When I got the news, I felt queasy. My sister texted me about the fire at Notre Dame just before noon on Monday.
It’s hard to see this as anything other than a cultural and historic tragedy of epic proportions. Notre Dame is not just a beautiful work of gothic architecture – it is a one-stop historical experience. The cathedral and surrounding areas have so many layers of historic significance (some reaching back to the middle ages). It’s the tourist equivalent of visiting every single significant location in Washington D.C., all at once – somehow crammed into the same tiny space.
Work on the structure started in 1163 and was completed almost 200 years later. It is visited by around 13 million people a year. It has always been a big deal.
My one pilgrimage to France was in 1999. I had just finished my Masters exams at Cal State Fullerton and left the country before the results had time to arrive in the mail. So I basically took off for a foreign country without knowing whether I had earned my degree. And this was no joke. CSUF at the time let you take the tests twice. If you failed both times you were out of luck – even if all your coursework was complete. As mine was. This was my first stab at the two-part exam but I really wanted to get it right the first time.
After a scary (to me) flight during which I was afraid I would die without ever finding out my exam results, I landed in France with my family. This was in the days before everything on earth was on the internet, so I was waiting for an actual letter in the mail. A friend was designated to check the mailbox and call me when the results were in.
The second day of our trip he called. I passed both sections. After checking out the Eiffel Tower (bedecked with a millennium clock marking the countdown to the year 2000) we had a glass of wine to celebrate. The next day, my dad and I toured Paris in one of those big red tour buses. I sat up in front and put my feet on the dashboards. It is one of my favorite memories. I was blissfully relieved and the city was blissfully beautiful.
At the appropriate stop we got out to check out Notre Dame. It was at that time also being worked on but the beautiful architectural lines were still evident. It was surrounded by a huge crowd, including beggars and others down on their luck. Despite this, there was a feeling of immense peace. Even the beggars seemed peaceful. I made a mental note that if I ever wind up totally down on my luck it would be good to do it in France, so I could at least hang around Notre Dame.
Inside it was also crowded. There was a mass going on, which caused my father to nudge me because I was apparently so happy I was talking way too loudly.
It was beautiful. I took photos of the stained glass, the architecture, the gargoyles. I bought a charm in the gift shop like one my aunt brought me back when I was a child.
I lit a candle in gratitude for passing my exams. I was raised Catholic and it came all came back to me at that moment. Overall, the cathedral had a feeling of holiness and peace. From the people there was total reverent respect. (The only other place I have felt anything like this, in a heavy irony, was in front of Grauman’s/Mann’s/TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood. I was standing in the middle of a crowd of European tourists and they were absolutely awed by our movie star footprints. Their respectful silence reminded me of my impression of Notre Dame. Strange, but I guess its good to know our country and our state are appreciated.)
I made a promise to myself to return to Notre Dame someday and take in an actual mass. My mom and I were actually talking about it recently.
And then this fire. Even with all the horrible news emanating from the world of late, this one sucker-punched me in the gut. It is painful to look at the same rooms I photographed so lovingly now full of the aftermath of a horrible fire – trash and burned debris beneath the stained glass.
As I write this on Tuesday, the news is not all bad. The spire and much of the roof is gone, but the main structure of the cathedral still stands. French president Emmanuel Macron has vowed to rebuild, hopefully within five years. It may be corny to say, but I hope this tragedy can bring people together in the effort to reconstruct.
So there is hope. Five years. Maybe I can get back there by then.
– Jessica Weston is an award-winning columnist and the city editor for The Daily Independent. She can be reached at email@example.com
The views expressed are those of the columnist and do not necessarily represent the official stance of the Daily Independent.