Monday, February 7, 2011

Adieu l'Émile je t'aimais bien

Hauntingly beautiful grave, Cimetière du Montparnasse

We had one unplanned day, unplanned in that we hadn't decided where to be. We could stay in Paris, get on a train to Belgium, either Ghent or Brussels or Antwerp, or go straight back to Amsterdam to get in one more day there. Pretty much Paris-ed out, (nothing against Paris or the Parisians, here, mostly just tired of being two in a sea of tourists) looking at train schedules, we elected to putter around half a day more in Paris, and then à bientôt to France and off to Belgium.

Over breakfast Mike and I flipped through my well-tabbed Lonely Planet guide book to figure out what to do with our last hours in the City of Light.

Ironically, breakfast, like every meal I've had here, was not what I would call light cuisine. Waist-wise, it was a good thing the trip was nearly over. The jeans were getting tight. That salad, however one might wish it to, does not balance out the cheesy goodness and cholesterol. Again, jet fuel espresso, God bless it, was the only way to restart our hearts and get us out the door.

I had carefully color tabbed the pages of the guidebook, which was bristling with them.

Blue tab meant that's interesting. Green was sounds like a tasty place to eat. Yellow meant it could happen. Orange was it would be great if we got to do this. Bright pink tabs screamed DO IT or DIE.

All the bright pinks were done. So we moved on to the oranges, and looked for something maybe a little different. The catacombes fit that bill and would be...interesting. There is a series of tunnels beneath the city, and the catacombes are the portion that has been turned into an underground ossuary. The cold walls are lined with carefully arranged skulls and other bones from the days when the city's cemeteries were mass graves, overfilled with the, you really wouldn't want to drink the groundwater in those days.

Morbid and definitely memorable.

So we went hustled out there on Paris' fantastic Metro, off at the Denfert-Rochereau station, and were greeted by our least favorite thing: the sight of a line that literally went all the way around the block. Seriously? All those people were willing to spend a good amount of a beautiful day in Paris to go down cramped, cold staircases through dark claustrophobic passages under the ground, full of bones and slippery from dripping water?

Well, we weren't willing to stand around. Nicely, I had my little tabbed guidebook, and one orange tab and a few blocks away was the Cimetière du Montparnasse, Montparnasse Cemetery, where rich or distinguished personages from were not stacked like cordwood or tossed into big slimy pits, to say the least. This was a classy sort of neighborhood to end up in.

Heroes from the wars, intellectuals, artists, political leaders, scientists and adventurers are all found here beneath grave markers that range from classic to modern, elegant, elaborate, whimsical to sentimental. With all the sculptures, memorials and serene parklike setting it was a beautiful place to walk. I hear folks even come to picnic on the extensive grounds. Practical.

My favorite tomb would have to be that of Charles Pigeon, the inventor of the Pigeon gas lamp:

Immortalised in a life-sized bronze sculpture, with a pencil and notebook in his hand, he is forever in bed next to his wife, an angel watching from the headboard above them.

Giving a full report here, (you can always count on me!) I discovered one of the most primitive bathrooms I have ever been in, which is saying quite a bit as the bar is set pretty low on that score. It was amazing I got out of there neither wet nor soiled. All the glamour is allotted to the deceased, not wasted on the living.

We walked and walked, stumbling across the graves of such notables as the intellectual partners in political activism, polyamorism, existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. (Feel free to add your own -isms to the description, there. I know you can come up with some.)

Tourists had left train ticket stubs and lipstick kisses on this grave, which shows how well those tourists read their guide books. The metro tickets are actually supposed to be left on Serge Gainsbourg's grave in honor of his song "Le Poinçonneur des Lilas," a dark little number about a man in the monotonous and somewhat meaningless job of punching holes in Metro passenger tickets. As he works he fantasises about putting another hole in his head, and then of being placed in his eternal hole in the ground.

Back to today, the misplaced lipstick kisses were supposed to go upon Oscar Wilde's grave, which is in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise (yes, an entirely different cemetery), but I suppose de Bouvier and Sartre would have appreciated the irony and Oscar Wilde certainly would have had a chuckle over it.

The cemetery, in all, is a sort of marvelous outdoor historical museum, full of art and life appreciation moments, and not at all a bad way to spend a morning.

There were a few more wonderfully Parisian moments I have to throw out there:

statue among the lighting and sound setup for a concert

the fantastic Art Deco signage for the Metro

an American musician on the Metro.

Did you know the musicians are held to a certain musical standard and must acquire a license before they may perform on the trains or platform? I approve!

Second menu item down, translated for us as a "piece of the butcher."

Yikes, better wield that cleaver more carefully next time. (I'm kidding, I'm sure it's something much more mundane like a special of the day.)

and what appeared to me to be a perfect moment in Paris,

reading quietly in the midst of the city.

At Paris Nord we boarded what was by then, emphatically not counting the Paris Metro, the 10th train of our trip, this time headed for, what the heck, Antwerp.


*Paula* said...

Yay, a Natalie update! More, more! You really need to write your own guide book :)

AKBrady said...

I liked Antwerp. As for the lineup to see underground Paris? Nat Geo did a big feature a month or so ago, so that could be the reason. And the big parties at night. Yahooo...

Nathalie said...

Adieu Paris.... Thank you for the tour ;) Denfert Rochereau was my station when I lived in Paris as a student... a long time ago!

Natalie said...

Nathalie, if I wasn't so well-adjusted I might be jealous...a student in Paris, and in such a lovely neighborhood too...lovely, lovely.