Paris - by John Sealander


Forget the Ritz. Forget haute couture. Forget the armies of tourists with their guidebooks, searching aimlessly through the Louvre for the Mona Lisa. The entire city of light is just an illusion. The real Paris is a miniature city of darkness, located on a steep wooded hill at the edge of the 20th arrondissement. It is here that you'll find the city's highest real estate values, along with some of its most illustrious residents. Tucked away in an aging industrial sector still ignored by many Parisians, this spectacular necropolis exemplifies both the best and worst of Paris. With its 12,000 trees, stately stone covered avenues and almost obscenely extravagant monuments, this 105-acre park is almost a miniature version of Paris itself. To put it mildly, Le Père Lachaise is no ordinary cemetery.
Anybody who was anybody during the past two hundred years is buried here. World famous writers like Molière, Balzac and Proust rest alongside equally famous artists like Delecroix, Pissarro and Seurat. Sara Bernhardt is buried her. So is Collette. The weird thing is that with a few notable exceptions, virtually all of these people are forgotten and ignored. Fame is fleeting in the city of light. While thousands of people are searching in another part of town for the tunnel along the Seine where Princess Diana met her untimely death, only a few bother to search for Max Ernst's final resting place. Many of the grand mausoleums designed by artists like Percier, Fontaine and Viollet-le-Duc now lie in disrepair. Stained glass windows that once embellished the tombs of the elite now lie in broken shards on the ground. Headstones of lesser luminaries are cracked and toppled. Even though Le Père Lachaise is one of the top ten destinations for Paris visitors, most of the famous souls who rest here are totally forgotten and ignored.
So, where are the thousands of visitors clutching their guidebooks and Metro tickets going if they aren't visiting Gertrude Stein's grave? Well, a large percentage of them are going to see Jim Morrison. Popularity doesn't guarantee respect however. Large chunks of Morrison's headstone have completely disappeared, having been chipped away as souvenirs by his fans. There is now a full-time guard stationed near the gravesite to prevent what remains of the monument from disappearing completely. Given the opportunity, Morrison's fans would probably dig up the body and haul it off as well.
Oscar Wilde attracts an older, more educated crowd than Jim Morrison, but he certainly doesn't get any more respect. Wilde's monument has already been restored at least once to repair fan inflicted damage and it looks like it's going to need another overhaul very soon. A myriad of lipstick kisses and magic marker inscriptions deface the headstone on all sides. Someone even had the audacity to chip the stone penis off the famous headstone sculpture and take it home for a souvenir.
It appears that if you are lucky or rich enough to make Le Père Lachaise your final home, you've basically got two choices. You can suffer the ravages of time and neglect or you can suffer the ravages of your fans. The only person who seems to get any respect in the entire cemetery is Chopin. Music lovers from around the world make their pilgrimage to Chopin's grave and leave wreaths and roses behind. Chopin's headstone is routinely cleaned and polished by well-wishers and nobody ever leaves the remnants of their picnic lunch on the tombstone.
Maybe this is as good as it gets. Everything is temporary. The lesson of Le Père Lachaise is that even if you are Baron Haussmann himself, you will be eventually be forgotten and ignored. Don't get me wrong. I'm not being critical of Paris. Paris actually has more respect for its people and its past than almost any city I know of. American cities like Dallas and Los Angeles are certainly much worse. Anything older than 30 years old in Dallas is routinely bulldozed to make room for something newer and even more forgettable.
We live in a world where the new routinely crowds out the old. Many of us talk a good game about the importance of history, but for the most part, history consists of what happened last week. It's a shame that it is much easier to remember yesterday's "Top Ten List" on Letterman or the story lines from old Sienfeld episodes than it is to remember what originally caused people to settle in your hometown. History is all around us, but for the most part it just becomes something we plagiarize unknowingly, so even the most dimwitted among us can feel the joy of thinking they have a new idea.
Maybe this is why I still love Paris. It's a little harder to forget the past. Paris rubs your nose in history. Even if you're just enjoying your morning coffee at Café Marly, or window shopping along the Champs-Elysées, the history is still there patiently waiting for an opportunity to make it's point. A brisk walk through the tree-lined avenues of Le Père Lachaise is an effective and rather pleasant remedial course covering everything from art history to political science. I must confess that on my first visit to Le Père Lachaise, I headed straight for Jim Morrison's grave, just like everyone else. Like many Paris destinations however, once you find what you were initially looking for, you often realize that it wasn't really your true destination after all. There is often something much more interesting right across the street. So, as I accidentally stumble on Modigliani's grave while searching for Jim Morrison's, I realize that all those boring art survey courses I slept through in college weren't taken entirely in vain. Each new turn in the road brings me face-to-face with a new name that, more often than I expected, elicits a dusty memory in my head. Edith Piaf, Richard Wright, Honorié Daumier; all these names conjure up dimly lit vision of worlds I though I had completely forgotten about. Other names provoked more questions than answers. Does the name Dominique Pérignon on a headstone have anything to do with the champagne? Was Christine Pascal related in some way to the famous mathematician? What begins as a stroll through a well-manicured park becomes the ultimate Kevin Bacon game. It's true. Everyone really is linked in some odd way to everyone else.
The cemetery has become a strange Paris in miniature for me, complete with its downsized grand boulevards, self-aggrandizing monuments and intimate cul-de-sacs. Le Père Lachaise, like the city that surrounds it, has its popular tourist traps and its undiscovered treasures. It also has a ghostly infrastructure that connects the past to the present just as effectively as the Paris Metro physically connects one arrondissement to the next. In this sense, it doesn't even matter that most of the residents of this illustrious necropolis have been forgotten in the fashion of the moment. They are still part of the infrastructure; just as important in their own way as the invisible network of subway tubes, electrical conduits and sewer pipes deep underneath Paris that allow the city to function.
I don't even pretend to be a history buff. As a kid I typically preferred science fiction and as an adult I often found myself choosing the insular little universe occupied by the totally self-absorbed. There isn't much room to learn from the past if your mantra is "it's all about me." The past is important though. You need it. I need it. We all need it. Somehow this is an easier concept to grasp when you're having a glass of wine on the terrace of the Deux Magots, imagining you're sitting in the same chair once occupied by Picasso, André Breton or Sartre. You can't really do this in Dallas. A sense of history in Dallas doesn't amount to much more than a quick trip to Dealey Plaza mixed with fuzzy memories of the recently demolished building where you used to work before the job you have now. Even the museums are new in Dallas. It's easy to forget that history has a place in our lives when the main topic of conversation in trendy little Deep Elum cafes is real estate values and stock options.
I would be a better person if I lived in Paris. I know I would. I don't live there though. I probably never will. I live and work in Dallas, Texas so can buy even more things I probably never needed in the first place. This is the crux of the matter. It is probably also the main reason so many people continue to ignore Le Père Lachaise cemetery's rich tapestry of history in their search for Jim Morrison's grave. The young entrepreneurial Parisians who are flocking to Northeast Paris to start their own dot.com empires in the shadow of the Sentier Metro Station probably have no more use for Molière than a Perl Programmer working at EDS or Nortel in Dallas. History is somewhat of a luxury in a world where your employer could go either public or bankrupt in the blink of an eye.Like it or not, we live in a world where everyone just hunkers down with the TV remote in their hand, wondering how they're going to make the next payment on the BMW.

It really shouldn't be this way. If life isn't a glass of wine on a terrace cafe overlooking the Seine, you can still pretend that it is. That's what vacations are for. You find yourself a quaint little hotel in the 6th arrondissement. You learn enough French to order passably in local bistros and you discover that there is much more to learn from an old East Paris cemetery than the location of Jim Morrison's grave.


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copyrightę2001. Contact John Sealander at: john@sealander.com 24819 readers since 1/08/01