I’ve had the outline of this post saved in my drafts for months. But if there is a lesson to be learned from this past week’s events, it is to act swiftly on your ideas and dreams because there are no guarantees for our tomorrows.
It is that even the mighty can fall.
I was lucky enough to visit Paris for the first time this past fall during a European tour of London, Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam with my husband; a vacation beyond my wildest dreams for many reasons, the most pressing being that my husband has never really been a traveller.
And, let’s be honest, on a modest librarian’s salary, it helps substantially to have his support -both financially and otherwise- in chasing my travel dreams.
Sometime between our wedding day (almost exactly three years ago) and now, his entire attitude has changed regarding travel. Before, he was content to go where his business meetings and family vacations took him, whereas I have dreamed of visiting distant shores from the moment I could point to them on a globe, have a list of coveted travel destinations a mile long, and have even been lucky enough to visit a handful of them in my youth. When I mentioned places I might like to visit one day, he would look at me as though I had just uttered a phrase in Black Speech.
We were not on the same page.
But the year of our wedding, 2016, took my husband and me to our honeymoon in gorgeous Riviera Maya, Mexico, a friend’s bachelor/bachelorette in Napa, California, a cousin’s wedding in San Diego, California, and another friend’s wedding in Torino, Italy where we also made stops in Milan, Florence, and Rome. I believe it was this year of whirlwind travel that forced him out of his comfort zone opened him up to the possibility and wonder much of the world held.
Before our wedding, when I would ask my husband where he wanted to visit in the world, he would say, “I have nowhere I particularly want to see.”
A little more than a year later, he looked at me one day and, unprompted, said, “I think it’d be cool to see Australia.”
Now we were getting somewhere!
After a relatively low-key travel year in 2017, I was aching to change this drastically in the year to come. It was with the same motivation that is driving me to write today that I turned to my husband as the calendar made its turn from 2017 to 2018 and said, “There are places in this world I want to see before I die, and I think we should see some them together this year.”
Because while I am well aware of my own mortality (in a very realistic and non-grim way, mind you), I somehow didn’t apply that same mortality to the marvels of the world that are not already in ruin. This despite the horror I felt watching wild fires in California, hurricanes devastate Caribbean islands and the southeast mainland United States, hate and terror in places of worship around the world, and destruction of ancient cities and monuments just as awe-inspiring as Notre Dame in Syria, Palestine and Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, and, I’m certain, more. That is to say nothing of the genocide and destruction of sacred places of Native Peoples in America and throughout the world due to colonization.
But I digress.
Though many of those non-Western places are high on my personal list (Istanbul having been my own eye-opening experience into the wonders of a world outside my comfort zone), I set my sights on a long-loved locale I had yet to visit: London.
Harry Potter. The Beatles. Football (as in, soccer). The Spice Girls. Countless literary works and the language I speak. Meghan Markle. Monty Python. These and so much else connected me throughout my entire life to England, and I knew that London would be my first priority in a bucket-list European trip.
And my husband agreed to it.
But, being me, I couldn’t just make my way across the Atlantic for one city. And so, knowing I also wanted to visit Amsterdam (and perhaps make a stop somewhere in Belgium along the way), I set my sights on another large city for this trip: Paris.
Unlike London, Paris was new on my list of places to visit. I was never what I call a “Paris Girl.” You know one of them if you are not one yourself: the girls who adore Audrey Hepburn (“We’ll always have Paris!”) and take high school French instead of (some would say more practical) Spanish. The girls who prefer a chic and sophisticated palette of black and/or pink, whose bedrooms are filled with Eiffel tower styled jewelry holders, bedside lamps, and that poster with a cat on it. The girls who drink coffee at an early age and plan every party and shower to include petit fours and study the European monarchies whether through a history degree in college or within the pages of their well-researched historical fiction.
I was not that girl. And perhaps I never will be that girl. While I respected the French culture and Paris as a coveted destination, I never felt that draw myself. That is, until only a few years ago, when I read a book that my sincere interest in Paris was piqued: Anna and the French Kiss, a Young Adult novel by Stephanie Perkins.
Not only was Anna’s story so vivid and realistic to me (and, I admit, was a bit of a wish fulfillment read, having never truly studied abroad for an extended time myself), but the author’s descriptions of the enchanting Parisian sights and sounds, and how enraptured the characters were with their surroundings in addition to each other attracted me to the locale in a way no other piece of history or media ever had. After closing that book, I knew I needed to go to the heart of Paris, to Point Zéro in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral, and it would be all the better if it was with the object of my affections.
And reader, I did just that.
And not only that, but I also fell in love with all of Paris in the way I had never understood before. Despite the heat wave that boasted 95 degree days (ie a temperature Paris hardly ever sees), I suddenly understood why people moved there and found creative inspiration to finish writing novels. How it was the perfect resting place for countless pieces of priceless art. How it was so easy to fall in love there with not only the place itself, but with the people, or a specific person, a turn of phrase, a plate of food, and how one could spend days wandering aimlessly down the rues and boulevards and never grow weary of any of it.
I became, in my own way, a Paris Girl.
So when I saw the news that the Notre Dame in Paris was on fire, barely 8 months after I was lucky enough to see it with my own eyes, I was distraught. Even without a personal connection to this important piece of culture and history, I know I would have been devastated on behalf of Parisians and those with ties to the Cathedral. However, it was Point Zéro and Notre Dame, the literal heart of Paris which drew me there and led to my own burgeoning love affair with the city, that was being destroyed after standing for 850 years.
But what am I in the face of 850 years? Especially when compared to those whose connection to this place amounted to more than one visit based on a book they read: those who built it, those who studied it, those whose lives it was a daily part? I could barely write this without feeling inconsequential before this devastating fire, but then I read a musing on Twitter asking “what is cultural significance if not the sum total of [a] myriad of personal connections”?
And so, despite it feeling futile (as most writing does), this is my addition to the sum of all the Paris Girls, my small connection to a place far greater than me or any single one of us: the story of a girl who had a small interest in Paris after reading a book, whose husband turned into a traveller and appeased her in a travel destination, how she was lucky enough to fall in love with that place, and a reflection on the kismet of how all these moments led to witnessing only one of many of the world’s wonders before it was too late.
I hope that, despite your own connections or lack thereof to Notre Dame, my story has moved you in some way to live for today: celebrate the anniversary, visit the place, make the art, finish the project, have the conversation, change the mind. Because you never know when, or if, you’ll get the chance again.