One of the best things about solo travel (which this brief trip mostly was) is the ease with which you can meet people. Over the course of just a few days, I had some memorable encounters with people – both Parisian and not, both living and dead.
Well, the dead were in Père Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris, founded in 1804. I enjoyed a peaceful, solitary afternoon wandering the hilly lanes and dirt paths amidst the tombs of the famous and the obscure. There is something about cemeteries that makes me feel peace, joy, and connection to life. I love all the stone. I love the melancholy and unabashedly emotional statues.
More about who I encountered there in a moment…
About the living. I have always found Parisians to be lovely and this time was no different. Even with my lack of French, Parisians were consistently helpful and kind.
I planned to take a cross-city bus to the cemetery. I found the bus stop in my neighborhood and was waiting when a young woman and her two children came by. She said something to me in French and when I shook my head, she spoke English: was I waiting for the bus? It would not stop there, she informed me; it had been rerouted because of construction. She led me to another bus stop and told me she and her children were taking the same bus. Their destination? To get a pet rabbit! I expressed great thanks and we conversed a bit – her English was good – and we exchanged email addresses, promising to write.
Also in my neighborhood, a Parisian man called out to me in French as I walked by. I shook my head. He said, “Oh, English?” I nodded, to which he replied, “I love you!” How friendly!
I used my Rick Steves Paris guidebook to tour Père Lachaise; it contains detailed route instructions to find some of the more famous tombs. While I was studying the directions, an older French man with flowing white hair and a colorful, blousy shirt approached to ask if he could help me find something. His English wasn’t great, but we found ways to communicate. Turns out Gerard is a local tour guide, specializing in the cemetery. I showed him my Rick Steves cemetery map and he took out a pencil and corrected a few things (!). He named off many more famous artists who were buried there and he offered his services for any future groups I bring through. I gave him my business card.
Later in the cemetery, imagine my surprise when I was again looking down at my guidebook and I heard someone say, “Hello, Wendy!” It was Gerard – walking by, leading a group.
One of the first famous graves I found was that of Oscar Wilde, which was simple to locate. But I was on my way deep into the cemetery to find what may be the most visited gravesite: American singer, songwriter, poet, The Doors frontman, Jim Morrison, who had died in Paris in 1971. It didn’t look easy to locate. I came across a woman wandering by herself as I was. She asked me in French if I spoke English. We were both relieved to find another English speaker. She was from Brighton, England and had just come from Jim Morrison’s grave and wanted help finding Oscar Wilde’s. I was doing the opposite. We gave each other directions and wished each other well.
I found Morrison’s grave (actually I just had to follow the young people streaming in that direction). Fenced now to keep fans from defacing it, the grave marker still had many objects left upon it. I noticed that the people who gathered there simply lingered a while, as I was doing.
Amidst all the haunting beauty of funerary art, there was the tomb of Frederic Chopin – and all the living plants left there – which I found particularly moving.
It was August, but I felt fall in the air in Paris. The air was cool and there were dead leaves on the ground. Wandering through a cemetery, that seemed just right.
2 thoughts on “Encounters with Parisians, Living and Dead”
Wendy, this is a beautiful piece!! Much of your experience resonates with my own, having visited Paris several times over the last forty years. I have found Parisians to be unfailingly polite and helpful in every way. One regret that I have is that I never toured Père Lachaise to honor the cultural icons whose bodies lie there in rest. Jim Morrison and The Doors were a big part of my salvation during military service in the late 1960s, for their music was transformative!!
Thank you, Dan! And thanks for sharing that. Well, you must make another trip to Paris!