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THOMPSON: Notre Dame is a monument to civilization

April 22, 2019 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


It was difficult to watch fire nearly consume Notre Dame Cathedral last week. I’m not Catholic - or particularly religious - but the place held history for me…as it does for millions of people worldwide. I remember my every visit to Paris…a dozen times in a love affair that has spanned more than five decades.

I first visited the “City of Light” when I was 21 years old. My birthday was on Monday, Sept. 27 in 1971…and I arrived the Friday before…so actually…I was 20. I drove more than five hours from Zweibrücken, Germany, where I served in NATO on a Royal Canadian Air Force Base transitioning to the U.S. Air Force.

I made the trip alone…unable to convince any of my friends - American or Canadian - to join me for the long weekend. A few were interested until they heard about my plan to dine Saturday night at Taillevent…one of the world’s most famous restaurants. It won its first Michelin Guide star in 1948 and its second star in 1954. A year and a half after my visit, the restaurant picked up a much-coveted third star in 1973.

Chef Claude Deligne, who came to Taillevent in 1970 and would stay for 21 years, would cook for me and other patrons that night. But when my erstwhile friends learned that dinner with wine would run at as much as two month’s rent…they no doubt thought I was crazy. I would dine alone. I had Champagne tastes then but sadly - as an Air Force Sergeant - more of a beer budget.

In this image made available on Tuesday April 16, 2019 flames and smoke rise from the blaze as the spire starts to topple on Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019.
In this image made available on Tuesday April 16, 2019 flames and smoke rise from the blaze as the spire starts to topple on Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Thierry Mallet

But I was already a foodie…and not to be deterred - even by a menu that would blow a huge hole in my monthly pay - I set out for Paris at noon that Friday. Late in the afternoon, I drove through Villiers-sur-Marne just east of Paris. A road sign let me know I was 20 kilometres from Kilometre Zero…the historic centre of Paris…directly in front of Notre Dame Cathedral.

I stayed on historic La Rive Gauche in the heart of the Latin Quarter at what is now the Hotel Petit Paris on Rue Saint-Jacques…five minutes from Luxembourg Gardens, the Sorbonne and Notre Dame Cathedral.

Long before there was Trivago and Priceline, it was a personal connection that got you great hotel deals and so it was that my Wing Commander - a full-bird Colonel - through a Parisian friend snagged a wonderful room for me for three nights for 100 French Francs…about $20 back then for Four-Star Parisian luxury.

Even as a young man, whenever I traveled I did my best to counter the stereotypical image of the Ugly-American tourist…sadly the stereotype held some truth. I dressed as if I belonged…blazer, tie and I looked as though I could afford luxury even when I couldn’t. I was courteous, friendly and made an effort to speak the language of that country. It almost always paid off…getting me suites instead of rooms, better tables in restaurants and appreciation for not showing up in a jogging suit or jeans.

Paris has always been a sophisticated, dress-up city. Most Parisians seemed to have stepped out of Vogue in the seventies…as they do now. So, I arrived at my hotel looking dapper in a wool double-breasted blazer, a shirt with French-cuffs and a hand-painted silk tie…fashion items I’m partial to even today.

After settling in at my hotel, I strolled directly to Notre Dame in delightful 15-degree Celsius weather. It took just five minutes but I arrived too late to enter. Still, I took in its majesty an hour-and-a-half before sunset…the sky still blue. I stayed for nearly half an hour…and would return that Sunday to see the interior of one of the most iconic cathedrals in history.

That evening I dined at a busy Latin Quarter bistro not far from my hotel, engaging a few Parisians at the next table. I thought they were my age…but later found out they were four to five years older. We talked and laughed and ate and drank for a couple hours…then went to a nearby bar and drank more. We said our goodbyes and hugged well after 1 A.M. I decided then and there…I would like Paris and France and its people…and disabused myself of any stereotypes I had heard or might have held.

Awaking Saturday with the exuberance that only a near-21-year-old can have…I jammed what might have been two days into one…darting from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower along the Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe…walking mile after mile…stopping at everything that caught my eye. As I cross-crossed Paris that day, Notre Dame was often within sight.

That night, fashionably dressed - including a new Yves St. Laurent blue shirt with white collar and cuffs I bought that day - I arrived at the opulent Taillevent at 8 P.M. It did not begin well. I was led by the Maitre’D to a table closest to the kitchen…the table held no rose as the other tables did…it was cramped and had a view of well-dressed waiters entering and exiting the kitchen.

I sat there for a few minutes…stunned…before summoning the Captain of the waiters…a distinguished looking gentlemen who could have walked off a Hollywood screen. I called him closer, explaining in quiet tones that I had saved for months, knew the chef’s and restaurant’s reputations, intended to order a 1961 Ch. Ausone and had anticipated this experience since arriving in Europe three months earlier.

He listened intently, smiled and simply said, “Monsieur Thompson, please follow me.”

He led me to one of the restaurant’s best tables with views of art. The next three plus hours were like no other in any other restaurant in my young life…the food was other worldly…the service divine.

The Captain brought me an expensive Cognac at the meal’s end…courtesy of the restaurant.  When I left about 11:30 P.M., he, two waiters and the Maitre’D all shook my hand, and he said, in English: “Thank you, Monsieur Thompson, we look forward to your return.” I took a taxi they had arranged…but asked to be dropped off near Notre Dame.

The night was quiet and cool. I lit a cigarette - I smoked back then - and save the absence of a beautiful woman - I felt as though I were in a movie…living someone else’s life as I looked at Notre Dame in the moonlight.

The recent fire did not win…the Cathedral still stands, and already $1 Billion has been raised privately for repairs and to rebuild its spire. It might take five, ten…even 15 years or more to complete…but it will be done. If I don’t see it as it once was…or better…again, perhaps my young Canadian grandchildren will.

Notre Dame has stood for more than 850 years. It is a building…manmade…but beyond that, it is a thread that continues in a fabric of culture and religion and art. I will see it with new eyes the next time I’m in Paris but it will mean no less…a monument to civilization.


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