My feelings after seeing the news that Notre Dame de Paris was on fire on April 15 are still quite raw and I have been finding it difficult to write this post. Even now I’m hesitating, because how can you wrap up your words in one not overdone package after decades of happily creating memories that have grown deep roots?
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw the headlines. You think of Notre Dame and you see soaring, stalwart stone walls and towers that have stood the test of time. You remember the overwhelming impact of history, architecture and beauty that the cathedral produces and simply assume that it will always be there. Of course I know that buildings are not going to be around forever and things can happen. They have happened. But we reach out towards that which stays, welcomes, remains, inspires. And that is one of the reasons why what happened to Notre Dame de Paris is so incredibly sad.
Buildings do not speak, but they make us speak because they are witnesses to time. Anyone can walk in, sit down, look around, take pictures, take away impressions, read up on historic structures and open up stories of the people connected to them. Whether you are religious or not, a cathedral like Notre Dame de Paris, aside from obviously being a landmark of enormous cultural, historical and architectural significance, is a place of gathering. Not just inside the building, but around it – in the little square nearby with Paris’ oldest tree and metal arches covered with roses in the springtime, in front of the two-tower facade everyone recognizes and tries to take the best picture of.
Way back in the day my sister and I first visited Notre Dame de Paris on the heels of multiple viewings of Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. We knew all the songs by heart and we even knew about Victor Hugo’s novel, even if we were too young to read it. Feeling quite prepared with our knowledge, we were very eager to go inside and as high as possible. We wanted to follow Quasimodo’s footsteps and see it all: the bells, the stained-glass windows, the gargoyle statues, the view of Paris from above. I remember that afterwards, full to bursting with all our impressions, we went around a corner to get some ice-cream (mais oui) and there was a beautiful mime dressed as Esmeralda who pretended to read my palm. The experience was complete. As kids, we couldn’t have asked for more.
Since then I have been fortunate enough to go to Paris a lot and almost every time I stopped by Notre Dame, wherever I was coming from. Whether it was a longer sit-down with some relaxed people-watching or just a brief look, it has always been a part of my Paris. It was touching to see the same sentiments expressed online by people around the world, and the crowd singing Ave Maria as the cathedral burned is something that I don’t think I will ever forget. No riots, no violence, no fights, no pushing, shouting or discord of any kind (for a change), and thankfully no fatalities during the fire. Just pure, sincere acknowledgement of sadness and respect.