I began scrolling back through the photos on my computer to look for Notre-Dame. I knew there were going to be a bunch, but I was almost surprised at how many. Actually, I began laughing when more and more appeared. It seems that I not only spend a lot of time walking by Notre-Dame whenever I’m in Paris, but that I take a few photos each time, too.
Then I dug through my old photo albums, the thick and heavy ones I somehow managed to cart back from France after my junior year abroad. Page by page I searched through the photos and it seems that this habit is nothing new; it appears that I took a photo nearly every time I passed by Notre-Dame back then, too.
I might have 100 photos of the cathedral from at least a dozen trips to Paris, between the years 2000 to 2019.
Readers here have probably noticed how much I love Paris, but I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned that it all starts with Notre-Dame.
When it was time to pick a language in 7th grade, I listed French as my first choice, and I got into the class. I can’t remember exactly why I wanted to learn French, and not Spanish or German, only that I was certain that it was my top choice. I remember that hanging on the wall in the classroom was a poster of Notre-Dame, and sometimes during class I’d stare at it. In fact, that poster might have been the best thing about 7th (and 8th) grade French class; learning French was hard. Really hard.
But I continued with it through three years of high school, quitting after my junior year and vowing that I’d never study the language again. I’d put in my time, I’d tried, but understanding French eluded me.
What did pique my interest in those days was art and art history. I took drawing and painting and photography and I wasn’t very good at any of them (I think I got better at photography later), but I realized that one of my favorite parts of art class were the days when we had art history lessons. During my junior year I also took a Humanities course, and I chose to write about Notre-Dame for one of our papers (I also got to ponder the meaning of life through a paper on Siddhartha, analyzed the lyrics of Eleanor Rigby, and delivered a persuasive speech from the point of view of Scarlett O’Hara. That was a great class).
When I got to college I had to take one language class, and I tested into an intermediate level French course. Recalling my middle school and high school misery, I poured every bit of effort I had into that class, not wanting French to be the downfall of my college years.
It’d be nice to say that all my effort paid off and I could finally understanding French, but that’s not exactly what happened. The effort did pay off in that it gained the appreciation of my professor, a notoriously tough instructor who either loved you or hated you, and graded accordingly. She decided she loved me, and all but forced me to apply to spend my junior year studying in Toulouse, France. (This might be a bit of an exaggeration, but I remember parts of our conversation about my future, and hearing her say, “You do want to see France, don’t you?”)
Spending that year abroad was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was both wonderful and really tough. Sometimes I hear of my peers’ experiences in study abroad programs around that time, and they often involve tales of communal apartment living and lots of alcohol and late nights and a generally carefree life. My program, on the other hand, was rigorous. The philosophy was for students to become immersed in French culture and life. During that year, I often felt that the expectation was for me to ‘become French’, and I struggled with this quite a bit. I lived with a host family and took third-year level art history courses at a French university, with French students. Even when around my American peers in the program, we were strongly encouraged to speak in French, and our wonderful director could be very stern if he heard us speaking English.
My French wasn’t great when I arrived in Toulouse, and it was a shock to be whisked away by my host family and only understand about a third of what was going on at any given time. Much of the first few months of life in France were like that, and rather than becoming French, I think I spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant to be American, and missing my family back home.
But even though these first few months were difficult, there were these amazing moments sprinkled throughout, probably several amazing moments every day that made the challenge worth it. I was living in France, buying baguettes and riding a bike and finding the quickest route into the city center. I was meeting up with my friends and trying different restaurants every night, and learning how to like coffee, and how to tolerate wine. I was learning how to communicate, too, how to understand more and more every day. I was learning how to be part of a different culture.
But more than those smaller moments, it was the promise of Paris that got me through those first two months. As a group we’d taken a few small, local day trips around the region, but the big Paris trip wasn’t until the end of October, nearly two months after we’d arrived in France. I’d been counting down the days, so anxious to just be in Paris. Paris was the reason I’d continued making the effort to learn French, it was the biggest reason I’d decided to study abroad, at the time it was the place I wanted to travel to the most (it’s probably still the place I want to travel to the most, if I’m being honest).
We arrived in Paris after a very turbulent flight, immediately getting on the RER and somehow ending up underground in the Louvre (my memory may be totally wrong here, but I remember taking a tour of the Louvre before even breathing Paris air). The trip was a tightly organized affair, with something scheduled nearly every hour. From the Louvre we went to our hostel and had about 30 minutes until we had to meet downstairs for dinner.
I looked the map I had carefully folded and put in my purse. I saw that our hostel was nearly in the very center of the city, and very, very close to Notre-Dame.
“Does anyone want to go out real quick and find Notre-Dame?” I was sharing the hostel room with 5 of my friends, and two of them agreed to come with me.
We went outside and for the one of the first times in France, I felt giddy, and free. We bent our heads over our maps and wound through the streets and headed over a bridge and one of my friends said, “I can see part of the cathedral!”
I put my head down, covered my eyes, and my friends grabbed onto my arms. “We’ll tell you when to look up!” they said.
We stopped walking, they gave me the signal, and I raised my head.
We were standing at the back of Notre-Dame, the part of the cathedral that had long fascinated me: those flying buttresses and the small round windows, all underneath a wooden roof and an impossibly tall spire.
I looked at Notre-Dame and immediately spun around. It was so beautiful that I had to look away.
I have felt that way every single time I see the cathedral. When I arrive in Paris, I often stay in the same hostel that our group stayed in on that first trip to Paris. I walk the same route to the Île Saint-Louis, I put my head down when the spire first appears, and then raise my head to take it in all at once. It is almost always the first thing I do when I’m in the city, and I don’t feel like I’m in Paris until I’ve seen Notre-Dame.
On that first trip, Notre-Dame gave me something. It gave me peace and comfort, and more than anything, a feeling that I belonged. That I belonged there, standing underneath the buttresses. That I belonged there, in Paris. That I belonged there, an American in France. Notre-Dame belongs to so many people, and it also belongs to me. I’ve always felt that it’s my special place in this world, a place that I can always go back to.
Last summer, I had a picnic along the Seine with three of my La Muse friends, and we chose a spot not far from Notre-Dame. We sat and laughed and ate and drank, and I remember sitting back as the sun set, thinking, “I can always come back here. Notre-Dame will always be here.” I took a silly picture, a selfie, angling the camera so that a blurry Notre-Dame was just visible in the background. I wanted to remember the pure joy of that moment: a picnic with friends along the Seine, underneath a setting sun, Notre-Dame looming in the background, reminding me that it would always be there for me.
I was in Paris in February, just for a long-weekend trip. I’d found a cheap flight and I remembered what I had told myself the year before, and perhaps every year since I first went to Paris in 2000. “It’s there, waiting for you.” I wasn’t staying in my hostel this time, but in an Airbnb apartment in the 12th arrondissement, the furthest from the center I’d ever stayed. It was strange, arriving in Paris to a place I wasn’t familiar with. Arriving and not seeing Notre-Dame right away.
But after settling into my room I set back out, walking block after block, the Seine on my left, the Bastille on my right. I passed through the Marais, walked down the street past my hostel, over the bridge and onto the Île Saint-Louis and there was Notre-Dame, lit up by the setting sun. I was late to meet my friend, because I couldn’t pull myself away. That golden light, that beautiful cathedral, right where I’d left it.
When I heard, on Monday, that it was burning and that the spire had fallen, I was sitting on an outdoor deck of a restaurant in Key Largo with my sister. I’m pretty sure I made a scene. I felt frantic: scrolling through my phone, texting and messaging people, reading the news. Inside, in the bar, we watched a television broadcast that showed the cathedral on fire. I had to walk away, to be present with where I was and who I was with, but there was a pit in my stomach all day long. I felt like I was holding my breath. And it wasn’t until I learned that much of the cathedral had been saved that I felt like I could exhale.
It’s still there. It’s different, it’s not what it used to be, it’s not whole. But it’s still there.
I had to write about Notre-Dame, if only to share some part of what it means to me, to add my own story to all the others. It’s about what is lost, about art and history and religion and faith and the story of a nation, but it’s in the individual stories, too. Notre-Dame is the center of Paris, but in some ways, it’s my own center, my center when I’m on my own and out in the world, totally unsure of myself, trying to find my place.
Notre-Dame became my place.