We’re now two weeks out since one of this city’s most tragic days. I’ve been reflecting a lot about the loss of Notre Dame – at least for now – and I thought I’d share with you how that day played out for me and what I’ve thought about since.

I was high on life when I got the news. I had just spent the day with my friend Ainsley, photographing each other in a beautiful springy location, and we had had so much fun. I rode home on my bike, and on my way home found loads of wisteria dangling over a fence, so I had stopped to park my bike in front for a photo. Not long after I had started shooting, the owner of the home (a full multi-story house) came out and asked me if I’d be so kind as to send her the images, as she didn’t have any of her beautiful wisteria despite having planted it herself 30 years ago. I ended up talking to the woman for 45 minutes and seeing her back yard, also full of beautiful plants. “In summertime,” she told me, “it’s so nice to sit out her and enjoy all these plants and trees I planted long ago”. I left feeling even happier than I had when I had left Ainsley. It’s not every day I get invited into someone’s back yard here. It’s not every day I get to hear the story of one of my neighbors and how she’s seen the neighborhood change over the decades.

I continued on my way then settled in back home and before too long, I received a text from my friend: “It’s so sad what’s happening at Notre Dame,” she said. What was she talking about, I wondered? Since she didn’t reply immediately, I quickly got on Twitter to see if I could see something was coming through in real time about it. Then I saw it. The first image appearing on my phone was one of Notre Dame engulfed in flames.

I quickly picked my things back up and headed back out. I had to see this for myself. As I headed for the metro, I could see a huge plume of smoke in the distance, which I knew could only be from the Cathedral. I continued to the metro texting as many people as I could think of who would want to know, then got out at the Jussieu stop to approach the cathedral from the back side. Just as I turned the corner and looked toward the cathedral, I saw massive flames and an incredible amount of smoke billowing from just behind the towers. I eventually learned that I had just missed the steeple falling at that moment, hence the excess flames. The streets were full of people standing still, slack-jawed as we all simply couldn’t believe our eyes. Traffic was at a near stand-still because drivers were also watching in awe. How could this be happening? The literal heart of Paris was on fire.

Notre Dame fire, Paris, France, Notre Dame cathedral, Julia Willard, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Falling Off Bicycles

My view as I walked toward the métro to go see Notre Dame

Notre Dame fire, Paris, France, Notre Dame cathedral, Julia Willard, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Falling Off Bicycles

Once off the métro, this was my view

I watched the fire for over an hour with thousands of others from Pont de Sully and Pont de la Tournelle. People around me didn’t say much; what was there to say, anyway? I just kept thinking that the tiny stream of water I saw them spraying from a single cherry picker was never going to extinguish the massive fire they were up against. Of course I didn’t have all the information, but it seemed like such a measly attempt at putting the fire out from the angle I had.

Eventually, I had people all over the world messaging me, so I did an Instagram Live video for those who wanted it. I agreed to speak with a New Zealand news station to share what I was seeing, as they were eager to hear from people who were there on the scene.

I texted my fiancé who was at work asking him to come meet me, as it’s in these moments of great loss, even of a shared thing such as Notre Dame, that you just don’t want to be alone. We met up and wandered a bit closer – as much as we could – along Quai d’Orléans, where we found ourselves behind a group of people singing together and crying. People were on their best behavior everywhere we walked; it seemed everyone was looking for a hand to hold or someone to pray with. It was a heartbreaking and beautiful sight all at once.

** I’m very aware this is not my best photography work, but I was swept up in the moment, dodging people, and frankly very shaken by the whole thing.

Notre Dame fire, Paris, France, Notre Dame cathedral, Julia Willard, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Falling Off Bicycles

7:58 pm

Notre Dame fire, Paris, France, Notre Dame cathedral, Julia Willard, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Falling Off Bicycles

Notre Dame fire, Paris, France, Notre Dame cathedral, Julia Willard, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Falling Off Bicycles

8:53 pm

Notre Dame fire, Paris, France, Notre Dame cathedral, Julia Willard, Julie Willard, Julia Arias, Falling Off Bicycles

I had never seen so many people at their windows and on their balconies than I did that night

So what can we learn from this historic event?

  • Go now, don’t wait. After it standing for nearly 800 years, I suppose it wasn’t completely ridiculous for me to expect for it to stand there another 800 years. And yet, now it sits there in what looks like ruins, and we must come to terms with the fact that we may not get to go back inside, walk around the surrounding gardens, or photograph those precious cherry trees ever again. It’s so easy to put things off for another year or another trip, but this seems as good a reminder as any to go to the places you’ve dreamt of going and stop waiting for the partner, the friend, the perfect moment, or whatever that is keeping you from making the plans.
  • Be a tourist in your own city. It’s maybe easy to say this about Paris, but I believe this is true about anywhere. My fiancé is a lifelong Parisian and he has not been in some of the City’s most beautiful museums and monuments, or at least not since he was a child on a field trip. For those of us not from here, it’s hard to imagine living in the shadow of one of the world’s most epic architectural masterpieces, and not taking full advantage of it – to attend mass, to photograph the exterior, to climb to the top… But that’s the case for so many, and I think it bears a good lesson that we should appreciate what’s nearest to us so that we can further connect to our own home cities, towns, and villages. One great way to do this is to have visitors! What better way to force yourself to find interesting activities and historical tidbits about your home?
  • Be present. I have walked around, outside, beneath, through Notre Dame Cathedral countless times in my time as a visitor and as a resident of Paris. One of my favorite things about photography is that it forces you to be present. The cherry blossom trees in the garden beneath the rose window of Notre Dame have been a favorite photography site of mine for years, and my hours shooting there further helped me appreciate the beauty of the cathedral and of nature. There was a magical convergence of peace and beauty in that garden that will not be accessible again for who knows how long.
  • Don’t just admire monuments from the outside, there’s even more to be enjoyed inside. As I mentioned earlier, my fiancé has lived in Paris his whole life and yet there are some monuments he is shaky on when I refer to them. Of course, he has seen Notre Dame countless times in his life, but he admits it has become increasingly rare for him to visit any of the city’s main landmarks. I know so many people come to Paris and try to see absolutely everything in just a few days. I totally understand wanting to see as much as possible, but there are some things – like art and architectural masterpieces – that I think are must-sees when you come to Paris. The history, the toil that took place to construct this place, it’s an act of reverence just to go to it and enjoy it to the fullest, whether it be a stroll inside, a guided tour, a prayer at the altar, or a trip to the top. When it reopens (crossing fingers 🤞🏼), I hope people will be more conscientious when planning their trips to Paris and go appreciate these monuments to the fullest. There’s a current travel trend that is all about going to the most Instagrammable places, but these monuments should remain at the top of visitors’ lists.
  • Make a donation. It was free to enter Notre Dame, which I personally believe is only right for a church. Nevertheless, the Law of Giving and Receiving tells us that when we receive we shall give, and when we give, we shall receive. This is a dynamic exchange that, if disrupted, interrupts nature’s divine intelligence. When we visit, pray in, or photograph these places, we should likewise contribute something, whether it be a financial donation or a prayer for its wellbeing. Want to contribute to the restoration of this important monument? Donate to the Fondation Notre Dame here.
  • Tragedies bring people together. I won’t get into the conspiracy theories that sometimes these national tragedies are created for this precise purpose, but I do think these sad incidents can be important reminders that we are all much more similar than we often acknowledge. As I mentioned above, we saw so many strangers come together and pray, sing, and chat since this happened, and it’s been a sad but poignant reminder that we’re all in this together, after all.

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As I wrote this, I recalled an apartment we visited only last year that was literal steps away from Notre Dame. I posted part of the visit on my Instagram stories, and people replied: “Don’t move there. The bells seem charming now, but with hourly – or even quarter-hourly tolls – you will quickly grow tired of living so close to Notre Dame.” In retrospect, of course, I would have happily lived with such frequent reminders of my good fortune to lived in the heart of Paris next to Notre Dame had I known it would be in flames just months later.

 

“Love is like a tree:
it grows by itself, roots itself deeply in our being
and continues to flourish over a heart in ruin.
The inexplicable fact is that the blinder it is, the more tenacious it is.
It is never stronger than when it is completely unreasonable.”
― Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame


All images are © Julia Willard and may not be used without express written permission. Click any image in this series to be taken to my photography shop.