Life and Death in the City of Lights

I’ve finally made it to my second blog update.  I apologize that it has taken me so long to publish and I hope no one lost hope in me in the interim!  I’ve revamped the page a bit, including a button so you can subscribe to the blog as I originally promised (remember how I said I was computer retarded?).  Kudos to Misha who helped me figure out some of the bells and whistles I was lacking.  You can check out her blog Tying Up Loose End from this link http://mishatypea.wordpress.com.  As we move forward, expect more changes here and there, as I’m sure this will be an ongoing learning process for me.

I feel like everyone is going away now and I’m stuck in LA!  I keep hearing about spring and summer vacations, honeymoons, internships, weekend getaways, and backpacking excursions.  Everyone is planning their trips, sending me travel emails, or showing me pictures, and I’m not going anywhere soon.  A lack of disposable funds leaves me to day dreaming and reminiscing.

These days, I keep being reminded of Paris.  I’m lucking enough to have been to the city of lights twice, once on a drama class trip when I was 17, and again on a backpacking trip when I was 19.  The latest reminder was in the book I’m currently reading,  Little Women.  It  was my favorite book as a child, and re-reading it as an adult has been a fun, nostalgic and interesting enterprise.  In the later half of the book, the “little women”  are all growing up and going on separate adventures, and Amy spends a few years (!) abroad in Europe with some wealthy cousins.  Reading her letters home was particularly fun for me since she describes places that I’ve now seen with my own eyes, like this one: “Père La Chaise (Cemetery) is very curious, for many of the tombs are like small rooms, and, looking in, one sees a table, with images or pictures of the dead, and chairs for the mourners to sit in when they come to lament.  That is so Frenchy”.  Note to self- use the expression “that is so Frenchy” whenever possible.

I noticed exactly the same things when I visited Père La Chaise back in 2005 during my first visit to  Paris.  I have a fascination with cemeteries.  I’m not sure when it started or what it comes from, but that trip definitely helped to cement my obsession.  It’s not an obsession with death itself exactly.  I find death to be pretty scary.  I’m more drawn to the life that is represented.  I like to read the birth and death dates, imagine the life in between and what it may have been like at the time.  And there is a certain beauty, a Gothic romanticsm that I am drawn to in a graveyard.

Anyways, Père La Chaise was the first cemetery I’d actually been inside.  And what a place for my first time!  The cemetery was formed back in 1804 by Napoleon when he transferred the long dead remains of Molière and a few other French notables into the land that would become the most visited and celebrated cemetery in the world.  By 1820 society was clamoring to get in and be amongst the dead and famous, and now it hosts over 300,000 bodies- or what’s is left of them, as Molière has now been dead for almost 350 years.

Père La Chaise Cemetery

At the time I felt it was the strangest place I’d ever been.  There was a magical quality to it too.  First off, it’s huge, and once you are inside you can wander pretty deep in and forget you are in a major city until you see the skyline.  Kind of like being in Central Park except surrounded in every direction by tombs.  There are little cobble stoned “streets” that you can aimlessly stroll, admiring the writing on this tomb or the iron wrought gate on that one, or you can take a map with you as you anxiously traverse hill and dale  to find as many famous graves as possible.  Paris has always been a haven for artists, writers and musicians of every nationality, and Père La Chaise is like a who’s who of the creative dead.  My sister Mel and I were taking an art history course at the time, so we recognized a lot of the people we came across.  Oscar Wilde is buried there, and so is Frédéric Chopin, neither of whom we saw but my friend Jenny is obsessed with both and shed a few tears at Chopin’s grave.

Mel and I instead got nerdy over the graves of Eugène Delacroix and Théodore Géricault, two important French artists in the early 1800’s.  Géricault’s tomb in particular is quite striking.  It includes a bronze relief of his most famous painting, The Raft of the Medusa, a sculpture of him lounging across the top wearing a painter’s beret with artist’s palette and brushes in hand, and even some lovely plants within an iron gate.  That is so Frenchy.

Théodoré Géricault

The most famous grave to the modern crowd  is that of Jim Morrison.  It was easy to know you’d found it, since there was a sizable crowd around it and was adorned by more fresh flowers than any of the others.  In the spirit of rock and roll, many a cigarette butt had been thrown over the little fence as well.  Maybe the rock spirit or Jim himself was also coming through when I snapped a picture, since the frame is dramatically tilted and there’s a reddish light bleed across the center that is in none of my other pictures from the trip.

Jim Morrison

Some other memorable moments: We found a family crypt for the “Famille Bastard David” and laughed like loons.  Because how funny is that, finding a dirty word on a grave?  We were in high school, of course we had an immature sense of humor.  But I suppose I haven’t progressed too much, as I still find it hilarious.  And like Amy mentioned in Little Women, some of the tombs still have little doors and chairs to sit and mourn.  How do we know this?  Mel went in one!  There’s a picture of her looking tres chic in the doorway.

We also found a beautiful grave for the “Famille Chaplin” containing a Charles Chaplin.  I am a huge silent film fan and found myself very emotional.  Imagine my embarrassment when later I found out that Charlie Chaplin is buried in Switzerland.  That was some other guy.  I have a photograph of that one too, me looking a little misty eyed.  Oh well.  The whole thing was still so Frenchy.

If you are looking for a wonderful old graveyard to visit but can’t afford the trip to gay Paris, I heartily recommend Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica.  There you can pay your respects to Paul Henreid who starred  in Casablanca, and if you’re like me and enjoy looking up kooky names on headstones hunt for Mertie Estelle Ploof and something Quackenbush, I forget the first name.  If you are more along the Gothic persuasion the giant Celtic cross that marks the Macbeth family is nice too.  No, I’m not making up any of these names.  Happy haunting!

Good Night and Happy Travels,

Mo

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