Paradise is sitting on a bench in a cobblestone plaza, eating French pastry and sipping a café au lait, next to one of the most historic sites in France, la Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims.
The scaffolding is an eyesore, yes? I was disappointed when I saw it, but having learned a bit more about the place, I think it is perfect.
The Cathedral is the site where all of France’s kings, dating back to the fifth century, were crowned in a sacred ceremony. Its cultural importance was so great that it was spared during the French Revolution, albeit temporarily repurposed as a hospital. It is embedded in the French collective identity.
Reims, being close to the German border, was bombed continuously throughout the 4 years of WWI. The Germans specifically targeted the Cathedral, attempting to grind it to dust, so as to break French moral. And they very nearly succeeded. The lead roof melted in fires, parts of the church collapsed, and 80% of the city core was levelled. My tour guide said that only 60 houses were still inhabitable after WWI; the others had been destroyed or needed to be demolished out of safety. That is why most of Reims has a modern (ugly) Art Deco look: despite being one of the oldest cities in France (existing before the Roman Empire), most of the city was rebuilt after the first war, in the 20s.
Which brings us back to the scaffolding on the Cathedral. The damage was so extensive, the restoration is still ongoing today. That’s right. 100 years later, the scars of that First World War are still visible in everyday French life.
That is why I love France so much. With every step I take, I feel the ghosts of the past walking with me. Every site is pregnant with joy and sorrow, beauty and horrors I can’t even imagine.
France’s history is both glorious and ugly. That duality is what is so endearing, so very human. The ability to accept such complexity is what I miss the most, when I’m in North America: everything is black and white, good or bad, partisan and never non-partisan. We feel like immature spoiled children; something my grandfather (a WWII survivor) always said about locals, that our innocence and naivety sprang from a lack of suffering – life was too good in North America.
When I’m in France, my heart aches with joyful sorrow. I also feel hope, because here, in this country that has seen absolutely everything for 15 centuries, the best and the worst humanity has to offer, here I can believe in the resilience of mankind. More importantly, this country is proof that although as a species we are capable of great harm, destruction and hatred, and although the consequences of that behaviour lasts for generations, our capacity for beauty and love is greater and stands the test of time.
100 years’ worth of restoration to heal the wounds of war… On a church that is 1500 years old and is still standing.
Vive la France!!!