Grabbed my journal, rushed for the C train (Notre-Dame part 2)

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.

Almost the same spot as a photo of me (in the last blog) was taken 3 years ago.

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.

Mayor Hidalgo and signer for the deaf

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

A bientôt,

Sara

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

Remembering Rue Git-le-Coeur

Before Elodie, my downstairs neighbor, went on a rant to tell me I was once more doing something illegal, I tried to have a window garden in my apartment at Git-le-Coeur. My window was quite large and looked out over the Seine to Pont Neuf. I had an arm chair pulled close and would sit there for at least twenty minutes every morning filled with gratitude at living in this beautiful city I call home. I’m sure I didn’t need the garden but, as an adult, I have always had green things growing, something to care for. I certainly didn’t need Elodie as the Apartment Police pointing out the laws I was breaking. I want to be clear that I never set out to break the law! I didn’t know better and french administration being what it is…… It seems there truly is a law in Paris that no one can have a window garden that has the remotest chance of falling on the sidewalk and hurting someone. I can’t help but look up in my wanderings around Paris to see who is committing a window garden felony!

My apartment building on Git-le-Coeur sat on the corner of Quai des Grands Augustins. There is one apartment per floor. Elodie lives on the first floor, I lived on the second floor, the apartment on the third floor is rented by a family living in Brussels who visit Paris once every other month or so. The fourth and fifth floor is one apartment owned by Mr. and Mrs. X. Everything that happens in the building has to be voted on by the owners. Elodie and the Xs hate each other so Elodie always loses as she has one vote to the Xs two votes.

Notre Dame at sunrise

My living room was huge for a Parisian apartment. Two windows looked north, over the Seine to 36 quai des Orfèvres where the infamous Paris Homicide Unit resided until a year ago. If I leaned out one of those windows and looked right, I had a full view of Catedrale de Notre Dame. I took dozens of photos of the sun rising behind the cathedral. Once I caught a full rainbow hanging over the spires gracing a dark grey sky. It was magical.

Le Seine and Pont Neuf from my window

Two windows looked out on Git-le-Coeur, the Canadian Pub and Pont Neuf. It was this view that became my North Star for the almost three years that I lived at Git-le-Coeur. Everyone knew how I loved that view. Artist friends would draw it and give the drawings to me as presents. After Elodie and I made our peace with each other, she presented me with a copy of a painting of our building and the Seine. She had seen the painting at an Expo at the Musee d’Art Moderne although it was painted in 1904. She went to great trouble to get it copied and then had it framed for me.

Elodie is truly the only person I know who speaks no English at all. Befriending her was a challenge. She is a very bobo frenchwoman. My friend, F, says she always has her nose just slightly in the air. I decided to kill her with kindness. After the tenth leak from my bathroom down to her apartment (three happened while I lived there), I wanted to help her confront the owner of my apartment. He lives in Madrid and is a lazy owner, only wanting money and ignores all pleas to fix the many things wrong. I bought her a small present at BHV and wrote her a note saying that we would figure this out together. She melted slowly even inviting me to coffee one day. Because my french is mediocre, I would find myself avoiding opportunities to talk with her. Now that I live in the 16eme, we have developed a schedule of meeting every other week for coffee so that I can practice my french. She still plays police only now she is the Academie Police. I wrote her an e-mail this winter beginning “Salut Elodie”. When I arrived at her apartment a couple of days later, she sat me down telling me one never ever uses Salut in writing. It just isn’t done. It is for waving and greeting a friend on the street. Of course, that evening, I saw it used in writing by someone of a much younger generation.

Av. Mozart, Paris 16eme

I miss Git-le-Coeur sometimes. I love my new neighbourhood but it took months to adjust. I will dream of that large living room and my window gazing out on the Pont Neuf. Elodie tells me the apartment is still empty. Little strings get tugged in my heart but then I remember my lazy landlord, my nasty, greedy agent and think how wonderful it was to live there and that I now live in a real Parisian neighborhood.

A bientôt,

Sara