I first visited Europe in 2002 when I was 39, and Paris was one of the first cities I visited, and Notre-Dame was the first landmark my friend Joan I went to. It was my intro to the city. I wrote about it back then, thinking I would write more about the trip but never did.
Here's what I remember: Even though it was April, the line to go up the tower was long, so Joan and I spelled each other by checking out the inside of the cathedral. At one point, I chatted up a woman in line, who was pretty, from Sweden, and had a boyfriend. Two out of three. Joan, a platonic friend, had a Flat Stanley she was carting around Europe for a daughter's friend. This was the rest:
The early April sun was hot enough that we were grateful when the line reached the shade of the Cathedral, and, after several more pauses, we finally began to climb the stairwell, which, to my delight, was circular and cramped, with stone steps worn smooth, and with a slight indent in the middle from all the feet pounding up it over the centuries. Even better was emerging onto a walkway outside, 46 meters above the ground, called the chimeras gallery because of the famous stone gargoyles there watching over (or dismissing) the city. While construction on the cathedral had begun in 1163 and wasn't completed until 1245, the gargoyles weren't added until the 19th century, when, in the wake of Victor Hugo's novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the cathedral had been renovated by architects Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc. The latter designed the chimeras. A wire fence separated us from them, but we managed to take a few pictures of ourselves, and Flat Stanley, with these guys, surely what Viollet-le-Duc had in mind all along. The stryga, a winged demon with hands on face, is perhaps the most famous, but I was drawn to one creature gnawing the head off a smaller one. What truly astonished, though, was the view to the east, over the remainder of the cathedral. The immensity and detail were both astounding, and couldn't be captured by my sad point-and-shoot camera. The zoom couldn't zoom in far enough to capture the detail, and I couldn't stand back far enough to include the tower's immensity.
A huge fire, its plumes of smoke reminiscent of the twin towers on 9/11, tore through Notre-Dame yesterday, destroying the wood ceiling and spire; the remainder is “structurally sound,” according to reports. I'm half a world away, with no rights in this matter, as Roethke wrote, but felt nothing but sadness all day. Today, too. And tomorrow. On social media, people are posting happy pictures in front of the cathedral, and on top of it, and reminiscing, as I'm doing here. There's not much else to do.