There I was, 40 meters below the streets of Paris, in a tiny stone tunnel, wading through waist-deep water with a group of Cataphiles. My body was charged with anxiety and anticipation…what the fuck was I doing down here?
Nice question, thanks for asking.
Let’s start with how I got to Paris. I have this friend named Carter, who describes our relationship as “part-time best friends.” It’s an apt description, because while we never get to spend much time together, when we do it is a pure, unadulterated good time. And he was in Paris for a year, so what the hell.
It also just so happened that our little wallet company had finished a prototype developed for our European customers the day before my flight. I left for France with a suitcase, zero understanding of the French language, and a never-before-seen BankNote wallet.
I used it constantly in Paris. I immediately noticed the strap closure needed a manual, but there were many things we got right: the zip pocket was great for coins, the billfold was large enough for the heftier European bills, and of course the notebook was great to have — I got everyone I met to write in the damn thing.
I got directions to monuments, bars, and concerts. I tried (unsuccessfully) to get phone numbers from the sophisticated French girls who batted eyes at me.
One night after Carter played an open mic we met a man named Bruno, who sang songs about all the prescription medications he had. He was also interested in Brooklyn slang, so we asked him how to say, “you need a fat stack of manuals,” in French. We ended up with “you need a lot of manuals.” Good enough, he wrote it in my BankNote.
Tu as besoin de beaucoupe de manuels
The very next night we met a very, very drunk man in a bar in Pigalle. I’m really not sure what his name was… He wrote in barely legible French:
In the end I am English with American, but I like France even I am not [French]
An hour later we met some real French beauties — the kind of girls you know you don’t have any chance of hitting it off with, but it’s still worth trying because crazier things have been known to happen. They were amused by my name, I think, based on what they logged in my wallet.
I am very well, and if I eat a banana every day I will become a thousand times better than Bjork!!!
It certainly can’t hurt; Lea might have been onto something. Soon after, Pauline was happy to expand on her friend’s theory:
And me as well, yes yes, I believe it is a very good idea. The bananas, they are strong in vitamins, and the crabs, we throw them in the boiling water!!!
Sucks for the crabs. Lea blew us a kiss: “Bonne nuit mes petites bananes.”
Bonne nuit, ma chérie.
We left the bar in time to catch the first train home at 5:30 AM. By noon we were in Versailles. It goes without saying we were in great shape.
Carter and I spent the afternoon sauntering around the gardens and watching the rowing teams struggle to make U-turns in the Grand Canal. In the evening we watched the sun set in the Bassin du Miroir.
As we were leaving the gardens we met a gardener named Ludo. It’s lucky we met him in particular, as Versailles has an army of gardeners and none of them are on the same level as Ludo. In fact, I’m not sure that anyone in the world is on Ludo’s plane of existence. We chatted about life and at the end of our conversation he pointed us in the direction of his favorite bar and said he’d meet us there when he got off.
A bottle of wine passed and Ludo walked into the bar. Another bottle of wine passed, and we asked him what he was doing later that night. He said he was going to a secret party. He didn’t want to say much more, but we learned more through wine and conversation.
Ludo was leading a group of people into the massive underground network of tunnels underneath Paris to eat, drink, and be merry.
It only took another shared bottle of wine to get invited. Ludo wrote down some cryptic instructions in my wallet: A subway stop, a street corner, and to look for people in rubber boots.
Ludo’s directions were easy to follow. When we met up with the group he pulled us all into a shadowy alley to explain how we would get into the catacombs, and where we were going At least Carter spoke a little French.
We’re going in two groups…go quickly down the ladder, but be careful of the fingers…below you because it is a 40 meter fall. Keep the lights off… bottom…boots. If you see the cops, run.
Time to get down.
We were about halfway down the ladder when Ludo closed the manhole. On the surface it was a manhole like any other, except this one led below the sewers, below the subways. It was a very, very deep hole.
We regrouped at the bottom and everyone’s headlamps and torches flashed on, illuminating the thick darkness. People started to put on boots that went up to their waists. Others put on swim trunks. Carter and I were at the ready in our jeans and sneakers. We started walking.
At first I tried to keep track of the junctions and intersections, but I lost count at around seven. We were picking up the pace, moving faster and faster as the floor became wetter, racing through the tunnels! And then everyone got real slow.
We had reached the deep stuff. It was a chalky mixture, cold and watery: the kind of fluid that leaves your clothes dusty when it dries.
I’m not sure how far we walked, wet to our waistlines, but when we were out of the drink we came across another group of Cataphiles. They asked where we were going, and when we replied one of the girls in their group offered to take us there. It wasn’t a far walk.
The place was called La Plage, on account of the giant graffiti wave on the wall. Here we found thirty people eating dinner and drinking wine like you would see at a dinner party on the surface. It was almost easy to forget we were in the tunnels beneath Paris, accessible only through illegal manholes and waist-deep crypt water.
The girl who had brought us here promptly opened up her backpack, dropped some powder on the ground, lit it on fire, and ran off. The room was instantly full of smoke. Nobody could see anything.
You have to respect the girl for crafting such an effective prank, but we stuck to our guide like burnt cheese to avoid getting desperately lost in the 300-kilometer maze of tunnels. Ludo looked at his hand-drawn map in the smoke and darkness, and decided we should move on.
To access our next destination, we had to crawl through something the Parisians call a cat door. Self-explanatory. The benefit of being in an area accessible only by cat doors is that you cannot get lost, provided you do not crawl through a different passage sized for domestic animals.
Carter and I wandered through the graffiti covered tunnels and rooms with the people we had met underground. We found painted statues and entire tubs of broken glass. We turned a corner and were in a room where the walls were covered with broken mirrors and mannequin arms sprouted from every angle. Somehow, those arms and mirrors were both unsettling and incredible.
When we found Ludo again he was breathing fire. Literally, flames rocketed from his breath and violently spread across the ceiling. When he burned his beard, we sat down for dinner.
Ludo came to us after dinner and said if we wanted to leave tonight we would have to go now, because he wasn’t sure how long the rest of them would be down there. About half of us departed back through the cat door, but we took a different way back. I recorded the names of our new friends in my BankNote.
We paused in a room with a tiny stone castle. Ludo told us he hoped we had enjoyed our time in the catacombs, and gave us his Facebook in case we ever wanted to do it again. I, as usual, recorded it in my BankNote. When we reached the ladder he told us to turn off our light before we reached the top, and to walk away quickly in opposite directions when we surfaced. Then we all said goodbye.
Maybe the wallet wasn’t perfect yet, but it was on the right track.
Since the Paris trip we have changed the zipper design to hold more coins, swapped the prototype leather out for the gorgeous Italian variety, reduced the size by two square inches, redesigned the closing method with an interior snap, and moved the pen placement.
Now we know we’ve designed a great product: a European-style wallet that can facilitate incredible memories, and provide a platform for spontaneous creativity.
You can check out the final design we came up with for the European BankNote and find out more about our wallets at www.banknote.nyc.