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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.

Notre Dame via Wayfaring With WagnerThere 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.Notre Dame via Wayfaring With WagnerNotre Dame via Wayfaring With Wagner

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.

Notre Dame via Wayfaring With Wagner
Notre Dame via Wayfaring With Wagner

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.”

Notre Dame via Wayfaring With WagnerNotre Dame via Wayfaring With WagnerNotre Dame via Wayfaring With Wagner

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.

Notre Dame via Wayfaring With Wagner

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.

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. #France #Paris #NotreDame

6 Comments

  1. Ruth M. Wagner-Belisle Reply

    I devoured this wonderful article…and the pictures, Jordan. Your insight (and that of your sister) into the “why” is fascinating. You are an amazing young woman, and it’s obvious that all your travels have truly shaped the person you are today. Love you very much.

  2. This was a ncie read. I especially liked that you made the comment and rather obvious one, that it’s a personal connection to MANY people. That element is lost on others who look at it as “just a building”.
    But we as humans have this incredible tenacity to rebuild and treasure and learn from our past.
    Thanks for sharing Jordan!

  3. Caroline Reay Reply

    Shocking to see the difference in the reaction to this and the burning of Grenfell Tower…where people suffered and died

    • I personally saw it all over the news and had friends donate/volunteer. Even months after Grenfell, it was still getting publicity. I think the hard part is there wasn’t necessarily a personal connection for a lot of people outside of the UK whereas the Notre Dame does have a personal connection (hard to compare a residential building to an international landmark in terms of international news). I’m not saying that the reaction to Grenfell was correct but it’s the personal connection that makes people want to donate. It’s hard and inappropriate to tell people where to donate money – it’s their money. So if they want to donate to the Notre Dame, Grenfell, or a local sports club, there is no justification needed. The issue is, people are making it into who’s more “ethical” and “moral,” and it isn’t comparable.

  4. I found you via a pin and am so thankful I did! As the world watched in horror as Notre Dame burned, the only thing I could do was to write my own tribute between my tears. It truly is so much more than a building and looking back, I will always cherish the time that my husband and I got to spend with her. I loved reading your words and how you captured Notre Dame so beautifully.

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