When Notre-Dame burned, we watched helplessly. The fire went from what seemed to be a containable problem to a column of bright destructive rage, like something directly from Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris.
For 850 years, Notre-Dame had watched over Paris as the city sprawled across the fields and across the ages, past the original medieval walls, through dynasties and revolutions and presidencies and wars, and now, it seemed, Notre-Dame would fall.
The world’s response to the fire was immediate, overflowing, and significant. Social media became a photo gallery of Notre-Dame, with people across the globe expressing their love for the cathedral and grief over such profound loss.
It is difficult to explain why the response was the way it was. The story of the world’s relationship with Notre-Dame is a story of personal, individual experiences, not a collective one, so I can only speak for myself.
For myself, I grew up in Southeast Texas on the Louisiana border. Like many in that part of the world, a major branch of my family tree is French but I had no reason to expect that I would ever spend any time in France.
I grew up in a world of petroleum refineries, alligators, and football games. Except for a few vestiges of Cajun French culture, I was about as far from France as one could get.
Then, in total surprise to myself, and like so many Americans, I found my way to France. It took a lot of paperwork, planning, and time, but once I got there it felt like destiny, like I had always been there, would always be there, and would never find a reason to leave. I stayed for two years.
The first time I saw Notre-Dame, it was a quiet, clear morning, light still hanging onto the darkness, mist and pigeons and the scent of baked bread all spinning together in the newness of dawn.
The square in front of Notre-Dame was nearly empty. I passed through the doors, beneath the stern watch of gargoyles and saints, and I looked up and saw what seemed to be largest room in the world.
How could such a majestic, precise, artful, mighty work have been put together from stone, by hand? Every surface, every painting, even the air seemed to contain the voices of the artisans, priests, sinners, soldiers, and saints that had walked her halls.
Those long-ago dead left a piece of themselves in those columns, in that stone. Notre-Dame was alive that day, very much haunted by the very best kinds of ghosts. I knew that I was standing on sacred ground, not because a religion said so, but because of the sacrifice that made it so.
I was permanently changed by that experience, as if Notre-Dame placed a stamp upon my heart’s passport; each successive visit has only increased my wonder. Notre-Dame is both real and unreal, tangible and fantasy, like it is made from both watercolor and stone.
I look at Notre-Dame from the vantage of Today, but the cathedral looks back from 1482. I think a small piece of me always expects to see Quasimodo lurking behind the columns of the bell towers.
Next year, I’ll be publishing a children’s book called The Girl and the Cathedral, that attempts to illustrate the history and story of Notre-Dame.
With such a broad subject, it is easy to get overwhelmed by the expanse of it, as well as it is easy to get lost in the details. In thinking about how I wanted to tell this story, I kept going back to the idea that the story of Notre-Dame is not the history of a building – it is the story of a people, and those people know Notre-Dame individually and personally.
Accordingly, the story is of a small, mysterious little girl who plants a garden, and out of that garden grows Paris, and chief among the flowers of her garden is Notre-Dame.
We watch the little girl love and cultivate her garden, and worry over the growth of Notre-Dame, even as Notre-Dame watches over Paris through to the modern age. Above all, the purpose of the story is to provide a vehicle for each reader to place themselves in the story of Notre-Dame; each of us is literally a part of the legend.
Because, ultimately, my experience is not unique.
People loved Notre-Dame before me and they will, thankfully, be able to continue to do so long after me. Each of us has been marked by the cathedral. From wherever we visit, we bring Notre-Dame home with us, and leave a piece of ourselves in return – It’s a supremely unfair trade, but also a wonderful one.
Nicolas Jeter lived and worked in Paris for several years and now lives in Texas. The Girl and the Cathedral will be published on April 15th 2020, the first anniversary of the Notre-Dame fire. More information can be found here.