“Notre Dame is burning.”
The words tumbled from my mom’s mouth the second she walked into the house. I think my first reaction was a smile, or maybe a shake of the head. It was a sentence laden with news so improbable that I didn’t believe it. Just three weeks ago, I’d seen its majestic stone facade rising up above swarms of tourists. Just six years ago, blue banners hung in the cathedral’s square proudly announced its 850th anniversary. Later that day I wrote:
My favorite part of the climb [up the towers] is seeing the slightly morbid gargoyles that glare out over Paris. Some are so startlingly frozen in mid-snarl, you can’t help but think that when you turn around, they come to life. They were placed on the rooftop to guard against evil, and considering this cathedral has lasted so long, I think they’ve done a marvelous job.
Then, I turned on the news discovering, to my horror, that the impossible words were true. I watched as the flames stampeded across the medieval roof. I watched as pictures of shocked tourists and Parisians flooded social media. I watched and wondered where their protection had failed. Had 850 years of survival tricked them into letting their guard down? It certainly did for me.
I exchanged a couple somber messages with a college friend and fellow French major. Our disbelief was shared. Some others, who knew of my relationship with Paris, sent their assurances that the outcome of the fire, plastered consistently across my tv screen, couldn’t possibly be as awful as it looked. Even those who usually didn’t give Notre Dame a second thought seemed aware of a melancholy that clamped down on so many hearts regardless of distance. It was a comment from such a friend on the outside of the situation that kept replaying in my head:
I don’t think I’ve ever lost a place that was really important to me, and I wouldn’t want that to happen to anyone.
As I watched the fire consume the cathedral’s spire and pull it out of sight, I realized that loss was exactly what I was witnessing. Obvious was the history, so carefully preserved and appreciated. Less obvious was where I placed myself in the picture. What is it that truly ties someone to a place? I can say from experience that it’s rarely a simple answer.
I can’t deny the influence of my studies, or my appreciation of art and architecture. Yet, as is often the case, memory is the strongest anchor. Just over a decade ago, I gazed up in awe at those iconic bell towers, and quickly added the moment to the list of reasons of why I fell in love with the city around it. Later, I returned time and again, with more family in tow, even one year attending Christmas mass. At 18, I documented that 850th anniversary with my camera. At 22, I expected to see it as I emerged from the bowels of the Paris metro on my way to school during a semester abroad. One dose of Notre Dame is never enough.
Because of this, I believe a traveler’s heart is truly a Frankensteinian creation. For each city one falls in love with and must leave, it cracks and heals in a different place. What remains is a mosaic of failed love affairs held together with a longing to return. Peek under my skin, and it’s easy to tell which piece belongs to Paris. It’s the largest, and fixed to the rest of my heart with the deepest seam.
I’m guilty of relying too deeply on the consistancy of this wonderful heartache, so when the landscape irreversably changes, the magnitude of its effect is undeniable. The aftermath of this tragedy has since revealed many silver linings. Some of those earlier assumptions were true. The damage isn’t as extensive as the size of the fire suggested. Much of what I assumed would be lost managed to remain: the altar, the rose window, and even the gargoyles.
It’s like thinking you’ve said goodbye to someone you loved forever, only to see them again years later; a little patched up, a little older, but above all, still the same.
I look forward to that day.