ast month in Peru, as my partner and I ascended a grassy knoll toward a misty window of what is known as the âclassic viewâ of the Incan citadel, our cusqueĂ±o guide, Nick, asked, âWhat do you think is older, Machu Picchu or the Notre-Dame in Paris?â
âMachu Picchu,â we answered.
Of course, we thought: Surely the exposed walls and strewn boulders of Machu Picchu, one of the worldâs seven wonders, were more aged than the colossal columns of yellowed stone where chiseled gargoyles and copper-green saints alike stand protective. Of course, Nick was ready to point out, this was everybodyâs answer, and this same collective wisdom is wrong: Construction on Notre-Dame started in 1160; Machu Picchu was built around 1450. The heart of Paris, Notre-Dame, our lady, the Gothic cathedral on Ile de la CitĂ© overlooking the Seine, grand and sculpted as she is, is three centuries older than the block-by-block urban constructions of the Incan empire.
In the following weeks I would ask my friends the same question; everyone was surprised by the age of the elegant French dame. She hovered in my mind like a priceless piece of triviaâuntil last week, when she burned.
I lived in Paris, on and off, for three years. It is where friends would find me when school ended, when I needed to earn money, when my heart broke, when I wanted to fall in love again, when my family in Singapore didnât want to open their doors.
Iâve been thinking a lot about what Paris means to me, as someone who doesnât have a stable home. It has a lot to do with how the Parisians knelt and sang âHail Maryâ and âAva Mariaâ when the cathedral burned, their faces aglow in horror and in love, both incandescent.
Iâve always known the French to have a fondness for their country, and each other, and the tactile monuments and numerous sublime moments that consecrate this fraternitĂ©.
I remember it in how the Parisians sang when I watched them play in the Stade de France at the Euro Cup in 2016. I had purchased my own flight and tickets to the game as a present to myself, a reward for graduating from college, a promise kept to my younger, freshman self, who vowed to visit the quadrennial soccer tournament upon earning that degree. But it wasnât just the stadium that shook: On the way to the stadium, everyone on le MĂ©tro was painting each otherâs faces, drumming the national anthem on metal poles, giving each other kisses. Strangers would speak to me in French; lay blue, red and white garlands on my neck; stick temporary tattoos on my skin, sealed by their hot, excited palms. At every stop, when newcomers arrived, we would rally and serenade them with song. It became a continuous initiation.
Iâve come to associate it with how, on Bastille Day, the French would flow onto the streets like a riverâeveryone on the same slow, insouciant current toward the Eiffel Tower, where, at sundown, fireworks would sparkle and wane to the tune of La Marseillaises, the French national anthem.
Iâve always joked that it was the only national anthem I knew how to sing. I had somehow forgotten my own.
The French are often associated with a kind of nationalism, but whatâs surprising to me is how open-source it seems, that everyone can seemingly subscribe to it. Itâs why so many French families in Paris and Lyon and Bourg-en-Bresse have opened up their homes to me on random moments in my life, why I know so many womenâfrom the Philippines to the Ivory Coast to Syria to Kurdistanâwho come to seek shelter here, why we found friendship and community in each other.
When Notre-Dame burned, so many of us saw a remote part of ourselves surface and smolder away. For me, it was the memory of a busker singing âImagineâ in front of the bell towers on my 20th birthday, when I was with a French man I had met that day, who drove me from the outskirts of Paris into the city to see this sight; it was when I worked as an au pair three years later and would sit in those pews as reprieve after dropping off three rowdy French children at the local piscine (swimming pool); it was when I was lonely at night and would sit on the bank of the Seine, lit up by her towering majesty, shrouded in a painless solitude; it was when I hadnât spoken to anyone in a while, but would wander inside to listen to the choir and organ and feel comforted by the bellowing noise, the la