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Trapped in a Graveyard in Paris

Marji and I celebrated 15 years of marriage yesterday. She is a saint. I am not an easy person to live with or to be married to. I am so grateful for her unconditional love and patience with me as I seek to be the best father and husband that I can be. I love you Marji.

Marji is the adventurous one in our relationship. She is more worldly than I. She has travelled extensively and has had incredible experiences all over the world. I'm trying to keep up.

When I graduated from the University of Maryland, she planned a whole trip to France and Germany to visit her family. I loved every moment of that trip and we need to do it again soon. It was my first and only trip to Europe thus far.

When we travel, we travel on the cheap. We arrived in Paris, and dear friends offered their travel/work points for us to stay on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. May I say that coffee (the nectar of life) in Paris is incredible. May I also say that coffee at McDonald's in Paris is also superb.

We had a Rick Steves's book guide to Paris. He instructed us to get on a public bus near the Eiffel Tower and then he would narrate the various stops on the bus. Marji was our tour guide! Reading the guide she would say, 'To your right you will see where the Bastille existed. And, then to your left you will see where Hemingway would write extensively.' She kept my attention.

Our ultimate destination was to get to Père Lachaise Cemetery. I wanted to see the grave of Frédéric Chopin, one of my musical heroes. Chopin (1810-1849) changed the way the piano would be played forever in any genre. He unlocked technical and musical potential that this relatively new instrument, at the time, was bringing to the world.

It was largely because of Chopin's work that pianists and aspiring musicians could understand what could be possible in expressing music on the piano. We call the 1800's the Romantic period in music. It was when artists responded to the phrase, 'I think therefore I am', expressed in the enlightenment, with 'I feel therefore I am' in their art and work. (Thank you Michael Tilson Thomas, in your documentary on Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, for that concept). The piano was the perfect instrument to bring emotion and feeling to people in the salons and concert halls in Paris and beyond.

When I was young, I remember playing my first Chopin piece; it was a waltz in A minor. A new world opened up before my eyes. I could express what was on my heart even though he was alive 150 years before I played this music - timeless emotion.

We disembarked from the bus in the late afternoon, early evening. We walked up to the gate, got a map, and passed by the guard who was giving us a 'You better hurry up' look in French.

The first grave that we came to was Jim Morrison, the lead singer of 'The Doors'. And so, after humming, 'Riders in the Storm', we came to Irishmen Oscar Wilde's grave. I wanted to linger but we had to boogie. Light was dimming.

We took a turn and a wrong turn, and then took another look at the map. It's May and it's a little chilly. And, then, we saw flowers and Polish flags. We had arrived. Chopin's father was French and his mother was Polish. He was born outside of Warsaw and immigrated to Paris when he was in his early 20's. During the large part of 17 years of living and working in Paris, he would go to dinner often with Victor Hugo author of Les Misérables. He would be painted by Eugene Delacroix. So many of the world's leading artists in the 19th century would have crossed paths in Paris. And, it seemed that most of the folks in Paris that came across Chopin adored him.

We quickly got a snapshot of me in front of the grave.

I paused and thought of the youth of Chopin when he passed. I thought of the genius of his craft. I thought of what his music meant to me and what it means to the world.

I also thought of his missing heart. One of Chopin's biggest fears was to be buried alive. He wanted his heart removed from his body so as not to risk that unthinkable terror. Just before he died, he called for last rites and begged God for mercy on his soul. He longed for his native Poland. And so, his heart is placed in a Cathedral in Warsaw. His body would be in France; his heart in Poland.

Marji and I paused together and then began to realize something. The gates were being closed. We began to walk and then walk a little faster. You have to understand, this graveyard is massive. Here is what it looks like with the massive crypts of prestigious families. It is ominous in the dusk of the evening and it was beginning to go dark.

We ran down the gravel walkway and came to the locked gate. I grabbed the bars and shook them to make sure. We were locked in a graveyard in Paris.

I got out. Marji didn't.


I quickly spotted a guard who looked to live in a place nearby. In broken French, I asked to be released. He relented and pulled out the old keys (they looked to be original to the cemetery) and unlocked the gate.

Marji and I both left with a story to tell and more connection to and love for the music Chopin.

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