I had just arrived at the American Library when I was told there was a fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame. I envisioned a small fire–not to worry about. I didn’t respond with much drama. We were walking on the sidewalk of rue General Camou in search of our two speakers for the evening. She stopped me and said ‘Look’. She had her iPhone in her hand and after a bit of a wait–it turned out everyone in Paris was on Wifi at that moment–showed me a photo of the fire at the back of the Cathedrale. NOT a small fire. As I often do at moments like that, I freeze a bit. I could tell by her face that she was very upset. I had yet to get there.
I was volunteering at an author event at the Library. I often get the job of greeting people as they walk in the door, asking them to sign in and showing them the donation box. All the events are open to the public and there is no charge. The library is completely dependent on donations so, with a big smile on my face, I ask them for their 10 euro donation. For a few minutes, I completely forgot about the drama taking place in the 4th arrondissement. Then I turned around and saw one of the other volunteers who was manning the drinks table in tears. She also had her phone in her hand. I walked over and she showed me a live BBC broadcast that she was watching. The fire had doubled in size in the 25 minutes since I’d been out walking to get our speakers. The 13th century spire was engulfed in flames.
I realize most of you know all of this already. I wanted to write about it but it’s not new news. This is my perspective on losing a friend. For two and a half years, I lived on the Quai des Grands Augustins. I had only to open my living room window, and look right and there was that magnificent lady that has/had stood there for over 800 years gracing Paris and being her symbol to the world. She had survived a Revolution and two World Wars. In the mornings, I could see the sun rising behind her and in the evenings, when the sun was setting over the Pont Neuf, the rays would bounce, red and purple, off the round stain glass window between the two towers. One afternoon, after a rain storm, I saw a double rainbow dome the towers. It was a magical moment. I have been to Christmas Eve mass there. I have walked up the left tower to see the gargoyles and the famous bell. The first time I took that walk I was 20 years old and a student at Lake Forest College. The last time was two years ago when my friend Barbara and I climbed it on what turned out to be one of the coldest days of the year. Never in my wildest imagination did I think I would ever lose her.
Then I moved to the 16th arrondissement in August of 2017. I don’t see Notre Dame on a daily basis anymore. Which makes her all the more stunning when I have to cross the parvis to get to the right bank or am standing on one of the bridges further down the river just gazing at her simple beauty and steadfastness. In history classes or in historical novels that sweep through the centuries, one reads about the destruction of a famous structure and then its rebuilding which takes over 200 hundred years. That will all be told in a couple of pages. As I walked home from the Library last night, I thought “I am part of history. I will never in my lifetime be able to climb the stairs in that tower or walk up the Quai behind Notre Dame, my favourite view, and see the flying buttresses holding up and holding down her flaring skirts.” Notre Dame will be rebuilt but I probably won’t see it.
At home, I watched the news until it wasn’t news. As with all huge dramas, the newscasters start interviewing bystanders to get their reaction while showing the fire in a corner of the screen. When I went to bed, it wasn’t clear if any part of the Cathedral would be saved. The Fire Chief was optimistic. I had spent an hour responding, in very short sentences, to all my American friends who had written to me expressing their grief in general and their grief for me. I was extremely touched. Paris has become my home and my friends know that. One e-mail just said “So sad”. Another “I grieve with you”. They didn’t need to say more.
This morning, I didn’t want to get out of bed. I felt as if a great good friend had died and I was miserable. Bijou stood by my bed and cried and cried. She was hungry and didn’t care about something 3 kms away. So I was forced out of bed. After giving her her very favourite food, I got on the computer and learned that the main structure had been saved and some of the most valuable art work had been rescued. No one was injured or killed. Macron warned that little fires were still burning and they expected that for the next couple of days. I plan to walk down there this afternoon and pay my respects. I’m pretty sure that I am not at all prepared for what I’ll see. After the twin towers came down, I flew to New York. I wanted to make it real. Watching some news on TV is not so different from watching an action movie. I have to see it with my own eyes to know it happened and have my own private experience.
I hope these photos are helpful for you to grasp what Paris, the citizens of Paris, the country went through last night. The country is already devastated by billions of euros loss because of the Gilets Jaunes protests. Now this. I believe Macron is hoping to appeal to the International world to raise funds to rebuild this beautiful Cathedral.