Watching videos of the fire at Notre-Dame a few weeks ago, I was struck by so much emotion. I wasn’t alone — the crowds of people gathering along the river in Paris and updating their screens across the world all felt it too: the magnetic importance of this place in their life, even though most French people aren’t religious. There are some places that have a sense of stability, of grounding and centering. As much as things in our life might change and as much as we might change, there is the impression that these special places will always stay the same, connecting the present to the past.
I moved several times in adolescence, and then moved between cities and to different apartments for many years of university and graduate school. Now being back in Boston, I have lived in one place for several years, and it has felt so nice, and still a little bit novel.
I think partly because of the transient nature of my own living situation, I have felt attached to a few select places in the world that combine that sense of wonder and permanence. One of these was the front porch at my grandmother and grandfather’s beach house. Looking out onto Hull Bay, the majesty of the ocean and the sunset was apparent. The view and sounds of the waves breaking and buoys clinking connected me to my childhood. It was a place I could still feel my grandparents’ presence, and feel a link to the little-girl me, and thus was so much more special than ‘just’ a porch.
Notre-Dame, too, inspires a sense of awe. Not of nature, but of the artistry and craftsmanship of the people of the past, and the sense that the lives of Parisians centered around this building on an island at the literal center of the city’s geography for centuries. The archaeologist in me (my past career) loves the thought that these people, whose lives were so different and yet so similar to my own, had essentially the same view of this building as they went about their lives. Some of them may have sat in that very same park behind the flying buttresses where I have sat so many times, looking up at these arches and the sky beyond.
I spent the last few months of high school in Paris. My school had a program where students could finish senior year with an internship instead of regular classes, and so I lived with another classmate in Paris and worked for a relative who is an art restorator. (High school me, working on a restoration below!)
When we weren’t working, we wandered the streets just soaking ourselves in the city, a little delirious with the freedom of living on our own. To get credit for school, I had arranged to write a paper about the experience and also put together a photo essay, and almost every other photo I took with my dad’s hand-me-down manual camera has Notre-Dame in it.
The tree in the image on the left is just behind the cathedral. It’s branches dipped gracefully into the Seine below, and it was our habit to walk to Île de la Cité and then across the bridge to Île Saint-Louis, get an ice cream cone at the famed Berthillon, and eat it along the river facing this tree and the back of the cathedral behind it. When the old tree was eventually cut down, people threw flowers on the spot for years: I wasn’t the only one that had this as a special spot. Even in these private traditions, I was linked to so many others.
Years later, Dan and I lived in Paris for a while, and again our walks would so often involve a circle around this heart of the city. We took Serena there on a visit to Paris as a baby, already creating a link between her young life and this place. As the plans to restore and rebuild come into view, I hope Notre-Dame can continue to exert its magnetic force and wonder for the future.
Do you have a place that has been special for you in a similar way? We would love to hear about it!