People around the world are coming to grips with the damage at the historic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. That includes two pairs of Arkansans with different perspectives.
Michael and Penny Baker flew out of Clinton National Airport on Tuesday for a week-long trip to England and France. One of the locations they most wanted to see was Notre Dame, and they planned to do so on Easter Sunday.
Penny Baker said her husband “called me (Monday). I was on my way to Conway and told me it was burning.”
“Told her to bring marshmallows,” Michael Baker joked.
The Bakers started planning their trip in September and booked their tour of Notre Dame months ago. This is the first time they have ever traveled outside North America.
“We do have a farm,” Penny Baker mentioned, “and we have cattle and he has hay. And we have baby calves, so he has a window.”
Watching video of the flames as they devoured centuries of history was more than Penny Baker could take. “I was just nauseated,” she said. “That, and I didn’t realize how old it was. I didn’t realize all of the relics that were housed in that building.”
Thousands of miles away, Chris Kelly and Will Philbrick reflect on a visit they now feel fortunate to have had.
The two friends spent an hour wandering around the streets of Paris last week, lost and tired, as they tried to find Notre Dame. “And then we rounded the corner and we saw it there,” Philbrick recalled, “and it was…it kinda came out of nowhere. It’s like it snuck up on us, almost. And it was such an amazing experience getting to see it.”
They both attend Harding University and are spending a semester abroad. Their program is based in Florence, Italy, but they have used the opportunity to see other parts of the continent, including France.
Notre Dame was one of the first places the pair visited after they arrived in Paris.
“It was dark, and it was quiet,” he said. “It was, you could tell it was an environment where it was still very much a religious place, and a place used to worship, and to pray, and to ponder, and to contemplate things. And it was very powerful.”
“Having been to so many churches at this point, we’re able to appreciate them all, but some of them are, some of them stick out more than others,” Kelly added, “and this one kind of places itself above the others in my mind.”
Millions of tourists flock to Notre Dame each year, and Philbrick said it was busy when they walked in early Wednesday morning. Between the number of people and the many sections that were roped off for security, he said it was tough to move around inside the main sanctuary but that they still greatly enjoyed the experience.
They returned to Italy on Sunday, and started receiving messages from home 24 hours later. “I had a friend of mine that’s in the States texting me,” Philbrick said, “and he said, ‘Notre Dame is on fire.’ And it was, I didn’t know if he was, like, making a joke or something. And I said, ‘what are you talking about?’ And he said, ‘yeah, check Twitter, look it up. It’s, like, on fire.
“I expected a small fire, like, maybe a part of the building had caught fire for a short amount of time. But, I didn’t realize it was continuously burning for quite a while, and it kept growing and growing.”
“I got a text from my mom,” Kelly added. “She was jokingly asking if we were, like, there when it happened, and if, like, we caused it.”
They, like millions of people around the world, were stunned by what they saw: nearly 900 years of history and architecture, priceless reminders of where culture has been, gone. “It’s crazy,” Philbrick stated, “to think it does not look the same as we saw it before, and it’s been around for so long, and now it’s different.”
Philbrick and Kelly will notice the difference when they return with a group of friends next week. Both students spent time pondering how the fire would affect Paris.
“I imagine the vibe of the city will feel different,” Philbrick said. “I imagine it’ll be a much more somber environment.”
“The city is very fast-paced,” Kelly stated, “and everyone’s getting somewhere and has something to do. And I imagine going back, everyone’s going to be, like, sort of taken aback and just sort of remembering, like, how it was before.”
Penny Baker said she wanted to see the Crown of Thorns, which was believed to have been worn by Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion. It and many of the other priceless pieces of religious and cultural history were saved.
“Oh, I’m thankful,” she said. “I’m so thankful--I just got chill bumps--that so much of it was saved.
“You know, that means the world to the world.”
The Bakers will return to Arkansas next week, sad to have missed their opportunity to see Notre Dame in its former glory. But Penny Baker departed Little Rock believing this will not be her only opportunity.
“I just wish it was there for us to see,” she said, wistfully. “But, maybe next time.”