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As I watched flames consume the roof of the iconic Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, I thought back to my last proper trip to Paris.
It was January 2013. Paris in January is grey & empty, a far cry from the summer months when most tourists visit. I love traveling to Europe in winter. It might be colder, but the lack of other visitors opens your schedule to experience a city with no set agenda, with less time spent in queues or targeting pre-purchased entry windows. It’s a time to make decisions on the fly and get to know a city more intimately.
I stayed in an AirBnb tucked into a cozy attic near Place Monge. This was back when few people knew what AirBnb was, and the decision to stay in one didn’t come fraught with the politics of displacement, rising rents, & gentrification. After wandering through the nearby botanical gardens, I headed northwest along the Seine, turning along a bend to see the Notre-Dame Cathedral rising above the water.
I headed to Île Saint-Louis. The small island in the Seine was even more quiet than the rest of Paris. The shops & restaurants that were open had no lines & no crowds. I’d heard about Berthillon, a famous ice cream shop on the island. Despite the frigid January weather, I had a waffle cone with 3 scoops (Salted caramel, hazelnut, and Pêche de Vigne).
After enjoying my ice cream cone while noticing the judging looks from Parisians who would not have opted for a frozen snack on a blustery day, I continued walking around Île Saint-Louis. I noted a friendly-looking cheese shop that I would return to for supplies for my train journey to Nice. Crossing the Pont Saint-Louis, I was then at Notre-Dame.
I hadn’t planned on visiting. My first trip to Paris had been on a high school trip in 1997, and I had seen the great cathedral then. Since I didn’t have a ton of time on this return trip to Paris, I was trying not to go to too many spots I had been to the first time around. However, when I saw that the line to go up to the iconic roof was less than 15 minutes long, I decided I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Upon seeing the details of the structure once again, I was glad I had been fortunate to be able to get in so easily. I was filled with a more bittersweet feeling toward that fortuitous experience when I saw flames take a hold of the roof a few years later.
I’m usually not a fan of heights, but I can handle sturdy rooftops like Notre-Dame just fine. All of central Paris is laid out below you as you peek around the gargoyles. Even on a grey day, the city is still beautiful. And of course, the building itself is still the star of the show.
Back down below, I gazed up at the towering roof. Today, gaping holes have been poked in them, providing an unintended view of the heavens.
I was mesmerized by the famous Rose Windows. Thanks to the hard work of the firefighters in Paris, the windows were saved, as long as the famous bell towers, & the overall structure of Notre-Dame. Notre-Dame is an important center of history & culture, and will remain so in the future.
As bad as the damage is, so much was left intact. It’s a remarkable testament to how well it was built hundreds of years ago. It will take some time, but Notre-Dame will be restored. It will evolve to its next phase, just as it has done since its construction first started.
I find it interesting to look back on how my writing has evolved since my last visit to Notre-Dame. That 2013 trip to Europe was my first trip that I wrote about here. My idea was that I would write a summary of everything I had done each day. This, I realize now, was ludicrous for multiple reasons. First, nobody wants to read a listing of everything someone did in a particular day, unless it’s a particularly wonderful or well-focused itinerary. My posts from then are quite embarrassing, comprised of a simple recap of what I had seen & done that day, with no particular detail of what the experience was like. At this point, I hadn’t refined my process for taking notes while on the go, so I was literally doing so in the post itself each night based on what I happened to remember after some quantity of beer or wine. It’s no wonder that the experiment of writing daily about that particular day lasted perhaps a week. Some of the changes to my blog have been quick ideas that were tossed away, while others have been part of a much more incremental process that comes with learning & growing as a writer.
Whether something has been there for 800 years or six, change is inevitable. Sometimes the change is gradual, & we might not notice it without reflection. Other times everything may burn down in a flash, leaving us stunned & wondering what happened, sifting through the ashes. Either way, it’s through this process that we can properly appreciate & cherish what we have, to rebuild to something even better.
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