It’s been a strange day, again bearing witness from afar to something I have no power to stop. A fire raging in the heart of my heart, the city that will always be the jewel in my memories. “It will always be Paris” my 18 year old hand wrote in black Indian ink in my journal, it will always be Paris. Paris was only three hours away on the train, 600 km in the car, the place where the writers and artists who crowded my teenage dreams also haunted the streets. The place where we could get lost in the streets, be free, live in a history of our own making. It was always Paris, even though in Grenoble we also had a Bastille, we also had authors, composers, and a history. It was always still Paris. Stendhal was every day, but Nerval was my desire, his spirit still roaming the streets in the dark.
One year we found the exact location where Nerval took his life in 1855, located it on an old map, and walked around and around in circles, the location lost amidst new buildings. Rue de la Vieille Lanterne, an invisible route between past and present, buried deep into Parisian history. So we went back to the side stairs of Notre Dame, smoked a few cigarettes and contemplated the trek back to the Père-Lachaise to where Nerval’s body was buried, a full pilgrimage to honor the writer of the beauty of roaming minds.*
Another time we roamed the quais de la Seine at night, plastic film camera in one hand, Gauloise Blonde in another; the only remains of that night the images in my brain, the smell of the Seine that never feels too far away, and one hazy print of Notre Dame. Every time I have wandered through Paris, Notre Dame has been under some sort of renovation, a tower covered in scaffolding one year, both another year, the side yet another year. Preserving history is an ongoing project, especially history that has made it through revolutions, wars, disregard, and neglect. If you close your eyes on the Pont Neuf at night the breeze takes you back in time for a second, a minute even. Paris feels timeless in those moments. Paris will always be immortal.
While Le Chat Noir was always our lighthouse, and the uneven stones of Montmartre got used to our Doc Martens, I would search for a sign of Notre Dame from every stopping point. The steps of the Sacré Coeur at night are a beacon to city around, Notre Dame standing safe in the distance, strong, a survivor. Much of my youth was spent searching for something that would direct me to my destiny, a god, a king or queen, a feeling, religions mixing with politics with knowledge, and ultimately with deception and disappointment in mankind and higher powers. Nowadays I look back on those times as the grounds on which I built who I am now, layers of me, a journey that ultimately gave me the answers I always knew. I neither hate nor reject religion, I respect its part in our world, no matter the deity. I just cannot believe enough to belong to a religion, but I still remain in awe of religious structures. Churches and cathedrals, ancient mosques and temples, all hold pages of lives lived before us, soaked in tears and incense.
Watching the fire go from smoke to a full blaze raging through the roof of the cathedral was painful: it is only a building, but I couldn’t help shedding a tear for the gargoyles, the angels, and the secrets. As the steeple fell I gasped, and wondered if the towers were next, and what Paris would do if all that was left would be a smoldering hulk of blackened wood and limestone. Can we mourn a building? Should we mourn a building? I believe in the preservation of history, not the desecration, but nature sometimes has the last word. And the human hand can be the creator of beauty, but also the creator of mind-blowingly stupid errors. We are lucky that the towers were preserved, more important to me personally than a crown of thorns or a torn robe.
It will always be Paris for me. I know I will most likely never live there, but Paris was always the dream, my heart, my love. Paris IS always the dream, my heart, my love. I can still wander the streets in my mind, smell the musty smell from the Métro, and bite into an imaginary baguette with brie. Nerval still skulks around, his resting place steps from Oscar Wilde, Chopin, and Jim Morrison, his heart amongst the lost and the lonely in the hidden Parisian streets.
(While Notre Dame burned on April 15th of this year I searched through my journals for some of the many entries I wrote on Paris over the years. I immediately came upon one dated April 15th 1999. Twenty years to the day… “I think my favourite place is Notre Dame and the quais de la Seine… We’ve been to the Père-Lachaise cemetery where Oscar Wilde and Nerval are buried, to Montmartre to see the Sacré Coeur… Everywhere.”)
It will always be Paris.
*(Read Aurélia if you ever have the chance… I have only read it in the original language, but I’m sure it translates well to English in the right hands).