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?

Le périph

It’s the busiest road in France. Its 35 kilometres have been taking people in and around Paris since 1973. Le périph, as the the Paris ring road is known, is not the most famous monument in the French capital but it is certainly the most visited. And while it is hardly a beautiful sight, it is a view that many French drivers spend hours looking at each day.

Inauguration in 1973

As I mentioned in my last post, the French are experts in how to ‘contourner‘ or go around things. In this case, it is the city itself.

Many large French cities have boulevards périphériques – Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseille — but the Paris ring road is the biggest and best known. It was built alongside the old fortifications around the city, there since the 1840s to protect the capital from outside invaders — or the rioting French people.

It seems the recent wave of ‘gilets jaunes’ (yellow vests) are only the latest in a long tradition.

A map of the Paris périph with its many exits and the Seine river in the middle

The speed limit on the densely packed périph is limited to 70 km. There are many on- and off-ramps but no safety shoulders, which can make driving on it a hair-raising experience. I once had to do a stretch on the périph to pass my French driver’s test.

I remember thinking that some poor tourists might turn in endless circles around Paris before getting up the nerve to squeeze through its multiple lanes of traffic to exit.

Here’s more info and details on the inner and outer ring roads from Wikipedia.

Do you have a memory of driving on a ring road or ‘périph’?

 

Sapeurs-pompiers: France’s unsung heroes

The two young firefighters belonged to the Sapeurs-Pompiers de Paris. Nathanaël, already the father of a 4-year-old boy at 27, came from north-central France; 28-year-old Simon was from a small town in the Savoie. Both had been volunteers before joining the ranks of the professional firefighters at the Château d’Eau station in Paris. Sadly, both men were killed in an explosion from a gas leak in a Paris bakery on Saturday morning.

The scenes of devastation around the site of the explosion at 6, rue de Trévise in the 9th arrondissement were impressive. Two more people lost their lives in addition to the firemen and dozens were injured. Residents in neighbouring buildings were shocked into the streets, in pyjamas, not knowing if it was safe to go home. Such was the force of the blast that six buildings are now considered at risk of collapse. Firefighters had to rescue many older and fragile residents who were unable to get out alone.

Living in a country like France where many buildings and the surrounding infrastructure are truly ‘ancient’ (as the French world for old, ‘ancien’, suggests), such accidents happen more often than they should. The recent collapse of several buildings in Marseille also put the emergency services to the test as they spent days searching for people trapped in the rubble.

So often the vital and heroic work they do goes unrecognized, and their praises are rarely sung.

The majority of France’s sapeurs-pompiers, fire and rescue crews, are volunteers. Outside of the major cities most fire services have only one or two paid professionals who head up the local ranks of volunteers. We rely upon them for much more than putting out fires: they are the first on the scene for emergency medical services, roadside accidents, drownings, floods and disasters of all kinds. They provide emergency training to local citizens, advice on dangers like wasp nests and are often on hand at large gatherings to help keep the public safe.

The word ‘pompiers’, as they are most commonly called, comes from the fellow who manned the ‘pompe’ or water pump; ‘sapeur’ is rather more complicated but has to do with the fact that in the past, often the only way to put out a fire was to destroy or ‘saper’ the building. Credit: Wikipedia.

The distinctive ‘pam pom’ of the fire and emergency sirens can be heard with varying degrees of frequency all over France. It is a sound that I used to find terrifying but which now reassures me. It means that help is on its way, and when you live relatively far from a big city or a hospital, that is reassuring indeed.

I hope I never need them but I am grateful that they will be there when I do.

R.I.P. Nathanaël and Simon.

Merci à tous nos sapeurs-pompiers pour vos bons et loyaux services!

 

La Marseillaise

It is as stirring an anthem as any ever written. Not that the French are inclined to sing ‘La Marseillaise’ that often – the last time I can remember was before the start of the final World Cup match. Which we won. Such memories of victory are important at the moment as we are going through a bit of a rough patch in France.

I first saw the Arc de Triomphe shortly after landing in Paris many years ago. It is an impressive way to enter the city, coming from Roissy and Charles de Gaulle airport to the northwest. Driving by it on the multi-pointed Etoile, it is even more monumental than one imagines from all those beauty shots taken from afar.

It was only later that I got close enough to admire the statuary, and learn of its history. Commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate all those who fought for France in the revolutionary wars, inscribed with the names of victories and generals and home to the tomb of the unknown soldier from the first world war. Its statuary, pictured above, includes the sculpture by François Rude of The Departure of 1792, also known as La Marseillaise. It depicts the symbolic winged Liberty and celebrates the cause of the first French republic.

I am no historian; all this comes from Wikipedia. While we’re at it, here’s the scoop from Wiki on the anthem:

The melody soon became the rallying call to the French Revolution and was adopted as “La Marseillaise” after (it) was first sung on the streets by volunteers (fédérés in French) from Marseille by the end of May. These fédérés were making their entrance into the city of Paris on 30 July 1792 after a young volunteer from Montpellier called François Mireur had sung it at a patriotic gathering in Marseille, and the troops adopted it as the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille.[2]

The music, almost discordant at times, is a powerful battle cry. The lyrics are a call to arms. There is blood on the ground and fierce pride in the hearts of all who sing it.

This explains a lot about what is currently going on in France. Not that I agree with it, or condone the acts of violence and destruction. Quite the opposite. But I do recognize that it is true to the French. When there is a perceived injustice, one that goes too far, there will be protest. And it will not stop until something changes.

I just hope it will happen sooner rather than later. It breaks my heart to see the broken statues in the Arc de Triomphe, the graffiti inscribed on its walls.

And, after all, who will pay to fix it? We will. Who will suffer when the police refuse to do battle with angry mobs who throw bricks and kick them on the ground? When the shopkeepers close, when the tourists stay home. We all will. We the people, the taxpayers, the young and old, the rich and the poor.

France is known, even among the French, as being a country that is ‘irréformable’; that is, one that cannot be reformed. For as long as I have lived here, over 25 years, every government has tried and, mostly, failed to effect change. In fact, thanks again to Wikipedia, it seems that years ago during the government of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, there was a move to change the bloody, revolutionary lyrics of the French national anthem to something rather more peaceful. It failed. La Marseillaise prevails.

Now Macron’s government is trying to bring what most agree is needed reform, with a carbon tax and other budgetary measures. Will they fail? I hope not. But if they do, I will be the first to stand up and march for an even bigger change, one that will allow us to make a sweeping reforms once and for all. A 6th republic. Not one led by extremes and Antifa movements, but one that would give this country a fresh start with a revised constitution and laws.

Revolutionary, you say? Mais oui. Just listen to la Marseillaise…

Filer à l’anglaise

I’ve posted before about the unfortunate tendency on both sides of the Channel to blame each other for bad behaviour. Thus, the English expression to ‘take French leave’ is known as ‘filer à l’anglaise’ in French.

Such military terms spring to mind especially this week as we are all fresh from the commemorations of the armistice on November 11, marking 100 years since the end of the first World War.

Among the many international leaders who gathered in Paris on Sunday, the only one who truly lived up to the above expression was the ugly American, who went AWOL when it came time to tramp through the rain with the other leaders.

Speaking of which, this post is to also say that I too am taking French leave for a bit of a holiday and will miss my usual post this week.

In the meantime, I suggest you scoot over to the excellent Heide’s blog, where she shares a rare glimpse of the soldier’s view of World War I, along with some fascinating views from her exploration of a quarry in northern France that provided subterranean shelter during the war.

Bises et à bientôt!