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It’s only a building.
Then why are we so profoundly affected by the burning of the Notre Dame? In retrospect, the outcome is better than expected – the main facade and towers are still standing, most of the artwork and relics were saved, and the rose windows are all intact.
There are significantly worse events in the world right now – war, famine, illness, and mass destruction. Yet, the Notre Dame hits a chord. It’s the personal connection – knowing that even when it is rebuilt, it will never be the same. Knowing that I’ve been able to experience this piece of history, and I am only just a speck in its 850-year story.
I’ve been to Paris four times – 2010, 2013, 2015, and 2018. And each time I went, there was a common factor – a visit to the Notre Dame. A couple of times I went to the top and was awarded with stunning views of Paris. Another time, I walked by it quickly, snapping a few photos before moving along. But my favorite memory? A midnight stroll through Paris, experiencing the stillness of the Notre Dame at night.
I arrived late to Paris and didn’t reach our Airbnb until well after 11:00 pm. I was meeting a group of fellow expats/bloggers for the weekend and most of them were already in their pajamas by the time I arrived. Starving, Margo (from the Overseas Escape) suggested we grab some dinner at a small, hole-in-the-wall restaurant down the street. We stayed there for a while – drinking wine, eating, and catching up on life. By the time dinner finished, it was well after midnight and we were exhausted. Yet, when Margo suggested we head down to the Seine, I didn’t hesitate at all. Our journey took us straight to the Notre Dame and we had the entire square almost entirely to ourselves.
That’s the Notre Dame I absolutely loved – the quiet, unassuming Notre Dame that still had such a profound appearance. I’m forever grateful that Margo convinced me to go for that nighttime walk, and that she snapped these photos of me right in front of the Notre Dame.
When the fire initially started, my family’s group chat went crazy with questions and comments – sharing news articles and trying to figure out exactly what was happening. But then the conversation morphed into why we were so affected by this. I mean, at the end of the day, it’s only a building. As so many people have pointed out on social media after the fact, there’s destruction of cultural sites every day. I think my sister summed it up perfect:
“I think it’s because once it’s gone, it’s gone. It just becomes a story after that. Eventually, hundreds of years down the line, it could lose its impact and people could stop telling the story.”
That, to me, perfectly expresses why something like the Notre Dame is so profound. I spent the entire evening watching the news and reading articles, feeling absolutely gutted with the biggest knot in my stomach. The Prince told me I had to stop reading the news and watching videos because it wasn’t going to make it any better for me. I ended up waking up at 3:00 am and the first thing I saw on the news? The cross still standing by the altar. Chills down my spine. I’m quite religious and to have this happen during Holy Week was even more impactful.
The Notre Dame will be rebuilt, just like it has been many times before. Most forget that this building has changed, evolved, and been rebuilt several times before. It probably won’t be exactly the same but then again, time isn’t static and it shouldn’t be built the same.
Lastly, as an American with a deep connection to 9/11 and having lived in Washington, D.C. during the attacks, it brings back memories. When I saw the spire fall, it momentarily gave me flashbacks to watching the Twin Towers fall. But after the towers fell, the country rallied around a common purpose, the One World Trade Center was built, and life continued. France will rally – it’s always rallied in times of war, destruction, and sorrow.
It’s only a building.
But at the end of the day, the Notre Dame is not just a building – it’s history, it’s culture, it’s stories, it’s a symbol of a nation. And it reminds us that nothing lasts forever.