field trip: Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Beckett's grave, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Cemeteries and grocery stores reveal so much about a culture. They should be the first places to go when traveling. We eat, we die. The rest is pure luxury (and periodically, hell). After racing under the English Tunnel and into the Gare du Nord on the two-hours-from-London Eurostar Thursday night, we caught the Métro down to our inexpensive boutique hotel in the 14th arrondissement, crashed out for the night, woke up and gobbled complimentary croissants, yogurt, fruit, cheese, and hot chocolate, and then set out on foot.

For this first trip to Paris, I had compiled a short list of things to do over the weekend. Then my American-expat friend, who had lived in Paris before moving to London, sketched out the general itinerary. We weren't planning to stroll all the way up to the Louvre, but by Friday evening we had. But that's a later story. Our first stop on route to the Île de la Cité was the Cimetière du Montparnasse, also in the 14th and quite near our hotel.

ladybug in fake flower, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

grave with mini-garden, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

bird sculpture, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Paris, I have since learned, is divided by major streets and the river itself into 20 arrondissements (for our purposes, neighborhoods or districts) spiraling like a galaxy or escargot shell outwards from the Louvre on the Seine River, smaller and more compact within the center and widening towards the circular boundary—the Périphérique Boulevard—beyond which are the infamous banlieues. But of course, like most other cities around the world, it is cheaper to live farther from the center. The 14th, by the way, is a good area to stay in Paris, quiet, non-touristy, and still subway accessible: we were in fact a block from a Métro station.

wildflower border, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Though most guidebooks recommend the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, that older and larger cemetery is even farther from the center, over in the 20th arrondissement on the east side of Paris. To maximize time, we had planned to keep mostly to the Left Bank. So once we discovered that Simone de Beauvoir and other famous 20th-century writers and artists were installed in Montparnasse and realizing it was only a short walk from our hotel, regretting nothing, we crossed Père Lachaise right off the list.

graves of Sartre & de Beauvoir, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Susan Sontag's grave, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Marguerite Duras grave, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Instead we plucked off a hook a laminated map of luminaries buried at Montparnasse and found the conjoined graves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the simple grave of Samuel Beckett, the more recent grave of Susan Sontag, and the cluttered grave of Marguerite Duras, decorating with red geraniums, shells, trinkets, pebbles, and a plant pot full of disposable pens deposited by visiting reader-fans. I suppose it is better to be remembered than keep a chic grave.

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