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Notre-Dame, a Cathedral of Imagination and Memory

Category: Europe,World

The last time I took a good look at Notre-Dame was on a cold, rainy, early morning this past winter when I took the almost-empty Metro to the Prefecture de Police, Paris’s main police station, to collect my new 10-year residence card, my third. I stared up at the two Gothic towers of the facade and remembered the first time I’d ever seen this place, on a hot August afternoon when I was a 15-year-old boy on my first visit to Paris with my family. The city’s sensuality taunted me during our stay, seducing me with pleasures I didn’t completely understand and which were just out of reach.

After a month of traveling in Europe with my mother and brothers, I was frankly weary of visiting churches. I’d had my fill of their big gloomy paintings, those alarming bits and pieces of saints known as relics, and the slightly melancholy smell of candle wax, the eternal scent of the hope found in faith. But on that bright day, this cathedral was different from the others, because it moved me, and not so much in terms of faith, as far as my adolescent mind had any ability to grapple with that concept, but as a place that would come to anchor a dream.

I had fallen hard for Paris, and Notre-Dame, the heart of the city I’d become besotted with, offered hope that — even if I was from Connecticut — maybe one day I, too, could become a Parisian. There was something in the mesmerizing light of the sun streaming through the exultant kaleidoscope of stained glass that made me believe this might just be possible. Sixteen years later, I heaved my big tweed-sided suitcase onto a platform at the Gare du Nord after a long three-part (train, boat, train) journey from London, where I’d been living, and began my new life in Paris.

My first apartment was near the Sorbonne on the Left Bank, and so Notre-Dame amazed me anew every day as I walked to and from work at an office near the Place de la Concorde. The cathedral became a fixture of my daily life. Miraculously, I wasn’t a tourist anymore, but a fledgling Parisian. ALEXANDER LOBRANO

[Alexander Lobrano recently wrote about the affordable dining renaissance happening in Paris.]

I was visiting Paris on Sept. 11, 2001. It’s hard to describe how incomprehensible it was to return to a hotel room at the end of the day, blithely unaware, and see the images of destruction flicker across the TV screen. When I finally understood what had happened, it still didn’t make sense.

So it was yesterday, as I fielded texts, watched video clips, and stared at photos, goose bumps rising on my arms. How could Notre-Dame be on fire? How could history be crumbling before our eyes? Once again, it didn’t make sense.

When I lived in Paris, eight years after that 2001 visit, Notre-Dame was naturally on my circuit to take visiting friends and family. With my mother and stepfather, my nephew and niece, my four best friends from high school, I went. We admired the stained glass, climbed the towers, took countless photos. Each time, I had that sense of pride you get when you show something off that you really have nothing to do with.

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