Notre-Dame has always been more than just a building.
It’s a cathedral, yes. But even for the non-religious, this Parisian landmark holds its own as a global icon. A beacon of history, of culture, of love.
After 8 years of studying the language, I feel just French enough to relate to the heartbreak that Paris is feeling from the fire, but I won’t dare wax poetic on the cultural institution or the long-lasting significance of this cathedral. I’m certainly not worthy.
We can only write what we know, and what I know is this: For many of us, Notre-Dame houses millions of memories. It’s the destination on a journey far from home. A whirlwind high school trip. A family vacation. The quintessential romantic getaway. That time you just needed to be alone.
If you’ve seen it yourself, then you know this, too. Admiring from the outside just won’t cut it. And so, whatever brought you there likely carried you inside, even on the stickiest summer day, when the throngs of tourists stretched all around the perimeter of the plaza. It’s worth the wait, you tell yourself. Once inside, your eyes adjust to the dank interior, and you take in the hollow coolness and peer in and out of the pews. You wander deeper into the belly of the sanctuary, losing yourself in your own thoughts. And all of a sudden, in a moment of quiet revery, you get a glimpse of the sun catching the light just right through the famous Rose Window. You gasp as you look around, wondering: “Did anyone else see that, too? It’s magical.”
Even to the uninitiated, however, Notre Dame seems to stand for something significant. Freedom, perhaps. Or even just our closest cultural tie to some other era. It’s that famous church along the river. The one with the gargoyles. That regular reference in high school literature. The place they always walk by in the movies. Maybe you’ve seen the impressionistic paintings of it in your local art museum. Maybe you’ve seen a Disney movie that features it prominently. Maybe you have a drawing of it inscribed on a knockoff purse you bought on Canal Street. Maybe all of the above. Maybe even more.
Whatever the case may be, whatever your personal history with Notre-Dame, I know this to be true:
I quite literally can’t imagine a world without it.
And for a few agonizing hours yesterday, I literally thought the world was crumbling around me, too.
“Je ne trovvve pas ma valise,” I smiled at my brother as I recited the line.
He immediately erupted in a fit of giggles. The whole notion in itself was rather absurd. That we, at ages 12 and 10 respectively, would suddenly need to utter the phrase, “I can’t find my luggage,” while wandering through the streets of Paris.
“TROUVE pas!” corrected our tutor. “The sound is oooo, not ohhhh. Try again.”
“Je ne trouuuuuuve pas,” stressed my brother, nearly choking himself on the emphasis and lower throat accent, “…ma valise.”
I snickered and kicked him under the table.
“Répétez,” we were told. “Say it again.”
And so we did.
It was of paramount importance that we tried to speak French on upcoming trip. That’s why, on a weekly basis for nearly five months, our family of four took French lessons locally to prepare as best as we could. While only a small part of our French lessons, that one basic phrase became forever ingrained in our brains.
When we eventually made the trek to Paris several months later, as our first international family vacation, this basic French phrase,”Je ne trouve pas ma valise,” joined the likes of other, pre-viral inside jokes in our family, along with things like “Je voudrais le poulet” (“I’ll have the chicken”) or “Je suis fatigué,” (“I’m tired).
We stayed in the Latin Quarter that first trip, on a tiny little side street I’ll never forget named Rue de la Harpe, where you could get a fresh baguette every morning and an accordion player every night. In retrospect, it’s exactly where they want tourists like us to spend their time — just charming enough to give off all the French vibes — yet just safe enough to let kids wander on their own to the corner bakery for croissants and café.
After yet another failed attempt to order mente (mint) ice cream (it’s pronounced “mahnte”, not “meant”), my brother and I snuck around the corner of Boulevard Saint-Michel and peeked around the corner overlooking the Seine River. Across the way, the two bell towers of Notre-Dame claimed our attention. We feasted our eyes earnestly at the whole scene in front of us: The cafes, the river, the boats, the people, the book stalls, and the cathedral.
We were far too young to appreciate what it all stood for exactly. We couldn’t quite imagine what historic events had taken place right near where we were standing, nor could we predict just how many more times already in thee next two decades of my life I’d be right back there, standing on that corner.
But we did know that it was something special.
And that we were still hungry.
“Je ne trouuuuuuuve pas ma valise,” said my brother, jabbing me in the side with his elbow.
That was my cue. We pivoted around and bolted right back to safety, down that stony street to our hotel around the corner.
I’m on the tail end of an adventure I’ll never forget.
After a summer spent living among the sunflower and lavender fields in the South of France, I was madly in love. Not with a person. With the country of France.
So far that summer, I’d pushed my own risk tolerance a bit more than usual. There was the solo trip climbing along les calanques cliffs along the Mediterranean Sea in Marseille and the whirlwind weekend visiting my former Italian pen pal, whom I’d met only once, a decade earlier.
And despite all that had happened — the camera stolen from my bag, the attempted theft from those kids outside the train station, the week I was down for the count after a microbe attacked my gut — I was dreading my return back to the U.S.
A few weeks earlier, at a hotel in the outskirts of Rome, after an evening spent out with a new band of Italian friends and far too much pasta, I stayed awake until the wee hours. Thinking. Writing. I drafted an entire email to my journalism professor back at school. “I’m not coming back,” it said. “I’ve decided to stay and live in Europe rather than finish up my senior year. Isn’t this what writing is all about? Doing things to uncover the stories?”
I never sent the email.
Just that morning, I’d been in Krakow, Poland. It was my first and only chance to really see where my family came from generations earlier. “They call it, The Paris of Poland,” my friend kept telling me. “I know you’ll love it.”
I did not love it.
For me, the framing was all wrong. There was beer when there should have been wine. Vodka when there should have been espresso. Something about the way the pale, stony streets carried themselves reminded me more of soldiers filling the streets in WWII photos than imaginary interactions with my ancestors. But I’m glad I went, even if only for the day trip I took to Auschwitz, a memory that unnerves me even to this day.
Today, however, was my last day of all. The final moment of celebration before returning back to the U.S. to kick off my senior year of college. I’d saved this last night for myself. A gift, really. One final night alone in Paris.
My plan was to spend the day at La Musee D’Orsay, then eat out somewhere nice and maybe do a little shopping at Galeries Lafayette. But then my flight from Krakow was 8 hours last and I couldn’t do any of those things.
Instead, as soon as my plane landed, I dropped my bag in my hotel room and made a beeline for the place I needed to see more than anything else: Notre-Dame.
I stood along the Seine, taking it all in. What would my family think, I wondered, knowing I am where I am today because of where we’d been 9 years earlier. Did they also each carry with them a photographic memory of these streets, of these smells? “Buy me a scarf,” my mom had asked. “From one of those vendors who sells them just around the back-side of the cathedral.”
I circled the church, not daring to take my eyes off it. It’s so much more than just a building.
I decided then and there to only allow myself to leave Europe on one condition — a promise to myself that I’d be back straightaway after senior year. That, no matter what happened with graduation and jobs and boys, I would put it all out of my periphery and I’d focus on one thing only: Getting back to France. Living there for real.
I looked back up at those spectacular buttresses, the gargoyles, the intimidating stony archways and asked for a tacit agreement in return. Notre-Dame, you’ll hold me to this, won’t you?
Hours later, I’d lose it all: My purse and passport would be stolen right out from underneath me while sitting along the Seine, and I’d spend a harrowing four hours negotiating with the Parisian police and the U.S. Embassy trying to find a way home on my flight the next day.
But at least for now, in that moment, life was everything I needed it to be.
I used to be fun
I broke my promise.
You see, the same year I fell in love with France, I’d also fallen in love with someone else: New York City.
In the end, New York not only won, but the struggle to get there drained me so clear of any financial freedom that it’d been years since I’d last left the country.
And then, in late spring of 2013, a year-and-a-half into my American urban adventure and five years from my previous trip to France, it finally happened: A work trip to Paris.
Somehow I managed to convince a few people around me that my French was good enough to pass as business French for key meetings with some customers in Paris. So I had five days, mostly to myself, over cafes and business meetings, all leading up to a big launch event for our new international rollout.
It was all perfectly mediocre. We picked all the wrong restaurants. We completely missed the mark on our launch strategy. I spent a humiliating afternoon doing my best to convey the importance of our product to a conference of French developers who couldn’t be bothered. I had to user in near strangers off the street to our party just to cover the minimum price we’d negotiated for our bar tab.
Late that night, I was pretty miserable. For reasons unclear to me, we’d all decided to stay at a hole-in-the-wall hotel along the canal in the 10th, a neighborhood far from where I’d ever claim to be home.
So after our last round of red wine at dinner, after we’d all turned in for the night, I went back out and hailed myself a taxi.
“Take me to Notre-Dame,” I asked him in French.
“Where?” he responded in English. I cringed a little inside.
“Notre-Dame,” I repeated, slouching more deeply into my seat. Clearly my French could use some work.
When we arrived, it was late on a Friday night, and there were a few groups of kids lingering around, drinking wine right out of the bottle. It was chillier than I wanted it to be for a late night in May, but I tightened up my trench coat and sat down, taking in the stony facade around me.
Didn’t I used to be fun? I asked myself. Didn’t I used to have adventures, too? Is this the way I thought I’d see this beautiful building again? Was this the dream?
Some of the group to my right started to sing softly to themselves. I used to sing like this, I thought. If I’d spent the last five years of my life here, rather than in the U.S., maybe I’d know those songs too. I watched them fumble over the words and giggle.
One of them shouted something to me, then gestured to his wine.
“No, no, I’m good,” I replied. The memory of my last night alone in Paris, which also started with drinking alone the Seine with strangers, still stung a little too deep. I smiled to know at least that my passport was tucked away in my hotel room safe.
“We aren’t bothering you, are we, madame?” he asked again.
“No, I enjoy the music,” I said. “I even know a few French songs myself.”
“Oh yeah?” they challenged, clearly interested now. “Like what?”
“Well, you may think this is funny, but my favorite one to sing is La Marseillaise,” I said, referring to the jubilant and rowdy national anthem.
The group doubled over in laughter. “You? An American?? You know the Marseillaise?”
I sighed to myself. If only they knew how, years before, I’d traveled the streets of Paris on video, singing the song with strangers on Bastille Day. Or how, in the south, I’d single-handedly rallied an entire bar to sing it along with me on a late summer night. To say I have a history with that song would be an understatement.
I nodded. “Mais oui” I said, egging them on now. “Of course I know that song. How could I not?”
They leaned in a little bit closer. “Okay, so prove it then,” they challenged.
“Alone? No way,” I told them. “I need backup. I’ll sing it, but I need you to sing with me. Deal?”
The group exchanged glances and little micro-nods of approval. “I don’t know all the words,” whispered one girl. They passed the wine to her, and I kicked us off.
“Allons enfants d’la patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé.” (Let’s go, children of the fatherland, the day of glory has arrived.)
Their eyes widened when they realized I’d held my own at the bargain, and the rest of the group doubled on board.
You can’t sing the Marseillaise quietly. It’s a song meant to be sung as a shout, not a whisper. There are a few moments when you must be standing, when you must wave your fist in the air triumphantly.
And so, as our volume grew with each subsequent verse, the whispers of conversations in other groups around us dwindled to silence. From the far corner of the plaza, another small cluster joined forces with us, fueling the fire in our sailor’s song.
By the end, we were so loud that I worried we might attract the attention of any nearby policemen. Each line bounced off the back-side of Notre-Dame, reverberating against the stone and echoing even louder than before. I smiled a little, so sure that this was hardly the first, nor the last time that this cathedral had supported the national anthem like this. I imagined rallies long before ours, or late-night student demonstrations, or even soldiers cheering at the end of a war, rallying around the city’s greatest treasure, all singing along.
It was nearly 1 a.m. in Paris, and I finally felt just a little bit back at home.
My boyfriend had still never been to France.
This would certainly be a major obstacle if our relationship were to continue. So he opted for the most prudent choice possible: He traveled with me to France, and then he proposed.
Then, in the same cafe in the South of France where, years earlier, I’d rallied the entire bar to stand on tables and sing La Marseillaise with me, my new fiancé and I planned our wedding. We planned it in secret. The first rule of our engagement, we decided, was that we’d tell no one. For now at least, for this one glorious week in France, we’d be secretly engaged.
“Très romantique,” you might say.
On our final night in France (which we also spent in Paris), I decided to take Jason down along the Seine with me. While he’d certainly enjoyed the food and wine on our trip so far, France hadn’t taken him in immediately as it had done for me. Streets felt unnecessarily circuitous, restaurants bizarrely inefficiently. Things that struck me as “charmant” struck him as simply, odd.
I don’t know why I was expected anything different. Love doesn’t happen overnight, after all. And he didn’t speak the language, nor did he carry any of the history.
I handed him a bottle of wine and we headed down to the river.
“Is this allowed?” he asked.
“I mean, I’m not really sure, to be honest. But everybody does it.”
He grimaced a little bit, but obliged anyway.
We found our way to a quiet stretch and perched on a couple of stones as we opened up the bottle and drank right out of it. Around us, dozens of pockets of people surrounded us, each carrying their own bottles. And maybe a little cheese.
It was dark all around us, but of course, Notre-Dame lit the way from across the river in the distance. From our vantage point, it looked more like a castle than a church. We admired the buttresses, that tall, wooden spire, and the two bridges that flanked it on either side.
“Come on, let’s walk a little,” I encouraged.
We held hands and strolled along the Seine, pausing here and there to take in the view. As we approached the cathedral, the crowds thickened a little, and we noticed a group of 40 or so people crowded around the stairs on the other side of the river.
“Let’s go over there,” I pointed. We crossed over the bridge and approached the large group, who had all gathered around a guitar player, gently playing cover songs while everyone else quietly whispered around him.
I wriggled my way in between two people and we wedged ourselves onto a step, then sat down with our wine. He started his next cover: “Titanium” by David Guetta. It was an easy rendition, and acoustic, of course, made all the more endearing by the fact that the singer pronounced titanium as “tit-ann-ee-um” rather than “tie-tay-nee-um,” as we do here.
Behind the singer, Notre-Dame’s two bell towers stood in clear view. There may have been no better place to be in the world at that very moment.
Jason looked at me and held my hand, eyes watering a little. “I get it now,” he said. I snuggled myself against him a little more closely.
“Je ne trouve pas ma valise,” I whispered under my breath, smiling to myself.
“What’s that?” asked Jason.
“It means I love you.”