I love the power of the written word. Just on a personal level, books have changed my life, changed my mind, and kept me company.
They create connections: new ideas, new desires, new passions. Sometimes this happens in a large, significant way, but other times it’s more of a small, happy chance.
For example: after my first visit last month, I think I will always associate the enormous, historic Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris with a small paperback book I bought from a tiny bookstore in Columbia, just because it looked interesting. The book is called “Waiting for Gertrude,” and described as a graveyard gothic. In it, the souls of the dead buried in Père-Lachaise have come to inhabit the cats that roam the cemetery. It’s weird and witty and earned Père-Lachaise a spot on my wish list for several years. Visiting the cemetery, then, felt a bit like stepping into the story. And you can bet I kept my eye out for stray cats.
The cemetery felt like another world, a preserved Paris, full of grays and greens and prayers and tears, flowers in various states of decay. Despite all the death–just out of sight–the air felt alive, rich and heavy with history.
It was quiet, even by graveyard standards, as most of France was rallying for the “Je Suis Charlie” cause. We practically had the place to ourselves, save for the cats that darted out of nowhere and the crows whose unsettling cries reminded us we weren’t alone. We raced to find what we wanted to see before the sun set, and found a lot of it, but missed a lot of it, too. I’d need a full week to appreciate everything inside. When we left, we found ourselves in a surging mass of people; the rally was in full force. It was chaotic, throbbing with energy. I’d never been a part of something like that before. Only sort of a part, though, as, on principle, I didn’t want to support a cause I didn’t completely understand yet. I itched for my laptop, wanting to read articles from different viewpoints–and in English, if need be–so I could really get a handle on what was happening. Saying it’s about free speech is too simple; it’s a lot more than that. As it was, I only had my French guy to explain everything to me– which was great, but when it came to the rally, I wondered if something had gotten lost in translation.
Keep in mind I hadn’t been watching the news or reading any kind of American understanding of all of this. I knew, of course, about the horrible events in Paris the week before, but that was really about it at the time. All of a sudden I was quite literally in the middle of this rally, which led to a conversation something like this: (translated from the French 😛)
|| Me: So…what’s the goal of this…is this a strike, or is this something else?
Florent: doesn’t understand the question
Me: sort of talking to myself. Well, if this is a strike, who or what is it against…just the shooters? That seems too simple; I don’t think that’s it. So, wait. Are the French angry, or…
Florent: says something I barely understand; dogs run past with “Charlie” stickers on their harnesses; people walk with toddlers who carry signs
Me: okay, but generally the goal of something like this is some kind of resulting change, right? so what do the French want to change, exactly? And who should change it? And…
We walked and we walked and we walked, as metro stop after metro stop was closed due to excessive crowding.
Several miles and new blisters later, we made it to an operating metro stop and, thirty minutes later were at Notre-Dame, which Florent really wanted to visit again. Since he’s French, I used to think he might be all cynical about Paris, but he loves it as much as I do, if not more.
Paradise. Everything a bookstore is supposed to be. Winding, creaky stairs. Cats. New books and old books and all kinds of quirk. Photos banned. Happily, the store is open late, so I browsed and explored as long as I could until Florent dragged me away so we wouldn’t miss our train.
Back at the train station, we were famished. Our train was a late one, 10 pm, so all the good food at Brioche-Doré was taken. Florent asked a group of guys where they’d bought the kebabs they were eating, and against our better judgment, we set out to find the restaurant with about 15 minutes to spare. We ran through traffic, hand in hand, backpacks flapping, frantic, just making our train…but laughing, and willing to do anything for a sandwich.