Paris On Fire (Because the World Needs More Hyperbole)

Notre Dame pic by LeLaisserPasserA38

LeLaisserPasserA38 [CC BY-SA 4.0 (]

The big news this week, of course, is the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.

The news outlets were predictably hyperbolic about the whole thing, saying the cathedral was “destroyed” and “a total loss”. Au contraire, mon frere. Started in 1160, it took about 100 years to build it, and several centuries of modification afterwards. What burned was the timber roof above the stone vaulted ceiling, which, while 800 years old, was also the only original timbered cathedral roof in France which had not already burned. The stone is unfazed, and nearly all the glass was 18th-century reproductions of the originals. Yes, it was historic, but it can be remade. The cathedral is one of the best-documented structures in the world, and there are literally hundreds of thousands of detailed pictures of the glass available for reconstructive reference. So, while it is a tragedy, it’s not quite what the media painted it to be.

400 firefighters combatted the blaze, which probably prevented things from getting to the temperatures that could have caused damage to the actual structure, and it looks like many of the interior artifacts and details were protected from the fire. Several European billionaires have already pledged hundreds of millions of Euros to reconstruct the damage. The story ran on every news outlet known to man, displacing other important stories yesterday, including another fire at the same time the 3rd holiest site in the Islamic religion – the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. The reaction of many in the Muslim community, and of the Palestinian President, was to express sympathy and “deep regret” for the fire at Notre Dame, and the shared loss at both sites.

What comes out of this is the reminder that humans come together in the face of tragedy. Look at the outpouring of compassion, shared loss, feelings, memories, empathy and a desire and willingness to do something, anything to help. Notre Dame is an example of something that brought generations together to see completed over the course of a century, and this brought together Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Atheists (among other faiths, or lack thereof). It’s a symbol and a purpose that transcends the religion that spawned it. A reminder that there is something common to all of us.

Personally, seeing Notre Dame was a bonding experience for my grandfather and I. I saw it in 1989 during the French bicentennial, at one of the heights of its glory. My grandfather saw it in the middle of WWII, after the monks had removed and hidden all the stained glass panels so “the Nazis couldn’t get them”. My grandfather and I had (understandably) very different perspectives on the cathedral and the city, and it spawned a long discussion of those differences and the feelings they engendered, and helped us understand each other better as well as providing a shared sense of continuity. Standing in the courtyard in front of Notre Dame, looking at an edifice 4x the age of my home country, was an awe-inspiring experience. One which was remembered later when I went to see the Klootchy Creek Giant (since blown over a decade ago in a big storm on the Oregon Coast), which was a sapling when they laid the cornerstone for the Cathedral of Notre Dame of Paris. Unlike Notre Dame, the great Sitka Spruce on the Oregon Coast cannot be rebuilt, and a decade later, there’s not a lot of evidence left of the grand tree which stood there.

I’m not sure exactly the point of this post, other than that things change, and disaster isn’t always as bad as it seems, and that people are resilient, and band together in the face of adversity. Which I suppose is a worthy enough reason to ramble on about it for a bit.

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