This week, all of us have been riveted by the tragic fire at Notre Dame. We were in a small town in New Hampshire, grabbing a quick bite, when we saw the horrible images on a muted TV in the corner. All eyes were glued to the set, watching in horror. I started receiving texts from family members who wanted to make sure I knew what was going on, knowing my deep love for Paris. The outpouring of pledges to rebuild the great cathedral from people, great and small, from all over the world showed that Notre Dame is more than just a building in France. It truly is a piece of the world’s heritage.
The first time I went to Paris, we took the train from the airport to the center of Paris. The station we were to get out at was Saint-Michel – Notre-Dame. We didn’t really give a great deal of thought to the name, at most supposing that the cathedral was somewhere in the vicinity. When we came up out of the ground, we found that we were directly opposite those two great towers. We couldn’t quite believe our eyes. It was a stunning first introduction to Paris.
On that trip, after visiting the interior and marveling over the rose windows, we queued up to visit the towers and get a closer look at the gargoyles and chimera. Our daughter was just nine and it was hard for her to wait in the sun. The line used to cross in front of the church, instead of running down the side, as in recent years. I suggested that our daughter have a seat in one of the niches on the facade while we waited and we’d call her to join us when we got closer. She gladly took me up on that and promptly lost herself in her game of trying to figure out how to get from one place to the next using the Paris A -Z booklet (a pre-Google maps relic). I took advantage of the moment to take a photo of her. I knew it was going to be a terrific picture. It was in the day of film cameras, so I had to curb my impatience to see the picture until I could get back home and have it developed. It was worth the wait. That picture remains my favorite one I ever took.
Over the years, I visited Notre Dame many times, sometimes by myself, sometimes with students. I took dozens more photos. When our daughter moved to Paris during her Junior of university, she rented a tiny apartment just steps from Notre Dame. The great gothic cathedral was an inextricable part of our visits to Paris. If this horrible event has shown us anything, it is the fragility of our collective patrimoine culturel (pat-ree-mwahn kool-toor-ell), or “cultural heritage.” Coincidentally, this was one of the vocab words for my French IV class this week. They had no trouble remembering it when the quiz came.
It remains to be seen how Notre Dame will be rebuilt. Will it be close to identical? Will some of the rather preposterous design proposals I’ve seen be accepted? One proposed a spire that looked like a meteorite had landed on the roof. Please not that one! So, go visit a place you’ve been putting off seeing until “someday” or revisit a place that has a special place in your heart. Carpe diem!