I watched, transfixed as Notre Dame burned. Something deep within me collapsed like the cathedrals spire, engulfed in flames. I've never been much of a sentimental person. This was different. It had nothing to do with religion. I was raised Catholic, but that fire was extinguished long ago. My pain was for Paris, the French people, and the loss of dreams. Watching the raging fire destroy such a cultural landmark was a reality check. Everything is fleeting. Even a building that has withstood the Crusades, the French Revolution, and two World Wars, crumbles eventually.
The passing of Notre Dame struck a chord with me. It reminded me of one of the most pivotal times of my own life, walking the ancient Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route from Le Puy-en-Valle to Santiago de Compostella. For me, the walk wasn't about religion; it was about spirituality and history. Walking the Camino puts you in direct contact with the lives of thousands of others who have walked the same path as you over the past 1000 years, and forces you to interact with the local people and places around you in such an authentic way. This is why I travel - to see the world authentically. Losing Notre Dame means so many people will no longer be able to see a part of history, a wonder of our culture, and the world. That breaks my heart.
A few years ago I was traveling through Egypt with my sister. She told me a story that our father was planning to go to Syria. He had invited her to join. Like so many people in their early 20's, she was so busy with work and life that she declined. Ten years later, so much of the ancient sites of Syria are gone, destroyed in the conflicts that have ripped apart the land. Last night we were chatting about Notre Dame. I explained that, even as the fires engulfed the ancient cathedral, the flames raged within with a desire to see as much of the world as I can. "That [missing out on seeing the ancient sites of Syria] is one of my biggest regrets," she said. I don’t like regrets.
We finished our conversation. I put down my phone, walked to my office, and sat in front of my computer. It is here that my years of memories of traveling the world are stored in digital photos, with backups of backups. I measure my life by the things I have seen, the impact I have had on others, and the things I am yet to experience. I opened Lightroom, scanning for the last time I went to Paris.
For many years I avoided visiting France. I don't know why. I still don't. My grandmother was French, and when I travel, I am often mistaken for a Frenchman despite my almost total inability to speak the language. Yes, I did the backpacker circuit when I was young, buying overnight train tickets so that I had a place to sleep. I wandered the streets of Paris starring at buildings, but it didn’t resonate with me. I've never been a city person, always preferring mountains and nature over cold concrete.
It wasn't until I was older that I began seeing the history, the people, and the stories that made buildings more than just concrete and design. It wasn't until today when Notre Dame burned that I realized that what truly makes a place special is its ability to call to you across time and space, to inspire you. Paris, France, and the world calls me louder than ever.
Je suis désolé pour ta perte.