For just a bit, I possessed Notre Dame de Paris. The first time I saw it was in the 1990s, when I was on a two-month backpacking trip around the whole of Europe. I looked forward to visiting Paris more than any other place on the itinerary, and once there, I headed straight for Notre Dame. The feeling of standing before its graceful gothic towers, which I had seen so often in photographs, lived up to my high expectations. It was utter delight and wonder. I’m standing in front of Notre Dame!
I gazed at the façade of Notre Dame for a long time, because in that moment, it belonged to me. I didn’t have to rely on a photographer to capture it and translate it into a two-dimensional image. The cathedral was mine, and I could look at it in any way that pleased me.
Inside, it was quiet — I was there in early March, outside the season — and it felt sacred in spite of its status as a major tourist attraction. The sun was out, and as much as I felt struck by seeing the towers for the first time, seeing the rose window in the north transept took my breath away. Bright spots of gold and green interspersed luscious, saturated blues and reds, all contained within an energetic burst of delicate stone tracery. I try to avoid using the word “glorious,” because it’s so rarely accurate, but the window is glorious. (What a joy, that “is” is! The window still exists.) I bathed for a time in its light, awestruck by its beauty, undiminished by 800 years.
Every time I went to Paris, I saw Notre Dame, at least from the outside. Sometimes I looked at it for just a few minutes — the last time was from the deck of a boat on the Seine — and I regarded it as a great treasure in my collection.
We all have a collection of things like Notre Dame that we possess. The moment of seeing a thing is ours and ours alone, of course, but in that moment, we take some ownership of the thing itself (if only in our minds). All of us possess a bit of Notre Dame, icon that it is, either because we have seen it in person or because we plan to.
The sweet pain of seeing extraordinary things like Notre Dame in person is that one must always let them go. Even before the fire, the Notre Dame I knew as a backpacker was gone. I couldn’t go back and see it in the same way — free of security and crowds — and even if I could, the experience would be different because I’m a different person.
Trips give us precious little time to possess the world’s great sights. Some, like Notre Dame, are so extraordinary, I can hardly bear the thought of letting them go. I console myself by thinking, “I travel all the time! I’ll be back to see this again someday.” But there is no going back, even if I physically return.
This fact is something I like to ignore, but the fiery destruction of Notre Dame threw it into high relief. I couldn’t help but weep. It pains me to think about it, and so I’ll go back to my habit of tearing around the world, adding as many of its most beautiful places to my collection as I can, scribbling in my notebook about them in a vain attempt to capture the places forever. I’ll keep racing about like a mad person, trying to make as much of the world mine before it and I change out of all recognition. It’s a race I can’t win, I know, but my God, what a race!