Notre Dame is burning. The full extent of the damage is yet to be known, but my gut tells me it is devastated to such a degree that it will not be fully restored during my lifetime. Like many, I hold Notre Dame in a very special place in my heart. One memory in particular kept floating to the surface today as I learned the news, first from a friend’s text. My phone proceeded to blow up with texts from others, and many people came by my classroom today to share the developments and their grief.
When I was twenty, I lived in Paris for a summer with an American roommate, Sandi, and a kind and welcoming French family. What Hemingway said is true – that if you live in Paris when you were young, it will stay with you, for Paris is a “moveable feast.” I’m not sure that this is unique to Paris, or if we are able to romanticize any beautiful place we’ve lived in that was integral to our coming of age. Regardless, Paris is a magical and beautiful city – redesigned in the early 1800s by Haussmann at Napoleon’s request, it is a city intent upon making an impression. After a while though, it also reveals its warts, which are mostly the same as any large city: too many people in too small a space, pollution, trash, and the filthy sidewalks due to the Parisiens’ apathy about cleaning up after their dogs.
Ask any city dweller where to go for respite, though, and they might reveal their secret. New Yorkers might have a special location within Central Park; or the Bay Area residents’ affinity for their trails along the coast. And while Paris boasts a surprising number of lovely parks, Notre Dame was my refuge:
It is Sunday afternoon in June 1989, and my roommate Sandi and I take the Métro north to Saint-Michel and walk across the bridge toward Notre Dame for the free weekly organ concert. We’ve been to the cathedral before, our course instructor gave us his personalized tour a week or two before. It’s a hot and humid day, the kind that makes our host, Béatrice, stand by the open window, fanning herself and saying, “Quelle chaleur!” (What a heatwave!) The sun is bright and the smog and noise of the traffic add to a growing oppressiveness.
As we enter the cathedral, our senses are overwhelmed. First: the darkness of this vast cathedral, whose stained glass windows are high above and don’t permit much sunlight. The coolness of the walls holding in the chill of eight hundred winters envelopes us and we soon are on the verge of shivering. Next, the smoky scent of incense, lingering from the recent Mass, permeates our nostrils. And finally, the hush of the audience as everyone takes a seat. Already, I feel somewhat overcome by a sense of peace and calm. The quick tempo of our language and history courses every morning, followed by afternoon excursions at the fast pace of our instructor, on top of the struggle of immersing ourselves in another language, culture, and family – all of it is too much. In later years, I will come to realize that this experience has imbued me with a deep sense of empathy for immigrants and refugees and all displaced persons. But for now, it seems like this is the first time I have just sat quietly since I dragged my jet-lagged self off the plane. I’m not trying to figure how to say what’s on my mind, I’m not being rushed to the next sight, I’m just sitting quietly.
And then, the organist begins to play. The massive pipes of this organ seem to snake up the entire wall at the back of the nave. The music, filling the air, vibrates throughout the huge enclosed space. It’s loud, very loud, and on top of the sensory overload I’m already experiencing, my face is wet. Tears stream from my eyes and at some point I realize that audible sobs are emanating from me. The music swells and builds, each beat filled with the infinite trills and ornamentation that define French Baroque organ music.
By the end of the concert, I pull myself together, but I am utterly spent. I remember Sandi leading me from the darkness of the cathedral into the afternoon sun. My journal tells me that we ate at an Italian place around the corner, but I don’t recall the rest of the day.
And now Notre Dame lies in shambles – the only solace is that it appears that no one has been killed in the fire. The efforts of the brave firefighters surely have saved the cathedral from utter ruin – and hopefully the injured first responder will recover completely. Notre Dame will be rebuilt – Macron has already pledged an international fundraising effort to fund it. It is truly the heart of Paris, indeed of France, with Kilomètre Zéro in its square. To me, it will remain a place where I, a young and weary traveler, far from home, found an overwhelming sense of peace on a Sunday afternoon.