Not long ago, I was a substitute teacher for a high school French class. Right away, I confessed to the students that my knowledge of French was very limited. Basically, it consists of pleasantries, “petit déjeuner” (“breakfast”) and “Où est Jim Morrison?” (“Where is Jim Morrison?”)
My admission was met with confused looks, and they asked, “Who is Jim Morrison?”
“Jim Morrison? You know, the lead singer of The Doors…The Lizard King…sound familiar?” Blank looks. Maybe song lyrics would work. “You know, ‘Come on baby, light my fire?’ That’s a song, by the way, I don’t really want to light your fire.” I tried to sing the refrain for them.
More looks that said, “Wow, CRAZY sub. We wish we had Mrs. Johnson right now.”
I felt compelled to clarify, which probably only made things worse.
“One of these days you’ll know who Jim Morrison is. Probably in college, since everyone goes through a Doors phase.”
It wasn’t going well. Most of the kids looked at me with an expression like: “What else do you do with a door except for go through it? And you don’t have to be in college to do that.” One kid raised his eyebrows in an “Okay…sure. Whatever you say, wacko lady” sort of way.
Of course, I was speaking from my own experience, because I had gone through the customary Doors phase and poseur hippie thing in college. However, I genuinely liked The Doors’s music. In addition to most of the albums, I had a door length poster of Jim Morrison plastered on the wall of my bedroom, and even the answering machine greeted callers with “Hello, I love you. Won’t you tell me your name?”
Consequently, when I was in Paris, my junior year of college, I had a mission — to see Jim’s grave. I knew that the Lizard King was buried at a cemetery in the City of Lights. It was at Père Lachaise Cemetery — where I would ask the question in Friench, “Where is Jim Morrison?” Actually, it should have been, “Where is his grave?”
On a break from our study abroad program in the Netherlands, my friends Leah, Amy, Andy and I ended up in Paris for a few days after we had traveled through Italy. Nearing the end of the trip, we were bedraggled and broke. However, before leaving Paris, we all wanted to visit Père Lachaise Cemetery.
I knew Jim was buried there because the quintessential biography of Jim Morrison, No One Here Gets Out Alive, by Jerry Hopkins, included black and white photos of Jim’s grave. It looked so stately. It even had a bust of him displayed, along with graffiti, on his gravestone and the surrounding tombstones. I envisioned people playing his music in a clearing or meadow and hanging out in the grass by his grave — sort of like the documentary footage of the 1960s with people in Golden Gate Park twirling in flowy clothing — lots twirling and flowing.
We entered Père Lachaise. It was huge. And the cemetery (110 acres) was not laid out like Arlington National Cemetery, which I had been to as part of a family trip to Washington D.C. Arlington is a more expansive (624 acres) green, grassy land with organized, structured rows of graves. Of course, it is a military cemetery, so that could explain the precise, orderly rows.
Père Lachaise looked like a storage place for cement and marble structures. The graves, in many places, seemed haphazardly placed and each plot varied with some high stone structures, some low stone structures that were all different shapes and sizes. This resting ground was rolling in spots and many graves were crammed closely together.
Clearly, some of the larger tombs and mausoleums held deceased French dignitaries in them. Père Lachaise is the place to be when you’re dead. Strict criteria and an actual waiting list to be buried there exist. After all, it’s the final resting ground for actress Sarah Bernhardt, French signer Édith Piaf, along with many writers like Gertrude Stein, Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde and Richard Wright, just to name a few.
Naïvely, we thought we’d be able to find Jim’s grave with no problem. At one point, we passed by a grave displaying an arrow with “Jim is this way,” disrespectfully, yet helpfully scrawled on the grave’s side. However, there were no more helpful leads after that. We wandered for a while, and then when we saw more avenues to other grave sites, we realized we needed either a map or a guide.
Soon we saw three men talking on the path. It was clear they were not mourners because they were laughing and relaxed. One was leaning against his moped, smoking a cigarette.
“Okay, let’s ask these guys — they must be grave diggers,” I said. “Leah, you could ask them.” While Leah spoke French, she succumbed to the insecurity of many Americans who are fluent in French. She did not want the native speakers to judge her speaking ability.
“No, I don’t want to ask them,” She stopped walking. “My accent is terrible,” Leah maintained. “They probably won’t even understand me.”
“Wait, you can speak French, but you don’t want to speak French to these French people while we are in France, because you’re embarrassed about your accent?”
“It’s not as easy as you think, Steph,” she added.
I needed to see Jim. Time for a new tactic.
“How about I ask them. Since I don’t speak any French, my accent will be horrible anyway.”
My own experiences in Paris and the rest of France were that if you tried to speak to people in French and didn’t assume that everyone speaks English, the French were fine. I had never encountered the rude Parisian that you hear about.
“How do you say, ‘where is?’” I asked her.
“It’s où est’’” Leah informed me.
“Ooo yay?” I tried.
“No, more like Ooo Eeh
“Ooo eeh, Okay.”
I went over to the grave diggers. “Pardon, monsieurs, “Où est Jim Morrison?”
The one resting against the moped looked at me for a few minutes. Could he understand me? Was he going to yell at me because I hadn’t said it correctly? Leah had me a bit paranoid.
A small mustached man wearing baggy pants, t-shirt, droopy vest and rain boots, he put his cigarette in his mouth and then motioned for us to follow. He then got on his moped. Slowly, he went forward and we tagged along behind. After going up some small rolling areas, he finally stopped. While still on his moped, he again motioned with his arm where to go.
“Merci beaucoup,” we all said in unison.
He smiled and tipped his hat, which was a beret and that was the only characteristic that fulfilled the Parisian stereotype.
We could see graffiti sprawling on two larger graves and moved in between them.
Was this correct, though? Where was the clearing? The meadow? Where was the music? Where were the Doors devotees paying homage to Jim?
Instead, on the ground was a small, worn looking cement chunk covered in graffiti, with “Jim Morrison” etched in— Someone had turned the “o’s” into peace symbols. Flowers, which had shriveled, were placed on top of the chunk. There wasn’t even a bust. Apparently, It had been stolen a few years ago. Some well wishes were scrawled on the other graves including:
“Dude, you finally broke through to the other side.”
“You light my fire, Jim.”
“Keep lighting the fire, Jimbo”
“Lizard King, you live on”
We all stared at the grave for about five minutes and then Andy said, “Okay. I can move on now. Anybody else?”
“Yep.” We left and meandered through a few more graves before heading to the exit. As we were leaving, I realized that rather than seeing Jim’s grave, I was more excited about asking the grave digger a question in French and getting results — great results since we were actually escorted to Jim’s grave by a Parisian.