“the essence of Paris is lost if seen through the double glazing of a hotel room or from the top of a tour bus. You must be on foot, with chilled hands thrust into your pockets, scarf wrapped round your throat, and thoughts of a hot café crème in your imagination. It made the difference between simply being present and being there.”
― The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris
I have been in love with Paris, ever since she fell in love with me.
We love each other still. It is a passion ill described to aptly motivate the wordsmith to capture the heart of it all. What was before a dream, visions and points of exquisite reference, become a sanctuary, a finding of self and many, many walks through her streets by day, by night, but always by way of the heart.
In the last decade in particular, I have to Paris more times than I can remember, but remember each visit as if it were the first, the only and the necessity of it. And like my mother, Notre Dame was always there, a fixed mark, a point of direction, a comfort at first sighting.
When she burned last night, I felt my heart melting.
We were not exactly friends, the Lady and I. The more I became accustomed to Paris, the more I felt at home, the less I wanted to intrude – for so many thousands did. The last time I entered, I left vexed, annoyed at the multitudes who paid not homage, but interest and photographed and instagrammed as they edged at a pace of a glacier, one tourist after the other, mystified at the enormity of her cavern, oblivious to the sense of her religiousness. It was not the place for me to light candles for my family, or sit and be calm, and pray. It was a spectacle and I found many other beautiful churches to be still in, in Paris. Yet she was always there.
She is always there. And the burning, the terror of losing hope and today, finding all is not lost, is the spirit reborn. I think she sort of had enough of the circus, in a way. Sort of looked around, touched the gargoyles and fundaments and said, I need cleansing of all this parading and useless reverence. I need to burn to be born again, to remind all that I am a holy place. I am the stuff of Victor Hugo, legends and fortitude. That will not change, but may become a place of peace again.
So when I went to Paris, when I go to Paris, it is to walk by her side. In Spring, to see the cherry trees, so often captured, and I thank Georgianna Lane and her book ‘Paris in Bloom’ that I love more when walking past the Notre Dame in Spring. The pictures capture the essence of Notre Dame at her prettiest season. I walk past the side of the church, to where the children play, and onward to the Ile Saint-Louis, behind the Notre Dame, to my favourite restaurant to view her magnificence from what I believe, is her best view. Quiet view. Reverent view. The view of a church still holy and the architecture of her 13th Century workmanship, best admired. And she is still there. Like the spirit of my mother, like the spirit of Hemingway’s Paris, like the romance and loveliness of a city that looks to her for validation of beauty.
When Notre Dame caught flame last night, the world wept. And for a moment, came together in that weeping. United in grief and disbelief. History was falling into the flames, and losing history that speaks of all of life before, is so very sad. We need the stories to help us understand, to give us a place in the universe, to allow us to take notes for ourselves and give a sense of purpose. There are many instances when history is being wiped out, change comes too fast, but we can only learn to move forward when we look back, and in that falling spire, we lost the lives of those who built her. But we will find them again.
I love her most in the winter. When the skies are grey and austere but the season of reflection and comfort, with a scarf around my neck, walking the city and knowing she is there. When Christmas lights come early in the darkness and the city moves around her. I love her most then when she is pale and comforting.
And I pray for Our Lady. For our Notre Dame. To bring once more the magnificent of workmanship, or dedication to religion and the love of the world. To be a beacon of light in the city of lights and light up for generations who need to see her, hear her stories and again, be the fixed point for those, like me, who find her, always in Paris.