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Paris is a city that holds varying meaning for each of its visitors. Some come for the shopping, others for the food. During the summer it is overrun by foreign college students who flock to the clubs to dance and stay up all night. There are soldiers on leave from nations all over the world who have come to see the girls along Montmartre. And there are people who float through just long enough so that they can say that they’ve been there.
For me, Paris has always been about the great men and women who have called it home. It is steeped in names, drenched in history, and literally filled with bones. The Catacombs never interested me, though, with its sea of dismonikered skeletons. I was more interested in the tombs of the glorious authors, musicians, poets, statesmen, and madmen. When I moved to Paris, I did not visit the Eiffel Tower until I was more than one month in, but I visited the great cemetery Pere Lachaise within a week.
The morning that I chose for my first sojourn to this catalogue of interred magnificence was unseasonably hot for early May. Mostly everyone at the hotel I was staying in had sequestered themselves to the air conditioning of the little bar off the lobby, but I found a pair of Canadians who were equally intrigued by the cemetery. Catherine was a mostly French-speaking girl from somewhere in the Northern provinces, and Canada was a younger fellow from Montreal who we all called Canada because he was so stereotypically Canadian.
We decided to skip the metro and instead walk from our refuge on Rue la Fayette, so we trudged through the heat along Boulevard de la Villette, stopping once or twice for something to drown the heat at the cafes along the way. It is a charming, busy street, fraught with opportunity for people watching.
When we finally reached our destination, mounted the steps, then emerged into the cemetery, the first thing I was struck by was the distinct sense of calm that permeated the grounds. The high, stone walls grant a solace and reprieve from the bustle of the rest of the city that is difficult to find anywhere else.
The Canadians had joined me out of general interest and were perfectly content to wander up and down the cobbled paths aimlessly. As for myself, I had come with an agenda. Before anything else, I had to see where the grand prince of exposition, Balzac, had found his respite from the harassing city that he had described in such elaboration some two-hundred years previous. As we wound our way through the stones and monuments and crypts we spied names here and there that struck us as familiar, but a great many that held no meaning or import. Somehow, even with the map we’d received at the entrance, we became a bit turned around, and as our confusion grew so did my impatience. I had not yet learned that Paris is not a city one enjoys in a hurry. It is best taken in sips rather than swallows, lest one miss its subtler flavors.
I remember walking past the tomb of Delacroix and thinking that was really something, then all of the sudden there he was—the towering bust of Balzac atop a pillar a dozen feet high. Its visage wears the same smirk of jest and confidence that was always captured in his portraits. At the base of the monument there is a wrought metal book that represents his Comedie Humaine, and atop that someone had laid a handful of roses. That last touch was really all too much. I’d come thousands of miles, had left family and friends and had little to no concern over whether or not I’d ever return to them, and I had done so thanks in no small part to this man, Balzac, and somewhere—perhaps he or she had only been five minutes ahead of me—there walked another person who understood the enormity of that spot, who had hefted the weight of his pages, a person for whom a small gesture like a rose on a marker effected to cast his or her stone skipping across the irreversible waters of time and history.
The tears came with unremitting force. I collapsed onto the curb behind me, face in my hands. After a few moments I felt something tap against my shoulder. I looked up and saw that Canada was offering me one of the bottles of wine that we’d uncorked back at the hotel. This catharsis had been unexpected, but none of us were embarrassed. We’d all come to Paris for something along those lines, to follow in the paths of giants. To sip from those irreversible waters. I took the bottle and drank deeply, wiped my face, then laughed. As I laughed, so did the Canadians, and suddenly we were all overjoyed. Ecstatic to be enjoying life in such a fantastic park of death. I stood and we went onward.
By the end of the day we’d seen them all—Proust, Wilde (with his collection of lipstick kisses), Bernhardt, the great Appollinaire, Chopin, Collette, Suchet (who’d fought alongside Napoleon), Moliere, and of course Morrison, James D., better known as Jim.
We came upon Morrison’s grave last, not for any particular reason, we just happened to sort of wander across it. This was, by far, the most attended place in the cemetery. It is strange how fame during one’s life can bleed over into their death. Jim Morrison is one of the only dead people in history to enjoy the protection of a 24-hour watch guard. His plain, unimpressive stone is surrounded by metal rails and it is littered with flowers, candles, graffiti, pills, joints, and a variety of other hippie paraphernalia. As I stood there and looked upon the spectacle that he had become in death just as he had been in life, I was struck by how out of place it seemed amongst the gentle stoicism that permeated the rest of the place.
But that’s Paris, no? Working girls line the streets that lead up to Sacre Coeur. The Latin Quarter—one of the oldest neighborhoods in town and once a proud home to the university students—has taken on the distinct and rather garish flavor that can be found in any of the world’s tourist hotspots. The Champs-Elysees features a prominent, two story Quick fast food establishment. Starving gypsies beg for alms outside of high-class restaurants, and the lovely Seine is, more often than not, runs with sewage overflow.
But ce la vie, no? That’s life, and, for our friend Jim, that’s death. It’s extravagant and it’s beautiful and it’s sometimes a bit obscene and it’s often terribly sad, but mostly it’s awe inspiring. Pere Lachaise, like the city of Paris itself, is a place where one can walk through the pages of history. Best of all, it is one of those tomes upon which history has been written that one does not have to enjoy in solitude. Both the cemetery and the city are best enjoyed with company.
My mind was a manifold of names by the time we left the cemetery through its western portal which opened onto the Avenue de la Republique. Walking between us, Catherine took Canada and I by the hand and sighed. “I leave in two days and I’m not sure why.” We strolled aimlessly down Republique, unconscious of the fact that our feet were carrying us to the canal which had become one of our favorite drinking spots during this, my first week in Paris and Catherine’s last. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.” Her softly French-Canadian voice trembled and betrayed the oncoming tears.
“What’d’you mean, aye?” Canada’s Canadianism leapt out in full force. “Just keep clear of all the moose and you’ll be fine.”
Catherine sniffed and laughed. “Maybe when I go I should leave my flag patch with you, Nick, so that you’ll have a disguise.”
“Not to worry, love. I’m already telling everyone that I’m Australian,” I slurred in an atrocious accent.
We all laughed and walked on and kept our eyes on the lookout for someplace to buy wine. I never did end up feeling the need to hide the fact that I am an American, as so many do. Not even when the riots happened and everyone was angry about the election and the role my country played in it. The only three people I ever knew to get in trouble over being Americans were, ironically, three Canadians who were certainly not Americans and who absolutely relished in badmouthing their neighbors to the south. But I’ll tell you about that another time.
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