The Notre Dame's celebrated gargoyles watch over ParisEllie Hunt

We burst out of the metro station and we’re off again. “Let’s go, hurry!” I’m running, panting, lungs heaving, feet eating up the pavement, thinking to myself ‘Mon Dieu, I’m unfit. The Hôtel de Ville slips by in a blur of windows and chimney-tops, and I can just make out liberté, égalité, fraternité underneath the clock. Cars beep as we stumble onto the zebra crossing, just as the lights change. It’s alright, no one obeys traffic laws here anyway. I’m laughing to myself in this moment of madness and shout back to the others, “come on, we’re going to miss it!”

We’ve booked a tour, but we’re already five minutes late. I can see the Seine up ahead, we’re nearly there. We dodge tourists and vaguely annoyed Parisians along the final stretch of pavement and, finally, we skitter to a stop at her feet. Her bells start to ring proudly for Paris, welcoming us, glad we made it on time. As I’m smiling up at those towers in wonder, more out of breath than I’d care to admit, a familiar tune from my childhood comes to me: Some say the soul of the city is the toll of the bells…

“Religious or not, the Notre Dame has a presence, the unmistakable hand of history holds it dearly.”

A few months later I stand frozen in horror in front of the TV in the kitchen, watching flames engulf the roof, creeping ever-closer to the bell towers, and I’m glad we made it on time too. Being the most cliché MML student in Cambridge, I really love Paris and I tend to visit whenever I have the time and the money – which, let’s face it, isn’t very often at all. Three guesses as to where I’m spending my year abroad, though.

But this January the stars aligned and I dragged four friends along with me. No matter how many times I go to Paris there’s still something I haven’t done before that finds its way onto the itinerary, and this time it was climbing the Notre Dame and seeing the bells and the gargoyles. We were lucky enough to do both of those things, and to take in the views over the Seine, to walk along its marble floors and under the beautiful gothic archways, to admire the art, to ponder the history of the stone sculptures, to stand in the candlelit hush and appreciate the intricacy of the iconic rose windows.

If you have scrolled through just about any social media platform for even just five minutes over the last few days, you will have noticed the great flood of condolences, anecdotes, stories and pictures that accompany tragedies like this. However you will also have seen the posts in retaliation to this culture, telling the world to catch a grip and stop crying over a building. But I ask them to soften their cynicism, because these platforms are designed with the purpose of sharing with other people, so let them share this sadness. Because people are grieving, and this is a great loss.

The Notre Dame is an extremely iconic buildingEllie Hunt

We are so connected today that the sense of togetherness in grieving an event like this is humbling. This cathedral saw Napoleon crowned, endured the French revolution, and survived two world wars. It is a place of worship, one of a kind, an example of beautiful gothic architecture that was one of the first cathedrals ever to use flying buttresses. It houses important relics for the Catholic faith, such as the Crown of Thorns and the tunic of Saint Louis. Its bells have celebrated and mourned world history for over eight hundred and fifty years. While in Christianity there is an emphasis on casting off material possessions, there is also a need for unity in a place of worship. This togetherness is a crucial part of so many religions and could be seen on the banks of the Seine as Parisians solemnly sang ‘Ave Maria’ together, watching their sacred place, their sanctuary, burn.

I am one of many enchanted by the Notre Dame and, as the ancient MML cliché goes, it remains one of my favourite places in the world. Like so many others, I want to see it restored to its former glory and I firmly believe it will be, thanks to the indomitable French spirit – even if Macron’s five-year deadline for that restoration does seem a little optimistic. Bookshops are uniting to give their shares of sales of Victor Hugo’s ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, which has soared back to the top of Amazon France’s best-sellers list, to the rebuild efforts. Poignant, given that in 1831 Hugo wrote it for the very same reason – to save the then dilapidated cathedral.

But even I, the biggest Parisian fan-girl I know, find it hard to stomach that €800 million can be raised in mere days for a cathedral when 8.8 million people in France live below the poverty line, when we are facing the crisis of global warming, when there are tragedies like this happening daily around the world (look at the Louisiana Church Fires) which don’t receive this kind of aid or recognition. The White House sends its condolences and offers assistance, but there is still so much left to be done in Puerto Rico. Lauren Bastide (journalist, host of the feminist podcast La Poudre and iconic Parisienne) noted her disgust in a since-removed instagram story, saying that these billionaires will pay anything  to secure themselves a spot in the Panthéon.

“We are so connected today that the sense of togetherness in grieving an event like this is humbling.”

One twitter user received a lot of backlash for saying the images of the Notre Dame alight were ‘aesthetically pleasing’. Meanwhile, hoaxes, conspiracy theories and islamophobic comments were making their round within an hour of the blaze beginning. Philippe Karsenty, a media analyst and conspiracy theorist, called this “a French 9/11” live on Fox News and continued by saying “of course you will hear the politically correct story that it was an accident...”

And so we left the Notre Dame, walking back out into the hazy glare of a late-winter afternoon. The daylight blinding compared to the dim of the cathedral. The busy rush of people outside, taking their pictures, queueing to get in, dodging crowds with places to be, seemed like another world to that we had just left. Religious or not, the Notre Dame has a presencethe unmistakable hand of history holds it dearly. We walked towards the Left Bank, intending to call into Shakespeare and Co. But as we walked away, I stopped for a moment on the plaque marking Point Zéro. Yes, I’m that person in the group, the one who you’ll probably lose.


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Mountain View

My religion is my own

Here, on this island in the middle of the Seine, is the beating heart of Paris and the point from which all roads in France are measured. The Notre Dame sees travellers on their way, she should stand tall and proud in all her glory as a beacon of hope. She will. But with the centuries that have passed, watching over every journey, I think she would be echoing Esmerelda’s sentiments. Justice. I continue on my way to the direction I think I saw my friends wander off in, the Notre Dame sending me on my way with the ghost of another melody: I ask for nothing, I can get by. But I know so many less lucky than I. Please help my people, the poor and down-trod. I thought we all were the children of God.

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