We did Paris stuff on our second day in Paris; tourist bits, lots of walking. I love walking in big cities – doesn’t matter how far. I love walking anywhere, just trundling along chatting and looking at things. It might actually be my favourite thing to do, now that I think about it. I’m 30 years old and I’d genuinely rather take a one-hour stroll through a park than spend five hours in some swanky rooftop bar with a pool. Annie is not as fond of walking as me, which is why I always have to lie to her about the distances it says on the map.
“So how far is it to this cemetery?”
“It’s just, uhhhh…” I glanced at my phone: 43 minutes to Père-Lachaise. “Another twenty mins or so.”
We’d just had breakfast in a little café we’d found on the outskirts of Montreuil, the migrant-and-beatnik district Leah’s apartment was in. At the café I’d asked in French if they had any menus in English. The waitress said no and smiled and bounced away without a word more. It made me feel a tad foolish, but in reality I quite enjoy this little game they play with foreigners – the shrugging, the innocent miscomprehension in their eyes as they pretend they don’t understand what the hell ‘bonjour’ means when suffixed a less-than-perfect throat rattle. I view it as a code to crack, an oyster I am determined to pry open.
I went to Père-Lachaise Cemetery for the first time in 2017, on the recommendation of a friend from Berlin named Heleen. I loved the cemetery as much then as I do now; it’s vast and jumbled and peaceful, and it’s full of artists and writers and lovers and revolutionaries.
Annie and I spent hours wandering the cobbled tombstone streets, pointing out interesting headstones and looking up the names of people we found on Wikipedia.
Halfway down a leafy avenue, we came across a low tomb with a green-bronze statue of a man in a hat and trenchcoat, lying on his back. He wasn’t lying in state, however – he was sprawled with his layers ruffled and his arms loose at his sides, palms inwards, head tilted slightly, lips parted. He looked quite beautiful, and freshly dead. His name was Victor Noir.
“He looks like he’s been shot,” I thought aloud.
And there was another thing: on several parts of his statue, the green of oxidised bronze had been buffed clean. The ends of his shoes, his mouth, and, we noticed with eyebrows raised, the sizable bulge in his trousers. You see it on a lot of old bronze statues: the little patches that people rub or kiss or put their arms around for photos are always left gleaming – and it’s invariably tits and bums and knobs, anywhere you go in the world. Aren’t we silly.
Curious about this dead fellow, we looked him up. He was a journalist in Paris in the 19th century, and after the newspaper he worked for published a controversial article about Napoleon, Prince Pierre Bonaparte, the emperor’s cousin, challenged the paper’s editor to a duel. The editor sent along his second, Victor Noir, to arrange the time and location of the duel, however Noir and Bonaparte got into a violent argument which led to the latter shooting dead the former. Noir became a symbol of revolution, and tens of thousands protested across France. And, thanks to the weighty dong his tomb is adorned with, his statue has become a fertility symbol, stroked for good luck. If you Google his name today, you’ll see dozens of photos of buxom women straddling his metallic form. Not ones to deny tradition, Annie and I gave his johnson a pat before moving on.
In 2017 I found a grave that looked very forlorn and forgotten, and I put some flowers on it. The name on the headstone was Erasmia Antikidis. I tried to find it again, but the graveyard was far too vast and tangled. It was a shame; it would have been nice to say hello.
We visited Jim Morrison’s grave, and on the heavily-graffitied metal railing that surrounds it, alongside the jumble of graffiti and band stickers and logos, Annie placed one of her own: a sticker which read ‘I’m a kickdrum slut’. I saw a wide-eyed couple reading it while Annie stuck it down. I imagine Jim would have been fine with it.
We found the tomb of the famous lovers Heloïse and Abelard too, and I told Annie what little I knew of them. We stood there a while and Annie looked up their story and read out one of their love letters – which, to say they lived 900 years ago, was pretty steamy.
We saw Oscar Wilde’s grave too, with its great zooming wings, and we sought out Marcel Marceau but we didn’t find him. His grave, it turns out, is unassuming – we’d expected there to be some great statue, and most likely walked right past.
We talked a lot about death as we walked through the cemetery. Annie expressed, as she often does, her fear that either myself or any of her loved ones should die before her. She thinks about it a lot, whereas I rarely do – but then Annie has already been through the hell of losing a best friend, whereas that’s a sadness I’ve never known. I can’t really imagine it – and in truth, I don’t want to.
“I won’t die,” I told her. “At least not for ages. Don’t worry.”
“You better fucking not. Because if you die you know I’m gonna have to take all your writing and get it published for you, and that’s gonna take up so much of my time.”
This made me grin. “You think you’d actually do that?”
“Of course. And you’d do the same for me, right?”
“Well, yeah,” I said. “But I mean… you probably wouldn’t want me trying to finish off your last album and releasing it, would you? Making it all twee and folksy?”
“Oh, Jesus, yeah. Okay on second thought, no.”
After the cemetery we went to Gertrude Stein’s old home, at 27 rue des Fleurus. I’ve been before and wanted to show Annie, because years ago in Berlin we bonded over a shared liking for Lost Generation artists and authors – and Stein’s apartments are where they all used to meet up and party. We bought beers en route and opened them in the street, intending to drink one outside, but I think street-sipping might be taboo in France; I noticed more than a couple of judgemental glances.
We stood in awe outside the gates of the apartment. I showed Annie the plaque, and then she poured out some beer for Gertrude while I took a photo. Then we ran away to a nearby park, because my bladder was howling.
Montmartre was our next destination. Every time I’m in Paris, I make a point to visit the Sacré Coeur; I love sitting and looking out over the city, even if it’s a pretty massive Paris cliché. Whatever: things become clichés for a reason – and the reason is that they’re good and everyone likes them. It’s also a free activity, which appeals to me greatly as a skint-as-all-hell English tutor. I like to sit and look at the rooftops of Paris, clustered chimneys and sheer grey slopes* set against the beige-pink of the buildings and all the little warm lampshades and candles in living room windows.
*They’re called Mansard roofs, by the way – I learned that on Wednesday. One of my students is an architect and he taught me it. I was thrilled: I’ve been stumped looking for words to describe Parisian windows for many years now.
We ate cheese and bread and we drank wine sitting on the grass beside the steps everyone sits on (you have to hop the metal fence that lovers clip padlocks to, but the grass is better – more of a view, and less noise and chatter from the masses). When it got dark and we’d drunk our fill, we wandered down the hillside, taking the many steps back down into the city to find somewhere for dinner.
We happened upon a moderately busy, cute little bistro down a relaxed street. Annie was intent upon making me try two things I’d never had before: escargots, and moules frites. I wasn’t particularly happy about either, but the wine we’d finished on the hilltop had loosened me up enough to give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised; both dishes were delicious, salty and rich and doused in enough garlic to murder the extended Cullen family. While I was eating the snails I kept thinking ‘I am eating a snail! No way!’ and then feeling very proud of myself. Eating an entire vat of mussels was enjoyable, yet odd: never in one sitting have I devoured so many creatures. Usually when you eat a non-vegetarian meal you might eat, what, part of one animal? Certainly nothing whole. In a Christmas dinner you might eat part of three animals if you have turkey with pigs in blankets, or something. And here was I, munching my way through fifty lifeforms. I felt like an ogre shovelling down fistfuls of peasants; like a whale inhaling a shoal of krill.
If – on the off chance that we don’t live in an uncaring, unknowing, unconscious universe, and there is some sort of great cosmic purpose, and there is a mighty, intergalactic code of ethics woven throughout the fabric of all reality and spacetime – if that’s all true, and there’s a penance to pay for every life ended early, I’m going to be met at the pearly gates by a lot of angry molluscs.