Only it didn’t happen that way. My plan had been to go to ground zero, Notre-Dame de Paris, Tuesday. I needed to see the devastation, the people, the burned debris on the ground. The day was cold, the sky was grey, Paris was in mourning. My body, exhausted from lack of sleep and anxiety, refused to move.
The final little fires were put out early Wednesday morning. Five hundred firefighters fought through Monday night into Tuesday morning containing the flames. One hundred of them made a long relay line and carried out precious art pieces. Tourists and Parisians alike came down in the morning hours, in the light of day, to see the devastation and saw that the main structure had been saved. The news told us that there was about an hour in the early morning when it could have gone either way. Thanks to the work and determination of five hundred pompiers (firefighters), we still have our Notre-Dame albeit in a very wounded state.
That morning, I made up my mind to join the throng of people. But every god conspired against me. I couldn’t find my walking shoes. My apartment is small enough that things get hidden away when I have company. Well hidden it turns out. My jeans didn’t fit, my lunch carrots had gone slimy bad. I didn’t even know that carrots could get slimy. One thing after another for forty-five minutes challenging my desire to get down there.
Finally I was on my way to RER C. I slide my Navigo over the turnstile and ran down the stairs. The electric billboard said the next train was coming in twenty-six minutes. “No, not another obstacle?” I muttered in English. A few elderly ladies turned to look at me. I made the walk to metro 9, got on, changed to metro 1 and got off at Pont Neuf.
I crossed the Pont St. Michel and got my first glimpse of Notre Dame: the right bell tower. I burst into tears. It looked exactly the same as before the fire from that angle but eighteen hours of holding back my ‘tristesse‘ opened the flood gates. I couldn’t stop crying. I walked by tourists who seemed unaware of the drama that had unfolded there Monday night. I turned left on Quai St. Michel and, as I approached le Petit Pont, more and more people were gathered gazing at the cathedral. Everyone seemed solemn, no one was pushy or aggressive. Some could see well, others couldn’t. The police had cordoned off everything from Pont St. Michel down as far as Pont de l’Archeveche. Firehoses snaked over the ground in front of us. The Gendarmes stood like sentries at the plastic red and white tape that separated us from them. The Station St Michel/Notre Dame was closed for both the RER C and M4. Cité must have been closed because no one was allowed entry to the parvis in front of the Prefecture.
I wanted to walk to Pont de l’Archeveche. I was hoping to take a photo at the exact same spot as the one that was taken of me three or four years ago. Some of the bouquinistes were open. I bought two sepia postcards of the view of the back of Notre-Dame. When I got to the bridge, it, too, was cordoned off. Patiently I waited for a spot to open up and I was able to get close enough to get my photo.
I stood there for awhile, just looking and my tears came and went. I was listening to Joan Baez on Spotify and she started singing ‘Amazing Grace‘. As I was listening and gazing at this beautiful structure that has stood on Ile de la Cité for 850 years, I realized just how much of it was still standing. The firemen DID save her. The sadness started to transform into hope. A friend of mine wrote me and said “it’s like she’s been horrendously wounded and stands suffering for all to see.” Wounds heal, suffering passes.
Yesterday, Thursday, Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo invited all citizens and ex-Pats to Hotel de Ville (City Hall) for a ceremony to thank the Pompiers for risking their lives, working through the night and saving Notre-Dame. After she told us that she would be requesting that the pompiers be accorded honorary citizenship of the city of Paris, the actor, Nicolas Lormeaux, read an excerpt from Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame.
In the novel, Hugo, one of France’s most acclaimed writers, describes, in 1831, flames in the Cathedral when Quasimodo uses fire and stones to attack Truands in order to save Esmerelda.
“All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time. Below that fire, below the gloomy balustrade with its trefoils showing darkly against its glare, two spouts with monster throats were vomiting forth unceasingly that burning rain, whose silvery stream stood out against the shadows of the lower façade.
As they approached the earth, these two jets of liquid lead spread out in sheaves, like water springing from the thousand holes of a watering-pot. Above the flame, the enormous towers, two sides of each of which were visible in sharp outline, the one wholly black, the other wholly red, seemed still more vast with all the immensity of the shadow which they cast even to the sky.
Their innumerable sculptures of demons and dragons assumed a lugubrious aspect. The restless light of the flame made them move to the eye. There were griffins which had the air of laughing, gargoyles which one fancied one heard yelping, salamanders which puffed at the fire, tarasques which sneezed in the smoke. And among the monsters thus roused from their sleep of stone by this flame, by this noise, there was one who walked about, and who was seen, from time to time, to pass across the glowing face of the pile, like a bat in front of a candle.
Without doubt, this strange beacon light would awaken far away, the woodcutter of the hills of Bicêtre, terrified to behold the gigantic shadow of the towers of Notre-Dame quivering over his heaths.”
Translation by Isabel F. Hapsgood
If you wish to donate to the rebuilding of the Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, Please go to this site: https://don.fondation-patrimoine.org/SauvonsNotreDame/~mon-don
7 thoughts on “Grabbed my journal, rushed for the C train (Notre-Dame part 2)”
Hi Sara! As always, I love reading your blog! I have one comment: in your fifth sentence you say “Paris was in morning. ” Did you mean “mourning” or was this a desire to show that it was the very early morning and to indicate how people felt at the same time? Bisous!! Jill
Thank you, Jill. It was misspelled. I’m told that no matter how many times you read and reread, there is always something. Thank you for catching it. It is corrected on the site! Bisous, Sara
I am so lucky to have your witness — live, fully present, leading with your humanity! Thanks, Sara!!
Sara, I love looking over your shoulder out the window and on the streets of Paris, the weavings of French culture and history and the visuals. I am one of your She Writes Sisters and look forward to getting to know your work over the next many months. I’m leaving a link here to my own blog which includes conversations with people in the US living a multi-cultural life. My website is a bit under construction as I incorporate my forthcoming book. Best wishes to you in the beautiful city of Paris!
Super article, love all the details.
Bonjour Sara — I discovered your blog when you wrote about Janet Hulstrand’s wonderful ‘Demystifying the French’ 🙂 and have enjoyed reading your posts.
Thanks for sharing your sad but wonderful, beautiful photos of Notre-Dame after the fire.
Cheers (temporarily) from Australia and (sometimes) from Paris,
Thanks so much Carolyn. Cheers from Paris!