Sunday, 4 August 2013

 As with the heart of any great city, central Paris is a quiet place first thing on a Sunday morning. It was about eight o'clock, and the only people around were street sweepers, street sleepers, joggers and dog walkers, as well as the occasional recreational cyclist in full gear heading off for the outskirts and beyond. I wandered up from the Pont Neuf to the Pont Notre Dame, before heading up Rue St Martin. I walked as far as Arts et Metiers, came back, had a double espresso at a cafe looking out across a surreally empty Pompidou Centre square. On my walk I took loads of photographs of odd little details, architectural features, graffiti, stencils, amusing signs. To be honest, it was on my mind that I had not received replies to any of the texts I had sent in the last 24 hours. Either there was something wrong with my phone, or with my family. As it would turn out, it was my phone which was at fault. But it was August the 4th, the day on which I had got married 23 years before on the hottest day of the 20th century, and my mind was elsewhere.

 At ten o'clock, I went to mass at St Merri. This is the lovely church beside the Pompidou Centre. It is the chaplaincy for Beaubourg and Les Halles, very much in the liberal catholic movement, with Taize music playing over the PA system, and none of those signs telling you to be silent or not to walk around during services. There is a strong anti-clerical tradition in the French Catholic Church, and you rarely see priests wearing black shirts and dog collars. When I saw the smiling chap in open-necked shirt and chinos setting up the simple altar under the crossing, I guessed that he was the priest. The organ played a setting of the Mass by Alain, no hymns here. The Priest came back and lifted on an alb, put a stole around his shoulders. Still no clerical collar. The altar server didn't even have a robe, just jeans and a t shirt.

It was a lovely, prayerful Mass. There were about sixty of us I suppose, not bad for a parish with hardly any resident population. The main Sunday mass is at eleven-thirty in the Les Halles prayer centre. The ten o'clock crowd were a mixed lot, black and white, elderly ladies, earnest young men, Asian tourists, middle class families with young children, a handful of street sleepers. The priest started by reminding us that we were not here to celebrate our homes, our cars, our families and other possessions. We were to remember that these were transitory things, and all that really mattered was the life of the spirit, and the life of the spirit was Love. The readings were from the book of Ecclesiastes ('Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!) and St Paul ticking off the Corinthians. Before each reading the priest explained his take on it, and the psalm response was 'from age to age Lord, you have always been our refuge'. The Peace was very enthusiastic, it being assumed that everyone would shake hands with as many of the rest of the congregation as possible. As I say, it was lovely.

It put me right in the mood for my next expedition, which was to head out into the east of Paris to Pere Lachaise cemetery. On the face of it, Pere Lachaise is not as interesting as cimitiere Montparnasse, but I had a number of reasons for coming here, not least because my Paris friends tell me that it is the most beautiful cemetery in the city, and I think they are right. It is true that you cannot be on your own wandering around here like you can at Montparnasse, but it is four times as big and its sloping site gives rise to winding little impasses that can be yours alone for the time you are in them. 

If you are planning a visit yourself, it is worth noting that the best thing to do is to take the metro to Gambetta rather than to Pere Lachaise. This brings you in at the top of the cemetery rather than the bottom. This is the quieter part of the cemetery, and very quickly I picked off Maria Callas, Stephane Grappelli and Gertrude Stein without being bothered too much by other visitors. 

At this top end of the cemetery the visitor-magnet is the grave of Oscar Wilde. This is a fabulous sculpture by Jacob Epstein.  The Irish government, which owns the grave and is responsible for maintaining it, has recently put a Perspex screen around it to stop visitors kissing it with lipstick kisses. Quite how anyone could think Wilde would want to be kissed by a girl is beyond me, though i suppose that they weren't all girls. Wilde's grave is easily found, being on a main avenue, but not all such significant figures are as accessible. I eventually found the tomb of Sarah Bernhardt after much searching, some distance from the nearest avenue. It did not appear to have been visited much at all in recent months.

In one quiet corner of the cemetery is a wall with a memorial to the Paris Commune. The communards had taken advantage of the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War to declare a utopian republic, something along the lines of the one of seventy years earlier, but hopefully without the tens of thousands of opponents being guillotined this time. Incidentally, the French love to discuss and argue about politics so much that there is no chance of the country ever opting for a totalitarian regime. When the revolutionaries of the 1780s and 1790s started executing those who mildly disagreed with them, it was the start of a slippery slope at the bottom of which no one would have been left alive. Anyway, the communards hoped to avoid that. When the siege was over and the mess had been cleared up, they were brought to this wall in their hundreds and shot, their bodies dumped into conveniently adjacent mass graves.

This corner of the cemetery has become a pilgrimage site for Communists, and many of the graves around are for former leaders of the French Communist Party, in its day the largest and most powerful in Western Europe. In the 1980s, when I first started coming to Paris, they ran many of the towns and cities, especially in the industrial north.

Near here are some vast and terrifying memorials to the victims of the German occupation of France and Nazi concentration and death camps. Each camp has its own memorial, usually surmounted by an anguished sculpture, and with an inscription with frighteningly large numbers in it. There is a silence in this part of the cemetery. It is interesting to me that memorials in this part of France refer to 'the Nazi occupation and the Vichy government collaborators', while in the southern half of the country, which was under Vichy rule, the memorials usually talk about 'the German barbarity'.

I sat for a while, and then went off looking for more heroes. Proust and Chopin were easily found, Poulenc less so. Wandering around I chanced by accident on the grave of the artist Gericault, which carries bronze relief versions of his 'Raft of the Medusa', starting point of the Musee d'Orsay, as well as other paintings. To be honest, the most interesting memorials are those to ordinary upper middle class Parisians who were raised to grandeur through art in death in a way that they cannot have known in life.

One of the saddest corners, and a rather sordid one, is to the American pop singer Jim Morrison, who died in Paris at the age of 27, burnt out and 20 stone after gorging himself on whisky, burgers and heroin. Well, so did Elvis, you might retort, but at least Elvis had some good tunes. The survival of Morrison's legend seems to rest entirely on the romance of his death and burial. Surely no one can be attracted by his music, those interminable organ solos and witless lyrics? His simple memorial (a bust was stolen in the 1980s) is cordoned off by barriers, and is the only one where a cemetery worker is permanently in attendance. I looked around at a crowd of about thirty people, all of whom were younger than me, and none of whom could have been alive when the selfish charlatan drank and drugged himself to death.

 James Douglas Morrison aged twenty-seven

Shaking my head in incomprehension, (I didn't really, but I bet some people do) I finished off my visit by finding Colette, and bumping into Rossini on the way. Then I headed back into central Paris. I was bound for St Merri again, for a concert by the Klaviertrio Wurzburg of piano trios by Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn. It was wonderful, the audience arranged in an octagon around the performers, children sitting on the floor at the front, rapturous applause at the end. I was quite overcome. I took one last tour around the church. "Don't worry, I will come back" I whispered, either to the building or to myself, I'm not sure which.

I was still full of emotion from the Mendelssohn trio, and sat down in the square with a steak hache sandwich to recover. Then I walked westwards into the sun along the Rive Droit, past the bridge loaded with padlocks. This seems to have started originally as a way of lovers plighting their troth after spending a holiday together here - while the lock remains, so does their love, I suppose. They would write their initials in nail varnish on the padlock, lock it to the bridge and throw the key in the Seine. I wonder how many of those romances have actually lasted? It might be an awkward thing to explain to any subsequent lovers. I was pleased and impressed to see that some of the locks were combination locks, which seemed far more sensible. Now the tradition has become that anyone can add a lock to show that they will return to Paris, and now there are hundreds of thousands of the things. I dare say the City Mairie will eventually cut them all away in the middle of the night, and good riddance.

I wandered on, past the Louvre, and then across the top of the Tuileries. The heat was intense, and thousands of feet were raising the dust in front of the Louvre pyramid. As everywhere in Paris, there were young North Africans selling bottled water at a euro a bottle. This has been called a scam by some, but to me it seemed eminently sensible. Sure, the lads are making a decent profit, but it is stil cheaper than it would be in any of the shops, and they were providing a necessary service on such a hot day. 

For every water seller there was another North African lad selling Eiffel Tower replicas. There must be an insatiable market for these things. One seller had a sign saying '13 pieces 10 euro' - what on earth would anyone do with thirteen of the things? Give them as gifts, I suppose, but at that rate we should all be over-burdened with miniature Eiffel Towers pressed on us by slightly embarrassed relatives. We should begin to dread our family and friends visiting the city. The world would be drowning in them. With this startling prospect vivid in my mind, I wandered on to the Place du Concorde, where I caught the train back to Villiers.


  1. I am glad I am not the only one who hates The doors. And this fascination with Jim Morrison I can't understand. Everytime I hear the trump of the organ at the beginning of a doors track on a podcast, I will fast forward it so to avoid to have to listen to it.

    From 'Almost Famous': "The Doors? Jim Morrison? He's a drunken buffoon posing as a poet."

    "Give me The Guess Who. They got the courage to be drunken buffoons, which makes them poetic."

    I have found Parisians to be polite and willing to speak english, and delighted by my fractured French. I love the City and am more detirmed to go back after reading your wonderful account.

  2. Simon, je n'avais pas pas tout lu ! Vraiment, je me délecte de tes aventures. Tu y mets parfois une touche personnelle qui donne encore plus d'intérêt et de vie à ton récit.
    Bon anniversaire de mariage !

  3. Merci Kay. C'est une joie de visiter Paris, la ville est tellement civilisé. Pour être un homme seul à Paris est toujours une expérience agréable.