A story I wrote after my last trip to Paris in 2008:
I found myself spending a lot of time in cemetaries in Paris. For such a frenetic city, the cemetaries offer welcome respite from the crowds, the noise, and the smells of Paris – in particular the smell of thousands of chiens who have nowhere else to ‘do their business’ other than on the streets (no backyards in those beautiful 17th century apartments). For such an elegant and stylish city, I think Paris stinks – literally – especially in the heat of summer with rivers of dog wee being sprayed on every wall, wheel and light pole.
I’m not a lover of dogs, but I digress…that is my only gripe about Paris.
Pere Lachaise is the most visited cemetary in the world, apparently, and amongst its one million inhabitants are Jim Morrison and Chopin. There are a number of other notable cemetaries in Paris, and the one in Montmartre has its fair share of famous dead people, though not in the same concentration as Pere Lachaise. This is not to say it is not worth a visit. It is.
One living inhabitant of the Cimitiere de Montmartre proved more interesting than long dead painters, sculptors and other glitterati. I never found out his name, so I will call him ‘the cat man’.
The cat man is a slightly-built, tanned fellow with a swathe of fine hair combed carefully across his brow. He carries a large bag of cat food around the cemetery – tinned and dry – and a long plastic spoon.
I came across him while observing a group of cats eating behind one of the graves. There were a few neat little piles of cat meat and dried ‘croquettes’ (as they call them over there) placed between tombstones, and the cats were enjoying their meal in a leisurely fashion – not fighting, or guzzling their food, just eating away in the manner of those who have a routine and trust that they will see food again, and soon.
The cat man lept out from behind a headstone, and if it weren’t for his engaging smile and that he was half my size, I might have been concerned. Maybe Marcel is a better name for him – he looked like a Marcel…
We started talking in French; he asked me if I liked cats, I said oui I did, telling him about my girl Bamako who was at home. Then he asked where I was from and after revealing my heritage, we continued talking in English.
He told me how he had been to Australia to visit friends once, and he had taken the train from Melbourne to Sydney, and it took him two days. He wasn’t sure when he was there but I figured that he must have last visited in about 1953, since it now takes only about half a day to make the 1000 kilometre trip.
He pointed out the ‘married couple cat’ – two old and ragged-looking felines, male and female presumably, each aged 15 by Marcel’s reckoning. Mr. and Mrs. Cat ate together then rubbed, nuzzled and licked each other. Marcel said that they had many babies – there were 90 cats living in the cemetary and many were offspring of this old couple, plus a few interlopers.
Marcel said he was a widower – and that he preferred the company of animals to that of humans. He tried to explain why, in broken English, but could only agree with me when I said that animals are always happy to see you. He did not understand the term ‘appreciate without a price’ when spoken in English and I did not know the equivalent phrase in French. ‘Happy’ seemed good enough.
He was not touching or petting the animals – only feeding them. For me that was interesting because so often we have animals so that they can make us feel good – with attention and patting and so on – and sometimes to replace a lost loved one. I’d be guessing, but I think his need for affection and attention had long passed, but he still wanted to be useful; he still needed a purpose in his life.
He didn’t want to hang around too long, since the guardian of the cemetery would shoo him away for being a pest. He was not supposed to feed the cats. I gave him a few Euros, towards food for the cats. He thanked me and went on his way, leaving the cats behind to bask in the afternoon sun and enjoy the last morsels of their dinner.