I was younger than 10 when I formed my first conscious memory of the Notre Dame cathedral. Along with a few friends and some adult supervisors, I walked around this marvel of French Gothic architecture, clutching a paper quiz, scribbling down answers as we went. It was either a school trip or a Bible study trip (given the rather strict, relatively speaking, separation of church and state in France, the latter seems more likely). One of the questions went something like this: “One of the gargoyles looks like a Pokémon. Can you tell which one?”
Of course, I’d been aware of the existence of the cathedral before then. Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame came out when I was five years old, introducing my generation to the tale of Quasimodo and Esmeralda – and alerting our brains to the existence of a certain Victor Hugo, though his oeuvre wouldn’t play a prominent part in our lives until high school. But that day – the day of the quiz, the day of the Pokémon gargoyle – was the first time I truly paid attention to the building itself. It was the first time I dedicated any thought to the stones laid there some eight centuries prior, to the delicate stained-glass windows, and to the cathedral’s two front towers, an indelible part of the Paris skyline. That moment stuck in my mind today as videos hit my desk showing the same structure ablaze, devastated by a raging fire that started on Monday evening.
It’s hard to overstate the prominence of Notre Dame in the French psyche. My generation (by which I mean those born in the early nineties) will remember a musical called Notre Dame de Paris, released in 1998. Based on Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, it premiered 18 years after Les Misérables – and promptly eclipsed it, at least for us millennials. (One of the most famous songs from the musical is called “Le Temps des Cathédrales”, which translates to ”The Era of the Cathedrals”. It made me laugh when I was a child because 1) the tune is notoriously hard to sing and 2) one of the lines predicts that “the end of the world is planned for the year 2000”, which was very topical so close to the turn of the millennium.)
There were songs, novels and poems. There was this sentence from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame: “Every part, every stone of this venerable monument is a page not only of the history of the country, but of that of science and art.” Mostly, there was the building that inspired it all, which as far as we were concerned had always been there and would remain forever.
After news of the fire broke, French people filled Twitter with messages of despair, sorrow, and most of all hopelessness. Some referred to Notre Dame as “family”. Loved ones messaged me to commiserate, as if I had lost a relative. There is a general feeling of grief, one that is hard to process because it isn’t clear what, exactly, we’re grieving for: a building, the idea of a building, centuries of history, the irreplaceable spire that collapsed in one of the most dramatic videos of the blaze so far, or something else entirely?
No one ever expected to have to grieve for Notre Dame. The cathedral was there well before us, and it was supposed to keep existing, preferably forever and if not, at least until the end of the world. It was there when I was a child looking for fictional creatures amid its spires; it was there when I was a teenager, studying at an exam prep centre just a few metres away from its walls; it was there when I attended a service as a young reporter because I wanted to find out whether Notre Dame was still a place of worship in addition to its landmark status (it was).
It was there when I took my husband, a New York native, to my hometown. It was there when I left Paris. It was there every time I returned and it was there when I saw it last, and I want to gently kick myself in the shins now because I didn’t look at it long enough, I didn’t stop to take it all in, I didn’t admire it as much as I should have and now I’ve run out of time.
We just weren’t ready to say goodbye. Notre Dame was like air, like the ocean, like mathematics: unquestionable, universal, and one of the few things we thought we could take for granted. We were wrong. Having to say goodbye – and a horrible goodbye at that – feels like another painful blow for Europeans when so many other things we thought were for certain have started slipping through our fingers.