My husband and I needed an escape. We were sick of the countryside and wanted to be somewhere else to celebrate our first five years as a couple. We had moved to Europe in part for its romance, but romance seemed altogether lacking. We were craving a city. And not just any city, but a city that sparkles, a city with elegance and flare, a city of artists, intellectuals, and above all romance – Paris.
We began our Parisian experience with a sampling of French cuisine. In a café in Montmartre we dined on boeuf bourguignon (with the decidedly unromantic translation of “beef stew”), gâteaux du mousse framboise and, of course, du vin rouge. From there we climbed the stairs to the summit of Montmartre (the name signifies “mount of martyrs” because it is the place of the martydom of Saint Denis) where we explored the beautiful Romano-Byzantine Basilique du Sacré-Coeur (1875 to 1919). We stood at the railings in front of the basilica, surrounded by thousands of others, tourists and Parisians alike, in love with the city, in love with each other, in love with the anonymity of it all, and spreading out before us in the setting sun lay Paris – just the city that we had been craving!
Like most visitors to Paris we indulged in a few touristy activities. We saw the required monuments: Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel tower, L’Arch de Triomphe, L’Hôtel de Ville (Paris’city hall), Palais des Invalides etc. But it was later in the day that we really began to enjoy the city, throwing off the tourist label and doing our best to blend in with the locals.
We began exploring at the Paris Opera House, and from there took Le Metro (the Paris subway) to Paris’ eastern arrondissement (civil district) where we stopped for the quintessential café and gaufre du sucre (waffle with sugar) at a road side café and watched as the Parisians went about their lives.
We entered the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in the early afternoon, a beautiful cemetery with cobblestone avenues, tree lined paths and above-ground tombs that inspire both the eeriness and the serenity of death. The cemetery contains 100,000 tombs and over 44 hectares of land, and we were there because my husband is a musician and among those 100,000 tombs, Jim Morrison is buried. We visited Jim, and I also wanted to see the graves of Ferdinad de Lesseps, and Oscar Wilde.
The popularity of the graves in relation to the lives and deaths of these men was interesting to me. Ferdinand de Lesseps was a French man and a famous engineer who changed the face of travel and commence by uniting the Mediterranean and Red Seas with the Suez Canal. He also put Panama on the map with his valiant attempt to build a sea-level canal across the Isthmus of Panama. Yet despite his contributions his grave was devoid of visitors.
Oscar Wilde was an Irish poet and dramatist famous for works such as “Lady Windermere’s Fan” (1892) and “The Importance of Being Earnest” (1895). His writing inspired people as did his personal life – or rather his homosexuality. His intimate association with Alfred Douglas led to charges of homosexuality and two years hard labor for the crime of sodomy. After his experiences and illnesses in prison Oscar was unable to rekindle his creative fires. He died from cerebral meningitis, alone and penniless in a cheap Paris hotel, broken by the intolerance of society that despised him because he loved men. Today however, Oscar is again adored and his tomb was covered with lipstick from many kisses – perhaps from both women and men …
Like Oscar, Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors and America’s leather poet, died in a hotel in Paris. He died from an overdose (dubbed heart attack), rich, famous and adored, but evidently as alone as Oscar in some ways. Jim’s grave is hugely popular. So much so that a permanent guard is installed to ensure order and janitors are employed to erase the graffiti so thoughtlessly deposited on nearby gravestones.
They were three men, with three legacies and three completely different worlds: the visionary engineer, the homosexual poet and the modern icon of masculinity. And these are just three tombs among 100,000, three men who are as equal in death as are all of the others, famous, infamous, immortal and unknown, buried in Père Lachaise.
But sometimes it is not the death of someone famous that has the most impact. For me the most moving moment of the visit to the cemetery was a passing glance at a stranger, an elderly man, neatly dressed and placing flowers by a grave. On the gravestone was a small sculpture of the woman’s face and I cried as I watched the man take a handkerchief from his pocket and carefully clean the sculpture. I know nothing of this man, perhaps he was hired to up keep the grave, but I doubt it, because even from a distance and only in a passing moment, I felt his loss.
We left the cemetery feeling subdued but not saddened, and took the Metro back to the city centre where we wandered until we found a bustling market and a small park. Away from the tourist attractions this area known as La Place R. Cassin was the perfect place to blend with the locals and have a picnic of baguettes, cheese, chocolate and wine.
As the sun began to set we went to Montparnasse. Paris has always been a hub for artists and intellectuals. Artists Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Henri Matisse; writers Ernst Hemmingway, Oscar Wilde, Scott Fitgerald, T.S. Eliot, and Gertrude Stein; existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and political refugees such as Lenin and Trotsky were all drawn to Paris and frequented the cafes of Boulevard Montparnasse and Boulevard St. Germain. “The Quarter” was an area where the great minds of the early 1900s were inspired (as well as pickled since the intellectuals took to alcohol with gusto) and we wanted to experience this area for ourselves.
Our last morning in Paris was spent in a boat on the meandering River Seine where we took one last look at the sights of Paris and made the quintessential wish followed by the quintessential kiss as we passed under le Pont Marie. Legend has it that any wish made under the Pont Marie and followed by a kiss will come true within a year. We’ll see. All along the river, Parisians were out for their morning jogs and book sellers were displaying their wares. These small bookshops once distributed clandestine literature, and perhaps they still do.
We left Paris as we had entered it, in Montmartre the artist and bohemian hub of the 1890s, taking one last look at the city spread before us from the summit of the hill.
À bientôt Paris!