When I was studying abroad in Paris the fall of 2013, I struggled to navigate the city. I wasn’t confident in my language skills and I certainly wasn’t confident in my sense of direction.
Paris was the first city I’d ever lived in. The ancient, convoluted roads still influenced the paths of modern traffic, especially in the area where my school was located, so I had to rely on following other people in my student group or doing the best I could with my Gilbert Jeune map. I learned to build in a lot of time for getting lost and retracing my steps.
The Notre Dame, Île de la Cité, and the surrounding neighborhood of the Latin Quarter became my safe harbor. With the school nearby and plenty of relatively cheap food options, my friends and I often found ourselves wandering in the area.
In the three and a half months I lived in Paris, Notre Dame became a major touchstone for me. The inside was beautiful, but it was the outside, the architecture of the cathedral that spoke to me. On days when I felt I could barely communicate, where I was hopelessly lost and disoriented, when I felt so tired of not being on familiar territory, I could return to this patch of ground and find the familiar outline of the Notre Dame’s spire, the rose window, and the towers. I wouldn’t lose my sense of direction, no matter the direction I walked along the Seine, because I could easily find the cathedral and reorient myself on the map.
I’ve since returned to Paris on two separate occasions, both for short vacations with family and friends. These new trips have afforded me the opportunity to see new areas of Paris that I simply wasn’t able to access without having a local guide (or a more experienced Paris transplant). But I still found myself wandering back to the familiar territory of the 4th arrondissement and feeling that sense of comfort and security from seeing the iconic architecture.
My mother texted me April 15th with the news that the cathedral was on fire. I was alarmed, but I thought it must have been a small fire that they were putting out. After a quick glance online though, I saw it was much worse.
The pictures were devastating. The spire had already collapsed at that point and the roof was ablaze. Smoke poured into the Paris skyline, gathering like cloying thunderclouds. As night fell in the city and the firefighters continued to battle, the images became even more wrenching, with the smoke and ash and the altered outline of the cathedral’s roof back lit by the inferno.
The rest of the afternoon, I couldn’t focus. I kept going back to read updated news reports. I reached out to friends and family. Megan and I kept sending each other updates. At one point, reports were filtering in that the firefighters were inside the cathedral, trying to put out the flames and stabilize the bell-tower; if the tower and the bells inside fell, it was anticipated the whole building would go down.
It’s hard to describe the impact of reading that sentence. I knew that the building is just a building. It’s a miracle that no one was injured by this fire or in the attempt to quell it. But there was this immense feeling of loss, like a void growing inside my chest, a mixture of panic and grief. There was nothing I could do to help in that moment. The Notre Dame would fall or it would not.
The cathedral has stood at the heart of Paris since it was built over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries. As the city grew, the Notre Dame remained. It lasted through the Dark Ages, the Enlightenment, Napoleon the French Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, the construction of the Eiffel Tower, and both World Wars, the second of which left plenty of scars on other cathedrals throughout the country. Throughout the vast majority of French and European history that we’ve been able to record and preserve, the Notre Dame was present.
Yet this sentinel of history was threatened. A building process that spanned centuries and absorbed countless lives in the funding, design, and construction could all be undone in the space of a few hours.
It was surreal. The symbol of so much effort – so much sacrifice and meaning and history and reverence – could disappear from view so easily.
And it wasn’t just me, or just those who have visited Paris and seen the cathedral in person, who were so affected. While talking to close friends, one sent me this Facebook post (a screenshot of a twitter DM) that captures some of the shared upheaval and grief.
But the news did improve. Around 500 firefighters worked to put out the fire. In the process, they saved the rose window, the organ, and all of the removable artwork and holy relics stored within. Even the bees who lived in the roof survived. Most of the roof and the two towers, along with the spire (which was added to the cathedral in the middle of the 19th century). However, reconstruction has already begun in the form of rampant fundraising and President Macron has announced a design contest for a new spire. And because of all the different forms of media and documentation that have preserved images of the Notre Dame’s interior and exterior, reconstruction can proceed quickly and accurately with an idea for what is needed.
Another close friend shared a reassuring thought – a silver lining to the chaos, fear, and loss of parts of the structure. She pointed out that architects, craftspeople, restoration specialists, and other skilled individuals will be needed to collaborate on this massive project. These people will have the opportunity to contribute to this reconstruction, which stands to be a unique and hugely significant experience. It’s a way to interact with this cathedral in a way that few have since the original structure was built over 850 years ago and the spire was added over 150 years ago. And there is the hope that with this monumental effort to repair the cathedral, modern technology and architectural innovations can be implemented to support the cathedral’s protection for the coming years.
In this way, the cathedral as a monument and connection with our past can become a part of our present consciousness. This definitive point in the Notre Dame’s history can connect us with the future generations that will be able to appreciate the cathedral in future centuries.