Chance Encounters in the Cimetière Montparnasse and its neighborhood

What do I do in Paris when fall turns summery? Something that may sound strange to many people.

I take a walk in a graveyard. 

Today was such a beautiful autumnal day. Sunny and cool.

Life hasn’t been very kind lately, sort of. I have been feeling down - a lot since my coming back from Brittany... I spend a lot of time inside wherever I am - our house in Belgium or our son’s apartment in Paris... which is quite a shame, I know. I mean, being in Paris and spending my days reading on the sofa.

Today was such a beautiful autumnal day. Sunny and cool.

I had to go outside. Where to? Well, not too far away anyway. To the Montparnasse Cemetery. One of my favorite places in Paris. Very peaceful and quiet, planted with trees and decked with flowers.

I get there by subway. Only two metro stations. Nice and fast.

I did not have any tickets left. I needed to buy some since I’m much too old to leap over the gate... Which meant that I’d have to face a grumpy counter clerk. Counter clerks are not always grumpy but most of them are not very friendly and I like it so much when my smile gets a big smile in return.

Good news. You no longer buy tickets from a counter clerk. They now have nice and friendly machines to deliver the tickets. 

Bad news. There is something I hate more than a grumpy clerk - a machine supposed to deliver tickets. I am getting so partially sighted that as soon as I learned I’d have to go through the ordeal of the machine, I braced myself up and got ready to jump over the gate. (This was just a bad dream except that it truly was very hard getting the right ticket from a very stupid machine.)

Then a very sweet voice said to me:

“Let me help you, please.”

The girl from the RATP counter who had just told me she no longer sold tickets.

“How many tickets do you need? Would 10 be ok?”

I was flabbergasted. She very deftly thumped away on the machine. She  took my 20€ note (with a smile) and got 10 tickets from the device plus a lot of change, which was nice too.

“There you go. Have a good day.”

What do you do then? You smile her your thanks, and off you go, feeling a lot happier that when you woke up this morning, not knowing what you’d be doing even though it was so sunny outside.

The metro was empty. I sat down even though the Montparnasse Cemetery station was less than 10 mns away. Only to make up for the days when we are squashed together like sardines in a can (almost every day).

On my way outside, I stopped to listen to some people who were talking about Belgium.

“Do you know that in Flanders, they still speak French? They say they speak Flemish but they still speak French, all of them. Because who would speak Flemish after all?”

“No kidding!” (That’s me but not aloud. A few delightful minutes while I had a quiet laugh. Isn’t it better to look on the bright side of life?)

I had brought the map of the graveyard but I got lost once more. That’s what happens when you don’t know your right from your left. You get lost. This is not tragic in the Montparnasse Cemetery since the Tour Montparnasse is a good beacon.

Off I went. As usual. I had my camera with me. Of course. My afternoon in the graveyard went pretty much the same way as every time I go there.

One grave attracts my attention. Then another one and another one and another one... Three hours later and I’m still in the graveyard, still taking pictures, still looking around.

We are getting close to All Saints’ Day. The weather is so nice that lots of people are busy cleaning graves and bringing flowers. Lots of gardeners (I imagine you can call them gardeners after all) are busy cleaning the parts of the graveyard that are more or less abandoned for many reasons... mostly because the Montparnasse Cemetery is a very old graveyard.

I ran into one of of those gardeners. He was sweeping a very posh grave. Since I was taking pictures, he asked me if I wanted him to stop while... Of course not. I wanted him in the picture because I did not know that there were people in charge of sweeping up dead leaves from the graves, literally sweeping up.

We started talking. He told me that he was in charge of sweeping this grave and that it was very expensive.

His employer charged the family over 800€ (1.200$) per month to make sure the grave would always be sparkling clean.

“You know,” he said. “Rich people don’t care about their family. They don’t want to spend time in the graveyard. But they want the graves to look nice. So I spend my time here and there taking care of rich people’s family graves.”

I was a little bit surprised. But when you think about it, why not? They pay and this nice man gets work to do.

Wrong. He looked at me with a grin.

“Do you know who gets rich in the end? The undertakers. If you want to get rich, Madame, you have to become an undertaker.”

The guy was not totally wrong. In our village in Brittany, we met the undertaker at Henri’s funeral service. He started his business twenty years ago and he’s doing quite well, thank you. In our village, there are up to 5 funerals every week.

I don’t think my life dream is to become an undertaker though. I left the guy to his sweeping, his 800€ sweeping which he was doing very seriously after all.

And I resumed my walking around. It was turning to be quite an interesting afternoon.

From grave to grave, I ended up witnessing a real funeral. My first one in this graveyard. Luckily, I got there at the end which was very interesting. Ten or twelve people who had come together from Belgium not in a limo but in a minibus that was as close to a limousine as it could.

No tears. A few people were grinning.

With my camera, I have a great excuse to hover around graves. So I kept close until the end when they were ready to leave. Listening.

Someone said with a cheerful voice: “Well, don’t you think this calls for a  glass of champagne? Let’s go to my place.”

They all got into the minibus and left right away.

The undertaker and her employees did not look appalled at all. A matter of habit, I imagine.

It was getting late and the graveyard was supposed to close at 6. On my way in, I had noticed a couple of interesting crosses and their shadows worth a picture or two or three.

A woman was sitting on a nearby grave. She was smoking a cigarette.

Sitting on a tomb and smoking a cigarette. Quite puzzling.

She was beautiful. No longer young but very classy and beautiful. She was sitting close to a very famous grave. A contemporary and very famous writer’s grave.

Three people walked by. Three very ordinary people, very simple people. She asked them: “Do you come here often? Someone has stolen her picture.”

The very unlucky people she had chosen to vent her anger were looking  extremely unsettled by the outburst. Yes, they had noticed but...

I got closer and closer and closer. The woman sounded very disturbed and unhappy. She was saying that she was to be buried in the famous writer’s grave. She said many things that were very distressing, so upsetting that the persons she was talking to left as soon as they could.

By then, I was there, ready to listen to her. And we started talking. She told me she was a painter. She talked about her relationship with the buried writer. She said that she had spent 17 years in a mental home which had destroyed her belief in her paintings.

She said that she was becoming quite famous again and that she could not face fame. That fame had destroyed the “famous writer”. That she was feeling devastated. That it was so terrible for her to be alive and sitting so close to her future grave. She said that she was feeling more dead than alive.
I then decided to connect with her. I told her that I was living on borrowed time.

She looked at me. She smiled at me and then started to cry again. We talked and talked. It was amazing because I did believe that she had been through hell. I also felt very deeply that she was an incredible person without even knowing who she really was besides being the “famous writer” ex-daughter-in-law, a fact I did not question by the way.

I did not have reservations about what she was telling me even though she was quite sparing of details. Basically we talked about life, about creativity, about being women in a artistic world filled with men, about so many things that seemed to pacify her.

The bell rang. Time to leave the graveyard. We walked together to the door.

I was exhausted.

She then said she wanted to see my work. I told her to check my professional website. Since I did not have a card nor a piece of paper in my backpack, she hesitantly searched her purse and came up with her own card.

She made me promise that I’d call her. I had "to come and visit [her] one of these days since [she lives] so close to the cemetery.”

As soon as I got home, I "googled" her which means that maybe I did not trust her totally. It was so easy to find her. She really is a famous painter. Everything she told me is true.

She was so extremely beautiful when she was younger and so talented before she broke down. So incredible that someone so gifted would be crying in a graveyard because she thought that she was more dead than alive.

I hope that she’ll remember what we talked about. I still don’t know if it is wise to keep in touch with her. Our encounter was magic and maybe it’s best to keep it this way.

Today was a very good day. Great day for taking pictures. Wonderful day for meeting people.

I love it when one of my favorite graveyards fills up with the living... I love it when I start liking the living better than the dead.

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

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