Paris point zéro

Embedded in the paving stones on the ‘parvis’ or square just outside of Notre-Dame de Paris on Île de la Cité is the point from which all distances in France are measured. This special paving stone bears the inscription ‘POINT ZERO DES ROUTES DE FRANCE’.

The stone is a symbol of Paris as the centre of the French universe. Just as all roads lead to Rome, all routes in France lead from Paris: more than one million kilometres of highways and byways both national and regional. Places all over the country are identified in terms of their distance from it. It is just one example of how the cathedral is the very heart and soul of France.

Officialized by royal order in April 1739, its central symbol is a ‘rose des vents’ or what we call the points of a compass.

Thousands of tourists find this discreet bronze marker and take souvenir photos of themselves or their feet by the famous stone. Thirty-three years ago this month, I was one of them. Shortly after arriving at Charles de Gaulle, armed with a few words of French and a deep conviction that living with my French fiancé would do the rest, I stood there and felt for all the world like I was at the centre of the universe.

I was far from home and far from feeling at home. That would take years. But I knew, somehow, that I had arrived. That year in Paris became the ‘point zero’ for the rest of my life.

Have you seen the famous stone in Paris? Or do you have a special time or place that became your own personal point zero?


Le temps des cathédrales

Here is this week’s song for a Saturday. Voici ma chanson pour un samedi.

The year was 1998. The musical ‘Notre-Dame de Paris’ had just opened in Paris and this song was among the many taking France by storm. Powerful, dramatic, it seemed to somehow capture the spirit of Victor Hugo’s novel.

With music written by Richard Cocciante and lyrics by Luc Plamandon, the musical had all the ingredients of a major international success. It had the most successful first year of any musical ever according to the Guinness Book of World Records. It was translated into 8 languages and went on to have long runs around the world.

There are many more beautiful and deeply moving pieces of classical music being played in honour of Notre-Dame de Paris this week. Yet this is the song that stands out in my memory as that which epitomizes the drama and magic of the place.

Bon weekend!

‘Impossible n’est pas français’

The first time I heard this statement, I took it for corporate speak. I was working in a big company that had set what seemed like an impossible objective to be achieved in a ridiculously short period of time.

“Pas possible,” I may have scoffed. ‘Pas possible’ being one of those easy expressions that non-native speakers pick up and use like gold. They’re so easy, and most of the time, they work. Not this time. My boss turned to me and said, a steely look in her eye: “Impossible n’est pas français.”

This improbable statement turned out to be true. The organization rallied, pulled out all the stops and met the impossible deadline. Proving that the French are capable of pulling off stunts that others might discount as not being feasible.

It struck me as a contradiction. Given how long things normally take in this country, the delays due to strikes and disagreements among various teams and members of personnel, how could we have achieved so much, so quickly? I guess it comes down to a certain military mentality that takes over in times of crisis. I’ve also seen it in action at large events of incredible scale that the French are so good at pulling off. Operationally, the French are capable of amazing feats.

That is why when Macron announced that our beloved Notre-Dame de Paris will be rebuilt within five years, I believe it can be done. Whether or not that happens will depend on whether the government is able to get everybody on side. If time is wasted arguing over the best approach (artisanal or industrial?), the funding (a huge uproar has already begun over the donations raised by private capital — why can’t a fraction of that money be found for social causes?), we may well miss the goal. But if everyone pulls together, it’s possible.

As for the proverb, it goes back to Napoléon Bonaparte, who wrote in 1808 to one of his generals that impossible was not a word he understood. So was born the expression ‘Impossible n’est pas français’. Popularized by Balzac, it became the title of books, films and this song by Sheila, in 1967

P.S. There is a mistake in the YouTuber’s title – it is ‘français’ the language, not ‘Français’ the people — even if many prefer to think the latter!

Notre-Dame des larmes

Our Lady of tears

They gathered by Ile de la Cité in shock, hundreds and thousands of the faithful, the curious, tourists and locals. For believers and non-believers alike, the gut punch of seeing nearly 900 years of history going up in flames was too painful to bear.


The words in French expressed deep grief and shock. “On est meurtri,” said Stéphane Bern, France’s Monsieur Culture, moved to tears during an interview. Bruised, injured, struck down. That this monument, Notre-Dame de Paris, the most-visited site in France, possibly in the world, should be so ravaged by flames when it had survived eight centuries of history, come through bombings and world wars.

When its proud spire fell, the gasp was audible. Hands flew up to cover faces, the emotion beyond words. It was a knife to our collective heart.

The timber roof structure was called ‘la forêt’ as it was a virtual forest of hardwood beams, each representing a single tree. Work was underway to renovate this structure, known in French as la charpente. Although it had stood strong for hundreds of years, it wasn’t in that good shape and any work on it represented a certain risk. That is why last year, a dry run was held of simulated crisis with a plan in place to save its priceless treasures.

Dieu soit loué, thanks be to god, they were able to get most of the icons and paintings out in time.

So many tears fell around the world as this beautiful building was saved by the brave Paris firefighters through the night. This morning, they are saying that the cathedral’s structure is still sound. It will take decades to rebuild but I have faith in this country and its passion for history that it will be restored to its former glory.

Thanks to all who said a prayer or shed a tear for this grand old lady.

Do you have a memory, recent or far off, of Notre-Dame de Paris?