The detour took a week off my time in France, and soon I was on a mission to do the most important things with the two days I had left. I decided to visit places that meant something to me, instead of tourist attractions like the Louvre and Eiffel Tower that didn’t have as much of an emotional connection.
Four Graves, Four Songs
I’d only found out about cemeteries Montparnasse and Père Lachaise — both of which are notable for having many famous people buried there — after my arrival. They’re both huge (navigating them requires looking up the proper street name), but Père Lachaise in particular has the reputation of being the world’s most visited cemetary. I made no plans to visit them until I found out that Serge Ganisbourg is in Montparnasse, and Yves Montand, Edith Piaf, and Chopin are in Père Lachaise. So I made a trip to somewhat opposite ends of Paris to find the graves of each of these musicians. For each one that I visited, I put on my headphones and listened to one of their songs, imagining they were singing or playing to me at that moment.
Serge Gainsbourg (La Chanson de Prévert)
It wasn’t hard to tell that Serge is one of France’s most beloved artists; the tomb was littered with various baubles, plants, and even portraits left for him. As I was listening to this song (co-incidentally, referencing songs sung to Jacques Prévert’s poems, such as the one by Edith Piaf below), a tall, sandy-haired young man walked up to the grave, lit a cigarette, and left his lighter standing upright on the tomb before walking away.
The French youth seem to have an healthy obsession with the genius that was Serge. I’d just like to know where these people are, because I don’t know a single person who loves Gainsbourg as much as I do. I need to find them so we can smoke cigarettes, mock pop culture, and talk about wanting to fuck Whitney Houston.
Yves Montand (Sous le Ciel de Paris)
Yves Montand and his olive oil voice was my first introduction to chanson many years ago. You cannot possibly listen to his songs without wanting to sit at a café in Paris with a coffee and a baguette. It was Montand who catalyzed my interest in Paris and it’s culture.
Édith Piaf (Les Feuilles Mortes)
When I think of Édith Piaf, I think of La Vie en rose and Non, je ne regrette rien, but I couldn’t help from listening to Les Feuilles Mortes among the yellow leaves and the graves. I have so many versions of this song, and this one stands out as being in both French and English, which I’ve always enjoyed as being a mix of cultures.
Frédéric Chopin (Nocturne in F Minor, Op. 55)
I found it interesting that Chopin, a Polish-born composer, would be in a cemetery in France (his heart was sent back to Poland and stored in a church pillar in Warsaw). But here he was, with a majestic tomb crammed into a tiny area in a small street in Père Lachaise. Chopin’s nocturnes are a perfect blend of subtle mood and sweeping mastery. They helped me get through many lonely nights in university.
Montmartre is a hill in the 18th arrondissement of Paris filled with Parisian flavour, and known as one of the artistic centre of Paris. It’s popularity as a tourist destination also means there’s a fair share of tourist traps (i.e. overpriced cafés and souvenir shops). On one of the staircases here is where Fédéric proposed to Misun.
The Basilica is located at the highest point in the city, and on a clear day, the view of Paris from the Basilica is supposed to be as good as the one on top of the Eiffel Tower.
There are two staircases, each leading up to either side of the church, and each divided in thirds. I noticed that there were three black men at the bottom of each break, but didn’t think anything of it. As I made my way up one set, I was accosted by one of them, who put a hand on me to stop me from walking up and said, “Don’t worry”. I noticed he had three strings tied in a knot at top in his hands and he started fidling with it. I shook my head, pretending not to speak English, and he put his hand on my chest again, and repeated, “Don’t worry”. I pushed past him.
Later on I found out they were all scam artists. One of them in the group of three will quickly make a bracelet around your wrist if you stop, and then demand money for it, sometimes up to 20 Euros. Some people have a hard time refusing since they take the fact that it’s already on your wrist as a sign that you bought it. The other two guys make sure you pay.
To set my feet on Rue Saint-Vincent and walk the cobblestone as I listened to this to this song has long been a dream of mine. It’s actually a very short road, with not much in particular in terms of scenery or landmarks. What’s great about Paris is that there are stories everywhere; people live and love and die on streets like any other.
Europe 2010 travel diaries
- France: Arrival
- France: Day 3, Chartres
- The Partisan
- France: Day 5, Chartres
- Baby Scary Party
- France: Day 6, Paris
- Call me McNgangus
- France: Day 7, Rochefort-en-Terre
- France: Day 8, La Roche-Bernard
- France: Day 9, Rochefort-en-Terre
- UK Detour: Day 10, Chartres to London
- UK Detour: Day 11, London
- A passenger in London
- UK Detour: Day 12, London
- UK Detour: Day 13, London to Ullapool
- UK Detour: Day 14, Ullapool
- UK Detour: Day 15, Ullapool
- UK Detour: Day 16, Ullapool
- France: Day 18, Paris
- France: Day 19, Chartres + Paris