Straight From the Source in Paris: 'A tableau of collective grief' in Notre Dame fire's aftermath

  • Onlookers photograph the aftermath of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire from the other side of the Seine.

    Onlookers photograph the aftermath of the Notre Dame Cathedral fire from the other side of the Seine. Courtesy of George Harmon

  • George and Judy Harmon along the River Seine in Paris.

    George and Judy Harmon along the River Seine in Paris. COURTESY OF GEORGE HARMON

 
By George Harmon
Special to the Daily Herald
Updated 4/19/2019 10:16 PM
Editor’s note: George Harmon, an assistant professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a board member of Paddock Publications, owners of the Daily Herald, was vacationing in Paris this week, where he witnessed the city’s reaction to the fire that gutted Notre Dame Cathedral. What follows are some observations he sent us.

Days later now, thousands of Parisians and tourists still quietly line the banks of the Seine, staring at their damaged lady, Notre Dame.

It's a tableau of collective grief.

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Countless cell photos are taken each minute. TV reporters from as far away as Slovenia and Poland do standups with the cathedral as a backdrop. Police and emergency vehicles are everywhere.

Sophie Poulou, a government worker who was born in Paris, stood on the Quai d'Orleans along the Seine Wednesday, gazing at the rear of the cathedral. "It's sad," she said. "I love my city. You're living here, Notre Dame is a symbol."

She's been to mass there only twice, but "I always look at her. In winter it's great, a big Christmas tree there."

A middle-aged German from a small town near Stuttgart was on his first trip to Paris, and he and his wife had visited the cathedral a day before it burned.

"It goes to the heart," he said. "It's a symbol of Christ."

Across the street a restaurant/glacier, Le Flore en I'Lie, was doing brisk business, its sidewalk tables fully occupied while dozens of cafes to the north on the Ile de la Cite -- the island upon which Notre Dame sits -- were unreachable. Five bridges across the Seine were closed, and police blocked the walkways.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

So traffic was unusually stalled in the city's center. A cabdriver said he had one word for it: "difficult."

Collective grief began immediately on Monday night. A crowd of perhaps 2,000, many of them young adults, filled the vast intersection where Blvd. St. Michel meets the Seine.

Late in the evening the vigil continued. Backs to the bright plaza, onlookers kept watching the cathedral, lit only by pinpoints of flashlights as firefighters probed the embers.

Many Parisians seldom attend church. But on that night they spontaneously sang together, a collective hymn to their lady.

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