My Travel Book - Paris - A walk around Le Père Lachaise

When you get to Le Père Lachaise, in the eastern part of Paris, this is part of what you see from the street because this high wall encloses 110 acres of ground, hundreds of trees and by the way, 77000 graves, the oldest one being 200 years old.

Actually, there is nothing more remote from a graveyard than Le Père Lachaise... It’s a beautiful park, a calm and quiet place where you feel miles away from Paris.

Lots of children walking around with their parents. Lots of old people chatting on a bench, here and there. Lots of tourists looking for famous graves.

And then people like me who love this fabulous place and never get tired of strolling through it. There always something new to discover, surprising graves and corners.

Just imagine 110 acres criss-crossed with small cobbled paths, lined with small and very old ‘houses’. So different that you tend to forget they are graves... And when you realize they are graves indeed, there is something so magical around that you feel really peaceful and you keep on walking. Nothing spooky there. Peace and quietness and reverence.

Then you find yourself in the middle of a 'city'... which will grow and grow in front of you as you keep on walking uphill.

You'll find squares here and there with friendly benches. It was very early in the morning so the benches are still vacant. But in the afternoon, people will use them until quite late, just to chat in a friendly, neighbouring way.

Le Père Lachaise really looks like a small city, but without the unruliness of our daily lives, especially in Paris.
Of course, it won't let you forget it is a graveyard, but so gracefully.

Many artists chose to be buried there. Chopin has a beautiful romantic grave always covered with fresh flowers. The day I took the picture was the day after the Polish plane crash in Smolensk hence the red and white bouquet, red and white being Poland's colours.

 I've seen many people come and cry and pray there. It is an extremely moving place.

Some graves are quite different. People want to be remembered for what was their deep interest in life, whether they were ethnologists or musicians. The names are erased by Old Father Time but the passions remain.

Some families want to to be remembered for what they did or gave. The Raspail family gave many political leaders to France. Some of them were jailed during harsh revolutionary times at the end of the XIXth century.

This impressive battlefield death may have been his dream. But Marshal MacDonald (one of Napoléon's great military leaders) died in his bed at a very old age.
It's one of the many examples that I've found in Père Lachaise. Playing around with reality.

Another old general has his lifesize bust on top of a huge monument on which a young girl writes how great he was. Men...

The girl is very pretty. I wonder who she was... But we'll never know. I think this is very unfair.

Lots of graves are extremely decorated and impressive. This was how you measured the family's wealth. The interesting point is that many names have disappeared and those graves remain monuments to the Unknown Wealthy Dead. Which would really have bothered them, I'm sure, had they known!

Last time I was there, I found an amazing grave. The guy's name was still on it (bronze doesn't disappear easily... Yes, his name was written with bronze letters). Sounded Brazilian. Too bad for him he died in Paris then. His monument is incredible:

Lifesize women at every corner, some weeping, one with children... Bronze drapery! And please notice the enclosure. 'My grave is my castle'. But to top it all, look at what was built right in front of it, so that you won't forget to stop and think about him for a while while you're resting.

A beautiful stone bench!

A month ago, I had been moved to tears when I discovered this old grave and its small bench. Obviously a couple's grave with no names on it though. I still keep wondering who died first and who came to cry on this bench.

Le Père Lachaise is very old. Nature sometimes claims back its rights.

Trees are deadly enemies for many small graves. Well, trees are alive and they need room. So they grow and the graves disappear slowly but surely.

Of course, it's much nicer when nature keeps growing flowers. The grave will disappear anyway. But in a sweeter and more poetic way...

I can't resist to show off my last discovery. I was walking around and kept seeing something red, floating in the air. I grew very curious. I had to know. It wasn't easy to get there but it was worth it!

Yes, this is a Christmas tree on a very sorry looking and unmarked grave. Who could have such a crazy idea... The tree is still alive. The ornaments are getting a little bit worn out.

This is Le Père Lachaise. So filled with life... Quite an achievement for a graveyard!

*Good Night, and Good Luck*


My Travel Book - Paris and Graveyards - An Introduction to Le Père Lachaise

I know this must sound weird but I love Paris graveyards... There are three of them: Montmartre, Montparnasse and Le Père Lachaise. I should have started with Le Père Lachaise because it was the first one to be created at the very beginning of the XIXth century, in 1804.

Actually, at that time, they were outside Paris. Napoléon signed a decree banning all graveyards from Paris because they were becoming very unsafe and mostly overcrowded.

So they destroyed the existing graveyards, recovered the bones (from about 6 million bodies) and stored them in underground tunnels left from  abandoned stone quarries which became gigantic ossuaries. (Underground Paris looks like a gigantic piece of  Swiss cheese...) The one you can visit is huge and is called the Catatombs. I’ve never been there which shows that I am not a necrophiliac. Feeling better?

But my life has been filled with graveyards.

When I was a teenager, spending a lot of time in Arfons, our tiny family village above Carcassonne, there wasn’t much to do, except spending the day on the lake shores,  after a long trek up and down through the forest. Our parents (except for one couple) didn’t really enjoy having a lot of teenagers around, hanging in the backyard... But we were very resourceful and one of our best ever hanging around place was the village graveyard.

The local café on the village square closed very early at night, probably because we almost never bought drinks but kept using the chairs and were laughing too much and too loud.

The graveyard was nice and very old. Some of us lived very close to it. And all of us had family members buried there. The big iron gates were never closed...
And so we’d go there, to the most secluded place... we’d sit around and build the world anew... listening to the chimes of the steeple clock. It was a very nice and friendly place.

(I’m still wondering why our grand-parents and/or parents never wondered where we were. I know Arfons was a very safe place then. I guess their problem was to have us back home at ‘curfew’ time which receded from year to year!)

This is where I saw my first will-o’-the-wisp dancing over the graves during warm summer nights. Old people were scared of them and would talk about them in hushed whispers but we loved them. To us, it truly was a poetic experience.

One day, while hiking through the forest (one of the biggest in France at the time), we discovered bones sticking out of the ground! We knew that until 1789, there had been monks living there ever since the Middle Ages. There were a few vestiges of walls, here and there... mostly ‘swallowed’ by the lush vegetation.

We did not report our discovery to our parents because we had found a skull (yes, a human skull) that was to become our friendly companion for a few years. But this is another story. We finally grew up and reported our findings... (We were bright enough at the time to leave a very visible mark on the site and since we knew the forest very well, it wasn’t hard to get back there.) There was a lot of excitement over it, I remember!

Many years later, I moved close to Paris with husband and son, to Rueil-Malmaison (home to the Empress Josephine who had been Napoléon’s first wife). We settled in a house very close to the city ‘new’ graveyard. We walked by it everyday, when JC and I went shopping to the small mall down the street.

This graveyard used to fascinate my boy (7 at the time). He had to go inside almost every day. He loved to check the nearest/newest graves, always covered with flowers and the ‘We love you, mother dear’ or ‘We’ll never forget you’ slabs French people love to put over the marble family vault.

I know this is where he mastered arithmetic because he had to know how old the person was whenever a new grave appeared. He also was totally amazed by the unrelenting growth of the graveyard.

‘The dead are growing, see, mommy, the dead are growing’, he’d tell me!
It used to spook me at the time. But now, when I think about it, I wonder if the gravediggers wouldn’t like to change their name.

‘What do you do in life?’
‘Oh, well, I’m growing dead people.’

Which would also apply to tobacconists, bartenders, bad drivers and some oncologists... Too many people.

I think I’ll stick to 'gravediggers'.

Anyway, I’m very glad I never told my boy:
‘Yes, dear, the dead are growing and the universe is expanding.’

I would have felt so guilty whenever he was really unhappy during his astrophysics PhD student days. This memory would have depressed him very much, I think.

Of course, I was very relieved when we moved to our new house, a long way from the graveyard, well, not that far away but not that close either. I guess I was getting too old to watch the dead growing.

Swee'Pea soon forgot all about his then weekly/monthly visits to the ‘growing dead’. Well, just about time. He was 11. He soon developped other interests. He was growing up.

When we went to live in Belgium, Swee'Pea remained in Paris to study. We found him a nice apartment, very close to the school where he was studying, hoping to become an engineer after 3 years of Classes préparatoires. He never became an engineer... but he kept his apartment.

This apartment is facing a huge high-school partly built in the early XIXth century... Guess what was there before? Yes... one of those Parisian graveyards that were destroyed and whose ‘inhabitants’ are now resting underground, very close to the Paris Observatory where Swee'Pea spent quite a few years!

Spooky, spooky!
Ok, I guess I should stick to telling stories with pretty pictures...

But wait till I take you along to Le Père Lachaise! It is such a beautiful and peaceful place where the dead are not growing anymore, I promise. You are going to love this place.

*Good Night, and Good Luck*



«The Sting» and «The Entertainer»... Does it ring a bell? Well, of course.

1973 - «The Sting» (L’Arnaque) -  a movie by George Roy Hill, starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman.

The soundtrack? «The Entertainer»! And Scott Joplin made his come back into the musical world even if most of us had never listened to ragtime before.

I was living in the States at the time and besides the ragtimes, I discovered «Treemonisha» by Scott Joplin. The first Afro-American opera ever written (1911). A big flop at the time. But thanks to «The Entertainment», it made a big come back.

«Treemonisha» is not made of ragtime tunes even if the field workers sing the well-known «Aunt Dinah has blown the horn». It’s a real opera, very romantic and beautiful with haunting arias.

It was first played in Paris in 2005... It sure took us a long time, I know. But I missed it then since my priorities were more hospital oriented.

This week, «Treemonisha» came back to Paris with an extremely good international cast. Guess who went (run?) to the Théâtre du Chatelet... so excited and happy...

Well, it was worth waiting (over 30 years). I enjoyed every minute of it.

Last week, I read Doctorow’s «The March», a book about the American Civil War but with a vision completely different from «Uncle Tom’s Cabin» and/or «Gone with the Wind». Very impressive book, about the horrors of war but also especially brilliant because of the way it deals with the complex slavery/freedom problem, as seen from both points of view, North and South. Doctorow brings up some very disturbing facts and ideas. Worth reading, really.

Treemonisha who is 18, was born right at the end of the Civil War. She is a beautiful and educated girl who will lead her people away from the dullness of illiteracy and obscurantism and open a new enlightened era for them.

Actually, the whole opera is about education versus superstition and obscurantism, the same power of education which was to bring racial equality to America. Pretty visionary for something written at the beginning of the XXth century, less than 50 years after slavery ended in the States and quite a few years before Martin Luther King received the Peace Nobel Prize... and Barack Obama became the first African-American president of the United States (after 43 white ones) - let's not forget his impressive wife!

The libretto may sound a little bit naïve from time to time... But who can  defend one single minute that some of Verdi’s libretti are not naïve, not to say silly!

Treemonisha herself, the adopted daughter of poor and humble people, got all her education from a white woman. (So much like Scott Joplin who learnt to play the piano at the house where his mother was a maid and was sent away to study music by the wealthy and white family she was working for.)

But the brilliant and again visionary idea behind Treemonisha’s moving story is that women could get an education, enough education to become leaders among women and men alike.

Oh boy, do I love this opera!

Back to the performance. It was fantastic! Great performers. Very beautiful ‘operatic’ voices. A great director. Very entertaining ballet over the ragtime part.
And two incredible things:  first, a standing ovation.
(We tend to be very fussy about opera in Paris! Simply so highbrow French, I should say!)
And secondly: an incredible and hilarious ‘encore’ with the entire cast over «Aunt Dinah...»... (‘Encores’ are frowned upon in France, especially at the opera.) The singers danced along with the dancers or tried to... but the young and extremely good tenor managed a double somersault! Impressive, very impressive.

So much joy!

Such a good night... and then a ride back to Swee'Pea’s apartment, late at night through Paris.

So great to be alive!

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

Fighting Cancer

Right before Christmas, my oncologist decided time had come to try a four months interval between check-ups (instead of every 6/8 weeks). I got really scared! What if.... Then time went by quicker than I thought.

Of course I spent the last two weeks going out of my mind... Funny how imaginative I can be!

Today was my last day of quite harrowing tests. (I still have my appointment with my oncologist, in ten days with the results of my blood test but that’s ok. We’ll end up talking about photography.)

Well anyway, the main tests are over. I’m quite bruised due to my poor exhausted veins but I’m alive and well!

My last chemo ended in August 2006 (on the 4th of August to be precise)... I can’t believe I’ve been cancer-free ever since.

43 months! Wow! Seems like a whole life... 90 years at least!

Last time, cancer came back less than a year after a very strong 8 months chemo. It also had increased considerably. (I like the word «increase»... «Metastases» is a word I hate to use.)

I no longer have to go through X-rays nor sonograms... I’m sent directly down to the «older children’s playground» (in the depths of the American Hospital...), i.e. the RMI and ET Scan Department...
Hence the bruises on my only «good» arm. The «older children’s playground» is not this fun after all but it has its good sides though. I know almost instantly whether I’m allright or not.

Otrherwise I’d start with X-rays, then sonograms and I'd end up inevitably in the RMI or Scan departments because something would look «weird»... Lots of worries and lost time too.

So this morning, after the last ET Scan, when my dear radiologist called me back to the secluded place where they tell you if...., he smiled at me and said: «Let’s kiss! You’re perfectly fine. You’ve never been this fine.»

Now, I don’t want you to think that radiologists are perverts, taking advantage of their patients. Mine isn’t, I promise. He’s a very nice young man.

But it’s become quite a habit for the past two years. (Before, my future still was very uncertain.)

RMI and scans getting good and better = a big kiss to and from the radiologist! (Even when Philippe is there... even though they don’t go this far as kissing too!) We also chitchat for a few minutes! Precious minutes.

The American Hospital in Paris is filled with really nice doctors even if you’re as close to dying as you can be. They still are very nice!

Most of them are extremely good in their field (or they don’t last very long there) but they all are extremely humane even though they tend to go straight to the point... at least that’s what they did with me. (And I liked their straightforwardness.)

For a long time, there were posters in the halls: «Here you are not merely a patient but a human being.» Which probably spelled to desperately sick people like me: «We-love-you!»

Understanding and care so close to love are important when you get very sick. A lot of patients also come from foreign lands and feel really lonely and lost.

I have been very sick but I’ve never felt lost or lonely there. This feeling is also very true concerning the nurses. They help a lot too.

In June, it’ll be 7 years ever since cancer first struck (or should I say, was discovered) and I’ve been to the A.H. so many times now it almost feels like home which maybe is not really a good thing after all, when you think of it.

But for me, it is almost «home» because I feel a lot of care and love there... And I’ve been through almost every department since almost everything fell apart, sort of!

Can’t say I really love being there but I kind of like being liked and cared for! By the way, no, I’m not back to sucking my thumb.

Of course, you start with one doctor and then you end up with your dream team!!! At least, I did, lucky me.
Well sometimes it was more like a nightmare tho!

The first member of this «dream team» was my radiologist. He was the one who first assessed the visible damages, the second time around... He was the one I yelled at, screaming that «No, it can’t be true. Not again.» But he also was the one  who listened calmly and let me express my fears and rage and despair. He took time (out of a very busy day) to help a crazed woman pull through the pain. He kind of held my hand and found the words to soothe me and my husband.

So he’s never left my life ever since. He’s my radiologist, a very bright and talented young man. I do admire him. For many, many reasons, some of them very personal.

When it comes to cancer, radiologists usually are the first ones to face the monster and the patient. This is not easy at all.

So now, you know why today, it all ended with kisses. And a promise to get together pretty soon and spend a few «minutes» talking about something else than cancer.

Let me remember the day: April 8th, 2010. All this happened yesterday... yesterday already! Not bad. Life keeps going on! And I should get to bed...

*Good Night, and Good Luck*