Column: Notre Dame fire rekindles a long-distance friendship

  • Jeff Danziger

For the Valley News
Published: 4/20/2019 10:40:16 PM

On Wednesday, I managed to get Antoine, who I call my French brother, on the phone in Paris. Ever since news of the Notre Dame fire, I had been trying to contact him to get the boots-on-the-ground perspective. He is a native Parisian (I lived with his family for two years in the 1990s), and I was hopeful he could give me some details that my English-language sources would have missed.

He did not disappoint. His initial reports, via WhatsApp, were cause for despair. He had wept at the images on his television the night of the blaze. A chilling photo of the Eiffel Tower obscured by smoke and flames from the cathedral’s spire bore the caption, “The capital’s two emblematic monuments!” The exclamation point, I quickly deduced, was not there to mark excitement, but rather deep sadness.

In a brief text, he said the fire was all Parisians could talk about, and that everyone was devastated ... and not just the believers.

The words gave me pause; I had heretofore seen the fire as a tragedy impacting an internationally recognizable tourist attraction. I hadn’t yet added the layer of impact that the deeply faithful, like Antoine, were experiencing. My heart gripped a bit as I realized that hundreds of millions of Catholics were living the fire personally.

On the phone, the tone shifted markedly. Antoine, in his early 50s with what can only be called a seductive baritone, gave me the essentials. It seemed that, by and large, the damage was not as bad as originally feared. The towers were intact, the most iconic treasures and artwork secured, and only three people injured, all mildly.

Antoine’s Frenchness began to bubble to the surface. “Overall, the structure is solid. They knew what they were doing when they built it,” he said, his voice brimming with Gallic pride. It takes a certain kind of person to reach back across eight or nine centuries and claim the work done then as one’s own.

Antoine is a certain kind of person.

This less-than-catastrophic diagnosis allowed humor to creep into our conversation. When the fire started, it quickly spread to the roof. The wood in the rafters “was just as you like it, good and dry after 800 years,” Antoine joked. Admiringly, he reported that the firefighters quickly understood that the spire was doomed, and directed their attention to preserving everything else. My French friend listed a series of small miracles amidst the wreckage, marveling that the gigantic organ “did not get even a drop of water”; that officials had conducted a fire preparedness drill just the week before the blaze; that 2,000 people were inside the cathedral when the flames started and not one of them was hurt.

He paused, and I heard a Zippo spark, a sign that he had more news to share. “Are you ready for this?” he asked. “Pledges to rebuild from around the world currently total one billion euros.” A staggering sum, we agreed, and allowed ourselves a laugh that, if such a disaster had to happen, it was probably best that it come a few days before Easter, when even the most lapsed of the faithful has a little Jesus on the brain.

I wondered who was going to be in charge of all that money and the effort to restore, repair and rebuild. “Ah, mon ami, il n’y que les Français qui savent le faire,” my expert friend told me. Only the French can do it. “We have the experience and the historical knowledge on how these structures were built in the first place. Les compagnons de devoir have been studying and practicing this type of construction for over 900 years; they say they can rebuild it exactly as before.”

If you could have colored his words, they would have been the bleu, blanc, rouge of the French flag.

I asked about the politics of the situation. President Macron had “delivered a very good speech,” Antoine told me, and vowed to have the cathedral ready in five years for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. We shared a verbal eyeroll, agreeing that sometimes politicians are a little overly optimistic.

Like any good Frenchman worth his salt, Antoine knows when a conversational topic has run its course. He realized that we had exhausted the cathedral talk, and quickly pivoted to other subjects. He told me about the sale of his mother’s estate, a falling-out he’d had with his brother-in-law, and his daughter’s new obsession with flexitarianism. (“I told her I’m sorry, but we eat meat in this family. I like pork.”)

The topics were banal by comparison to the events at Notre Dame. Nonetheless, they filled my soul with joy and gratitude. You see, I realized that a fire in a faraway church was more powerful than any images could convey. Those flames, it seems, reconnected me with a family that I adore. The sparks that caused devastation and shock around the world were also able to rekindle a friendship across an ocean, and remind a couple of men of the power of human connection.

If it’s all the same to you, however, I hope that my future conversations with Antoine and his family will be sparked not by tragedy but by the simple, beautiful power of love.

Mark Lilienthal lives in Norwich. He can be reached at

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