The bridges of Paris were thronged deep, not with lovers kissing, but with Parisians watching history burn. They gathered like a village would when a great person is passing by. Thousands upon thousands mourned as fire stole their history — you might have hoped that many tears could stop the flames.
The Mother of Paris is dead, and so we should all mourn. A horrific fire whipped through Notre Dame swallowing the roof, the stained glass and magnificent windows, whatever precious religious objects and paintings that could not be gotten out, and then, finally, the magnificent spire. The flying buttresses still stand, but they now house nothing. Sans pews, sans crucifix, sans silence, but still the prayers in Paris, France and the world flow to this marvelous structure that she may live if only in her stone.
She was, as is always the case with large and ancient buildings, in need of ongoing, never- ending repair. Money could not flow fast enough to keep her in trim, and it may be that the very act of repair brought her collapse.
For me, Paris will always mean Notre Dame, the mother at the heart of old France. She saw kings and emperors crowned within her walls, revolution run riot outside her walls and many years of neglect to follow that time. She survived two world wars. The Nazis did not bomb her to bits, nor did bad times of the economy take her down. She stood — and will stand — for that part of human need: contemplation and faith, with particular meaning for Catholics. She was a place that inspired the literature of Victor Hugo and gave us Esmeralda and the Hunchback.
If she is the mother, La Tour Eiffel is the wild child son. She stood in Gothic formality with the son of Paris, that tower — much despised in youth and shamed by critics only to grow old with the city and become, like the Mother, a symbol of Paris — symbolizing inventiveness and a place to gather in awe. Now the son stands intact alone.
One need not ever go to Paris to know these two characters; think “Casablanca,” Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Audrey Hepburn in “Funny Face,” “The Red Balloon” and even “Ratatouille.” Paris will steal your heart as Gene Kelly dances through it, as Julia Child in her books and TV cooking shows leads your through her Parisian training.
There is a great joy in Paris that caught me unaware on my first trip there. I had lived in New York for many years and knew it to be one of the greatest, if not THE greatest city in the world. What could Paris offer to stun a New Yorker?
Beyond wine and croissants and love there is architecture that links directly into the very being of the French history. Notre Dame was very much a part of that feeling.
Unlike St. Patrick’s in New York, the front plaza of Notre Dame gives some breathing space to take her in when first viewed, while the side streets allow you some views as you go toward the back side of the cathedral, where there is a park space where again you can take her in. All this before entering her massive doors.
The river runs near her, so she appears to be ever moving, and she changes with the light of both the sun and moon assisted by the river. Now she smolders and I imagine all of Paris inhales her smoke while they are trying to take this loss in, this change to the City of Light, this lady scarred.
I cannot imagine how the firemen felt as they struggled to contain such an inferno, all the while trying to maintain the strength and integrity of her standing walls and towers and buttresses. No, dumping a tanker full of water from planes would have likely left her in rubble; at least the bones of her still stand.
How will they rebuild? Slowly. But the history of the timbers and workmanship going back to the 1600s is lost. Identity is not something one can plaster over. Paris must mourn and find a new way to attach to this place. Slowly.
Amid a divided and hate-filled world of late, losing a calm and open mother is a hard loss. Many will come of all colors and faiths to help rebuild Notre Dame as they have come to view her and pray for hundreds of years.