The Fire at Notre Dame

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.

The Spire in flames and about to collapse

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.

Sara in 2016. My favorite view – coming up behind the Cathedral, seeing the Spire and the flying buttresses. Photo: Mike Weintraub

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.

Watching the news at 10:30pm. The Spire is gone, the roof is gone. The Cathedral had started renovations which were badly needed and you can see the steel structure that had been holding the spire in place. The renovation was to take 20 years.

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.

Photo: Julien Mattia/Le Pictorium
Crowds gather opposite the cathedral on the bank of the Seine to watch the fire
Photograph: Thomas Samson/AFP/Getty Images
The cathedral’s steeple collapses
Photograph: Geoffroy van der Hasselt/AFP/Getty Images
IF you’ve been to Paris, this one will make you cry. Flames and smoke are seen billowing from the roof at Notre-Dame Cathedral
Photograph: Veronique de Viguerie/Getty Images

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.

A bientôt,

Sara

More thoughts on living in Paris

“The more you come to know a place, in general, the more it loses its essence and becomes defined by its quirks and its shortcomings.  The suggestion of something numinous or meaningful is usually available with full force only to the first time visitor and gradually decreases with familiarity”

Sebastian Faulks Charlotte Gray                                   

I have changed the tense to the present tense because those two sentences jumped out at me when I read Charlotte Gray (a wonderful book, by the way!).  I first came to Paris to live in November of 2013.  I walked everywhere.  I had time to walk everywhere.  I was so full with wonder, awe and amazement at the beauty of Paris, at my good fortune to be able to pick up and leave California and live in Paris, there were times I thought my heart would burst open.

It has been a long time since I’ve had those feelings.  I live here, have commitments here, pay bills here, run up against French administration here and unless I write it down as a date with myself, I don’t take those long walks anymore.  I still love Paris but it is completely different.  I have also changed apartments.  I used to live on the corner of Git-le-Coeur and Quai des Grands Augustins.  I sat at my table and looked out on the Pont-Neuf. I could stick my head out the window, look right and see a perfect view of Notre Dame.  I understood how Monet felt when he wanted to paint certain things at every hour of the day.  These two views changed all the time depending on the weather, on the time of day, on my mood.  Many days it would take my breath away.

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Now I live in the 16th.  I have a large terrace which I said I wanted.  In exchange, I gave up the view of the Seine, the Pont Neuf and Notre Dame.  I look out on another apartment building.  Below me is a lovely courtyard.  Every hour on the hour, I see the reflected lights of the Tour Eiffle flickering on the glass of the building across the way. The blinking lights last for five minutes then I lose the reflection.  That is the only reminder I have that I live in Paris.  And there are no high buildings or skyscrapers.  Strictly interdit in Paris.  It’s not till I walk outside and turn left on Avenue Mozart to go to the metro that the atmosphere of Paris washes over me.  Some days, especially days that it has been raining, it seems especially beautiful as the lights bounce off the sidewalk and glass store fronts.  Those days, I take a deep breath and pinch myself.  But those days have gotten far and few between.

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There are no tourists here where I live.  I only hear French on the streets.  Am I saying I would trade all this to be back in the centre of Paris where tourists abound, walk incredibly slowly driving me nuts.  Where all the photos of Paris postcards originate?  Good question.  One I ask myself every day.

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People ask me if I think I will stay here.  I always have to think out my answer carefully because it changes all the time.  Last Saturday when someone asked me, I responded that I thought I was a more interesting person living here in Paris.  I like having to walk to the metro.  I like that I can go to morning matinees of movies once a week.  I like that I never have to drive a car.  I like that I can jump on the TGV and be almost anywhere in France in less than five hours.  And that’s only because the train stops everywhere on the Cote d’Azur taking an extra two hours.  Marseilles is three plus hours away.  I adore Brittany and that I can go there and not have the tremendous crowds that Mendocino and the Northern California coast attracts.  I love going to the American Library and hearing wonderful speakers and authors one or two nights a week.  Does it really matter where I live in Paris?  The fact of the matter is that I LIVE IN PARIS!  How many Americans have the luxury of pulling up their lives and roots and move 6,000 miles away just because?

As they say in Twelve Step rooms, More Will be Revealed.

A bientôt,

Sara

We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy

Until five months ago, I had never heard of Ta-Nehisi Coates. I started seeing ads for his latest book We Were Eight Years in Power on my digital version of The New Yorker. Last week, I was sent an advance copy of the book to review (it hit bookstores on October 7th but I received an unedited version) and my world turned upside down.

This is not a scholarly review.  This is a review of a citizen of the United States living in Paris trying to understand how and why Trump happened.

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The book consists of eight essays that Coates wrote for the Atlantic where he is now a Senior Editor. Each essay represents one year that Barak Obama was President. He prefaces each one with a present day writing telling us specifics of why he wrote what he wrote and how he sees the article now, 2017. He ends with an Epilogue about President Trump “our first white president”. The Guardian review calls him “the laureate of black lives”.

I am a seventy year old white woman living in Paris, France. I was raised in academia, my father taught at Princeton University. I say that I was released from behind Ivy League walls at eighteen years old a very naive young woman. I have always considered myself a liberal (my sister says that is a four letter word) and always voted Democrat. Never have I felt more naive and uneducated about the realities of the class system in the United States than reading Coate’s book.

Coates has a unique way of presenting his material in a New Yorker-type style while searing you with some very unpleasant truths. Truths that, the minute I read them, I knew were true though I’ve had my head in the sand for a long time. The Guardian says “Coates has the rare ability to express (it) in clear prose that combines historical scholarship with personal experience of being black in today’s America.” He calls all types of slavery, the Klu Klux Klan, White Supremacy ‘Domestic Terrorism’ which, of course, it is. Slavery was outlawed over 150 years ago, Blacks have the right to vote and the Civil Rights movement, of which I partook, was supposed to have ended all the inequality. Yet Blacks are consistently murdered and the murderers not indicted. Laws have been passed to stop Blacks from voting at the polls. Coates probably sited 100 instances of domestic terrorism. Some I knew about, many I did not. All done in the name of keeping the White class the superior class.

His eighth chapter was specifically about Obama. What made Obama unique and able to become President of the United States was the fact that he was raised by three white people who adored him and let him know how much he was loved. He was not educated to be suspicious of white people. He was not cautioned about going into certain neighborhoods that were too dangerous for black people. He was encouraged to learn and encouraged to strive for the best. Coates stated that 71% of Republicans still believe he is Muslim and many still believe he was not born in the United States. Trump began his political career by openly challenging Obama to produce his birth certificate. For years, he stated everywhere he could be heard his “Birther” beliefs. Obama was our first black president. However, if he was not born in the US, then he couldn’t be president and for the majority of people who are threatened by the idea of a black president, the string of white presidents remains unbroken.

I couldn’t put Coate’s book down. I learned that he was a fellow at the American Library in Paris where he wrote parts of his last book “Between the World and Me” I didn’t join the Library until after he had left France and want to turn back the clock. I feel cheated. I have watched his interviews on YouTube and his presentations at ALP. He seems a soft spoken man who is very funny and still a bit overwhelmed by his fame. He told Chris Jackson, his editor and publisher of One World books, that it felt like being hit by a Mack Truck. A Mack Truck with money but still a Mack Truck!

Coates is a man who has a lot to be angry about. But he has chosen to channel that energy into educating people like me about “Reality”. He is not surprised by a Trump presidency. I was. We Were Eight Years in Power felt like a fist to my gut. It hurt. I needed the painful punch. I didn’t choose what color my skin is anymore than Coates did. I have been fortunate. A whole class of my compatriots have not been.

If you are interested in reading The Guardian review:                                                                 https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/08/ta-nehisi-coates-our-story-is-a-tragedy-but-doesnt-depress-me-we-were-eight-years-in-power-interview

A bientôt,

Sara

 

The American Library in Paris

I had been living in Paris four months before I learned about the American Library here in Paris.  How it slipped through this book lover’s observation is a mystery.  I love libraries.  I love supporting libraries as well as not paying for my own books!

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I had met an American couple while sitting in the immigration office waiting to get my physical that would allow my one year Visa to stay in France to start up.  The three of us were the only Americans in a room packed with people.  It was the first time I realized that I, in fact, was an immigrant.  We were shuttled from room to room just like I’m sure we do in the United States.  We had a long time to talk and get to know each other.  They invited me for tea about two weeks later and told me about ALP.

It is not free to go to ALP.  There is a membership fee.  For me, a single person, it cost 90 euros a year.  It may seem like a lot when one is used to free libraries in the States.  However, this library holds the largest collection of English language books in Europe.  I love mysteries and, so far, I haven’t been disappointed when I wanted to read a mystery that I had recently heard of.  The library also provides space and advertising for book groups.  So I signed up for the Mystery Book group! Of course!

The real treat that the ALP provides for the community is author, film and art events on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.  Everyone comes to Paris.  Last month, I heard Jane Smiley talk about and read from her trilogy of the 20th Century.  Wednesday evening, just past, I saw the brand new documentary about Dr. Maya Angelou, And Still I Rise.  The reading room was overflowing with people wanting to learn more about her and many of us left with tears.

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Facebook has this post on it’s Maya Angelou Film Page:

“Today is Friday, October 14, 2016, the day that the award-winning #MayaAngelouFilm opens at select AMC Theatres across the country!! Here are the ticket and showtimes links that you’ve been waiting for. Take a friend with you to see this moving documentary. You will be inspired! #BringTissue

NEW YORK: http://bit.ly/mafnycmetro

LOS ANGELES: http://bit.ly/maflametro

SAN FRANCISCO: http://bit.ly/mafsf

Talks like these events would cost $100 or up in the Bay Area where I lived before Paris.  I consider 90 euros a bargain.

The library underwent a huge renovation and was closed from mid- May through the end of August.  It now has great security measures.  The city of Paris no longer allows a slot where one can drop books that are due.  We all got new library cards with electronic keys in them that open the doors into the library and also make taking out and returning books very easy.  Both for the reader and for the staff.

If you live in Paris, stop by the library.  Come to one of the evening events.  Look on line for more information:   americanlibraryinparis.org

If you are visiting, come to  10, rue du Général Camou 75007 Paris

See you at the library!

My Name is Lucy Barton

I wanted to read Elizabeth Strout’s latest book: My Name is Lucy Barton (Random House, New York, 2016) because I loved Olive Kittredge. I loved the book and I loved the HBO series. It was one of the first things I saw when I arrived in Paris.

I am a member of the amazing American Library in Paris which houses the largest collection of English language books on the continent. I put a Hold on Lucy Barton and then waited five months for my turn to come around.

When I picked it up, the back cover fell open to a photo of Ms. Strout. The photo is captivating. She is looking the reader right in the eye with a look of such kindness. She has a smile on her face that tells me she would be great company, someone to sit down with for a cup of tea and just talk about life. I can’t tell if her hair is blond or white or a combination of both. She has such an air of being young, approachable but full of depth – what I call experience. This photo contrasts so much with the glossy photos that often accompany action driven books. I was fairly sure just by looking at her that I would be reading a character driven novel.

My name is Lucy Barton is short, 191 pages. I read it in two sittings. Then I put the book down on the floor, sat on my couch and asked myself “how does she do that?” How does she write such simple sentences, such simple scenes and make them so full of all the pathos that makes up our lives” This book is for mothers, anyone who has a mother or has had a mother or has been a mother. This book is about relationships and marriage and children and doctors and first time loves. But it is all about Lucy Barton—how she reflects on her far past, her not so far past, her present and for a large part of the book, a hospital stay where she went for two days and stayed for nine weeks.

One morning, she woke up to find her mother sitting at the end of her bed. And this starts the story that almost every woman I know yearns for—some indication of her mother’s enduring love. Lucy calls her mother ‘mommy’. I’ve been embarrassed to say ‘mommy’ in either speech or writing since I was about fifteen years old. I had decided my mother wasn’t a mommy. If Lucy Barton’s mother was a mommy, mine was too. And just allowing the word back into my vocabulary, allows me to mourn her passing in a whole new way.

Lucy Barton was born dirt poor. She managed to leave home, go to college and live in NYC. She makes observations like: “It has been my experience throughout life that the people who have been given the most by our government—education, food, rent subsidies—are the ones who are most apt to find fault with the whole idea of government. I understand this in a way.”  And she does, it’s just an observation. One of hundreds that made me put the book in my lap for a few minutes and think.

Lucy Barton is a writer. Elizabeth Strout is an author. There are some wonderful insights into the life of an author. Are they autobiographical? I don’t know and don’t care. They speak for themselves. When Lucy attends a talk by an author she’d run into in a clothing store, some of the audience attacked her (the author) for reference to a past president. The moderator was fascinated and pushed the author, asking her how she responds “She said that she did not answer them….’It’s not my job to make readers know what’s a narrative voice and not the private view of the author,’ and that alone made me glad I had come (thought Lucy)” He pushed her some more .“He said, ‘What is your job as a writer of fiction?’ And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.”