Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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NOVEMBER 6, 2010 5:28PM

Notre Dame speaks

Rate: 11 Flag

NOTE: On the weekends from time to time I like to post creative writing.  This piece was originally written for a newsletter for a tourism website I was working for.  The site shut down for complicated reasons, before this could ever be published.  So, I'll let Notre Dame speak here.

I stand on ground that once held my ancestors: old churches, before that, my great-grandmother, a pagan temple.  I’ve lived the longest of all of them; from the moment when Pope Alexander III set down my first stone, to this moment, nearly nine centuries have passed.

I sit in the centre of Paris, where I watch the Seine flow beside me.  Over the centuries, I have seen much.  I have seen sailed ships come and go, peniches drop anchor and settle here.  Bridges have been built and have crumbled, new bridges have been built (sans houses along their sides). 

For centuries I lived amidst a clamouring crowd of buildings.  The noise of their inhabitants could be heard from every window, rising above the low groans of the suffering in the Hôtel-Dieu. 

I am large, my bell towers soar above the parvis below me, the tourists and passersby look so small.  A century and a half ago or so, some men decided to renew my look, and added a tall spiked spire to my back, which is of beautiful delicacy.  They also added gargoyles whose grimaces and twisted bodies I feel are more like blemishes on my face.  But this is how most great cathedrals have it.  Luckily, there are my rose windows – I have three – grand, with hundreds of pictures and designs in each.  When the light shines through, I feel like a woman with rouge on her cheeks, the black-and-white tiles on my floor are like a gaily patterned dress.

Millions of people pass through me each year, pausing reverently (or sometimes not so reverently) at each side chapel, the dark ones which reveal my age and the restored, brightly painted ones that hide it a bit.  Many of these people climb my north tower to look at the bells and some of those hideous gargoyles.  And yet, few will ever walk my clerestories, and perhaps no one person will ever read every inscription, ever scrutinize every saint and sculpture, inside me.  That is life. Everyone has parts of themselves that is little seen.

The men who made me followed a plan.  I was to be lavish, beautifully decorated.  I was to let in light.  To them, this represented a communion with God.  Have I done the job?  Sometimes I think I have.  Some people sit in the wicker seats in my nave and I know their heads are full of devout thoughts.  Others light candles, or simply look around in awe.  But then, there are those who smilingly like to take pictures in front of the Crucifixes (can you imagine what the old medieval priests would say?), or, even worse, who walk by barely glancing at anything.

But no matter, I’ve suffered far greater indignities.  Once, parts of me were battered by angry Huguenots.  And during the Revolution, would you believe, I was used to store military items of some nature!  I had all holy associations stripped away.  I was a Temple of Reason, and little girls in ballet frocks danced among my columns and fallen statues.  In fact, at the start of all that messy business, the biblical Kings on my façade had their heads cut off by some foolish peasant who believed they represented the Kings of France!  Can you imagine the embarrassment?  You try to put forth a good face to the world, and look where it gets you!  Thank Heaven the statues were restored.

I’ve always been proud, as I’ve heard tell some people are, of my back side.  The flying buttresses, the first of their kind, add a grace to my form that I find quite elegant.  And the windows here look larger, a bit like eyes, staring out wonderstruck down the Seine. At first they saw a rural landscape, and tried to avert their gaze from the secret duels that went on where today one finds the fine apartments on the Île Saint-Louis.  Now they see a large city, larger than I could have imagined.  Think of all the buildings there, rows upon rows of apartments gazing down the long avenues and boulevards!

I may be a grand church, but I can’t help but feel something for all the little people whom I welcome with open arms.  In winter beggars come to stand by my gates, huddled against the cold winds that blow across the parvis.  I feel myself struggling at times against my foundation, just to move such a short distance closer, to embrace them, to keep them from the chill.  But that is the way of things, too: buildings cannot move.

Unless they fall, I suppose, or someone takes them down.  That Baron Haussmann did a fine job of that in that busiest of centuries, the 19th.  I still haven’t decided how I like my new, more open surroundings.  The life-filled houses that used to surround me are gone, the Hôtel-Dieu, I’ve heard, may disappear, too.  All is only represented now in lines and names carved into the open esplanade before me.  At night sometimes I try some transfiguring (condemned by the Church – but one cannot live here so long as I have without causing a few scandals) and imagine all the old buildings rising up again.  But by morning, they’ve dissolved away, and it is the new Paris that rises before me.  Oh, some of what I see has been the same for centuries.  Other sights are still a surprise.  Like the way that eyesore of a Tower built by Monsieur Eiffel, does seem to somehow balance the landscape – a bit like the spire of a cathedral, in fact. 

Far away, I can see other tall structures – gratte-ciels, skyscrapers, they’re called.  They are strange and sparkle a bit in the sunlight.  Only one of them is somewhat close by, and that is also called a Tower, though it is nowhere near as thin and refined-looking as that of Monsieur Eiffel.

But, I digress.  When you are surrounded and filled by as many conversations as I am, I suppose that is an easy thing to do.  Below me and beside my doorways, people dash along the streets, or stroll; across the way the Prefecture of Police always seems to have its window shades drawn down, as if to protect the rest of us from the police and criminals within.  Further off, in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice, the spire of the Sainte-Chapelle rises to greet me.  It, too, was added on in only the last hundred years or so.  But I don’t mind it.

All around me there is energy and life, and sometimes confusion.   Not far off, they are constantly changing and restoring things.  They clean the Pont Neuf, they will soon demolish the commercial centre and landscaping they only recently built at the old marketplace of Les Halles.  Such noise and such confusion make this a difficult place for an aged lady like me, to be, n’est-ce pas?  But no. I know that no matter what changes may come, I cannot be happier, mes chers, than I am right here, in the middle of this city.  Surrounded by fuss and bustle and many good memories, and even a few familiar friends – what better place for someone to grow old? 

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This is great, Alysa ! You've painted a perfect picture of the cathedral with words. Anyone who cannot see can have an idea of what it looks like and of its history. Brava!
rated for all the obvious reasons
Hey, I've been there! Great story and written in a great prospective.
You love Paris, don't you, Alysa?
A fine fine use of buttresses and the specter of the eavesdropping Cathedral.

Great stuff, Alysa.
So my ancestors trashed the cathedral? I didn't know that. (Probably annoyed about that whole revocation of the Edict of Nantes thing. Or maybe the St. Bart's masssacre.)

What an interesting way to bring the history of that great edifice to life. I've seen it, en passant, and it is magnificent. Liked this a lot.
Thanks for reading, everyone!

Fusun - Thank you. I'm glad you think the image of the cathedral comes through. This piece was originally for a tourism website's newsletter, which had a creative bent, and we wanted to have pieces that would give facts and imagery as well as contain more unusual aspects.

Robin - Thanks for the love.

the traveler - So kind. Can't wait to get to your post - my computer was behaving badly last night and I couldn't listen to the clips.

ocular - Glad you liked it, and I hope you enjoyed your visit there.

Dom - Funny you'd say that. My dad felt the same way. I like the dirty vibe, personally - it makes me think of just how old the place is, how much smoke from how many candles have been lit there.... But they really could use a real-life Quasimodo, I agree. He's rumored to exist in the form of a gargoyle (very small) on the cathedral's north side, but no one can confirm this.

Brassawe - Indeed I do, good sir.

fernsy - Merci!

Boanerges - Your ancestors did have a point. I just wish they'd been less into permanent damage and more into, say, toilet-papering the facade...or I guess in their time, "parchemting" the facade....

Catherine - Thanks!
Ah, yes, the majesty, aspirations, the ghosts, Quasimodo. You've captured the magic, Aylsa.

I had onion soup at Le Halles when it was still the morning produce market, farm families getting a nap, covered with newspapers beside their stalls, before the shopkeepers arrive. Paris is indeed a movable feast - its banquet table's in my memory, altho I'd dearly love to go back.
Matt - Thanks for reading, and I'm so glad you enjoyed this. I'm also jealous that you got to see Les Halles when it was still a farmer's market. Today, it's an underground mall - practical, but completely devoid of character. If you come back to Paris, and I hope you will, I would say you may not want to visit Les Halles, after having witnessed its former liveliness.