Notre Dame is the daily intelligence test for the newly arrived in Paris. Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. No matter how lost you get or how poor your sense of direction, locate either one and you’re probably not going to die of starvation or be eaten by the Parisian wolves.
“Meet me at Notre Dame. We’ll start from there.”
How many times have people said that? Done that? Notre Dame is Go on the Monopoly board.
If you’ve been to Paris, you may have skipped a chocolate shop or two, walked by but not in the Louvre but most people have had their Notre Dame moment. Visiting Notre Dame is like touching the rock at the turnaround point on a long run.
“When Katie and I came to Paris for the first time, that’s the first place I took her,” said my wife, Sue. “Same with the boys and you too, and I tell people who are visiting the same.”
It’s the one place you can take jaded teenagers and have them look up at the flying buttresses, gargoyles, pointed arches and stained glass and make them forget about the injustice of having to travel to a foreign country with their parents. Everybody — teenager or otherwise — thinks the same thing: “How in the … did they build that?”
When you’re looking up, it pays to keep your hands in your pockets because a Notre Dame moment might include getting pickpocketed or at the very least, panhandled. However, pickpocketed or panhandled, Notre Dame is worth it.
Notre Dame is more than a moment, a meeting place and cautionary tail on how to hold on to your wallet. If there was a question about it being the heart and soul of France and an important part of the collective imagination of people across the world, note the billion dollars that has been raised thus far to repair the 856-year-old cathedral that burned Monday night. Raised and they weren’t trying. No one has even sent a letter or licked a stamp yet.
How often do you have a front seat on history?
Earlier this week, Sue had another Notre Dame moment, this one including watching the cathedral burn. She was visiting the city with her sister, Judy, and her cousin’s wife, Trish.
Three hours before the fire started, Sue was eating a crepe filled with Nutella made by a street vendor. If you're going to have a crepe, Notre Dame is the perfect place to do it. Notre Dame makes crepes taste better and a warm crepe filled with Nutella tastes pretty good to begin with.
Three hours later, the stream of photos and texts began. I couldn’t believe it (how does stone burn?) and I’m not sure too many people could either. Notre Dame has survived wars, winters and people and looks as impregnable as the Wall in “Game of Thrones” was before facing an ice dragon.
Five hundred firefighters knocked down the blaze (turns out there was half a medieval forest’s worth of beams inside Notre Dame), saved the cathedral, the rose windows, the Crown of Thorns and the Tunic of St. Louis.
“Sunrise the morning after,” Sue wrote the next morning. “The bell towers still stand, the buttresses remain and breakfast at Cafe St. Regis seemed like the right thing to do.”
Like most Parisians or would-be Parisians, the way to deal with sorrow and trauma is to eat, and if it’s past 11, drink a glass of champagne.
Given the expert that I am, it will take years for Notre Dame to be rebuilt — the wood and stones have to dry, they have to figure out how to rebuild and with what. There aren’t many 50-acre forests around with 300-year-old trees (the alternative is “engineered beams fused from layers of wood”) and the damp walls may “rupture” the stone and compromise its strength.
Burned, bowed and broken, Notre Dame will still be “Go,” friend to the newly arrived and a meeting place for the easily confused. People will have their Notre Dame moment as this two-headed phoenix rises slowly from the ashes. We can drink to that.