Notre-Dame: An American Expatriate Mother’s North Star

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“Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.” Victor Hugo (1802-1885), “Les Miserables”

“Did you know the church is burning?” the long-haired French cashier at my neighborhood food cooperative tells me as I place vegetables in my backpack for our evening meal. My mind immediately flashes to the local churches. Saint-Sevérin, Saint-Étienne, Saint-Julien…There are no less than ten churches within 500 meters of my apartment in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

“Our church. Our Lady. Notre-Dame de Paris” he says, his eyes impassioned as he holds up his phone live-steaming what is happening just a few blocks away. Stunned, I quickly leave the store and run towards my apartment. When I turn the corner to the old street I live on with my young daughter Olivia, I find hundreds of others heading toward the Seine. Heart-racing and wasting no time, I rush Olivia downstairs and around the corner to a scene that feels like the end of days. Notre-Dame de Paris in flames.

I moved to Paris from New York with my daughter Olivia and our dog Henry, in the late summer 2017, just before Olivia’s eighth birthday. Olivia’s father, a famous activist for children’s rights, had died in 2013 and my marriage to a professor at Cornell University had ended. I was devastated by these two life events, and I needed an escape, to somehow create a new chapter in our lives. An opportunity to teach became available in Paris as did an apartment on a historic street next to the Seine, directly across from Notre-Dame de Paris. I leapt at the wonderful chance to create a new life for myself and my daughter. My teaching French children English and Olivia growing up in Paris and becoming fluent in French with Notre-Dame as our backyard seemed the perfect balm for our grief and my broken heart.

As American expatriates living in Paris, Notre-Dame de Paris soon became our North Star, the landmark that always showed us the direction of home. Paris is circular and can be maddeningly confusing when you have come from a city like New York which sits on a grid.

In our first months here, little Olivia and I would frequently get lost staying out too late after dark wandering through neighborhoods North of the Marais. Eventually we would become totally turned around, the IPhone battery drained after hours out in the streets of Paris. Olivia would spot the cathedral spire from whatever odd corner we found ourselves in and jump and point and exclaim, her French language emerging, “Cette direction Maman!” We would then recalibrate ourselves and find our way to the Île Saint-Louis, then the bridges to cross the Seine, and arrive home to our small, ancient flat on the Left Bank we affectionately referred to as “D’Artagnan’s Apartment”

Listening to the bells of Notre-Dame chime morning, noon and night became part of the soundtrack of our existence here, a daily lodestar of time and place in our new life living abroad. During FaceTime calls with friends and family in the United States while I cooked dinner for Olivia in our pocket-sized Paris kitchen, I would sometimes put down the phone, throw open the windows to let in the sound of the bells more fully, the smell of the Seine and the local boulangerie entering the kitchen along with the resounding vibrations from the bell tower signaling 6 p.m. and say, “Listen, do you hear that? It’s bells of Notre-Dame”

Eyes on the other end would widen. Deep sighs. Everyone I have ever met, whatever religion, non-religion, spiritual, humanist, atheist or somewhere in between, has acknowledged the undeniable power of the building and its iconic bells, which you can hear reverberating through several Paris neighborhoods on both sides of the Seine.

“This Paris kitchen is one step up from the hot plate and mini-fridge I cooked in when I lived in the dorm at CalArts,” I would say, while placing a tray of snails fresh from Normandy drenched in butter and garlic in the toaster oven, “but the ingredients are from the market on Rue Mouffetard and I’m listening to the bells of Notre-Dame while cooking for my daughter. It really doesn’t get better than this.”

Arriving at the Quai de la Tournelle we are told that up until a few minutes before heat from the flames could be felt across the river. Olivia looks at the the streams of water spraying from the hoses of the Pompiers, the Paris firefighters and says “Mommy, I don’t think they have enough water”. Indeed, as a sardonic neighborhood friend from Latvia who lives on Rue de Pontoise told me the next day “It was like the firemen were pissing in the wind and God had left the country.”

Olivia and I watched the spire fall, followed by vast plumes of yellow, gray and white smoke. Surrounded by Parisians in various states of shock and emotion, my landlord called from Italy. I tell him we are fine, but before I can get any further a weeping woman whips around and tells me to get off the phone — “S’il vous plait. Le respect.” Please. Respect.

As we finally began to settle in to our new life in Paris in the late spring of 2018 we began to have our first visits from our New York friends. By then, at eight-and-a-half, and beginning to blossom in new ways in her life in France, Olivia considered herself a “Paris Expert”. And if truth be told, she had memorized routes on Le Metro and could pronounce the the names of all the streets in our neighborhood within the 5th Arrondissement, Le Quartier Saint-Victor, long before my French became intelligible to Parisians, or my sense of direction became decent enough to travel through Paris without referring to Google Maps.

When her best friend from the West Village, Harry, came to visit us in Paris with his mother, Olivia was eager to show off the children’s park and gardens behind the spire on the East side of Notre-Dame and explore the sanctuary inside the cathedral. Once inside the cathedral it was hard to contain the two of them, a friendship fomented in mutual high levels of energy and a love of mischief. Harry’s mother and I gave them each 2 Euro coins so they could light a candle. With a touch of seriousness I said: “As you light the candle, you can each pray for someone you love or something you would like to manifest in your lives.”

I walked away for a moment, only to turn around after hearing giggling and “Shhhh!” behind me to see both children, two miniature pyromaniacs, lighting up every single votive in their section.  Without catching the attention of the Notre-Dame guards I managed to snatch away the long matchsticks and scurry the two adorable troublemakers away from the votives.

“You weren’t supposed to do that” I said.

“Why not?!” Harry exclaimed, laughing with Olivia.

“Because churches are places where we need to be quiet and respectful. And this one of the world’s great, great churches, where people come from from far-away places to pray. Tell me, what did you pray for?”

The children looked at each other, then looked at me, looked at each other again, and bellowed “Hot dogs after we leave Notre-Dame!”

And so, not a day goes by for us in Paris when we don’t take in the breathtaking grandeur and mystery of the monument. I have often thought that I will never get tired of this view and could happily gaze at this architectural marvel for the rest of my life. It is both humbling and elevating. One cannot experience it without connecting to something larger than oneself. The depth and breadth of human history.

Staring into the sacred geometry of the Rose Windows as light pours through the jewel-toned colors, a kaleidoscopic Mandala, is like gazing into a perfect version of the Universe itself. Whether believer or non-believer, that’s what the holy masterpieces art and architecture are meant to do: Elevate us from ourselves and our suffering.

We stayed outside watching the fire make its way through the cathedral until well after dark, wandering amongst groups softly singing French hymns and playing instruments, old people standing on cobble-stone streets with eyes closed in prayer, lovers holding each other tightly, priests talking to reporters and French police monitoring the scene. The crowd was dense, but it was eerily quiet given the large numbers that had gathered. Eventually we went home, to bed.

The next day we awoke to birds singing and the relief that the structure of Notre-Dame remained and that the glorious Rose Windows sustained minimal damage. Olivia took photographs as we walked to the Shakespeare and Company Bookstore café for breakfast.

We are greeted with wide eyes and astonished smiles from Richard and Eric, a pair of true bohemian expat grandpas from back in the day when the Left Bank was not ground zero for tourists, overcrowded and expensive, but the Left Bank of artists, writers and intellectuals who changed art and the way we think in the modern era. “You just lived history,” they tell a sleepy and grumpy Olivia. Richard, a Walt Whitman doppelgänger who is somewhere between 80-100 years old, tells me he didn’t go home last night, that he stayed out with the crowds until the café had opened that morning.

With his flowing white beard and wrinkled clothes, Richard says to Olivia that it may not be until she had children of her own one day that she would again have the transcendent experience of listening to a choir sing Christmas Carols inside the sanctuary as she did last Christmas, or Santa Lucia pageant, or light a candle in the Nave for her father as she did on our very first visit, but that one day, after a lot of hard work, the church would be fully restored.

As they spoke, for me, the metaphor became obvious. Like the cathedral’s interior, my heart had been burned so badly by death and divorce I thought I could not go on anymore but for my daughter. But also like the cathedral, the fundamental structure of who I was remained and had become more stronger, more powerful and more beautiful, for sustaining the damage.

And from the windows of the the Shakespeare and Company bookstore café, the view of the two North Towers of Notre-Dame de Paris remains much the same. I’m looking forward to hearing choirs sing celestial hymns inside the sanctuary one day with my grandchildren, telling them of their mother’s childhood in Paris and her first visits to Notre-Dame de Paris, when she was eight years old, riding her scooter round and round underneath statues of saints and kings outside the cathedral, lighting candles for her father, and praying for hotdogs.


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About Elizabeth English 1 Article
Elizabeth English is a writer, teacher, art curator and advocate for children’s rights. She lives in Paris with her daughter.