I admit it: One of my favorite places is a cemetery.
To my friends and loved ones who have never been to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, my confession may seem macabre. So I’ll do my best to explain why I spent eight hours there today.
Père Lachaise is a necropolis, in the truest sense of the word: It’s a 30-acre city whose residents are all dead. But far from being morose or depressing, I actually find it a wonderful affirmation of life.
Walking among the Victorian tombs, I get a very real sense that every one of those names came with a story. They all once had dreams and ambitions and hopes and fears. It’s a wonderful reminder of the commonality of the human experience. No matter how we walk through life, it is inevitable that we must die.
And yet, the tombs are also a reminder that life goes on. Some tombs are cared for by family members, friends, or even business associates. Others list the names of several generations—grandparents, parents, children and their children, together for all eternity.
I’ve often wondered what stories these stones would tell if they could talk. Today I found out.
Near the tomb of Heloise and Abelard, I struck up a conversation with a man I mistook for a fellow tourist. His name was Colin. And although he is British, he now lives half the year in Paris and the other half in South Africa.
But Colin was no tourist. After his retirement from the exciting world of pipeline engineering, he fell in love with the cemetery. He’s been researching its residents’ stories ever since. Within minutes, he pulled out a book he’d assembled with photographs and anecdotes. The stories started flowing like water.
“I’ll tell you what,” I said. “If you’d be willing to give me a guided tour, I’ll gladly treat you to lunch.” We had ourselves a deal.
Between our lunch and our stroll, we ended up spending almost five hours together. I learned a lot of fascinating facts—like the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte had nine mistresses (that we know of). I got the inside scoop on a couple of assassinations, learned a bit about Paris’ history, and explored some sections of the cemetery I’d never seen before.
I thanked Colin profusely (and sincerely) as we parted. But to my dismay, I realized during the train ride home that I’d forgotten to ask for his email address.
I suppose I could chalk it up to one more happy chance encounter. But I hope our paths cross again. I feel like we barely scratched the surface.
So, on the very (very) slim chance that you see this, Colin: Merci beaucoup pour une journée très agréable. Je suis très hereuse d’avoir fait votre connâisance, et j’espére que nous nous rencontrons.