We visited the dead today.

They are always with us, but I notice it more in Europe, where “antique” sometimes means something very different than it does back home. The bed we’re sleeping in could be as old as America, for all I know. But it’s just a bed in a flat we rented near all the old haunts of the people whose books I’ve been reading.

Today, we went to a museum full of artifacts of occupied Paris, jackets and news clippings and letters and hats: things that belonged to people who’d wanted freedom more than life, and made that hard bargain.

Then we went to a sprawling house and studio that once belonged to the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, now full of his work and the casts used to make it. Even the garden in the center of the building holds the towering statues, mostly bronze, like some kind of garden of giants Aslan passed through. The sculptures themselves depict old stories and legends beloved of another dead culture — muses, Apollo — and busts of famous philosophers and artists, wrought finely enough that you want to push back a stray hair on the poet’s moustache.

You can almost see where the sculptor dropped his tools and walked away for the last time in his studio. The street on which the building-turned-museum sits is now named for Bourdelle.

Then we made our way to the Montparnasse Cemetery, looking for the dead. We found Sarte and Beauvoir, their shared gravestone covered in pink lipstick kisses and tickets left behind by admirers. (“Gracias, mi amigo,” scrawled on a business card.) We found Samuel Beckett, and Camille Saint-Saens in his family crypt, and Susan Sontag, and Jean Seberg, and Eugene Ionesco, and Julio Cortazar.

Wandering a tightly packed graveyard, you get to thinking about the many other places these ghosts lurk all over Paris: the houses, theaters, cinematheques, cafes, and bookstores they were in. The cups they drank from, the arguments they had, the paper they wrote on, the mistakes they made — they are in the air we are breathing, recycled over centuries from others who did the same. We are just living in their spaces. We are making them our own.

Photo © T.G. Wilkinson