Paris’s Cathedral of Imagination and Memory

The last time I took a good look at Notre-Dame was on a cold, rainy, early morning this past winter when I took the almost-empty Metro to the Prefecture de Police, Paris’s main police station, to collect my new 10-year residence card, my third. I stared up at the two Gothic towers of the facade and remembered the first time I’d ever seen this place, on a hot August afternoon when I was a 15-year-old boy on my first visit to Paris with my family. The city’s sensuality taunted me during our stay, seducing me with pleasures I didn’t completely understand and which were just out of reach.

After a month of traveling in Europe with my mother and brothers, I was frankly weary of visiting churches. I’d had my fill of their big gloomy paintings, those alarming bits and pieces of saints known as relics, and the slightly melancholy smell of candle wax, the eternal scent of the hope found in faith. But on that bright day, this cathedral was different from the others, because it moved me, and not so much in terms of faith, as far as my adolescent mind had any ability to grapple with that concept, but as a place that would come to anchor a dream.

I had fallen hard for Paris, and Notre-Dame, the heart of the city I’d become besotted with, offered hope that — even if I was from Connecticut — maybe one day I, too, could become a Parisian. There was something in the mesmerizing light of the sun streaming through the exultant kaleidoscope of stained glass that made me believe this might just be possible. Sixteen years later, I heaved my big tweed-sided suitcase onto a platform at the Gare du Nord after a long three-part (train, boat, train) journey from London, where I’d been living, and began my new life in Paris.

My first apartment was near the Sorbonne on the Left Bank, and so Notre-Dame amazed me anew every day as I walked to and from work at an office near the Place de la Concorde. The cathedral became a fixture of my daily life. Miraculously, I wasn’t a tourist anymore, but a fledgling Parisian. ALEXANDER LOBRANO

[Alexander Lobrano recently wrote about the affordable dining renaissance happening in Paris.]

To understand the power of the mighty organ at Notre-Dame, all you had to do was stand outside. At night, when the giant wooden doors were shuttered and the cathedral looked like a sleeping giant, I would sometimes be lucky enough to hear the rich but muted strain of music floating from the stone edifice while I was out for an evening stroll.

A talented musician was sitting inside, alone, high above the pews, doing an after-hours practice recital on the great organ’s five stacked keyboards for an upcoming concert. The cathedral’s walls were so thick, and yet pieces of the melody were punching their way from 7,800 pipes into the wider world.

I’ve lived in the center of Paris for years, and one of the things I love best about this city is taking an after-dinner walk to Notre-Dame with my husband just to soak in the Gothic facade, the monstrous gargoyles and the darkened rose windows. We typically make our way through the Marais and toward the Pont Louis Philippe to cross the Seine. No matter how many times we’ve seen the ivory towers of Notre-Dame soar above the tip of the Île St.-Louis, they are always breathtaking.