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May 30, 2019

Au Revoir Notre Dame, Hope and Resolve: Valbrie au Poivre

THE STORY:

I am thrilled to report that it's not "adieu" to Notre Dame ("good bye forever") but rather "au revoir" ("till we see each other again"). By now you all know the horrible news that Notre Dame burned but the wonderful news that the stone exterior and even much of the interior art -- including stained glass windows and organ -- survived the fire, though with extensive damage.



Though the cathedral is, understandably and for quite a while, off-limits, it looms so large in the Parisian city (as well as the Parisian psyche), that you can still get close enough to see. But not too close, as you can see in these current Notre Dame photos, taken by my husband: The pathos is palpable and the police presence plentiful (yes, the alliteration was purposeful).


My friend who recently moved off of Ile de la Cité went back for a walk around the old neighborhood and to see the damage; she called the feeling "sinister" saying it just feels like there's something bad in the air. That turns out to be somewhat literally true; air quality measures surrounding the cathedral are low because of the microscopic lead particles that flew into the air with the ash. The lead may have preserved the stained glass windows, but it's not great for the lungs. They can keep people from going near the church, but they can't control where the air goes.


From some angles, the cathedral really doesn't look so bad.

 

The view from my old apartment, at the back of the church, may have been damaged, but the building itself looks untouched, unharmed, unchanged. That, at least, is a relief for my poor heart.



But turning around at this exact spot and looking at the back of Notre Dame, it's a pretty painful sight. All of the playground equipment has been removed. Was it damaged in the fire? Or they simply don't want to tempt anybody to go into the yard? I don't know, but it makes me sad for the neighborhood kids. Though it was -- is -- one of the world's greatest tourist sites, that playground really served as a neighborhood gathering spot for the locals.


The church looks a naked somehow. The spire that I could see from my window in Paris is gone.




Coming just before Easter, the timing was interesting. It meant that for the first time ever, as far as anybody knows, the bells did not ring out at Easter to indicate that they had returned from their magical trip to the Vatican to be blessed, dropping chocolates and treats for children on the flight back.



Services around the city for a holiday devoted to resurrection were, understandably, quite emotional. The main body of the Notre Dame congregation went to St. Eustache, the other absolutely enormous Gothic/Renaissance cathedral in central Paris, the anchor of Les Halles. The current structure, built in the 16th and early 17th century, is but a baby compared to Notre Dame. But in a pinch, it will do. Also, this behemoth is built on the site of a former, smaller chapel built in 1213.



Coincidentally, St. Eustache has an interesting history that includes fire. During the French Revolution, it was closed for Catholic worship and used as a barn for a couple years. There was a fire in 1844 which did damage to the structure and also art-work. It was set on fire, purposefully, in 1871, during the time of the violent Paris Commune. So St. Eustache knows something of Notre Dame's pain.

St. Eustache seems like a natural choice, as it's perhaps the only other cathedral truly large enough and central enough. The cathedral and area around it has recently undergone one of the many renovations it has seen during its long, long life.


One pleasant surprise, after the fact: the beehives that have made Notre Dame's roof home since 2013 also survived -- though obviously they were not housed on the part of the roof that burned and collapsed. Apparently, we have now all learned that bees don't asphyxiate from smoke inhalation. Nor are they just smart enough to fly away and start anew somewhere else. Instead, they just go to sleep in their hive, keeping their queen company. As long as the wax doesn't melt around them, they can survive. And so, Notre Dame honey  -- around 75kg per year -- may continue to taste just as sweet in the short term, even if the bees need to be moved from Notre Dame itself. In one report, the Notre Dame beekeeper said he thought they would be lost because even though "they were 30 meters (nearly 100 feet) lower than the top roof, the wax in the hives melts at 63 degrees Celsius (145.4 Fahrenheit)."



I know they've raised over a billion dollars in days to use for the renovation, but they could sell that honey -- which they usually sell to Notre Dame employees -- for simply crazy amounts of money to raise more funds. I bet they could get a million dollars per jar. That would truly be liquid gold.

One of the more shocking pieces of news to emerge after the Notre Dame blaze was that French fire officials say that the flames had started going up the towers and that if they hadn't been able to extinguish it when they did, in just another 15-30 minutes, the entire exterior structure would have been lost. Can you imagine? I actually can. Frankly, that's exactly what I was imagining as I sat there watching the live-stream news, sobbing.

On Easter morning, I saw non-church-going types celebrating by lining the banks of the Seine by Ile de la Cité, serenading the cathedral across the water. There were hymns, multi-piece bands, and -- of course -- la Marseillaise, not just the national anthem but the national song of resilience. It's a great moment for the city motto of Paris, "Fluctuat nec mergitur," which means "She is tossed but does not sink" to resurface. Look for the wall graffiti nearest you.

Grandes Armes de Paris.svg

The fact is, though the headline screamed "fire!," and now officials are fairly certain it was started by an electrical short circuit, there's actually quite a lot of water involved in the story. The best of the water was in extinguishing the flame, much of it pumped straight from the Seine herself. A robot named Colossus was sent in to shoot water where humans couldn't go. Think about the Medieval architects constructing the cathedral coming forward in time to witness this scene alone.

But the water also does a lot of damage. The millions of gallons of water that poured down on the church will, apparently, take years to completely evaporate, especially from the pores within the stone of the deep crypt and the basement. They already have a temporary, protective tarp on top, but until they can get a more substantial temporary roof structure overhead, every single rain storm has the potential to seep in and cause more damage to the cathedral.

Macron publicly set the goal of rebuilding within five years. This seems like an inspiring but unrealistic rallying cry. The temporary structures and damage control alone -- cleaning of water and ash, assessment of damages, stabilization of windows and stone structure, scaffolding, temporary roof, etc, along with the drying -- will take several years.

And so will the selection of the plans. Will it be rebuilt exactly as it was? The plans and measurements and photos exist to do that. But there is already discussion of redesigning, rather than merely replicating. I know the French loved Notre Dame and grieve the damage, but if I know the French (and I do), they also will love the opportunity to do something with the architecture that enhances, adds, changes, and leaves our era's mark for posterity, like the glass pyramids at the Louvre.


So, my guess is that the spire as-it-was-and-has-been-since-1859 will never be rebuilt and there will be a new design for the roof. I'm kind of rooting for something glass and modern, which is shocking for me, who usually prefers things that are not glass and modern. But I predict they're going to I.M.Pei the heck out of this cathedral, and I think it's going to be glorious. There are already many suggestions -- some whimsical some more sincere -- but all innovative.


Altered/imagined photo from: Bored Panda

Altered/imagined photo from: Fast Company

I just hope I get to see the new-old Notre Dame in my lifetime. And I know when I say that, people point to Macron's "5-year" promise and think I'm being melodramatic. My instinct has been to say that's hogwash and it will take decades, but with little to back my opinion up. But now The Smithsonian agrees with me, quoting estimates from various experts at a minimum of 10-20 years, and many estimates at 40 years -- or more. I really, really hope I get to stand inside that cathedral before I die, but at the very least, I'm pretty sure I'll make it to the selection of the architectural plans, though that process alone is going to be controversial and time-consuming to say the least.

In the meantime, I can't help but leave you with more of my precious memories of Notre Dame. Looking back over photos and A Year in Fromage, even I am amazed at how much it really was the backdrop to our lives. What suburban American kids did on their lawns, mine did on the Parvis de Notre Dame or in the garden out back of the Cathedral. This is where we took the kids for silly relay races at birthday parties; where Gigi and her French partner-in-crime held what may well have been the first and only roving lemonade stand at the 850+ year old church; where my kids built snowmen and had snowball fights with friends; where they did outdoor art projects; where we fed the birds right out of our hands. We've had more picnics there than we can count, taken formal family portraits, done hit-and-run hula dancing, drunk champagne on New Year's Eve, baked and broken bread at the bread festival, and even busked (both singing and dancing) in its shadow.



We've seen and photographed it in every condition: floodssnowsevere air pollution, with the love locks and without, in glorious fall color, in glorious spring bloom, in the rain and fog, in glowing sunsets and dramatic lightning, in the aftermath of terrorism.








We've stood in Our Lady's great shadow and seen pet pigs, mimesclowns, marching bandsbrides and grooms galore . We've seen it from the outside looking in and the inside looking out, from top to bottom, with many friends and family members.

 

THE CHEESE: Valbrie au Poivre



Valbrie au Poivre, which sometimes goes under the name Brie au Poivre, is -- as the name suggests -- a cousin of Brie coated with pepper. But don't let the name fool you. It's much firmer than a typical Brie. This Valbrie is made from pasteurized cow's milk and is more of a semi-hard cheese than a goopy, soft, oozy one. But the pepper part is accurate enough.



While it's not as wildly flavorful as you'd expect from either a Brie or a peppercorn-coated cheese, it's got at least some bite to it and could be a nice addition to a fancy sandwich. It's an industrial cheese, and sort of tastes like it.

THE CONNECTION:

The most delicious new roof suggestion so far comes from one of my favorite cheese shops in Paris (and certainly the one with the best sense of humor) -- Charlicot Fromagerie in the 11th arrondissement, from their entertaining Instagram account:


The wedge I buy of Valbrie au Poivre is long, thin, and pointy, so if I were to tip it up, it would look very much like the photoshopped roof in the Charlicot Fromagerie Notre Dame proposal. It's almost hard enough for construction purposes (it would have to be in order to be structurally sound up there on top of Notre Dame). Therefore, it seems to me to be -- dare I say it? -- an in-spired cheese.


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