I think the most important thing while traveling is keeping an open mind. That open-mindedness brought along my journey one of the most movie-like and unforgettable encounters of my life. It was literally like a movie scene in a graveyard.
It was a very typical spring day last April. One minute the sun was shining, the next moment a shower of hail made me shiver. I had loaned a map of the Montparnasse Graveyard and had already paid my respects to Samuel Beckett and some other famous persons resting there. I was trying to read the map while it was raining and find the poet Baudelaire when an older gentleman asked me in French if he could help. I managed to reply in French that I was looking for Baudelaire. I had to admit that my French was somewhat rusty and asked if we could speak English.
He replied that of course we could speak English and pardoned for his rusty English altough it sounded pretty much perfect to me. That was the beginning of a dream-like hour or so around the graveyard. Have you ever seen the movie Midnight in Paris? That walk around the cemetery was almost as unimaginable as the midnights in that movie. I secretly almost pinched myself during that walk. But why? Let me tell you.
During our walk I found out that he had lived through the Second World War so he really was quite elderly but such a perfect gentleman with a mind as sharp as a man half his age! We walked around, starting from the grave of Charles Baudelaire, a poet who wrote eg. Les Fleurs du Mal (The Flowers of Evil). My companion told me how Baudelaire and his step-father didn’t get along at all, how Ricardo, the assistant of Niki de Saint Phalle whom I adore, died of AIDS at the age of 37 “trop tôt, jeune, aimé et beau” (too early, young, loved and beautiful) and how Niki made a sculpture Le Chat de Ricardo (Ricardo’s Cat) to his grave. And how once on Serge Gainsbourg’s birthday a hobo poured a whole bottle of whisky to Serge’s grave until the very last drop. My companion had asked him why he poured the whisky on the gravestone, knowing how precious it must have been to the poor vagabond. The hobo had answered that the particular whisky was a favorite of his and Serge’s and that’s why he gave it to Serge as a birthday present.
I also heard that sometimes there’s a bowler hat on Samuel Beckett’s grave because that’s what the characters in Waiting for Godot used to wear. And that jews leave pebbles on graves to show that they have visited. He told me how France became a republic and not a monarchy and how the sculpture on César Baldaccini’s grave is not a miniature of the original, it IS the original and the one everyone thinks is the original, is just a larger copy of that sculpture on the grave. The widow of César had told him so. When visiting the grave of Marguerite Duras, I wondered why there are so many pens on her grave, albeit her being a writer. He told me that the pens are there if Marguerite should wake up and want to write. I learned how a female aviator who broke ten records in her lifetime died in a plane crash when she was a passenger on a plane. We also saw the grave of Man Ray and I heard how Kiki de Montparnasse had inspired him.
I asked him how he knew all this. He looked at me, smiled and said something like this: “All these people are going to be my neighbours some day and one should always know their neighbours.” After walking around the graveyard for more than an hour, we shook hands, thanked each other for the walk and went our separate ways. The sun was shining, I was smiling and thinking I must have been dreaming. But no, as unimaginable as it may sound, it was real. And all because I decided to say yes when someone wanted to help. Unforgettable, I still get goosebumps thinking about that encounter and can’t help but smile. Remember to keep an open mind, you may never know where it leads!