There are a lot of not-so-great things about living in the 20th arrondissement. But what makes up for most of it is living right down the street from one of my favorite places to be a flâneur: le cimetière du Père Lachaise. I try to stop by and wander around as often as I can, because it’s calm and beautiful and a great place to think, as long as you stay away from the main entrance and its boatloads of tourists. It’s also a great place to people watch. Père Lachaise is like its own city, and the people who you see there around fit into perfect molds of a larger-scale society. Some have a definite purpose and intent, and they walk quickly with their faces buried in a map. Some wander along the main path and some weave between the graves off the beaten path. Some laugh loudly and take lots of pictures, and some are so sober that you wonder if they’re actually there to bury someone themselves.
It’s a good way to see how visitors attach importance to people and ideas. Most of the time these are people they’d never met and ideas they’d probably romanticized in their own minds. The connections might be flimsy, but they’re real. Hordes of teenagers and forty-somethings—there’s never anyone in between those ages who stays for long—sit, literally, by Jim Morrison’s grave, drinking beer and smoking joints and etching things onto the nearby tree that’s already covered in quotes. Sometimes they sit on other graves, in your way, and they never move when you ask them to. Oscar Wilde’s tomb is covered in lipstick, and there’s usually a group of people meditating or doing yoga or something next to it. I haven’t quite made that connection yet. Gertrude Stein’s grave is unique: it’s shaped like the rest of the stones but the middle part is made of dirt, so it’s kind of like a large flower bed. People bury things in it. Proust’s grave is usually pretty bare of flowers, but there are always people who stand above it and just stare, unmoving. Lots of people pray in front of Chopin, and Balzac, for some reason, and the difference between those two people becomes vast and tiny all at once.
Père Lachaise inspires a different kind of people-watching because the relationships people are demonstrating have been built up so internally. It’s not just watching people interact with something, it’s watching people interact with something in a way that you personally definitely would not. It adds another layer because you have to superimpose what someone is doing on top of what you would expect them to do. Praying to Balzac wouldn’t be my first instinct, but watching someone do just that forces you to think about not just the person or the grave but the connection between them. Maybe this guy read Balzac when he was going through a really difficult time, and wanted to show appreciation. Maybe he was trying his hand at realist writing and was looking for all the help he could get. Maybe he was just having a bad day. The guy was interacting with something inherently unchanging but through his own perspective. People leave sheet music on Chopin’s grave that wasn’t even written by him, or etch a quote into Jim Morrison’s tree that has nothing to do with The Doors. It’s all about their internal association. It’s fascinating. Some graves that seem the most insignificant or random are the ones with the most flowers piled onto them, and even on unmarked graves people will have left trinkets or mementos that don’t make sense except for in their own minds. It’s a weird blend of the eternal and the now.