The day Notre Dame burned, I had three weeks left studying abroad in Europe. I woke up from a nap after a final presentation and scrolled through my Instagram. A friend I had met in Stockholm was in Paris for the weekend, and she posted a picture of the Parisian skyline suffocated with dark smoke.
It was 6:20 p.m. I quickly began to research what was happening at the cathedral. At first, I thought it might have been another Yellow Vest stunt. I discovered that the cathedral had been burning since 5:50 p.m. and fire responders had yet to arrive at Ile de la Cité when I started watching live stream coverage.
I watch the spire collapse live. As the flames burned away 856 years of human and Christian history until nightfall, I cried for the cathedral and the people of France.
During my semester abroad, I have been torn between wanting to experience Europe as a tourist and as a local. The two move through spaces differently, and I am usually only in continental Europe for short weekend trips. I want to have genuine experiences while I travel, and sometimes that means passing by Notre Dame on a cloudy afternoon with no intention of going inside because there’s something new to explore. That’s what I did during my first day in Paris in January. As Paris veterans, my mother and I lodged nearby and admired the great Christmas displays outside Notre Dame in passing, but we decided not to enter the church on this short trip. We had been in several times before.
I remember thinking that must be what locals did. Europeans must just pass by these grand monuments on their commutes home or nights on the town. Why would you stop and marvel when you passed it by every day on the way to the cafe?
I seemed to have romanticized the privilege of being a local. I associated localism with ignoring the top ten sights or tourist traps. My experience living in London doesn’t include frequent trips to see Big Ben or Buckingham Palace, but now I wonder if I am being naive to think we will have these places forever.
I am grateful to have entered the cathedral several times in the past and to have studied French Gothic architecture. I can’t help but kick myself for not entering this January. I am not in Europe for much longer, and I am trying to resolve myself to the fact that I can’t do it all. It’s hard to feel content in not seeing everything when one of the most significant architectural monuments in the world burns on a live Twitter stream.
Our Lady of Paris lived through the French Revolution and two World Wars, and I thought I’d see her around longer. I have learned to be more appreciative with my time abroad. These places and moments may be fleeting when faced with the enormity of time, whether or not they have violent ends.