Notre Dame on Fire


It’s been a scant three weeks since Notre-Dame de Paris’ devastating fire. And, it is still on everyone’s mind. By the time this is posted, perhaps the authorities will have agreed on the cause of the fire which at present appears to be either faulty electrical wiring in the spire or cigarette-smoking construction workers. While that is being debated, what is for certain is the controversy on several issues the disaster has sparked in France and elsewhere. One positive outcome, however, as my spinning pal Lita ironically noticed, is that the world is focusing on what transpired in Paris rather than just on its own political and socio-economic travails.   

An American perspective

With Notre-Dame’s eventual restoration top of mind, I asked several Francophile friends their reaction to the fire and what France’s cherished monument meant to them as Americans.

Karen Brosius, executive director of C-Cap, responded “I felt such despair in seeing it thoughts and prayers went right to all the brave firefighters who were risking their own lives to save the cathedral's destiny.”

Jean Rice, a French high school teacher and devout Catholic, had this to say. “On first learning of this devastating news my heart went out to all of France and Catholics around the world.  It was at Notre-Dame that the emperor Napoleon was crowned and Jeanne d’ Arc was beatified; the monumental history of this sacred place is beyond comprehension. I, like so many others in France, cried when I first saw the footage of the roof burning.”

More than a devastating fire

Wine writer Marguerite Thomas emailed me an emotionally personal response—including a brief history lesson—which merits being included here in its entirety:

Like so many other people I spent much of that afternoon glued to MSNBC and weeping as I watched the flames devour Notre Dame. Like many of you, I make it a point to drop in for a quick visit to the cathedral every year when I am in Paris. Although my own beliefs are more along the lines of secular humanism than traditional religion, you don’t need religiosity to respond to that sense of awe and mystery that the grand old cathedral evokes.

A lot of human emotion has poured into this spot. Long before Christianity arrived, and even before the Romans got here, a group of Celtic fishermen happened to stop off on this island in the middle of the Seine.  Since their encampment proved to offer a good defensive position against rival tribes they decided to stay, naming the settlement Lutèce, after themselves (if you’ve ever noticed the sailing vessel depicted on the City of Paris’ coat of arms, it is there as a tribute to those first Parisians).

On a personal level, on April 15th I grieved not only for what seemed the likely demise of Paris’ 856-year-old landmark but also, in a mysterious way, for my own youth. Having spent most of my childhood in Paris, Notre-Dame was as familiar a sight to me as any of the city’s monuments. In an era before crowds of tourists swarmed over Paris, I used to roller skate in the vast space in front of Notre Dame’s two bell towers. I attended weddings and funerals in the cathedral, and I played tour-guide there to scores of visiting American friends and family. Like most French kids at the time, I revered Victor Hugo’s “Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

As many people have observed, the main character of Hugo’s masterpiece is not really Quasimodo, but rather the cathedral itself. ‘Great edifices, like great mountains, are the work of centuries,’ Hugo wrote about Notre Dame.

The cathedral has been subjected to untold numbers of physical traumas at various times in her long life. Fortunately for all who love this great edifice she has survived this latest trauma. She will never be quite the same again—but as has happened before, she is still standing, and perhaps after the restorations she will be better than ever.

The world rushes to help

It is remarkable that within two days of the fire’s outbreak nearly $1 billion dollars was raised from around the world to help pay for its restoration.  At the same time, this generosity has been a lightning rod for France’s yellow vests.  In particular, the populist movement resents the money offered by France’s wealthy—including, luxury conglomerate heads, Bernard Arnault of LVMH and François Henri Pinault of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent.  People question why this money shouldn’t be used instead for better housing and education.  The anger of the working class has been further enflamed when the French benefactors asked for tax concessions for their generous donations.

A national debate on how to use millions of Euros

Another challenge confronting France’s government is what to do with the structural safety of their older churches throughout the country. Should a secular country spend billions of Euros restoring these sacred symbols or use it for enhancing the lives of the needy in France?  The choice is not an easy one to make as no country, ours included, has limitless financial resources.

Meanwhile, as President Macron grapples with managing the political dilemmas at home while also over-seeing the rebuilding of Notre-Dame, the rest of the world watches. On our side of the ocean the proverbial question of the entitled rich versus the resentful working class is rising to the surface here too. For example, just the other day the New York Times ran an article covering the resentment of the general public to large corporations’ tax-free advantages. Unless you are a titan of industry, you probably feel some of the same anger.  

Do philanthropists have hidden agendas?

Discussing the money raised for Notre-Dame’s restoration has also ignited criticism of our own country’s wealthy philanthropists. We question their motives.  Are they hiding behind the shame for their excessive, perhaps ill-gotten profits?  Is their apparent generosity really a smoke screen for a questionable, private agenda? The effusive Koch brothers—who’ve branded their names like cattle on medical and cultural institutions everywhere—are popular targets in this debate.

In all fairness, though, is this really the time to be cynical about altruism? In my opinion, it is more a moment to reflect on the cathedral’s iconic stature and what is symbolizes.  Maybe this is why it has become a magnet of humanity and why we are all so moved by the fire’s tragic destruction

My love affair with a our Lady of Paris

Notre-Dame’s breath-taking magnificence has charmed me for decades just as it has for many other generations before me. My first encounter occurred back in the late ‘50s. One summer when we were living in Brussels, my father drove the family to Paris for our annual vacation. As an eleven-year-old, my recollections of that early trip included: strolling around Montmartre eating garlicy hot dogs smothered  in fire-hot mustard jammed into chucks of baguette; surviving multiple, panic-induced whirls around the Arc de Triomphe; and then, climbing up and down all 387-steps of Notre-Dame’s bell tower.

The only thing I wanted to buy with my allowance on that trip was a souvenir gargoyle which I proudly displayed with my international doll collection back home in my Brussels’ bedroom.  The doll collection disappeared at some point, but the grotesque gargoyle followed me to college then, ultimately found its way on a bookshelf during my first marriage.

Fast forward and I now own a pied à terre in Paris’ Marais district. In less than 30 minutes, I’m at Notre-Dame’s front door. And, like Marguerite, whenever I am in Paris, I visit the cathedral. In fact, it is part of my daily morning run. By 8 am I am heading to Place des Vosges where I take the locals’ short cut through Hôtel de Sully. From there, I traverse the medieval section of the neighborhood and make a B-line to the Seine. Crossing over the Pont Louis Phillipe onto L’Ile St. Louis, I hang a sharp right, walk a few blocks then traverse a second bridge connecting with L’Ile de la Cité. And, there she stands in all her majesty, Notre-Dame de Paris. My favorite way to access the cathedral’s front portal is through the small garden which hugs the back of the church and then continues up along the Seine River side.   

The most visited cathedral in the world

As one of France’s greatest triumphs in architecture, it is impossible not to marvel at this grand structure. I am drawn to Notre Dame’s dramatic flying buttresses knowing that they were built to accommodate the innovative high walls and soaring nave of the church’s “new” Gothic design. Then, there are the water spouts masquerading as scary gargoyles which always give me joy to rediscover. From the garden it is also easy to admire the slender, copper angels dancing up the side of the spire while blowing their trumpets. Luckily, at the time of the fire the stunning angles had already been removed as part of the current renovation project and thus, avoided being destroyed along with the spire and wooden roof.

On one of my last trips to Paris, Notre-Dame was on my schedule to visit, not just as a runner this time, but rather as an admiring tourist. My friend Joan Brower and I had tickets for an evening’s organ concert of classical music. Seeing the light at dusk piercing through the kaleidoscope of rich cobalt blue and red colors in the stained-glass windows literally took our breath away.  Then, hearing Bach played on the 7,800-pipe organ with the cathedral’s famous acoustics reverberating through our bodies left us spell bound.  

A time to reflect

Now when I think back to that moment, no one could have ever foreseen the terroir of the fire nor the impact it has had on the world.  Despite France being such a secular nation, Notre-Dame had brought its country’s citizens and international community together.  How the government handles the cathedral’s restoration, along with its political and socio-economic implications, will be another matter. What it critical, however, is a universal desire to bring back the grandeur of Notre Dame de Paris, our lady of Paris, meaning everyone’s, not just France’s. We will patiently wait to see what the next ten years brings and whether President Macron can meet his ambitious promise of reconstruction. All politics aside, the world wishes him Bonne Chance!