I was scheming over coffee just this morning on how to get back to Paris.

I often get an itch for her attention, but not every morning, so when the NY Times came in a flash message on both my computers and my iPhone, “Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris is Engulfed in Flames,” I wondered if she had been calling to me. If somehow she knew she needed the love of her adorers today.

Notre Dame Photos: New York Times

I love Paris and Parisians: the art, the food, the smells, the attitude. I have only smoked 13 cigarettes in my life and most of them have been in Paris. I can think in the language if I try and my accent is so good that Parisians often ask if I am Swiss, which I take as a huge compliment, considering that I am definitely not even close to fluent.

Photos: Karin Laine McMillen

I detest the tourists and if it were not for my insistence on carrying my giant Nikon everywhere, I would never be noticed.

I was first in Paris in 1990, performing as a soprano soloist with a two hundred voice choir and a 25-piece chamber orchestra. Before our concert in Notre-Dame, the conductor and I tested the acoustics, I; singing from the front of the church, and he beneath the rose window in the back. My voice traveled back to me for what seemed like an eternity. In fact, he had been timing it and he informed me that there was an eight-second reverberation.

It took four seconds for the sound to travel to the back of the church and four more to return. It still doesn’t quite make sense to me from a physics standpoint, but from the experience, it felt like the sound was all around you. This was heightened by the addition of an orchestra and large choir. We performed that evening with much slower tempi in order that the integrity of the harmonies could be appreciated. I had to rework all my breaths that afternoon.

It was July and sunny and I stood in the garden behind Notre-Dame singing. A small crowd gathered and listened as I repeated phrases, practicing. What I remember from the concert is an overwhelming sense of calm as I sang and listened to my voice return blended with the orchestra past notes and present.

As I stood looking up at the complicated multi-domed ceiling, the realization of the magnificence of the cathedral and the gift of sound she gave warmed me and seem to entrust me with infinite breath.

Thousands of Parisians and tourists gathered on the banks of the Seine river and watched in shock as the fire tore through the cathedral’s wooden roof and brought down part of the spire. Photo credit: Yoan Valat/EPA, via Shutterstock

When I took my mom to France last year, we stood in line outside the cathedral waiting to walk through. Multiple Asian brides and their photographers were setting up shop in front of the immense wooden doors.

As my mom and I walked inside I recognized the sounds I remembered. Air, hushed whispers, a mass being intoned, all wafting around me in a sound billow. My mom begged me to sing for her as we walked through. I refused as I thought it inappropriate, and not conducive to worship. But in my mind, I heard my voice reverberating through the cathedral.

And I smiled.

Categories: Guest Blogger, News, Photography

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35 replies

  1. I will always remember my introduction to Paris as a teenager — crossing the bridge in front of the cathedral with the full moon between (and above) the two towers! What a tragic incident yesterday, but hopefully it can be reconstructed based on what was saved.


  2. It is indeed a tragic loss. The history the beauty the enjoyment. I realize it’s been rebuilt before, but I don’t think it was quite as devastating as this. The money is certainly pouring in to rebuild.


  3. Heart breaking, just heart breaking to think we have lost such a beautiful Cathedral. We went to mass there many times. Our numbers were few. I think there were more tourist than parishioners. Thank heavens they saved the alter, the crown of thorns, stained glass windows, and organ. Apparently, they had removed many of the fine art for the restoration. So that is saved too.


  4. A visit inside the ND cathedral:

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Karin Laine McMillen
    You must have been an outstanding singer if you were to sing in the Notre Dame cathedral! What a beautiful, touching and highly interesting post this is. Thank You. I can’t say How many times I’ve been in and seen the ND in the years I live now in the Paris region. All our guests and friends have been led there, with them and/or Hero Husband I’ve been for visits, concerts, quiet moments of contemplation (which amazingly always were possible even with all those tourists milling about), moments of pure joy and always wonder to see the beautiful windows, the magnificent doors and statues, the millions of photo opportunities to catch yet another angle of something or other – burned and damaged since yesterday… Only a few hours before the fire I returned to Paris yesterday, taking my ‘local’ train home coming from abroad…. And then this news, only 5’ after the breakout in a newsletter from a Swiss newspaper! Devastating, tremendously sad.

    On a more positive note, I am glad to add that already now there is an Investment company, lead by a Familie Pinault, who is donating 100mio € for an immediate rebuild of the damaged cathedral (well part of it, but how quick and generous). Unesco speaker (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_X8Z390im7Y for info in French) also spreads hope.


    • It is going to cost a LOT of money and it’s also going to take a long time. As I said, I’m not sure we even have stonecutters with that kind of skill these days. Does anyone know how to build a flying buttress? Do we have the materials? A lot of ifs. They can make it “similar,” but you can’t make it what it was which was glorious.


    • The cost to restore this Grande Dame to it’s previous magnificence is touted as being one billion dollars. Many of the country’s wealthy have already rushed in and pledged that amount to cover the cost of reconstruction. That was “noble” of them but many Parisians feel that investing the money in the cathedral is a total waste of money.

      These vocal citizens feel the money could be better spent on social programs to help the less fortunate members of that city. The other side of the coin ( the wealthy) state that resurrecting the church will bring in the money in tourist revenues.

      It is a difficult issue to resolve. The wealthy in Paris rushing in to save an historic relic at such a cost flaunts privilege into the face of that city’s poor and downtrodden. The citizens in Venice are considering charging tourists to their city a $20 fee to cover their municipal costs which are over looked when hordes of visitors leave their tour ships and spend no money in the area.

      There probably are no easy answers but the solution cannot be as simple as opening a cheque book and donating a scandalous amount of money to keep up appearances to the world.
      Many times good intent has a huge financial price tag attached to it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My personal belief is that there’s probably more than enough money to do both, if they wanted to. Notre Dame is sexier that helping poverty-stricken citizens survive — but they could do both things. There’s a HUGE amount of money around the world that if used to help real people — not organizations but living humans — do better, there would BE no poverty.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Totally agree with you; or, as a dear friend (80 now) always said: Everything has a price, everything comes at a cost…..
        Thank you also for taking the time to add your precious thoughts – and I AM glad that we agree, I worry about the exactly same questions, issues and sigh with the lack of a ‚fits-all‘ solution…..


      • My comment is basically for Gail (?) but of course also to Marilyn…. as per usual! 🙂


  6. A wonderful tribute to a stunning medieval building. As a medievalist, and someone who appreciates beautiful buildings, I felt bereft watching the flames engulf Notre Dame cathedral. Over 800 years of history up in smoke, and goodness knows what’s happened to the art and relics inside. I only hope they can restore it to its former glory so it can go on for another 800 years.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I can only imagine your feelings as you surely know more about the building than most.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Karin, I was watching, CNN (I think). The reporter voice was breaking emotionally. Objectivity is difficult in a story like this.


    • IF they photographed everything carefully and clearly, they might be able to “restore” much of it, but a lot of the carving and stonework was done by people who don’t exist anymore. We don’t have that kind of masons anymore. I’m not sure anyone really knows how to build flying buttresses, or even if we have the right material. It will never be the same, but maybe they can make something that will give everyone “the feeling.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • I sincerely hope so. They don’t make craftsmen like the medieval ones any more, but as you say, with luck they may be able to recreate the ‘feeling’ at least. It’s the art and the religious relics I worry about too, because they won’t be able to be replaced. A sad day and a great loss.

        Liked by 1 person

    • They won’t be able to fully restore it. We don’t have the stonemasons or carvers they had back then. They had ARMIES of masons. I don’t know if we have any stonemasons who could construct a flying buttress. But they may be able to restore so at least you have a sense of how it was. And hopefully, they have film and video and stills of absolutely everything. These ancient buildings are so fragile. It’s why they are so cautious about restoring them. This is exactly what they fear the most. A little something happens and a magnificent medieval cathedral burns. I never even saw it in person, but I understand what a terrible loss it is and how painful it must be to anyone who has seen and loved it.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Indeed, it is a real blow for people that have lived around it and are used to it as a special sacred place and an historical landmark. In York, they have a permanent stonemason’s yard set up, where they’re always working on replacing bits of the minster that need work. But you’re right, it’s only a couple of people and hardly a mason’s army. Wonderful skill to have though, and it’s a shame we don’t see many of these superbly talented people around any more.


  7. This was heartbreaking news. It was akin to the airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers in New York. Notre Dame is a very old building, in very bad shape, so maybe this was a cry for help as it was slowly falling apart. Hopefully, it can be restored to its former magnificence???

    Liked by 2 people

    • I actually was in NYC on 9/11 and the comparisons did not escape my attention either. However, as there was pure evil involved in one, and devastating loss of life I didn’t draw on that history. I haven’t been able to write about 9/11. Maybe some day. I can say that I was standing at the Brooklyn Heights promenade watching the towers burn with a small crowd. I saw live, not through the lens and production of a camera, humans jumping and the first tower collapse. I will never forget those images. I’m hopeful as well that it can be restored.


      • It’s going to be very, very difficult to restore. Hopefully, there have been pictures taken of every corner of the interior and exterior of the cathedral. That might help them reconstruct much of it.

        Apparently, this was a horrible, tragic accident but what an awful loss!


      • I used to live in Brooklyn Heights Karin, and from your description, I’m glad I wasn’t there to witness the human suffering of those people desperate enough to take their lives, by jumping, rather than to endure the agony and horror of being burned to death. Take care and write about this when you feel comfortable about doing so.


    • Ben, HOPEFULLY.


  8. I wanted to write about this, but I’ve never been to Paris. I think Karin said it better than I possibly could.

    Liked by 1 person


  1. IN THE SPIRIT OF DOING WHAT EVERYONE ELSE IS DOING … Marilyn Armstrong | Serendipity Seeking Intelligent Life on Earth

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