Remembering Notre Dame
When the Cathedral of Notre Dame went up in flames at the beginning of Holy Week, believers and non-believers from around the world mourned the loss of the 800-year-old Gothic beauty. And the French, be they secular or religious, wept at the ferocity of the flames leaping high into the night, destroying a significant part of their patrimony. Notre Dame is the foundation stone of their religious and cultural heritage. For millions of others, myself included, the sight of the cathedral ablaze prompted memories of our own associations with that Medieval miracle of stone and glass.
My introduction to Notre Dame took place in the ‘60s when, flying the Domestic routes for TWA, I met a young Frenchman en route to Dayton, Ohio,on business. I was working the cabin that day, so we flirted the flight away, and it wasn’t long before I had an invitation to visit him in Paris. Little did I know the Dame Fortune was smiling, that within a year TWA would start flying daily jets to the capitals of Europe, and that hostesses with as little as two years seniority were needed to fly these International routes. I quickly transferred from Boston to New York, and bid a trip to Paris: Flight # 800, Idlewild to Orly. All of which I wrote about in Veronica’s Grave: A Daughter’s Memoir. An excerpt follows.
That Dashing Young Frenchman
Philippe comes toward me across the lobby of the hotel California looking as trim and cosmopolitan as the day we met. That this moment is due to a chance encounter on a flight to Dayton, Ohio, seems improbable. Closing quickly, he kisses me on the right cheek and on the left, before stepping back for a good look, and sealing it with a hug. As delighted to see me as I am to see him, he suggests we do a panoramique of the city before going to dinner. Parisians dine late, he says, rarely before eight.
Exiting the hotel, I glance up at a mushroom-colored sky, asking if I should get an umbrella from the concierge.
‘Non, c’est l’automne.’ he says with a lopsided grin, helping me into a Citroën about as roomy as a sardine can.
Seasons Come and Seasons Go
“C’est l’autome.’ I repeat with a wink, trying to imitate his inflection. If so, autumn in Paris is more November than September. Weaving through the rush-hour traffic, Philippe circles la place Charles De Gaulle, pointing out the Arc de Triomphe built by Napoleon and the Eternal Flame dating to WWI. Coming at us from all sides are kamikaze drivers converging on the roundabout from a dozen different streets. In the craziness of the moment, I urge him to go around again, and he does.
Wherever I look—the magnificent arch, the limestone-clad residential buildings with Juliet balconies, the cafés with wicker furniture, the waiters in formal white jackets—Paris astonishes me. As I’m watching Paris flashing by, Philippe’s watching me out of the corner of one eye, commenting on this and that.
‘You are most observant’, I tell him. Glancing at my hey, babe! dress, the one I picked up at Filene’s Basement in Boston before moving back to New York, he tells me that pleats are the latest thing—le dernier cri—this season.
‘Is that so? I must have missed the September issue of Vogue. Philippe, you never said where we’re going for dinner, do I look okay?’ (Disingenuous to the core.)
Turning toward me, he nods, murmuring something ending in très chic, as he plants a kiss on my fingertips. With the temperature rising, I’m melting….
Why Notre Dame?
“Bahrbahra, have you seen Notre Dame?’ His vichyssoise accent is as soothing as it is sexy.
‘No, I’ve seen nothing other than the airport. I was too jet-lagged to go shopping this afternoon. Can you imagine a woman in Paris too tired to shop?’
‘If you haven’t seen Notre Dame, that’s our first stop. In France, we measure all distance from the cathedral. We think of it as the center of the nation.
With the towers of Notre Dame coming into view, he explains that Paris doesn’t change much from one century to another, that where Notre Dame stands, 2000 years ago the Romans had a temple to their gods. And that where the Palais de Justice stands is where the Romans had the first law courts.
Lightheartedly, I ask if Quasimodo will be ringing the bells this evening.
‘Ah, yes, Victor Oo-go. Later, I can show you where he—’
At which the car shudders and dies. Horns honk, drivers make incensed gestures. He is unperturbed. When the car hiccups, we bound onto Ile de la Cité, to come face-to-face with Notre Dame, a miracle of stone and glass.
That breathtaking moment when a photograph of the iconic cathedral seen in an encyclopaedia became real, was the beginning of my lifelong love affair with Paris. By the time Philippe returned me to the hotel that evening, I felt there was something in Paris that belonged to me, that it’s history was somehow my history. At that, I picked up my key from the concierge and trotted happily off to bed knowing my soul belonged to Paris. But I ask you, can Paris be Paris without Notre Dame? And have you a memory of when you first saw that Gothic wonder?
Ma famille à New York
Of course, there was much to celebrate last week. On Easter Sunday, we turned up for dinner at the quintessentially French Orsay. But not before buying a few macaroons at Ladurée and chocolates at La Maison du Chocolat for my granddaughter who’s developing a preference for all things French. Starting with her Longchamp cosmetic case (also ideal for pencils and pens). The food at Brasserie Orsay was fantastic, the servers exceptionally accommodating, the crowd in high spirits, and the day a sheer pleasure. Take a look!
Well, that’s all for this week, gals and guys! Hope to see you back next weekend when I’ll have the coffee at the ready. There are so many beautiful happenings at the moment in New York, but telling you about them will have to wait until the next time we meet. Merci beaucoup…and remember, sharing is caring.