The air is sooty as I make my way from the metro to the cemetery gates of Pere Lachaise, the small city whose famous, almost famous and infamous inhabitants lie beneath crooked cobblestone alleys, streets, and boulevards. I know that even though I’m wearing a raincoat, two sweaters, pants, boots and a scarf, somehow the dirt will manage to permeate all of my layers and the water will be a greenish-black hue when I step from the bath tonight. The sky is the color of the steel mills that used to line the riverbanks when I was a little girl, back before they knocked them down or converted them into those multiplex movie mansions where they shuffle the same big budget blockbusters from screen to screen.
The graveyard is by and large deserted, since the bust of Jim Morrison is now gone — stolen wouldn’t you know it — and the ragtag gang of die-hard fans that used to stand sentry around his tomb has yet to return from what may have been one too many acid trips. A dog howls in the distance, and for a moment I expect someone to cue the music, dancers to rise from behind the elevated blackened headstones, and a band of crypt keepers to begin snapping their fingers and tapping their toes to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.”
It feels like the hand of death has just reached round and pulled me from behind, but it’s only Jean. Ingrid and I pay him a small fee to give us a behind the French façade glimpse of sites sacred and profane throughout the city once a month. In exchange he joins us for lunch at one of those cafes where kidney is the only animal organ I recognize on the menu, wine is served by the pitcher while water comes by the glass, and the smoking ban is a mere suggestion. He helps us understand a bit of his culture, we get to visit parts of Paris that are definitely not in any guidebook, and everyone has the chance to engage in a bit of ego-boosting flirtatious banter. A win-win situation for all.
Jean is old-school Parisian, a man who boasts of having been born not many years after “the war,” which is how everyone in Europe refers to World War II, in one of the large maternity hospitals not far from the great train stations. It’s a section of the city where they now sell hair products that don’t work for the French and much of the fare at the street markets is imported. Like many middle-class Parisians, Jean is a bit short on cash — if his scruffy shoes, slightly baggy cotton pants, and worn wallet are any indication. Unlike most middle-class French, Jean appears to have very little dress sense, something that quite frankly makes me question his provenance. However, I know he’s Gallic, because of his charming, oversized formal manner and an unblinking stare that makes me feel he isn’t merely listening to my words but absorbing them through his large pores.
“Vous allez bien?”
Jean raises my hand like he’s some kind of knight about to press my fingertips to his lips, and I bite my tongue to keep from giggling. Unfortunately Ingrid arrives at that moment, and I’m unable to hear about his latest escapade with his tour group. After we grudgingly double kiss, a habit I’m slowly coming to realize is not as much an emulation of French custom as it is an excuse for us to receive a bit of affection while we live as strangers in a foreign land, we begin our tour.
Over 300,000 people are buried at Pere Lachaise. As we walk along the slick pavement, I trip over the tomb of a girl named Miriam. I steady myself on the smooth stone that holds a sunken photograph of Miriam that must’ve been taken weeks before she died. It shows a blond girl, her portrait rimmed in thick black ribbon that reminds me of that ghost story I used to tell about a girl whose head fell from her body and bounced off the ground, like one of those red rubber balls I played four square with, when the ribbon round her neck was untied. Miriam must’ve been well-loved — her lace dress looks very expensive, she wears a gold locket, and her headstone, like virtually all of the ones in the cemetery, bears a flowering plant. She reminds me of that missing girl whose picture used to hang in the metro stations until the paint peeled or her photo was papered over with one of those adverts for cheap English lessons.
We walk on, toward the plot of singer Edith Piaf. Though she was known as the sparrow, her life was never an easy flight. Even her gravesite sits down a slight incline.
“You know,” Jean says, “when I would come here years ago a man in a tan trench coat would deliver a small bouquet of roses once a week to the plot. But I haven’t seen him in a few years. He must have died.”
We huddle together, gazing at the remains of the tiny crippled songbird. Jean calls out to an older couple walking toward us.
“Tell me, monsieur, do you know any of la mome’s songs?”
The man laughs, removes the hat from his head, and sings the first verse of “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” (no, I regret nothing) as his wife applauds. He attempts the second verse, but remembers none of the words.
As we head toward the exit, I ask Jean why virtually all of the gravesites are so well tended. I’ll to have to add reverence for their dead to the list of things I envy about the French; my mother is the only person I know who spends every Memorial Day on her knees, bedding out geraniums, petunias, and snap dragons atop her parents’ plot.
“Ah, well, that is something not so admirable. You see, it is very prestigious for a family to have a member buried in Pere Lachaise. People pay plenty for the privilege. There are many more wishing to be here than there are places. So, there is a requirement that the grave must be tended or the deceased will be removed and the plot resold. If a burial site goes untended for a prolonged period of time, becomes overrun with weeds, or shows signs that no one ever visits, then the body is exhumed. To avoid this, professional mourners are hired. Look.”
Jean points to two men and a woman who are working their way along a line of headstones, slowly planting flowers, picking tall grass, polishing the portraits sunken into the stone. I wonder about Miriam — whether her flowers were a genuine offering, or merely a delivery from rent-a-mourner. I wonder if she is forgotten, about to be forgotten, or about to be transferred to the public burial plot outside of the city where they don’t sell souvenir maps and they sure don’t have their own metro station.
A smoky rain falls as we leave the cemetery. We run to a café, where Edith Piaf sings “Aux Champs-Elysees” on the silver jukebox in the corner. It’s the song my middle-school French teacher used to play every week on her taupe record player. It’s nice and scratchy, just like I remember.