Post-mortem: Love letters and absinthe pile up at grave of French poet Rimbaud

The much-loved French poet Arthur RImbaud may have died 127 years ago but that doesn't mean his fans have stopped communicating with him, or raising a glass of absinthe in his honour.

Post-mortem: Love letters and absinthe pile up at grave of French poet Rimbaud
Photos: AFP

Two or three times a week the postman shows up at a cemetery in the eastern French town of Charleville-Mezieres with a letter for a poet who continues to stir passions 127 years after his death.

Some of the missives addressed to Arthur Rimbaud contain declarations of undying love for the prodigious enfant terrible of French letters, who passed away at 37 after a rollercoaster life that included an opium-fuelled affair with fellow poet Paul Verlaine as well as a stint as an arms dealer.

“Rimbaud, even if you are no longer there, know that I will love you forever,” reads one of the letters deposited in the yellow postbox inscribed with the poet's name at the entrance to the graveyard.

Another promises him “the sun, moon and stars”.`

Cemetery's caretaker Bernard Colin pulls out a handwritten letter. AFP

Some of those trying to commune with the dead poet seem to find solace in writing to another tortured soul, who stunned the Paris literary scene as a precocious teen attempting to chart the unconscious mind in poems striking for their modernism.

Rummaging through a stack of shoe boxes in which he keeps the correspondence, the cemetery's caretaker Bernard Colin pulls out a handwritten letter from a man named Philippe who is contemplating the “living shreds of my youth, the last promise of my miserable existence.”

He never fails to be moved by the emotions expressed.

“People confide in Rimbaud about their disillusionment. He is their confidant. They talk to him as if he were still alive,” the  watchman said.

Charleville's Jim Morrison

The steady trickle of letters and visitors testifies to the renewed interest in the poet, whose mystique was enhanced by his decision to renounce poetry in his prime for a peripatetic existence as a mercenary-turned-merchant-turned-arms-trader.

When Colin moved into the caretaker's lodge 37 years ago his predecessor told him “no-one is interested in Rimbaud.”

“That has certainly changed,” he said with a smile.

So too has the regard in which Rimbaud is held locally.

As a teen, the poet railed against the strictures of small-town life in Charleville, a town near Belgium that has long laboured under a reputation for being dull, and continually plotted his escape.

Yet throughout his short life, he would invariably return home in times of crisis, such as when Verlaine pulled a gun on him during a quarrel in Brussels and shot him in the arm.

The self-styled prophet struggled to gain acceptance in his hometown, which studiously ignored him up until the 1960s when counterculture figures such as

The Doors' Jim Morrison began acclaiming him as their idol.

Cottoning onto the tourist potential of brand Rimbaud the town in 1969 got a Rimbaud Museum, and in 2004, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, a house where he lived was transformed into a commemorative space.

“Rimbaud is Charleville-Meziere's Jim Morrison!” the museum's director Lucille Pennel said, comparing the lure of the poet to that of The Doors' frontman whose Paris grave has also become a fan shrine.

Empty absinthe bottles –

Some visitors to Charleville cheer on Rimbaud's youthful excesses by leaving empty bottles of absinthe or cigarettes packs on his grave.

Others take his example further.

Colin said he had surprised some couples having sex behind the twin white headstones that loom over the family grave — one for Rimbaud, the other for his sister Isabelle who died at the age of 17.

Among the devotees to have visited the grave recently are American singer-songwriter Patti Smith, who left behind a guitar plectrum, as well as French rocker Hubert-Felix Thiefaine and former prime minister Dominique de Villepin.

In a sign of the poet's global appeal, the cemetery also receives a large number of Asian visitors.

Colin welcomes them all on behalf of the deceased, to whom he feels a degree of kinship.

“After so many years I feel that I know him almost as well as my family,” he said.

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Everything you need to know about France’s 2022 summer sales

In France, you can only shop the best deals twice a year - during the soldes. Here is everything you need to know about this year's summer sales.

Everything you need to know about France's 2022 summer sales

They happen twice a year – Each year, France has two soldes periods: one in the winter, usually starting January, and another in the summer, usually starting in June.

This summer, the soldes will start on Wednesday, June 22nd in most parts of France and run for four weeks, so even though you might be tempted to go on the first day, keep in mind they’ll be going on for a while.

They are progressive, so items will be continuously marked down as the soldes wear on. If you wait, you are risking that your favourite t-shirt might sell out quickly, but if you’re lucky it might end up marked down even further.

During 2020 and 2021 the government altered sales dates and time periods to help shops cope with closures and lockdowns, but now we’re back to the usual timetable.

This is the only time stores can have “sales” – Technically, the soldes are the only time that stores are allowed to have sales, but the definition of ‘sale’ is important.

Basically, the French government qualifies a ‘solde‘ as the store selling an item for less than they purchased it for.

During the rest of the year discounting is allowed in certain circumstances, so you might see promotions or vente privée (private sales, usually short-term events aimed at regular customers or loyalty-card holders) throughout the year.

In these situations the stores might be selling items for less than their original price, but they are not permitted to sell the item for less than they bought it for. 

Shops are also permitted to have closing-down sales if they are shutting down, or closing temporarily for refurbishment.

They are strictly regulated by the French government – Everything from how long the soldes go for to the consumer protection rules that apply to the very definition of ‘solde’ is regulated by the French government, and the main purpose of this is to protect small independent businesses which might not be able to offer the same level of discounts as the big chains and multi-national companies.

Whether you shop in person or online, the same rules apply.

As a consumer, you still have the same rights as non-sales times regarding broken or malfunctioning items – meaning you ought to be entitled to a refund if the item has not been expressly indicated as faulty. The French term is vice caché, referring to discovering a defect after purchase.

On top of that, stores must be clear about which items are reduced and which are not – and must display the original price on the label as well as the sale price and percentage discount. 

READ MORE: Your consumer rights for French sales

They started in the 19th century – France’s soldes started in the 19th century, alongside the growth of department stores who had the need to regularly renew their stock – and get rid of leftover items.

Simon Mannoury, who founded the first Parisian department store “Petit Saint-Thomas” in 1830, came up with the idea.

Funnily enough, this department store actually is the ancestor for the famous department store Le Bon Marché. His goal was to sell off the previous season’s unsold stock in order to replace it with new products.

In order to do this, Mannoury offered heavy discounts to sell as much merchandise as possible in a limited time.

The soldes start at different times depending on where you live – The sales start at the same time across most of mainland France, but there are exceptions for overseas France and certain départements, usually those along the border.

France’s finance ministry allows for the sales to start at different times based on local economies and tourist seasons. 

For the summer 2022 sales only two parts of metropolitan France have different dates; Alpes-Maritimes sales run from July 6th to August 2nd, while on the island of Corsica they run from July 13th to August 9th.

In France’s overseas territories the sales are held later in the year.

You might qualify for a tax rebate – If you are resident outside the EU, you might be eligible for a tax rebate on your sales purchases.

If you spend at least €100 in one store, then you qualify. You should hold onto your receipt and tell the cashier you plan to use a tax rebate so they can give you the necessary documentation (a duty-free slip).

Then when you are leaving you can find the kiosk at the station or airport dedicated to tax rebates (détaxe) and file prior to leaving France. For more information read HERE