Bitches love it when Paris is burning.
This is my first thought as we walk down the stairs, while Lucy reads the news off her phone.
We were on our way out anyway, two ciders and a bag of chips in tow, when she got a text that just read, Oh no! Notre Dame.
The plan was to go walk around and have them by the water while it was still light out, since it is mid-April, and just starting to get warm enough for that.
It had felt like time for ‘The Big Walk,’ Bongo’s favorite time of day. He was never so big on the small walks of morning and afternoon, which usually only one of us would accompany him on, and often involved him having to wait outside a shop. But when in the early evening both of us would decide to give up on the day and shuffle into our coats and boots, he’d jump around and bark excitedly and run all the way down the stairs, making loops around us like a sheep dog, because he knew we were going to walk until our legs got tired, to wherever the city took us, and best of all, to do so as a tight-knit group – a pack.
Seeing as he is no longer around for The Big Walk, though, it all feels a bit hollow.
When we step outside, there are the usual wedding photoshoots going on on the Pont Bir-Hakeim, with some of the parties standing precariously near the edge and perching on the railings.
We joke about pushing them off the bridge.
The other usual tourists are out taking pictures, too, though it is hard to tell whether they are photographing the nearby Eiffel or the towering cloud of grey-orange smoke rising up behind it.
Gauging from their facial expressions, it looks like they have yet to notice that bit.
We debate what to do – whether to go west, to “Swan Island,” and have our snacks and beverages in peace, or head downtown, into the thick of the news.
It feels weird to go watch this happening ‘live,’ and it feels weird not to, too.
We decide to at least try and get a good view.
As we head east along the quai, we see hundreds of people boarding the bateaux mouches, the popular river tour boats whose name inexplicably translates to “fly-boats” (as in the insects, not the mode of locomotion). The standard route for these boats is to go into town, past and around the Île de la Cité, the island Notre Dame is currently burning away on, and then back again.
We wonder what it is the fly-boat companies are planning, exactly.
The whole city smells of smoke, it seems, itching our nostrils. We both start to feel dizzy. We say we’ll just go as far as the Palais de Tokyo, see if its platform provides a satisfactory vantage point, and then turn back.
But when we get there we can’t see a thing, so we keep trudging along.
Maybe we were just hallucinating the dizziness.
I text my mom, who works not too far from Notre-Dame, vaguely worried she might have been hurt, though no injuries have been reported. She doesn’t text back.
To speed things up a bit, we jump on a bus. The sun will be setting soon. A man half-whispering to another man in rapid-fire French mentions the church and his association with it, and quickly ties this in, or back in, to the story of his extra-marital affairs. Both look languidly out the window.
We consult our phones.
Twitter is… ablaze with footage. We receive various concerned texts, though we live nowhere near the fire. The whole world is watching, it seems. Why does everyone care so much about this? I wonder. The media loved it in 2005 when cars were being set on fire in the suburbs, too. I have a distinct memory of a CNN news anchor talking loudly and excitedly over a map of Paris with little flames scattered here and there around its outskirts.
What is it about Paris and being on fire? Is it like that thing about vertigo – a combination of being afraid of and of wanting to fall? Are people riveted to their screens in horror, or out of a kind of titillation, an excitement at watching something so old and renowned and full of cultural associations be burned to the ground? Not even out of glee – though maybe that, too – so much as out of wanting to have witnessed something historical? Something that lets you draw a clear line in the sand and say, that was then and this is now?
Maybe I’m being too cynical. Of course there is a horror to the centuries-old monument burning down.
But also, is there, really? Nobody appears to be in life-threatening danger, with the notable exception of the firefighters trying to put out the blaze.
We hop off the bus at the Pont des Arts and weave our way through the lime scooters whizzing by and past the crowds that have gathered on the bridge to get a clear view of the fire. You can see the top of the building now, wrapped up in its smoke cloud. Many people are on tip-toe, looking over each other’s shoulders, struggling to get a good look.
I experience a tinge of agoraphobia.
We decide to cross over and make our way down to the path below the main road, on the level of the water, which seems quieter, and is where people usually go to sit and hang out anyway.
By then, the water itself has become eerily calm and free of boats – it is never this empty, not even late at night. It seems the fly-boats have decided that going by the flaming cathedral might not be the best policy. I wonder out loud to Lucy if the tourists will get their tickets reimbursed. I say, This will probably count as “force majeure,” i.e., a situation beyond the boat companies’ control (“an act of god, natural disaster, instance of terrorism, declaration of war, etc.”), exempting them of responsibility.
She says, Okay then.
As we make our way along the bank, we see a party on the other side, at the end of the island Notre Dame is located on. The party is taking place under a weeping willow that I have always thought of as ‘my favorite tree,’ for some reason. They are blasting MGMT’s ‘Electric Feel’ out of a stereo system and smoking.
A little further down, we pass a band with a blond dreadlocked drummer and an emo frontman performing for a sparse but not unenthusiastic crowd.
As we get closer to the ‘heart’ of things, we notice that while people are growing more hushed, they are nonetheless still drinking and eating full picnics.
(Whether figuratively or not, Notre-Dame is at least the heart of Paris in a literal sense – it is the point from which all geographical distances in France are measured on roadmaps, its mile zero.)
We reach the end of the path along the riverbank and hit a piss-smelling alcove under the ‘New Bridge,’ which links the Île de la Cité to the mainland. (It is, in fact, the oldest bridge in the city, as the fly-boats never fail to point out over their loudspeakers).
From this up close, you can see smoke rising out of the cathedral’s tower windows, and the hose water from dozens of fire trucks swaying back and forth, like extra sets of supporting arches.
The only way to go on here is by backtracking up some steps. We struggle to make our way up them, finding it almost impossible to get back onto the level of the city, where the scene is very different from the relative quiet of the riverbank.
Thousands of people are amassed there, in front of the New Bridge, which leads directly to the church. This is as close as they can get, the firemen having cordoned off access to the island.
They are intensely solemn, bundled up in coats, a sea of grey and black, some of them holding candles and singing religious hymns. Paris being a relatively secular place, I am surprised by the amount of apparently religious people who have gathered here. Where did they all come from?
As we huddle into the crowd, I overhear one girl say to her friend, Putain, 700 ans d’histoire… (‘Fuck, 700 years of history...’).
Another says, ‘Ils sont glauques les gens qui chantent, ça fait trois heures là.’ (The singing people are creepy, they’ve been at it for 3 hours now.”)
We decide the choir-crowd is not our scene – the gravitas of the people notwithstanding, it feels, as most crowds these days do, like the closest we have come to actual danger. We start muscling our way back down to the riverbank, where the eaters & drinkers are.
We sit with our feet dangling over the river, and remember that we, too, have brought along snacks. Telling ourselves we had brought them beforehand anyway, we crack open our now-lukewarm-ish ciders and chips.
I look up at the sky. The colors are insane but oddly typical in the twilight – a haze of pinks, greys, purples, blues, and oranges. The flames rise high around the church. The water pours in a continuous back and forth over the embers in the window cavities, making them look like eyes slowly opening and closing.
The word ‘surreal’ clangs around inside my head, neither articulable nor quite willing to go away – everything seems so normal down here, a few pool-lengths away from the flaming monument.
I think, I hope Quasimodo is okay.
We wonder if the groups of gawkers nearby just happened to be here beforehand or if they, like us, came to take part in this same half-mourning, half-spectacle.
I look across the river and notice a group of guys talking loudly and cackling. Although the cathedral has been on fire for hours now, they seem unaware of the fact. Maybe from where they are – much closer to the church than us – they can’t see it. Maybe they don’t have phones or access to the news. Or maybe this is just what reacting to this looks like.
At one point, one of the two towers seems like it is about to catch fire and collapse. People around us gasp. But no, it was just a billow of smoke, maybe a gust of wind.
Our phones tell us the steeple has fallen.
We see people running around behind the blacked-out windows, high up in the towers, near where the bells must be, searching the premises with flashlights. Why, we wonder.
A couple goes by behind us, walking in the direction of the fire. They strike me as people we might be friends with.
Then one of them yells Paris is bUuUuUrning in English to his partner repeatedly, while otherwise speaking a language I don’t recognize. They turn and take a selfie with the burning church.
On the bright side, a friend texts me, this means less tourists in the summer!
(Notre-dame will have up until now been the most-visited monument in Europe).
I trade a long, ‘pregnant-with-meaning’-style look with a boy standing behind me. He has long hair, all-brown clothes, and polka dot socks. He is alone and has a half-drunk bottle of red wine in one hand and a ‘classic, but cool’ book of American literature jutting out of his coat pocket.
What a relief, I think. A poet has arrived.
I wonder what the people I grew up with here are doing now. Are we watching the same scene? Are they at home? ‘Abroad’?
In the past, I would probably have experienced something like this with some of them – as a group. The dynamics in such groups often seemed dictated by an invisible script to me, with each person assigned a specific thing to say.
I picture one of them taking the place of the stranger I heard say, Damn, 700 years of history, and then another one chiming in, Of course all the wealthy philanthropists will jump to fund rebuilding the structure, in spite of the many deaths in the church in Sri Lanka, which nobody cares about.
During interactions like these, I would often feel myself rising out of my body, watching silently as the supposedly pre-ordained situation played itself out.
Now, such dialogs don’t occur much around me anymore, particularly when I’m in Paris, where I am all the more aware of their absence, because the gang of friends I had in high school have all moved away, or we’ve lost touch, or something else has made it so that contacting them to say, Hey, want to go see Notre-Dame burn down, wouldn’t feel appropriate, and I can’t help but feel my silly silence is to blame.
Instead, I have no idea what watching this thing burn makes me feel, or what to say about it. With Lucy, we are so often on the same wavelength that voicing much of anything feels pointless. So, lacking an audience, anything I might think of to say seems to sink back down into me, vanishing into a fog, and the chorus of views being voiced inside my head goes on arguing with itself.
Cursing the reclusive lifestyle I’ve cultivated, I open up my phone to a notification that some short vape-related French market research surveys are available for me to translate. I translate them on the spot while I finish my cider and the church goes on smoking in the distance.
Soon, the arguments my imaginary friends were having will appear on my social media feeds, which will become cluttered with articles about a mass-funding campaign to rebuild the cathedral’s broken insides and spire. Many rich people and companies will promise to contribute to it, like L’Oréal and Louis Vuitton. This will cause others on those feeds and in the advertisements I get on them to wonder why people are more inclined to throw money at inanimate objects than to use it to alleviate the suffering of other human beings, and about how the money would have been better spent on, say, doing something about the tomb the Mediterranean has become for Syrian and other refugees.
(Later, once the press storm surrounding the fire has subsided, it will turn out that many of those who had promised to donate money to help rebuild the church did not, in fact, cough up.)
Reports will also emerge that the collapsing steeple, which was largely made of lead, has caused a real health concern: in the following months, 12 young children living around Notre-Dame will be found to have lead-poisoning, or Saturnisme as it is known here, although it will be unclear whether this is due to the fire or to prior lead exposure in their lives.
For now, with the darkness settling around us, we become unsure of what to do. We decide it is probably time to escape the thick of the smoke, and head home in a daze.
On the way back, my mom appears out of nowhere and enters the same metro car we're in. She is unharmed and having a lively discussion with a friend.
In the morning, walking past a kiosk in the bougie 16th arrondissement, I will see that the newspaper Libération has headlined its issue Notre-Drame – ‘Our Drama’ – and this will feel apt, somehow.
I will hear an elderly woman going by wrapped in furs & jewels & heavy makeup say to her similarly decked-out friend, That steeple was a fake anyway. Just a rubbish 19th-century lead replica.
I will wonder what Bongo would have made of all of this.
I’ll think, he would probably have enjoyed the walk.