Updated: Oct 10, 2020
“Nothing gold can stay.” - Robert Frost
Just this morning, as my husband headed out the door to go on a rock climbing trip, we were having a hurried discussion about how I’d like to choose somewhere for us to go on a trip soon (aside from camping or rock climbing destinations, which are his preference). At one point, he laughed as he said, “Sure, we could go to Paris every four or five years, but I’m not going there every time we go on vacation!”
“Every four or five YEARS!?” I asked. Now we are not rich people, to be clear. But we definitely prioritize traveling above all when it comes to how we’d like to spend the money we do have for fun. And Paris is a city I have loved for as long as I can remember. I want to visit it absolutely every chance I get.
My husband has never understood why I love big cities. He is all about nature and the great outdoors. He loves having views full of nothing but trees and wildlife, skies with nothing but either blue or stars, and no sounds in the air aside from the wind howling, the birds tweeting, and the crickets chirping.
Moi? Give me the bustling underground transportation, the far-off high notes being ripped off the strings of a street musician’s violin, the flashing lights, the clanking of silverware at sidewalk cafes, the wafting cigarette smoke, and the din of conversation in multiple competing languages, and I am one happy femme.
There is something about the symphony of sounds that makes up a city—the honking horns, the blaring sirens, the whistling for hailing cabs and gaining attention, the footsteps running up and down the stairs to the metro—that I find so connective. Cities are buzzing and humming and pulsating with life, and it just feels so human to me. (I’m sure my husband would say he feels the same way in the absence of all these things, but I love him anyway.)
What I have always found especially connective about cities is their monuments. For one thing, they are these staples and landmarks that we can all point to and say, “I was there!” and “Hey, so was I! When were you there? Did you stand at this exact spot that I stood?” It’s something that makes us feel woven into the fabric of life together, even if we visited these places at completely different times. It’s sort of like the way we feel when we can meet strangers across the globe and laugh together about both having met the same celebrity or loving the same scene in a favorite TV show. The monuments belong to all of us.
Sometimes they can even serve as a sort of time machine for us even just within our own experiences. We can stand at a monument we visited 10 or 20 years prior and reflect back on the person we were the last time we were there and have the feeling that in the space-time continuum our former selves are standing right there with us, even if just for a moment. It’s beautiful.
Monuments feel like constants in our lives that are often chaotic and unpredictable. They feel invincible and immortal, just like certain things seem they will last forever when we are children—our parents, that fresh bar soap smell in our grandmothers’ bathrooms, the magic of the holiday season. In an ever-changing world, things like monuments can make life feel somewhat stable or peaceful. We can count on them to always be there.
But then sometimes on days like today, you get a text from a family member asking, “Did you hear that Notre Dame Cathedral is covered in flames??” And it hits you. Nothing lasts forever. Not monuments, not relationships, not people—nothing.
At first, I started to cry. Not Notre Dame. Please, not my most beloved city. It’s devastating. Heartbreaking. Soul crushing. It made me feel helpless.
I started having flashes of memories of the first time I visited Notre Dame with my sister and my husband. I was 19, and he and I had barely just started dating when he went to Barcelona to study abroad for three months. My sister had never even met him yet at that point, but she was excited to plan a last-minute trip with me to visit him in Spain and then all head to Paris together for a few days. We stayed just blocks from the cathedral and had the most memorable trip.
My sister is seven years older than I am, and we had never bonded much just the two of us until we spent those 10 days together and really, truly got to know each other as people. I still remember, almost exactly 12 years ago, walking to Easter mass at Notre Dame with her in my bright orange Ferragamo heels I’d been so proud to have found at a steep discount. They are the most impractical shoes in the world that don’t go with anything I own, but no matter how much of a minimalist I become, I refuse to give them away. They were my Paris shoes and always will be.
Nowadays, I live in a house down the street from my sister and am lucky to call her one of my best friends. And I live there with the man who became my husband, and I owe that to that relationship-solidifying trip my sister and I took to visit him that spring.
Ten years after that first trip, I found myself itching to leave the country again. I missed Paris especially and wanted so badly to see it again. This time, however, it was under very different circumstances. My husband and I were in a tough spot in our marriage, and I wanted some time to travel alone and think about some big decisions about what I wanted in life. I was lucky enough to have won a bit of money on a game show and decided to put it toward taking a two-week trip that included several days in Paris.
I traveled there with a tour group, and one day we all had a few hours of free time. The majority of the group got dropped off by the tour bus in some areas to do some shopping, but I rode the bus all the way to the end of the route at l’Île de la Cité to visit that glorious cathedral and have some alone time for a bit. It was a cold January afternoon, so I bought some gloves from a street vendor and headed to Notre Dame and sheepishly took some selfies in front of it as I reflected on the time I had been there a decade prior when my life and relationship had been in a very different chapter.
I ventured across the street to the iconic Shakespeare and Company bookstore, walked up its charming old red staircase, and browsed the romantic poetry books before leaving my own anonymous message about love on the wall with hundreds, if not thousands, of others’ notes. At one point, I walked across the room and peered out the window to admire Notre Dame standing proud and tall and certain. My heart was heavy, but it was good to be somewhere that felt nostalgic and familiar.
In the next year, I visited Paris two more times and even spent a month there studying French. By that point, my husband and I had worked through the things that had been weighing on us. In fact, I recall that he had a therapist who told him, “We can never recreate our relationships to be exactly as they were before these tough times. So you’re going to have to think about how you’d like to rebuild and recreate your relationship to look a bit different, in a good, exciting way.”
After all, aren’t our long-term relationships one of those things we never expect to crumble or burn down? And when they feel like they’re doing just that, it’s tempting to want to pick up all the pieces and glue them quickly and sloppily back together. But the pieces never fit back in exactly the same way.
On that particular trip, I most recall seeing Notre Dame lit up in the night as we passed by from aboard a boat on a romantic dinner cruise along the Seine. I still marvel at how much things had changed for us in just a matter of a year or two.
Suddenly, as I thought back to all the moments Notre Dame has witnessed in my life, it occurred to me that that majestic lady will be rebuilt. It will be repaired. And it won’t be the same. But really, nothing ever is. And perhaps given the fact that even things like the empire of Rome can fall and even the most beautiful relationships can end in divorce and even some of the healthiest people we know can meet devastatingly untimely ends, why do we ever expect that there is anything that won’t change? And why do we crave it so much? Maybe it’s comforting. Maybe it reminds us of being children, full of trust and faith and wonder. Maybe it’s because we, as human beings, can’t help but be eternally hopeful.
While Robert Frost may have been right that “nothing gold can stay,” perhaps we can find solace in the fact that these things and people and places we love can grow and evolve or, in the case of total loss, be cherished and honored and remembered in deep love. When things in our lives seem to go up in smoke, perhaps we can find beautiful ways to rise from the ashes.
In all honesty, my marriage is stronger and flourishing more than it ever was before that difficult chapter (not to mention we’ve even been lucky enough to welcome an amazing son into the world just this past year). And I hope and believe that it will be the same case for Notre Dame.
First though, I’m probably going to cry about it and mourn the loss of what it once was. And then I’m going to start planning my next trip to Paris to see exactly how much more resilient and breathtaking it becomes.