Closing remarks

Travelling is a skill. It is something which must be practised and refined although it is probably never quite perfect. There will always be museums you miss, or free shows you don’t know about until they’ve already happened, and countless delicacies you never quite get round to tasting. It is impossible to do everything, and I find that this is especially true in Paris.

In a little under a week, I will be leaving Paris, and returning to Blighty. I always knew this day was coming, but as it suddenly leaps into the path in front of me, I’ve become increasingly reflective (no, not like a high vis jacket).

During this year I have learnt and discovered and realised so  many things about the world and my place within it. But whenever I’ve tried to start this blog, I find myself churning out horrific and hyperbolic Erasmus clichés: “It’s been the best time of my life”, “I’ve loved every minute”, “It was the best thing I have ever done”. Back in September, I believed that all these (and more) were possible. Now, however, I’m not so sure.

Don’t get me wrong: I have definitely enjoyed this year. But I cannot deny the fact that whilst it was certainly a time in my life, and I truly did love certain, specific minutes, there have also been minutes where I have felt so overwhelmed by a nausea of homesickness and loneliness, wishing desperately that I could teleport back to safe, comfortable England, never to leave Ol’ Britannia again. As for the best thing I have ever done – I hope not. It’s certainly up there in the top five, but I never top this I’ll be pretty disappointed.

‘Erasmus’ seems to conjure up mad images in people’s heads, of tipsy sunrises and insanely colourful parades; the kind of stuff that pollutes tumblr tags and saturates your instagram feed. In reality, life here has been largely ordinary, with a few choice peaks of tumblr-worthy material. I won’t bore you with the details of either, but one of the main things I’ve realised this year is that the fairy tale, whilst wonderful to lose oneself in, can’t really spill into everyday life. Yes, some days you see incredible stained glass windows and take selfies in front of medieval churches, but there are also plenty of days when you have to do your laundry and wait in all afternoon for the repairman and go to the supermarket. Those in the latter are constants, whether you’re in Peterborough or Paris.

Like I said at the beginning: travelling is a skill. But it’s also a tool, which can be wielded with great effect, or with very little, depending on your style. It’s a tool for enabling confidence, in order to become as pretentious as possible (à la Sybil Fawlty: “Pretentious? Moi?”). But crucially, it is a tool for development. To soak up your surroundings, to process les environs effectively, and to come out a better person for it. For introspection, via extrospection. Like almost all things, travelling is what you make of it.

To finish, I choose a single cliché, but one that I find wholly justifiable: I would not be the same today if I had not done my Erasmus year.

Au revoir, Paris.

Pere-Lachaise

Nobody does death quite like the French.

On Friday, I found myself in Place de la Nation fulfilling a frustrating administrative task. So, to console myself, I decided to walk home via the Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Perhaps this sounds odd, that I intended to improve my mood by walking amongst the dead. Still, those who are familiar with off-the-beaten-path-Paris will know that many of the city’s greatest sights involve death – or at least, dead people.

If it’s not Père-Lachaise Cemetery, it’s Montparnasse Cemetery or Montmartre Cemetery. Maybe even a visit to les grands hommes who rest in the Panthéon. Then there’s the catacombs, for the brave visitors who dare to cross the threshold which warns: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort!” (“Stop! Here is the empire of Death!”). Here, you’ll find winding paths, an underground city complete with road names, each street lined with the skeletal remains of over six million people.

Creepy stuff, sure. But that day, I felt drawn to Père-Lachaise. Entering the grounds, I felt a serene sense of calm descend over me. The roaring din and honks of Parisian traffic faded, and I was surrounded by cool stone and leafless trees. I paid visits to all the famous locals. I was approached by an excited man with long, unbrushed hair, who told me in a strange Franglish who I should visit, and instructed me to take a photo of his map with my appareil photo.

Père-Lachaise map

I spent two hours or so amongst the graves, contemplating to my heart’s content. After some time, I noticed that the roads radiating from the crematorium were lined with cars. As I saw the crowds, I realised: there was a funeral today. I walked hurriedly in the opposite direction, only to see a girl about my age, standing in front of a grave I probably would have walked past, clutching flowers and murmuring softly, her glistening eyes reflecting the January sunlight. I stopped, not wishing to impose myself on her moment of grief, and turned to a grave close by, examining its letters in detail, but not really reading them. Suddenly, the place had transformed – it was no longer an opportunity to be closer to Oscar Wilde or Isadora Duncan or Frederic Chopin than I had ever been before, but a place of mourning. A place where dead people rest.

Then, I thought of respect. We tend to think of respect as solemnly and dutifully extolling the numerous virtues of the deceased, of lamenting their loss for a day of black clothing, and then not daring to mention their name for the rest of our years. Many argue that opening up cemeteries as tourist attractions is distasteful and disrespectful, but I believe it’s just another opportunity to show respect. Although Oscar Wilde’s tomb, one of the more ‘popular’ in Père-Lachaise, has had to be fenced in with glass panes to stop his adoring fans from causing damage, many people do come simply to ‘pay their respects’. In fact, the most disrespectful behaviour I witnessed came from this cat, who many might argue could not have known better.

grave cat

I suspect he could have, but simply chose not to.

Since arriving in Paris in September, I’ve come to realise that British and French cultures towards death are very different. In Britain, we prefer to honour the dead solemnly, with statues and memorial services and hushed words. In France, it seems that they celebrate the dead. Their tombstones are not grey and simple, hidden away behind churches. They are marble, they are ornate, they are often gaudy (to my tastes). But they are respectful.

Denial is not a step on the path to respect. However, celebration, exhibition, and, yes, gaudy celebrations, are very good stepping stones along the way.

 

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