel to more countries in the last 3 months than I have in my entire life. I have now been throughout Europe and checking off places on my bucket list and I am feeling quite satisfied. Drinking hot chocolate from Angelina’s and eating my weight in macaroons from Ladurée were things I expected to do. But the countless days sitting by canal Saint- Martin reading a book or writing in journal, or making the thirty- minute metro ride to Luxembourg Gardens were things I didn’t expect to do. While I am here, I am realizing that I am taking more time to enjoy my life on a daily basis- why do I not do this at home? Is it because my daily life in Philadelphia comes with too many expectations? Is it because I put so much pressure on myself to get perfect grades, to be the perfect daughter, or to constantly trying to better myself? Whatever the reason, I know now that it is ok to just be content without having to reach for the stars or to excel. Sometimes it’s more important for me to take time for myself to do what I want to do.

This semester has been a semester about me. It isn’t about the getting the perfect grades (although my grades are a lot worse than I would like them to be) or about filling out countless applications for the perfect internship. It’s about me, Cynthia Brain. I feel as though saying that makes me selfish or that it is not ok, but it is. This semester I have traveled to the countries I have wanted to go to without having to compromise or ask permission. I have been able to explore all the quarters in Paris from the Latin Quarter to Montmartre and I have been able to do it alone (but of course my roommates have been more than happy to join sometimes). It has been so liberating these last few months to really understand what life has to offer and I have been incredibly happy.

I have learned that it is not a negative thing to have anti-social days where I just want to be myself. Being by myself has helped me to grow and realize what type of stuff I like to do. I found out- the Louvre, not my thing; spending hours in Shakespeare and Company drinking cappuccino- is. Taking time to really get to know myself and to understand what the emotions are that I am feeling at a given time is just as important as seeing a new city or exploring a new quarter in Paris with my friends.

It’s all about balance and I am slowly gaining mine.

Happy travels, Cynthia