Since my family and I arrived in Paris for a visit Sunday, we'd spent a lot of time outside Notre Dame without actually entering, deterred by long lines. Years ago, I had sat by myself on a bench, brought nearly to tears by gratefulness for this structure that had watched Paris through centuries of life.

Around 6 p.m. Monday, our eldest said she still saw many people in front of Notre Dame. We decided we would go back to our Airbnb just a few blocks from the church to make dinner, then check the website to see how late it was open.

Just as we sat down to eat, my daughter looked out the window and asked, "What is that from?" Dark smoke billowed past our fourth-story window. I assumed one of the many ground-floor restaurants on our street had had a kitchen fire. So we put on our shoes, grabbed our passports and headed downstairs.

We followed the crowd on the street to watch what was initially just a bright fire on the roof behind the two main towers of the cathedral. The fire quickly spread; scaffolding became visible.

The crowd was strangely quiet. Only a few people were taking photos or recording video; it seemed more like a moment to watch in concerned silence.

Police yelled to push us back, and we retreated, but we could still see the flames on the roof. Black smoke emanated from the rear rose window. We heard several loud explosions.

Mental comparisons to the twin towers of Sept. 11 were unavoidable, and I began to fear that the two main bell towers might fall. Although there was a river between them and us, it felt as if debris might rain down on our heads.

Our youngest daughter was very anxious, hugging her stuffed mouse. A month ago, seeing her sister get a liquid nitrogen freeze from the dermatologist, she had nearly fainted. I feared she would do so now.

We left the scene with mixed feelings: I wanted to keep our vigil, but it was cruel to force her to stay when she was that upset.

Afterward, feeling much calmer, we felt that we could return to the site to see what was happening. Our youngest created an emergency pack: a flashlight, sugar cubes for eating, and tissues in case we wanted to cry. At the end of our block, the crowds were far too thick to penetrate farther.

Feeling the buzz of Parisians stunned by such a loss, we were unwilling to retreat to our solely American company.

Paris has changed so much in the three decades I've been coming here. I saw the Impressionist masters housed in the Jeu de Paume before the Musée d'Orsay opened. The Montmartre hotel where my husband and I stayed on our first trip here together is now gone.

Back then, we visited the Orfila museum, with life-size wax women giving birth; those collections have since been relocated to Montpellier. On Monday, we were at the Conciergerie, the prison where Marie Antoinette was held for 76 days before being guillotined.

I told our children we would see mannequins in the cells, lying on straw to show how desperate conditions were for prisoners who could not afford to bribe their jailers. Yet the cells were empty. Worse, I couldn't find the chamber where Marie Antoinette faced her last days.

To my surprise, the guides told me that I was in her chamber, which now houses general exhibits and lacks even a single plaque to denote that this had been the room in which she'd heard the roar of the crowd as her husband was executed.

Paris will keep losing things, and I will mourn them. Notre Dame's beauty, history and solace seems tangible, and I will regret that our children did not get to see that interior before it was rebuilt.

But the spirit of Paris is one of Gallic shrugging. Paris will always endure.

 

Erika Mailman is an author living in northern California. This op-ed was distributed by the Washington Post News Syndicate.