City of the Dead: Paris Catacombs

A lot of travel experiences are similar to other things you’ve already done. If you’ve ever taken a trip to a popular tourist destination, you’ve probably been to some art museums, visited towering cathedrals, and paid a lot of money to take an elevator to a very high place and then look down from it. What you probably haven’t done is walk underground through the remains of 6 million people.

Two kilometers of carefully arranged human remains.

Two kilometers of carefully arranged human remains.

For me, this was a totally new experience. I’ve been fortunate to have hardly seen any dead (human) bodies in my life. Maybe a few mummies. Down here, you have literally millions of bones, piled on each other in stacks that reach as high as your head.

The tour is not recommended for people with claustrophobia.

The tour is not recommended for people with claustrophobia.

Also interesting is how there is literally nothing stopping you from reaching out and touching the bones. Obviously you’re not supposed to, but there they are. In a pile right in front of your face. If you wanted, you could simply pick up a skull, examine it, and put it back. There are hardly any museum staff there to stop you, nor any sensors or alarms. With the exception of the electric lighting, this tour has probably been mostly unchanged since they opened the place up to visitors in the late nineteenth century. It’s a miracle that everything is in such perfect condition. With the exception of an act of vandalism in 2009, it shows that most people can be trusted to respect old, fragile things. The whole of the catacombs is a remarkable display of trust.

Musée des Arts et Métiers

Here’s a museum that Julia and I expected to be average and turned out to be awesome. The Musée des Arts et Métiers (Museum of Arts and Industry) is a museum of invention and scientific discovery, replete with real artifacts and devices. From astrolabes to the printing press to the iPod, every major invention in the past 1000 years is right here, on display. If you’re at all interested in the sciences or engineering, you absolutely must visit this place.

An industrial printer, just down the hall from an early printing press.

An industrial printer, just down the hall from an early printing press.

For us, this is way more interesting than an art museum. In fact, we actually learned things from this museum, like how the speed of light was measured in 1850 with the aid of a spinning mirror and several fixed mirrors. Can you figure out how they did it? The solution is absurdly clever.

Mirrors used by Focault to measure the speed of light.

Mirrors used by Focault to measure the speed of light.

In fact, that’s exactly what this museum is. A repository for exceedingly clever things, which lead in time to more clever things, and so on. With the exception of the supercomputers, every mechanical device in the museum is relatively easy to understand. You can get a real sense of how scientific progress is made, building on past imperfect devices and improving them.

The IBM 7030 Stretch supercomputer, bought by Los Alamos in 1961 for $13 million.

The IBM 7030 Stretch supercomputer, bought by Los Alamos in 1961 for $13 million.

As a software developer, the device I find most interesting is the loom pictured below. It’s interesting because it’s programmable. You feed it a deck of punch cards which define the pattern you want, and the loom weaves fabric with that pattern. It’s ingenious, and inspired one of the first designs for a mechanical computer.

The Jacquard Loom, a programmable loom that inspired the use of punch cards in Babbage's Analytical Engine.

The Jacquard Loom, a programmable loom that inspired the use of punch cards in Babbage’s Analytical Engine.

The museum is large, so much so that by the time we got to the final sections on energy and design we were too tired to fully appreciate them. If you come to Paris and have even the slightest curiosity in how the world around you works, come to this museum, and pace yourself! There’s a lot to absorb.

Paris Sewers

The first museum we went to in Paris was a real dump. Just kidding, it was a sewer.

A real sewer tour with real smells.

That’s right, we went to the Paris Sewer Museum, which describes the history of the city’s sewer system from the middle ages (which utilized the “everything in the street” system) to modern times. Why should you visit the sewer when you go to Paris? Because dealing with poop is important. In our homes and our cities, the waste treatment system is, usually, invisible. We take our sink drains and working toilets for granted, much like our trash, but all that material has to go somewhere, and it has to get there safely, without tainting our water supply.

The place is dark, cool, and stinks. The tour goes through several large sewer tunnels, covered with mesh so you can see and hear the water rushing under your feet. Half of the exhibit is dedicated to history and cross sections of the sewers, while the other half shows all the inventions used to clean the tunnels.

Large balls like this are used to clean circular tunnels by acting as a movable dam, forcing water beneath them through at a higher pressure which clears away sand and debris.

Large balls like this are used to clean circular tunnels by acting as a movable dam, forcing water beneath them through at a higher pressure which clears away sand and debris.

According to the exhibit, before the modern sewer system was in place, some places in the city were abandoned at various times because the smell of sewage in the streets was unbearable. Was this something that people 500 years ago and earlier just dealt with? A constant odor when you went outside? 500-600 years ago, there were no major pipes directing water out of the city, just drains in the center of the road that often flooded, and a few hundred years before that, nothing at all. Sewage was literally left in the streets. People in modern cities don’t die of plague and cholera like they did in the past thanks to these sewers. It’s important not to forget about these invisible systems that keep us safe.


(Not) speaking French

In case this wasn’t already obvious, when you go to a foreign country, you should try to learn at least some of the language. Being in place and not being able to ask for the simplest things can be frustrating and bewildering. If nothing else, trying to learn the language shows some respect for the people who live in the place you’re visiting. You don’t want to be the pretentious foreigner who assumes that the locals are going make some effort to try to understand you.

Before getting here, I was pretty nervous about not knowing any French. My fear of being unable to find things in a supermarket, or ask for directions from strangers, overwhelmed me. I would have nightmares about French people identifying me as a tourist and attacking me like projections from Inception. Alright, I’m exaggerating a bit, but you get the idea. Learning French was important to me.

As a result, I started actually doing Duolingo French lessons (rather than just doing them for testing purposes) and Julia and I started listening to the Michel Thomas French audio course since it’s gotten a lot of praise and is fun to work through. None of that worked, of course. My French excitement only kicked in three days before we left, and there’s no simple substitute for learning a language other than practicing it. A lot.

However, now that I’m here, my motivation to learn French has, oddly enough, decreased. Paris is a monstrous tourist destination, and Julia and I have discovered how true it is that you don’t need to know any French to get around. Of course the basics are good to know. You shouldn’t forget to say merci and s’il vous plaît. But I’m almost certain that for the rest of the week, I’m going to need nothing else.

On the one hand, this is disappointing. I work for a language learning company, and being on a never-ending quest to learn things, especially languages, is a personal goal of mine. But on the other hand, I’m glad that we’re able to enjoy this city even though we know so little. All to often people are afraid to travel to exotic locations, and explore other countries, because of the language barriers in their way. An inability to communicate, and a resulting fear of visiting other groups of people, contributes to irrational biases against those groups. One of my professional goals is to make it easier for people to learn languages, but the world would probably be a better place if we didn’t have to.

Tagging along to Paris

One of the largest human computer interaction conferences of the year is CHI, and this year it’s being held in Paris, France. Julia is going, and I’m tagging along to see the city for the first time.

This is the second big international trip we’ve done on our own. It’s almost been a full year after our odyssey in Russia, and so far, compared to that one this trip has been a piece of cake. Unlike Russia, going to France doesn’t require a visa, French signs are all in the Latin alphabet, and the time difference is much friendlier 6 hours ahead, compared to Russia’s 12. (Flying to France is usually easier too. However, once upon a time, a wicked witch cast a spell on Julia, forcing her to only fly Delta Airlines for the rest of her days, so we had a short layover in Detroit.)

Julia and I sharing a Michel Thomas French audio course. Kind of embarrassing on a plane full of French people.

Julia and I sharing a Michel Thomas French audio course. Kind of embarrassing on a plane full of French people.

Julia acquired an apartment for us through AirBnB, and it is fantastic. The woman who rented it to us, Martine, has a perfect online rating from past visitors, and I have a feeling we’re not going to break that streak. The place is comfortable, has a small kitchen so we can cook our own authentic French meals, and plenty of space to work and think during the day.

Who needs hotels? Just live in someone else's apartment.

Who needs hotels? Just live in someone else’s apartment.

I should clarify that this trip isn’t all play for us. Julia’s going to be attending some of the conference and I’ll be continuing to build an iPad app for the world’s best language learning website. An apartment with giant windows, loads of philosophy books (Martine’s husband is a philosopher) and great acoustics for jazz radio is an excellent work environment.

Julia hard at work in the Paris office. For some reason the desk is covered in tiny turtle figurines. Why didn't you warn us, AirBnB?!

Julia hard at work in the Paris office. For some reason the desk is covered in tiny turtle figurines. Why didn’t you warn us, AirBnB?!

We’re here until Friday, so we have plenty of time to wander around and visit museums until our legs break. Next up, thoughts on learning French, visiting landmarks, and differences from Russia.

Back in Pittsburgh

We made it! After an 8 hour sprint from Chicago on Tuesday, Julia and I made it into Pittsburgh in the late afternoon. I’m not excited about returning to the humid summers and freezing winters here, but I’m very glad to be back in a city I love with old friends again.

It’s been a strange experience, driving out of one city and ending up in another that used to only be accessible by plane. It makes you realize how important roads are to a country’s infrastructure, and how vital it is that those roads be well maintained. It’s also interesting to think that from virtually any city in America, there’s an unbroken stream of asphalt connecting that city to every other city. The roads are almost like blood vessels in a country sized organism… OK, maybe all that time in the car has made me a little more philosophical than normal…

As luck would have it, my travels are actually not over yet. On Monday I’ll be traveling to New York with the Duolingo team for our launch party, and later this summer, I’ll be in Santa Barbara for my dad’s wedding. And I can’t forget that even though I live in Pittsburgh full-time now, there are still plenty of things here worth writing about. Expect more entries soon, and thanks for sticking with me on this trip.


The trip is almost over. Julia and I made it to Chicago on Saturday afternoon after about 8 hours of driving from Minnesota. Both of us have friends here that we’ve been looking forward to hanging out with for a while: my cousin (probably) Iris and Julia’s friend from childhood, Sarah.

Sarah and Julia on the University of Chicago campus where Sarah is a med student.

Iris is actually calculating our bus/rail route in her head as we walk.

Iris and Sarah are awesome hosts. After we told them which days we’d be here, early in the trip, they each sent us a list of things in the city to check out. After arriving, we met Iris in her condo where we’re staying for the two nights that we’re here, and took a short dip in her rooftop pool.

Julia attempts to learn "the egg beater" method of treading water.

Iris’s condo is pretty great. It has huge windows that open up onto the lake and downtown. For some reason, having a view like that is very energizing and motivating. I wonder if people who work in New York skyscrapers with nice views are more or less productive than employees in similar workplaces with mediocre views.

We met up with Sarah in the evening for dinner at a nearby Thai place, and then had dessert at the top of Iris’s building. Iris works in finance as a software developer, so she explained roughly what went wrong with the recent Facebook IPO and how trading and the stock market isn’t a zero sum game. I should learn more about investing, partly because it’s fascinating, and partly because it’s important to do something with your money besides keep it in a bank where it’s probably losing value to inflation.

On Sunday Julia and I had the morning and early afternoon to ourselves, so we walked along Lake Shore Drive to the Hancock Center. The Hancock Center is a skyscraper with an observation deck at the top, though Iris and Sarah let us in on a clever tip: One floor down from the observation deck is a bar, and it has the same view as the observation deck above it. Julia and I sat down at a table next to a window and had drinks and some food for around the same price as the observation tickets would have been. Still expensive, but a much better deal and a nice break from 5 miles of walking.

View from the bar at the 95th floor of the Hancock Center.

After the bar we walked around Navy Pier (which apparently is a tourist trap but we enjoyed looking out over the water at the end of it) and Millennium Park, which contains the famous reflective bean. I’ve been to Chicago before so we didn’t linger by the bean too long, and wandered through the gardens nearby before meeting Iris at her building.

Objects in the bean are closer than they appear.

After joining Iris, we met Sarah in her apartment and she gave us a 15 minute tour of University of Chicago. We had to do the tour quickly since we were already late for dinner, deep dish pizza at the original Lou Milnati’s restaurant. The topic of conversation drifted between finance and neuroscience, Sarah’s undergraduate area of expertise. It was fun to try to recall things I learned in my numerous cognitive science classes from CMU. I spent all that time getting a cog sci degree and then never used any of it. It’s funny how our interests change sometimes. From there we went to Zanies, a comedy club where we saw a 10 standup comics do short acts.

We’ve had a good time here in Chicago, but it’s because we know interesting people who live here, not really because the city is so interesting. In Russia, some of the best experiences we had were simple things like eating dinner with Julia’s relatives. If you’re thinking of places to travel to, think about where your friends are first, since spending time with people you know and like will make your trip much more worthwhile than just looking at nice architecture. Maybe next I’ll visit my friend Jonathan or my cousin Chris in LA, or my cousin Caitlin in New York, or my friend Sam in Boston, or Paul in SF. I don’t know enough people to couchsurf across the US, but there are a lot of people and places I could visit and have a good experience, thanks to the people.

Badlands, South Dakota, Minnesota

Today marked the last of our scenic outdoor excursions with a trip to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The Badlands is kind of a miniature Grand Canyon. It consists of white, mud-covered rocks, eroded away by a river.

It turns out June 9th is National Great Outdoors Day, so we got to visit the park for free! As is to be expected of a national park, the lanscape was breathtaking. I’ve never visited the Grand Canyon, so I’d never seen anything quite like it.

Surprisingly, visitors are actually allowed to climb some of the rock formations in the park. A ranger told us that they allow this because the climbable area is actually very small compared to the size of the full park, so even though people erode the rocks more, they’re not doing any serious damage, and being able to touch the rock makes for a better experience.

Julia and I walked along some cliffs, and I took my 360 degree camera shot. There were no railings or safe boardwalks like at Yellowstone. You walked along the rock at your own peril. If one of us slipped, which was not unlikely considering how dry and gravel-covered the ground was, we would fall straight down into the canyon below, without a clear way of getting back up. Visiting this park was actually fairly nerve wracking at times because of this. It’s amazing how many small kids visit this park every day and apparently don’t fall deep into the abyss.

After leaving the Badlands we drove for the remainder of the day. We have another full day of driving ahead of us tomorrow, since our next stop is Chicago. There we’ll pay a visit to our friends Iris and Sarah and spend a day hanging out with them.

Yellowstone and Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park and the land surrounding it is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. The landscapes are breathtaking, and every geyser and rock formation is unique and interesting. When I said the other day that the best part of the drive was over, I was wrong. Julia and I barely touched our electronic distraction devices today, because the world outside the car was so much more interesting.

We spent about half the day in Yellowstone National Park. We didn’t have much time, so our visit was somewhat fast paced. We started at the north entrance and walked around Mammoth Hot Springs. This area is covered in large mounds of smooth rock with water bubbling up through the top and down the sides. The sides are covered in dozens of terraces, ranging in size from a deck of cards to a small car. Julia and I debated why the rock forms these perfect little terraces for a while, but it turned out we were both wrong after asking a park ranger later. The reason is the water coming up from the surface has other materials dissolved in it. When the water collects in small pools on the side of the rock, the water at the edges of the pools cools first, and some material is deposited at the edge. These deposits build up over time and form the thin ring-like edges of the terraces. (It turns out Julia’s idea was closer to the truth than mine, since I thought the edges were caused by erosion, not buildup.)

Due to the geyser activity all across the park most of the air around Yellowstone smells a little foul, like sulfur. Remembering the Red Square, I took a simple 360 degree video from the top. Hopefully this will give you a better sense of what it was like to be up there.

From there we drove south to the Norris Geyser Basin, a blue and orange field of bubbling water and steam rising from cracks in the rock. Apparently you can measure the temperature of the water here just by looking at the color of the algae growing in it.

I took another 360 degree view from here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen steam rising from the ground in so many places like this.

After walking around the basin we were running short on time, so we decided to skip to the obligatory Yellowstone stop, Old Faithful. You can tell this is the big tourist trap for the park, since it has at least five times more parking than any other spot, and larger lodges for guests. The geyser itself  is bordered on one side by an arc of small bleachers for onlookers. We sat down in the front row (since we were about 20 minutes early) and waited patiently for an eruption. The eruption itself was big, yes, but honestly it was anticlimactic. It only shot high in the air for a few seconds at the very beginning, and after a couple minutes, it was over. It’s remarkable that this one geyser garners so much attention when the rest of the park is far more interesting.

After Old Faithful we started our drive out of the park, but our visit was far from over. We opted to exit through the east entrance, and drive on some state roads before rejoining I-90. The drive was gorgeous. The road here winds left and right through expansive mountain passes, separated by long stretches of plains in between.

Also interesting was a long stretch of the park covered in dead trees. Julia believes these are the remnants of extensive fires in Yellowstone around 20 to 30 years ago (a search confirms there were major fires in 1988). It’s an incredible sight. Dry, blackened trunks and spindles of wood poking up from the mountainside like toothpicks as far as the eye can see.

We made a few stops on the trip back to I-90 to admire the scenery. After driving by a small mountain and noticing a trail leading to the rocks at the peak, we turned the car around and returned to climb it. We got a great view at the top, and Julia took some good photos of me as well as the bees.

Our original target for the day had been to reach Rapid City, South Dakota, but we had spent so much time on excursions in Yellowstone that we stopped in Gillette, Wyoming instead. It’s hard to imagine something else topping this leg of the trip in beauty. Next we go to the Badlands, South Dakota. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong.

Edit: We took a lot of pictures on this day, far too many to include in the post, but you can see them all from the Skydrive album (also linked to by the Photos link above). Julia also wrote a much more extensive account of this day on her own travel blog.