A Return to Père-Lachaise Cemetery, part II of the Series

Père-Lachaise Cemetery has such extraordinary architectural detail; here is a second pictorial tribute to Paris’ largest cemetery.

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If Headstones Could Talk: Pondering at Paris’ Père-Lachaise Cemetery

I had long wanted to visit Paris’ famous Père-Lachaise Cemetery, yet during past jaunts to the ‘City of Lights,’ La Tour Eiffel, the Champs Elysées and Notre Dame had taken center stage on my itinerary. During our recent trip to Paris, our hotel, in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, was just a brief promenade from the cemetery. With blue skies overhead and the ground just starting to be carpeted with crisp, autumn leaves, we decided to embark on what we thought would just be a 30-minute stroll through the well-known cemetery named after Père-Lachaise, Louis XIV’s confessor.
On the way there, we dined outdoors at Mère Lachaise, a bistro-style restaurant that plays off the neighboring cemetery’s name. (In French, père means ‘father’ and mère means ‘mother.’) Not surprisingly, the bistro’s cook whipped up scrumptious fare for breakfast:  amazingly-tasty eggs, two café crèmes and crunchy slices of a freshly-baked golden baguette. The French have an amazing way of making the simple taste fantastique!

We then crossed through Père-Lachaise’s handsome gates to enter the cemetery, with its cobbled streets, hunter-green iron street markers and graceful old trees. Père-Lachaise is Paris’ largest cemetery consisting of 118 acres (48 hectares) of headstones and mausoleums that mark the final resting places of numerous prominent writers as well as political heroes and war victims. We chose to pay tribute to French chanteuse, Edith Piaf; Polish classical composer, Frédéric Chopin; and American Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors.

Visitors who came before us had remembered the three musicians in different ways. Piaf’s grave was simply adorned with roses; Chopin’s was garnished with a Polish flag and hand-written messages from music fans. One person had drawn a treble clef on a rock and placed it atop a note so that it would not be carried away by the wind. On Morrison’s headstone was perched a clay lizard. A neighboring tree had a plethora of colorful messages and peace signs for ‘the Lizard’ scribbled on it: “Welcome to the Other Side” and “Can You Show Me the Way to the Next Whiskey Bar?”

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Photo du Jour: The Gargoyles & Grotesques of Notre Dame

In the shadows of Notre Dame, we waited for just under an hour to ascend the 387 stairs of the cathedral’s north tower.

Once high above the rooftops of Paris, we strolled about the Galerie des Chimères marveling at the figures there. The statues gazing at La Tour Eiffel and Sacré Coeur are technically not gargoyles since they are spoutless. Also, these animal hybrids are not original to Notre Dame, since they were added during renovations in the nineteenth century.

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Buzzing About Bart: The ‘Bumble Bee’ with a Fondness for German Gingerbread

bart-eats-ichWhen my husband, Shawn, moved to Germany last October, I welcomed him home with a traditional German indulgence – Lebkuchen, or gingerbread. It’s the kind of sweet treat that’s plentiful at Oktoberfest stands and German wine fests each fall. The messages piped onto the heart-shaped gingerbread range from mischievous phrases to sweet nothings. The heart I carefully chose for Shawn read, “Ich habe Dich Lieb” or literally “I have for you love.” The white letters in the message were finished off with a lavender-colored frosting border, flowers and two Gummi bears.

Hermetically sealed in clear cellophane, with a ribbon strung through it, Shawn and I hung the heart up on a kitchen cupboard knob last fall. As the months passed, the gingerbread grew harder and harder. After a few months, the Lebkuchen had become part of our kitchen décor, so we let it stay there.

One morning, I was surprised to see that one of the heart’s letters had disappeared. Shawn and I concluded that perhaps we’d disturbed the icing while putting away dishes. But the next afternoon, Shawn discovered why the love letters were disappearing.

It seemed that an uninvited guest had flown into our home – an insect of the wasp variety. This little wasp apparently had a liking for German gingerbread. Despite the fact that it was technically a wasp, we preferred to call the now-frequent visitor a bee – rather ‘Bart the Bee.’

Presumably ‘Bart’ – like all exploring bees before ‘him’ – was first lured in by the bright yellow marigolds in our kitchen’s flowerboxes. We’d seen the routine numerous times during the summer. A bee would aggressively fly into the kitchen, see there wasn’t much of interest inside, and then attempt to exit. Most bees weren’t so intelligent though. They would butt their heads on the windowpanes for minutes, even hours at a time, despite our attempts to shoo them outside.

Bart possessed greater smarts and manners than his co-workers. ‘He’d’ fly in the house, respecting us and our kitchen routines, and make a bee-line for the little holes in the Lebkuchen’s wrapper. He would frantically consume frosting for ten minutes at a time, fly out the window to an undisclosed hive location, then swiftly return and repeat the entire process. I could hear Rimsky Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee playing in my head as Bart entered the heart, binged  and departed the heart. Amazingly, Bart’s workday would commence sharply around seven o’clock and would continue until he made a final bee
line to the hive just before the sun set, normally around nine o’clock.

With the bee version of an ant farm now on display in our kitchen, Shawn and I pondered many deep thoughts. Would Bart’s honey take on a different flavor because of all the frosting and food coloring he was consuming? Would he be revered in the hive for his productivity? Was it really only Bart that kept returning, or multiple bees?

Soon, silly jokes emerged about Bart and his bee colleagues. (There are the Barts of the world who are productive each day, and those that don’t get much done because they have such a hard time even getting outside the window to where all the work and the flowers are.) We also joked that Bart might develop ‘o-bee-sity’ or ‘dia-bee-tees’ because of all the sugar he was consuming.

We also learned some bee trivia that might come in handy as cocktail party fodder. Did you know, for example, that foraging worker bees are actually shes and not hes? (Sorry Bart, for having given you a boy’s name!) The male bees are actually utilized solely for mating and their future is just as grim as their hardworking female counterparts. If a male bee is lucky enough to mate with the Queen Bee, he will die after the deed is done. Male bees not chosen by the Queen will eventually get booted out of the hive when the cold weather arrives. In addition, summer worker bees (of which there can be 60,000 per hive!) only live for six weeks, whereas their winter counterparts can live up to six months. We were a little saddened when we read that part about warm-weather bees having such a short life span. But we understood why – Bart had literally been working himself to death the past four weeks!

Bart the Bee disappeared suddenly last week. After we didn’t see him for four days, we were somber whenever we worked in the kitchen with a now empty heart. Shawn joked that perhaps Bart flew off to a neighboring village with a hive that has friendlier labor laws.

Yesterday, we were pleased that a new bee started a feeding frenzy in the heart. The ‘new-bee’ lacks some of Bart’s smarts, but seems determined to pick up where Bart left off. The message on the heart now reads more like “Ich Dich.” Shawn and I will have to be on the lookout for the purple hive…

Flowers to Wish You a Happy Day

I’ve always thought that those who work at ice cream or florist shops must have perpetually happy days. There’s something about a golden cone overflowing with heaping scoops of ice cream, or paper brimming with beautiful flowers from the neighborhood Blumen shop that puts one in a cheery mood!

For a time, I developed my own ritual whenever I passed the rows of beautiful blooms – a gesture intended to bring cheer to unsuspecting individuals. The first time I gave flowers to a stranger was on a Saturday plentiful with errands in Heidelberg, Germany’s Altstadt or ‘old town’. I had stopped into a Persian carpet store to drop off a small carpet I’d recently acquired from Bahrain, for minimal repairs.

The Persian woman about to repair my carpet had wrinkled bags and blood-shot, teary eyes that signaled that she also had a heavy heart. I noticed the sign in the window signifying that the business was set to close and I asked her if she and her husband were retiring.

“No,” she said. “My husband has terminal cancer.”

I looked at the gentleman dressed in a charcoal-grey suit; his frailness and pale skin aged him beyond his years. The couple appeared to be in their early sixties. The woman proceeded to tell me how many years they had been married. She bragged about their children and grandchildren. Then, matter-of-factly, she told me when I could pick up my carpet.

I left feeling overwhelmed with emotion. Despite her husband’s poor health, it was business as usual for this woman. I thought of all the beautiful Persian rugs at which I had marveled earlier in the day – their shared price tags certainly amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars. I thought how we are sometimes so overwhelmed by material trappings and life’s daily stressors that we miss out on what’s most important in life.

I proceeded through my day’s errands until the appointed pick-up time at the rug shop. On my way there, I stopped by a florist shop across the street to purchase a bouquet of flawless creamy tulips – one of my favorite springtime indulgences. A bouquet of roses the same color as my tulips caught my eye. I purchased both bouquets then skipped across the street to the carpet shop. When I walked inside, the shopkeeper made small-talk about my rug. Then as I was about to depart, I handed her the bouquet of vanilla-colored roses. Her eyes looked like they were about to water. Soon, there came a trickle of happy, delicate tears.

She asked me if I would like to have a cup of coffee with her.

“Of course,” I said.

I complimented her on the sugar cubes, which resembled symbols on a deck of cards. With a childlike spirit, she took her tin of sugar cubes and proceeded to prepare a bag of miniature sugared hearts, spades and diamonds for me to take home. We had our coffee break while sitting atop a rainbow-like spectrum of silk carpets.

I had forgotten about this wonderful encounter until some months later. It had been a stressful week, and I rushed to my hair cut appointment at Moda Capelli. After getting my hair coiffed, I crossed the street to pass the floral shop I regularly patronized.

A grouping of pure white gladiolas caught my eye. As I looked for the best bunch to grace my dining room table, a German woman struck up a conversation with me. Our words exchanged weren’t very extensive but the woman stated how pretty the corner shop’s flowers were and how, in the coming days, it would be the anniversary of her father’s death.

I proceeded to ask her what her favorite color was.

Rosa,” she indicated. I clutched a bouquet of shrimp-colored roses and hurried to the counter. Unfortunately by the time the transaction was complete, the woman had already jumped onto the streetcar. Determined to share the second bouquet of flowers with another deserving stranger I headed to Galleria Kaufhof, a German department store situated at Heidelberg’s transportation hub and town square, Bismarckplatz. By the restroom sinks, an elderly woman on crutches asked me to assist her with something. Unfortunately, my limited German did not allow me to fully comprehend what she was requesting. Another German woman came to the rescue and helped the woman put the strap of her purse in a comfortable position so the woman with the weathered and wise face could wash her hands.

As I was about to leave the restroom, I asked the woman if she had always lived in Heidelberg. She replied that she had. We struck up polite small-talk and then I surprised her by handing her the pink roses . She juggled the bouquet carefully between her worn hand and crutch handle and said, “I cannot accept these.” I told her that the flowers were to wish her a happy day. She looked as though she was about to cry and said something about having turned 85 two months earlier, so the flowers would be a belated present. She grasped my hand and we smiled at each other. We couldn’t find anyone to translate, but words weren’t really needed at that moment.

I have often been amazed at how a random act of kindness can spawn similar gestures. The woman with the dying husband reciprocated with a coffee break, delicately-cut sugar cubes and tears of happiness. The elderly woman on crutches gave back by generously tipping the surprised restroom attendant outside the door of our meeting place. Flowers wished my random acquaintances happy days. Their smiles brought me the same reward.