The French Ambassador to Washington when describing his reaction mentioned how he walked past Notre-Dame daily. This detail reflects something of the nature of shock and how it’s experienced. After the massacre at The Bataclan I also held onto this kind of reaction (I kept thinking about how I had seen a show there just weeks before, in the same place where so many were killed).
But it also says something about the way Notre-Dame is seen by people living in Paris. It is part of the landscape, albeit an essential part – remember that all distances begin there.
I have been inside Notre-Dame only a few times. (The last visit turned me off, it was jammed with tourists, filming or taking photos on their phones. It’s always surprised me how laidback the French are about the impact of mass tourism on places of enormous cultural significance, it’s almost as if they accept the influx in certain places if other places are “spared”. Thirteen million people visited Notre-Dame each year. Place du Tertre in Montmartre, a square with low-rise buildings near Sacré-Coeur where Picasso, Modigliani and Utrillo lived and Renoir had a studio is similar in this regard. Today it’s unvisitable, so crowded with people you can hardly move around, a kind of Disneyfied hell-hole with men in berets offering to draw you as a cartoon figure, spruiking their talents in multiple languages).
Notre-Dame was - is - the background to parts of my life here: a place I saw when doing other things in my day-to-day, when getting out at Saint-Michel, or buying books at Gibert Jeune. A place I walked past, and met friends nearby.
But it also has deep spiritual and emotional importance in Paris - for Parisians and French people in general - that’s hard to express. Speaking about it with my son, trying to find the words, I said that the fire bothered me more than if the Sydney Opera House had similarly been damaged. Quick as a flash, the soon to be 13 year-old replied, “That’s because you’re from Melbourne.” (Okay).
Outside the mildly humorous competition between France’s two richest men to out-donate each other, in the words of The Guardian’s Aditya Chakrabortty –
“In three days, the cathedral has been pledged €100m (£86m) from Francois-Henri Pinault, the ultimate owner of Gucci and Yves Saint Laurent; €200m (£172m) from the Arnault family of Louis Vuitton fame; another €200m from L’Oreal owners the Bettencourt Meyers family, and €100 from French oil giant Total.”
… some aspects of the Notre-Dame story are particularly touching. The Fire Brigade chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier who insisted on entering the cathedral with the firefighters - the heat of the fire reached 800C - and helped salvage the crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ. Fournier was also present during the aftermath of the massacre at The Bataclan in 2015, comforting the injured and praying over the dead.
And then the work of the firefighters themselves, who symbolise Paris in a way that isn’t duplicated to the same degree, to my knowledge, elsewhere (seen jogging in groups in shorts throughout the city, selling tickets to the annual ball outside the various Town Halls). It came down to 15-30 minutes between the total building’s destruction. All focus was on ensuring that the fire didn’t reach the gothic bell towers, where one of the bells - the 13 tonne Emmanuel bell - could have sent the towers crashing down.
These videos, too, I find deeply moving, of people coming together spontaneously to sing and pray, while watching the fire. Some with tears in their eyes.