Learn more about these participatory stories here and read the first story, revolving around the Eiffel Tower, at this link, the second story taking place at Musée d’Orsay here and the third story at the Palais-Royal and the Galerie Vivienne here. I’ve also brought together some interesting lesser known historic facts on the cathedral in this article here.
I first decided on choosing Notre-Dame from the list of suggestions because the anniversary of the tragic fire which hit it was coming, on April 15th. Therefore, the story would pay tribute to it.
Upon hearing about the theme, my talented photographer friend Renée Jacobs reached out with the above photo. The woman’s gaze captivated me and she features in our story. Renée Kindly let me use the photo to represent the story. She also has a B&B in the southwest of France, La Maison de Reves, where she does photo workshops and co-directs the wonderful initiative Photo de Femmes, a non-profit photo festival focused on promoting empowering images of women.
Throughout the week Dave Walton, Janet Conroy, Carola Elsner, Pamela Medley and Jeanie Meyer all shared their memories and comments about Notre Dame, highlighting its towers, the feelings and emotions the cathedral evokes for them, and then sadly also the fire.
I’d like to give two other special mentions. Firstly to Evelyne Rose who suggested that the story take a spiritual angle and then to Katrin Holt Dubreuil for provided some very fitting Biblical Passages that corresponded to the theme of Hope. She shares funny and insightful tales on her blog Le Mot Juste.
Lastly, I changed the style a little this time and wrote it in the first person. However, I’d like to emphasize that this is a work of fiction.
Our next story is going to take us to the offbeat neighborhood of Belleville… and involve some romance! Stay tune for it next Sunday!
There’s Only One Paris – Our Lady of Hope: Notre Dame
I distinctly remember my first trip to Paris. I was ten. It was my first trip, well, anywhere outside of our city, outside of our country. It was my first time on an airplane. The first time my palate was treated to different flavors, my first croissant, my first baguette, my first mousse au chocolat, so thick my spoon could stand straight up in the bowl without falling over. While the whole trip was memorable, there’s this one memory that was forever etched on my mind.
I thought we’d never reach the top. Around each bend were more stairs, and more and more! Come on, Daniela! my father cheered me on. We’re almost there! My whole body was trembling by the time I placed my foot on that last step, however, the sight there before my eyes made it shake even more. Clinging to the corners of the stone balustrade were monsters, one more terrifying than the next. A burly dog with the head of a wild boar about to release a vicious bark. A scaly dragon on the verge of spitting out a deadly gust of fire. A half-goat half-human figure with pointy horns spying down on the plaza below. I tightened the grip on my father’s arm. He gave me a reassuring pat on the head. Then suddenly, amidst these ferocious faces, appeared an angelic one, right next to the gigantic bird, leaning down with its open beak, ready to bite her head off. But she was not afraid. She just stared at me, through the protective metal barrier, which she was ever so gently pressed up against. It was like she was saying; ‘Don’t worry, little girl. Everything is going to be okay, you’re safe here.’
Then she curled her lips in the faintest smile and let her gaze wander. I followed her eyes as they journeyed across the grey rooftops, the river and out towards a pointy structure. My revery was broken by my father, one arm shaking my shoulder, the other pointing emphatically in the direction of the tower. When I looked back over, the mysterious woman was gone, like an angel who’d flown back to heaven.
Had I returned to Paris in search of this angel? Even if I found her, would she be able to save me? Would she be able to make a miracle happen this time?
My mother was a renowned cellist. Despite the restrictions of the Iron Curtain, she still managed to have a noteworthy career and even performed a few times abroad. She’d met my father, a sound engineer, during a rehearsal at the Great Guild Hall in Riga. She used to joke that it was love at first ‘arco,’ the act of drawing a bow across strings. Whatever it was, she managed to strike the right cord and from then on hadn’t stopped conducting him, nor me.
Soon after they were married, she got pregnant with their only child. She decided to take a few years off when I was born. However, after I started school, she didn’t return to the Latvian Symphony Orchestra. She said she couldn’t handle the stress, but I always suspected there was another reason. Even playing in smaller ensembles and giving private lessons, she was still very high strung, especially when it came to my practising.
Much to mom’s dismay, her talent hadn’t passed through her genes to me. She knew this, but refused to acknowledge it and remained determined I follow in her footsteps. But, I digress. We were in Paris, weren’t we?
It was 1995. The chamber orchestra my mother was performing with at the time had been invited to a festival in Paris. Parīze. From the perspective of a ten-year-old, it sounded like a magic word. The kind a fairy godmother in one of my storybooks would say as she waved her magic wand. Would the city cast a spell on me too?
Our country was no longer under Communist rule, nevertheless, times were tough. Money was tight, but we squirrelled away every spare lat we could so father and I could join mother. It would be a little family vacation, although I think mom was secretly hoping the trip would also have some miracle effect on my musical skills.
The date of our departure quickly approached. We piled into a taxi at the crack of dawn to head to the airport. Arriving in Paris, we went straight to our hotel to drop off our small old fashioned suitcases. The room was cramped, wallpaper was peeling off the walls and a musty smell prevailed, but we weren’t there for long. The concert would be taking place the next day and mom had to get to the rehearsal. We grabbed a baguette sandwich at the bakery next to the hotel and wolfed it down as we rushed through narrow, cobbled streets that all looked the same to me.
We crossed a bridge and suddenly arrived in a vast open square. There were no cars, yet it was packed; packed with people milling about; groups following umbrellas; individuals snapping photos. Everyone seemed to be heading in the same direction, the one we were also going in. I looked up and saw our destination. Was it a castle or a church? It’s Notre-Dame, dad leaned down to whisper in my ear. Our Lady.
Made of a creamy beige stone, sporting two giant towers and covered in multitude of statues, it was very different from our brick or onion-domed orthodox churches. Mom’s concert was being held in the garden behind this legendary place of worship. It was a great honor, my father explained as we watched her disappear through the park’s gate. To occupy me, he took me up the 387 steps into the church’s great towers and where I came face to face with those monsters and my angel or perhaps my fairy godmother. Our Lady. My Lady.
Mom’s concert was a big success. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for that miracle she’d been hoping for in my playing. Our Lady had not cast a magic spell on me.
I wasn’t a bad player, I just wasn’t a virtuoso. Mom persisted, got fed up, then went back to her persisting. If I would only practise more. If only I’d concentrate harder. If only I could just follow in her footsteps.
When I was finishing high school, mother pulled some strings and got me into the Latvian Academy of Music. I actually excelled within this new environment, removed from her constant criticism. However, no matter how well I did, it was never good enough for her. I wasn’t top of the class. I didn’t receive any of the special awards or accolades upon graduation. I wasn’t immediately selected for the National Orchestra, like she had been.
Now here I was, in my mid thirties, stuck in a lackluster career, with a failed marriage, a failed life. I hadn’t needed the miracle when I was 10, I needed it now.
Maybe it had been a far stretch to think coming to Paris would help save me. I was actually supposed to come a year ago. In March my wavering marriage finally tumbled into an unsalvageable abyss. Mārtiņš and I had been married for eight years, we didn’t have any children. We kept busy with our respective careers. We gradually fell out of love.
I had some professional commitments and couldn’t get away immediately, however, I needed something to look forward to so I went ahead and booked the flight for later in the year. I’d heard that September was a nice time to visit Paris and I vaguely remembered that our family vacation had been in autumn. Returning at that moment might rekindle some magic, or, at the very least, spark some pleasant nostalgia. High on my priority list was to climb those towers again. I didn’t expect to find my angel, my childhood fairy godmother, but I was hoping the experience would inspire me.
Then the fire happened. It was like my marriage certificate and my wasted Academy of Music diploma had also gone up in smoke with the cathedral’s spire and roof. Traumatized by the cathedral’s tragedy, and over the mirrored events in my own life, I couldn’t bear to go. Luckily, I was able to change my ticket, but it would have to be used within a year. I was dragging my feet and almost relinquished going altogether, then on a whim I booked a last minute flight, a week before my credit was going to expire.
And that’s how I ended up back in Paris, 25 years after that first trip. I can’t say I really recognized much as I walked from my hotel near the Opera Garnier over to Notre-Dame. Map in hand, I took a meandering route which first led me through some lovely covered passageways. I wasn’t pressed for time, so I lingered at a few window displays and popped into a charming old school bookstore where I picked up a used copy of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, in English. I doubted I would have all that much time for reading during my short four-day stay, however, it could keep me occupied on the plane ride back to Riga.
Discovering the hidden garden of the Palais-Royal made my haphazard path all the more worthwhile. Passing through the regal Cour Carrée of the Louvre, I reached the banks of the Seine, whose waters were shimmering serenely in the late afternoon sun. Soon I could see the cathedral’s towers peaking over the rooftops of Ile-de-la-Cité. I was almost there.
Rounding a corner, I entered a large square, which I recognized to be the one I had visited as a child. But something was noticeably different. This time there were no people milling about. The plaza in front of the cathedral was barricaded off, I gathered, due to the restoration works on the wounded church. In spite of this, the cathedral was still grandiose, and from this exact vantage point, there was little evidence of the fire. I took the time to reacquainted with Our Lady, who, even at this distance, was still so much closer than it was back in Riga.
The front plaza was closed off, but I thought the little park behind it, where mother had played all those years ago, might still be open. So I crossed the bridge to the Left Bank, made my way along the side of the cathedral to the next bridge and crossed back onto the island.
Férmé. Closed read the sign on its gate. I would have to content myself with the view from the bridge, although from here the damage to the spire-less, roofless building was much more apparent. My melancholic gaze floated over the flying buttresses, now held up by wooden supports, and up to the towers. Those monsters were still there, but where was My Lady? Where had she gone?
Not just her… I’d lost everything! My career, my husband, my mother’s esteem. All I had left were these monsters, haunting me wherever I went. A tear streamed down my cheek and tumbled down, down, down into the Seine. Those waters looked very tempting right now. That could be an easy escape.
“Elle est très belle, n’est pas?”
A voice said, interrupted my dark thoughts. I swung around to find a man leaning against the railing of the bridge a few paces to my right. I stared at him blankly, the extent of French being bonjour, merci and a few words of music terminology.
“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” He repeated in English.
“Yes, very,” I replied, discreetly wiping the corners of my eyes to brush away any remaining tears.
“Every time I cross this bridge, I have to stop to admire the cathedral,” he said, an indication that he most likely lived in Paris. “She’s still standing, she didn’t give up despite all that happened.”
“I suppose that’s true.”
“Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him,” quoted the man.
I gave him a quizzical look.
“James chapter 1, verse 12,” he specified.
“You know the Bible much better than me,” I complimented.
“Actually, it’s thanks to Our Lady,” he started. “She’s always given me hope.”
“Is that so?” I questioned, inviting him to elaborate.
“I came to Paris 15 years ago. I’m from Sri Lanka and my country was caught up in a brutal civil war to which I lost countless friends and members of my family. I had to get out, it was a question of life or death. I had a distant cousin in Paris. It wasn’t easy, but he helped get me here. I didn’t have papers, I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I managed to get a job in a restaurant right there, at the foot of Notre-Dame.”
“Yes, Our Lady was looking out for me. The days were long at the restaurant, made even longer by my commute from the suburbs, but I was grateful to have work and a roof over my head. To be able to get back on my feet. One morning, I arrived about twenty minutes early so I decided to go inside Notre-Dame. I’d been raised Buddhist and had never been in a church before. Not only did I have a great sense of peace about being in that majestic cathedral, but from that moment onwards, I was always overwhelmed with tears when I visited it. I think it was because the Holy Spirit always touched me there. It’s a sacred place. I started leaving early for work so I could have my moment of peace in the cathedral before my tiring work day would begin. She kept my hope alive.”
“Did you convert to Christianity?”
“I was considering it. Once my French was good enough, I took some catechism classes, which is how I got to know the Bible. This was a meaningful experience. It helped me recall some of the teachings of Buddha who also said: ‘Hope is the one thing that is stronger than fear.’ I realized that, despite what had happened to me and to my country, torn apart by religious differences, that I didn’t need to put a label on my faith. I just had to believe in that hope, full heartedly.”
“I guess that’s a good way of looking at things.”
“I carried on visiting Our Lady and she kept her watchful eye on me. I eventually got my papers sorted out. I met a wonderful woman, we got married and now have three kids. I went from washing dishes to head cook. It wasn’t what I’d aspired to do as a young boy in Jaffna, but I’m alive and stay hopeful for a brighter future.”
“Do you still work there, at that restaurant?”
“Sadly, it had to close after the fire. It had extensive smoke and water damage, which, of course, paled in comparison to the damage inflicted on the cathedral.”
“You must have been devastated.”
“I was and still am. I was in a state of shock as I stood helplessly by, watching the flames devoured her. But she’s still standing. I have to live by her example. I lost my job, but under her protection, I got a new one, not far, over on Ile Saint-Louis. That meant I could still pay tribute to her on a daily basis. However, due to this year’s crisis I lost that one too. I started panicking, I had my wife and kids to feed. Then I remembered Our Lady. She guided me in the past. She could do it again. Through word of mouth in the area’s restaurant circles, I landed a new job two weeks ago and I still get to walk by her every day.”
“That’s a beautiful story. I’m glad everything worked out for you.”
“‘There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off,’ Proverbs chapter 23, verse 18,” he added. “I see sadness in your eyes. Whatever is troubling you, don’t lose sight of hope.”
“I will try my best.” By now the sun was hovering just above the uneven horizon made up of trees, rooftops and bridges. To the right, the cathedral had a peachy glow and beneath our feet the Seine’s gilded waves bobbed lazily to and fro.
“Well, I’d better get on my way, my evening shift is about to start,” he said, setting off down the bridge. “Have a nice evening.”
“Thank you, you too…. Wait!”
“Yes?” he asked, turning back around.
“What’s the name of the restaurant you work at? I’d love to try your cooking.”
“Les Deux Tours. The Two Towers. It’s just over there.” he replied, pointing down the road I’d taken alongside the cathedral earlier.
“Thank you. Maybe I’ll see you later.”
He gave a little wave and went on his way.
The Two Towers. It seemed like I had succeeded in finding my angel of hope. I got the miracle I needed. Paldies. Merci. Thank you, Our Lady.
“I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.
Lamentations chapter 3, verses 20 to 23.
There’s Only One Paris Episodes
Did you like this story? If you missed the others, you can catch up on them at these links: