Paris and I had a relationship long before we met. In my twenties, wondering whether disappointment awaited, I made my first trip. It felt like coming home. (Signs of another lifetime?) Visiting annually for many, many years meant varying what I went to see. Notre Dame was an exception. On the anniversary of the cathedral’s tragic fire, I felt compelled to disinter my Paris diaries in search of this entry. I spoke some French at the time.
September 3, 1993
It’s barely 9 a.m. My hotel room won’t be ready till noon and I’ve had my first adventure. Wandering through narrow streets, passing earnest sweepers, I made my way to Notre-Dame. Tourists clustered with guides hovered in the plaza backlit by sun. Shivering from cold, fatigue and nostalgia, I continued a tradition of lighting candles before Jeanne D’ Arc, patron saint of lost causes, then sat in a pew and cried a little.
A ruddy, round, middle aged man named Jean Jacques (we introduced ourselves) approached and spoke to me – in French. I understood he was praising the cathedral, that affection and respect were personal. Jean is guardian of the edifice. The Basque lives in a small house on the grounds, sometimes mans the caisse (paid entry) to trésors (treasures) and handles logistics.
I told him it had been years since my last visit, that I always come to light candles, that I love the city. He pointed to the organ and suggested a concert the next day. When I didn’t commit, Jean Jacques offered to show me around. It was then I first heard, then noticed the large clump of keys hanging from his belt. We rose, I followed. He unlocked a side door and we climbed, single file, hands flat on the walls for balance. Winding, extremely narrow stone steps lead to an interior balcony above the nave. (Public not allowed.) The air seemed thinner.
As we walked slowly around, Jean Jacques kept up an enthusiastic monologue about the cathedral’s history and architecture. I understood perhaps a third of what was said. His adoration was infectious, my appreciation, palpable. Two centuries of different architectural “decisions” were pointed out. Statues and candelabrum, banners, chairs and pews crowded a side room like backstage storage, waiting for… ?
My guide pointed up. Further? he silently asked. Oh, yes! Again, we mounted a hidden stairwell, this time stopping inside the “roof,” a high beamed, many-tiered tower lit only by very small portals. I gaped at the enormous clockworks, gazed through holes made in the floor above the altar where nobles could be secretly observed, knelt to examine the names of construction workers from other centuries carved into supports. I saw now-mechanical bells once pulled, sending priests flying.
Like Esmeralda (in The Hunchback of Notre-Dame) I stood with my own, big-hearted Quasimodo, Jean Jacques, whose poetic soul had shared twenty years of private communion with Notre-Dame. Speaking of walking with his dog in the dark, empty cathedral after hours, listening to the wind pass through its organ pipes, sounded like articulated sighing. It was quiet up there, a state Jean Jacques also revered. He let me take it in with the pride of a parent, offering explanation only when I raised an eyebrow or asked.
Moving past the center of an etoile (star) of plank ramps that groaned and gave slightly, Jean Jacques gestured. I stepped out onto a tiny stone balcony bookended by gargoyles. Below were tourists on a flat roof as high as they were permitted to venture, and a metal net to prevent suicides. Out and beyond, Paris presented an 850 year-old view of overlapping time. My breath caught. I spread my arms, perhaps unconsciously readying for flight. It was dazzling. I felt as if I swallowed a cloud.
Jean Jacques had duties or I would’ve remained for some time. He walked me down. Might I come back that night when it was empty ? He would meet me at the door. Alas, I have more sense than that. I’ll try to visit once more before I leave, to thank him again and confirm he wasn’t wrong about me. That kind of knowing makes a difference in life.
April 17, 2020
I did go back, but couldn’t find Jean Jacques. When I returned to New York, I mailed him a book on the Cathedral of St. John the Divine illustrated by a friend. He wouldn’t comprehend the text, but detailed drawings would resonate. It was addressed: Jean Jacques, Guardian, Notre-Dame. I’ll never know whether it was received.
Top Bigstock photo: Notre-Dame de Paris at night years before the fire.