Last month in Peru, as my partner and I ascended a grassy knoll toward a misty window of what is known as the “classic view” of the Incan citadel, our cusqueño guide, Nick, asked, “What do you think is older, Machu Picchu or the Notre-Dame in Paris?”
“Machu Picchu,” we answered.
Of course, we thought: Surely the exposed walls and strewn boulders of Machu Picchu, one of the world’s seven wonders, were more aged than the colossal columns of yellowed stone where chiseled gargoyles and copper-green saints alike stand protective. Of course, Nick was ready to point out, this was everybody’s answer, and this same collective wisdom is wrong: Construction on Notre-Dame started in 1160; Machu Picchu was built around 1450. The heart of Paris, Notre-Dame, our lady, the Gothic cathedral on Ile de la Cité overlooking the Seine, grand and sculpted as she is, is three centuries older than the block-by-block urban constructions of the Incan empire.
In the following weeks I would ask my friends the same question; everyone was surprised by the age of the elegant French dame. She hovered in my mind like a priceless piece of trivia—until last week, when she burned.
I lived in Paris, on and off, for three years. It is where friends would find me when school ended, when I needed to earn money, when my heart broke, when I wanted to fall in love again, when my family in Singapore didn’t want to open their doors.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what Paris means to me, as someone who doesn’t have a stable home. It has a lot to do with how the Parisians knelt and sang “Hail Mary” and “Ava Maria” when the cathedral burned, their faces aglow in horror and in love, both incandescent.
I’ve always known the French to have a fondness for their country, and each other, and the tactile monuments and numerous sublime moments that consecrate this fraternité.
I remember it in how the Parisians sang when I watched them play in the Stade de France at the Euro Cup in 2016. I had purchased my own flight and tickets to the game as a present to myself, a reward for graduating from college, a promise kept to my younger, freshman self, who vowed to visit the quadrennial soccer tournament upon earning that degree. But it wasn’t just the stadium that shook: On the way to the stadium, everyone on le Métro was painting each other’s faces, drumming the national anthem on metal poles, giving each other kisses. Strangers would speak to me in French; lay blue, red and white garlands on my neck; stick temporary tattoos on my skin, sealed by their hot, excited palms. At every stop, when newcomers arrived, we would rally and serenade them with song. It became a continuous initiation.
I’ve come to associate it with how, on Bastille Day, the French would flow onto the streets like a river—everyone on the same slow, insouciant current toward the Eiffel Tower, where, at sundown, fireworks would sparkle and wane to the tune of La Marseillaises, the French national anthem.
I’ve always joked that it was the only national anthem I knew how to sing. I had somehow forgotten my own.
The French are often associated with a kind of nationalism, but what’s surprising to me is how open-source it seems, that everyone can seemingly subscribe to it. It’s why so many French families in Paris and Lyon and Bourg-en-Bresse have opened up their homes to me on random moments in my life, why I know so many women—from the Philippines to the Ivory Coast to Syria to Kurdistan—who come to seek shelter here, why we found friendship and community in each other.
When Notre-Dame burned, so many of us saw a remote part of ourselves surface and smolder away. For me, it was the memory of a busker singing “Imagine” in front of the bell towers on my 20th birthday, when I was with a French man I had met that day, who drove me from the outskirts of Paris into the city to see this sight; it was when I worked as an au pair three years later and would sit in those pews as reprieve after dropping off three rowdy French children at the local piscine (swimming pool); it was when I was lonely at night and would sit on the bank of the Seine, lit up by her towering majesty, shrouded in a painless solitude; it was when I hadn’t spoken to anyone in a while, but would wander inside to listen to the choir and organ and feel comforted by the bellowing noise, the larger presence touching me when I hungered for connection.
It’s not just me, of course. Searching #NotreDame on Instagram, I come across people of all regions and distinctions posing in front of the cathedral. They had dug up their old photos to prove they were there, to prove they existed and saw Notre-Dame before it lost its spire.
Scrolling through the feed, I see democracy. Egalité. Fraternité. At the moment when the spire fell, everyone’s heart beat the same way. You didn’t have to speak French to feel the blow.
The cathedral, unlike Machu Picchu, is still in use, with an archbishop and a lively, devoted congregation. One could say it was built to serve a denomination of French society. But it is with Notre-Dame as it is with France: the sacred space grew to encompass the people who showed up. France seemed to me like a catchall, a webbing to hold those striving and those who fall: the young women who were undecided on employment and chose to work as servants in aristocratic French homes; the literary types who would ask for a spare bed to rest at Shakespeare & Company at night while promenading around Paris in the day; the lost and determined souls who would enroll in the Foreign Legion in search of discipline and rigor; the refugee men and women who saw in France a more promising future. Following the gossamers of our dreams and desires, we stroll around Paris in individual, concentric circles. We trace the arrondissements. We inevitably intersect at Kilometre Zero; at Notre-Dame, where all other distances and relationships in France are measured from.
I have often wanted to articulate why Paris always seemed to me to be “every people’s city.” Seeing Notre-Dame burn, and people’s response to this, gave me an inkling as to why this is so. Paris—and, by extension, the cathedral at the epicenter of it—has historically been so welcoming to the generations of emigrés and Bohemians and beat writers and lost poets and fashion models and chefs and architecture aficionados, and now investment bankers and Instagram girls. We were together privy to a Paris, or an idea of it, and in return, Paris was colored in so many shades by the people who stroll its boulevards.
It’s why Paris meant so much to all of us, as much as croissants are hard to make, and l’œufs an impossible word to say at the supermarché.
In 2016, after traveling to the Euro Cup, I returned to Hanover, New Hampshire, to collect my college belongings. I mentioned my Parisian refuge-cum-vacation to my older friend Janine, who had lived there for a few years when she was my age. She had found Paris too heavy, burdened by its history. “Paris trembles with the weight of the dead,” she said.
This came to mind last week when, in the wake of the Notre-Dame fire, President Emmanuel Macron addressed his nation and described the feelings of his citizens as a “tremblement intérieur”—an internal trembling. The past week, more than any other, reminds me of how alive Paris is, even if its heart is nearly a thousand years old. Maybe it takes a broken heart to remember that you have one. Tremble it may under the weight of its histories, roof, spire, and all, Paris still sounds to me more like a Daisy Buchanan whisper that draws us ever closer.