When Notre Dame Burned

Paris is always moving, except when Notre Dame is burning down.

When Notre Dame started burning, I was in Théâtre de Poche, a tiny little theater whose entrance was hidden in an alley next to Boulevard de Montparnasse. I was struggling to glean any hint I could from an actor’s body language and wild facial expressions, because I certainly wasn’t getting enough from his words to understand what was going on. Almost a month in Paris, and though I would certainly consider myself conversational, an emotionally charged French play filled with obscure cultural references was still beyond me.

As soon as the play ended, I heard it: phones blowing up.

My own, registering unread messages from people I seldom spoke with. How strange, was my first thought. How strange that they would all think to contact me now, when I was abroad and almost certainly had nothing to do with their lives.

Then I heard the other students on my French program talking behind me: a fire. Notre Dame is burning down. Can you believe it?

I was stunned.

We’d just visited the famed cathedral the week before, standing before its entrance with our art history professor as he informed us of the cathedral’s origins. He’d told us about monks trekking across France to come to Notre Dame and pointed out the carving of Saint Denis on the door. How can you tell it’s him? Because, according to the story, he was beheaded beforehand and came to Notre Dame carrying his own head.

We quickly exited the theater and headed towards Notre Dame. Figuring correctly that the metro station would probably be closed, we decided to walk there, hurrying through the streets to see the famed cathedral. We were joking about being some of the last people to ever see it intact with its beautiful rose window and interior wooden furnishings, but in between our chuckles was sorrow for this beautiful building. Sorrow and fear.

When we got there, we saw that the entire entryway leading to the bridge had been closed off.

We could see the cathedral only from a distance. Even so, even shrouded in the smoke that gently rose up around it, it was extremely visible due to the orange glow coming from inside the building.

At first, I felt relief as I saw that the front of the cathedral seemed generally intact. But then, moving deeper into a crowd of somber viewers, I saw the burning behind the front wall.

It was as I stood inside this crowd that I suddenly thought that until then, Paris had always been moving.

Since I’d arrived, it’d been in motion. The first day, at the train station, people bustling around, getting into their taxis and Ubers. Every day since, the rush to the metro, the rush to get off at the appropriate stops, going into cafes for a sip and seeing the waiters hurriedly bustling around, feeling guilty to be sitting there for longer than it would take to gulp down your coffee.

Whether at seven or two in the morning, Paris was always moving. In fact, the only time I’d ever felt alone in Paris was when I stood still. For then I realized that everyone else was going somewhere and it was only me who wasn’t.

Tonight, in that crowd of viewers, there was no more noise, no more movement.

Around me, people stood close together, not shoving each other, not trying to get closer. It wasn’t a spectacle we were witnessing, but a tragedy. People stood close, immobile, just watching, not even turning to talk their neighbors or trying to get closer to the cathedral.

For our part, my friends from the study abroad program and I just stood there silently, forgetting to guard our bags against the pickpockets we’d been warned of, watching the fire. I guess we were each trying to remember everything that we’d seen the week before, and feeling a bit frustrated and guilty when we couldn’t.

People were gathered on the bridge, on the street, all along the sidewalk leading up to the bridge. The French were singing ‘Ave Maria,’ singing it repeatedly so that I only knew after they’d gone through it three times where it started and where it ended. The sorrow in their quiet voices made me want to be quiet, out of reverence. I have no idea what this building represented to them—I am only an inhabitant of their city, I’ve only visited it with great attention once in my life.

Everywhere I saw people standing shoulder to shoulder taking pictures. But it wasn’t out of malice or disregard for what was happening in front of them. It was to send to family and friends, to tell disbelieving people far away that this was, indeed, happening. Before their eyes, a beloved landmark was being destroyed from the inside out.

I can’t believe that I was there to see the destruction of a centuries-old monument, and one of the most famous buildings in all of France, likely second only to the Eiffel tower.

I have heard mixed reports all night on the damage done to this church, but I fear that the beautiful interior I saw last week is no longer there.

I’m thinking now about younger generations who will never go inside and see what I saw. I’m praying that the famous rose window stays intact – so many things that are hyped up fail to live up to even a fraction of their promise, but that window, when the light shines through it, could make an atheist believe in God.

Tomorrow, it will rain in Paris, as the sky weeps for the most famous church in the world.

Juliann Li is a second-year student at Dartmouth College, passionate about International politics, racial disparity, and traveling! She is currently studying French in Paris and writes about especially moving experiences from the unique perspective of someone who is not quite a local, but certainly not a tourist. She loves sharing about her travels and hopes to provide genuine insight that will move and influence others.

See Juliann Li's Articles