Monday, June 11, 2012

Mortuary Moments in Montparnasse Cemetery

Monday, June 11, 2012
Paris, France


Today I went out in search of the macabre side of Paris. Because we focus so much on Paris a la Mode, not much is known about the Catacombs of Paris by the local folks. Possibly only readers of American guide books make a beeline for the venue. And so did I. This afternoon, after a very late and lazy start, indeed after spending the morning catching up on my blog posts and email and photograph organization (editing and captioning), I made myself a baguette sandwich and left the house. My aim was to get to Denfert-Rochereau (which I reached in just 10 minutes) to head straight to the Catacombs.

A Trip Thwarted:
No one seemed to know where the Catacombs are--indeed several French passers-by had never even heard of them. When I heard a group of people talking in American English, I decided they would know. And right enough. The guy who came forward to help me also informed me that they were closed on Mondays! Darn! I should have read the fine print on my brochure. But I had mistakenly assumed that everything here is closed on Sundays. He showed me the little shack outside of which, he said, a line forms, daily. He advised me to come in early. I think I shall leave the excursion for Wednesday morning.

In Search of the Dead at Montparnasse Cemetery: 
Since I couldn't get into the Catacombs, I thought I would continue the macabre theme by touring Montparnasse Cemetery close by. About 12 minutes later, I was at a side entrance where a surly guard told me he did not have a map to give me. He directed me to a board and expected me to figure out my way through hundreds (maybe thousands) of grave stones in search of the ones I wished to identify. He did not even tell me that I could have gone to the main entrance where maps are, in fact, available!

Refusing to be daunted by his lack of civility, I began to walk amidst beautiful family tombs dating from the mid to late 19th century. The mortuary sculpture was lovely and most of it has stood the test of time well. Come to think of it, there really isn't much difference between these Victorian graveyards, be they in England or France. Montparnasse is similar to Pere Lachaise Cemetery which is similar to Brompton Cemetery in Fulham on Highgate Cemetery in Hampstead ( I have visited the latter two in London).

Which is not to say that if you've seen one, you've seen them all. Far from it. Each one enchants in the delicacy of sentiment expressed through word, statue, shape and form. There are angels and cherubs, flowers and acanthus wreaths, elaborate Gothic tracery on stone windows and every manner of crucifix. Every single one of them is a fascinating expression of the love we still hold in our hearts and memories for those who are no more.

I traced my steps in the direction of the tombstone of Jean-Paul Sartre (Father of Existentialism) and his lifelong companion and muse Simone de Beauvoir (feminist and author of The Second Sex) and, before I knew it, I was at the entrance where a much nicer guard gave me a map and pointed me in the direction of the graves I sought.

Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir are buried under the same gravestone--if not in the same grave--not very far from the area they had frequented during their long intellectual life together! But their grave is very modest indeed and but for a few wilted flowers, there was nothing to mark it out as special.

A more contemporary writer whose grave I wished to see, Marguerite Duras, was even more hard to find. Her gravestone is covered with long-dead plants and moss has grown in the crevices in which her name is engraved.

From there, I tried to find the tomb of sculptor Constantin Brancussi; but tree-trimming maintenance was going on and the area was out of bounds to visitors this morning. From there, I attempted to walk towards the grave of Samuel Beckett (initiator of the tradition of the Theater of the Absurd). But his grave was impossible to find amidst the hundreds clustered together. I hope he is at peace as he remains Waiting for God(ot)!

I reached the main central sculpture entitled Genie du Sommeil Eternel by H. Daillon set in a sea of flowers. From there, it was easy to find Susan Sontag's rather plain grave. Ionesco's grave was also easy to spot as it wasn't lost amidst a bunch of others. The American actress Jean Seberg still seems to have fans for they had strewn black and white stills from her films all over her grave. The French sculptor, Henri Laurens, a leading figure in the Cubist movement, probably designed his monument himself, during his own lifetime. It makes a startling contrast to the more classical shapes that surround his tombstone.

The cemetery of Montparnasse is extensive (as all such cemeteries are) but it is not as massive as Pere Lachaise. After spending about two hours, playing hide and seek with the glorious dead, my feet needed a rest.l I sat on a bench and ate my sandwich lunch while watching women come into the cemetery, pick up one of the plastic watering cans and head towards the grave of their loved one. How marvelous of them to continue to keep these graves pristine with their seasonal plantings and regular waterings!

At Montparnasse Tower:
I left the cemetery and followed the path leading to Montparnasse Tower, possibly the tallest structure in Paris after the Eiffel Tower. It is an ugly grey glass skyscraper, a true abomination in the midst of the graceful Belle Epoque buildings that surround it. But at its base is a shopping mall and I decided to get to Galeries Lafayette to use the rest room and to browse in the Food Halls. Alas, they do not have any food halls in this branch (the main store is on Boulevard Hausmann).

Exploring Le Bon Marche
Outside, I found a bus stop, hopped into a bus to Boulevard Raspail with the idea of going to Poilane for my weekly stock of bread. When I jumped off the bus, I found myself right at the entrance of Le Bon Marche, another famous Parisian store that I had wanted to explore. The store is just beautiful and the ground level is filled with furniture by Le Corbusier. This time I headed straight for L'Epicerie de Paris--the food hall. I had the best time wandering amidst the international food offerings. They carry everything from Walkers shortbread in the Great Britain section to peanut butter in the American. In the boulangerie, as I was checking out the brioche and the baguettes, there they were--Poillane loaves, neatly cut into halves! This would eliminate a walk to Rue du Cherche Midi. I bought the bread and a couple of croissants for breakfast and then I was off on another bus home.

Grooming Time:
Monday is for personal grooming and I spent the day like une vrai Parisienne--shampoo and shower and manicure-pedicure. Paris is the sort of city that makes you feel as if every aspect of your appearance should be impeccable and I have been trying to keep up the image. That, combined with more work on my computer, more organization of my pictures and a few calls, led me to dinner (scrambled eggs and smoked salmon with Laduree tea) and ice-cream with fresh fruit for dessert.

It is time to call it a night, so I will say...

A demain!


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