Catastrophic, they say. Heartbreaking, I say. I visited what is arguably the world’s most famous church during a summer foreign exchange program in high school. Notre Dame Cathedral is more than just a building to me. It’s a visible reminder of my transition from child to young adult.
Abroad and Alone
It was my first time abroad, living with a family I didn’t know, speaking a language I quickly realized I didn’t know well enough. No cell phones. No Internet. Just postcards home to my own family.
An adventure from beginning to end, starting with my layover in Paris. Someone from the foreign exchange program was supposed to meet me at Charles de Gaulle Airport to shepherd me onto my second plane. No one showed up, so this tired 17-year-old Iowa girl whimpered for a moment, then got on a bus and rode in circles until the driver noticed and got her to the right concourse.
From the mountains to the Mediterranean.
- One evening, my host family took me out for dinner and ordered me the most expensive salad on the menu. When it arrived, I realized it was loaded with anchovies and horseradish dressing. No water at the table, I took a sip of wine after every bite to wash it down. By the end of dinner, I could barely stand up.
- A week later, we traveled to their rustic (entirely made of local stone) summer home in the Pyrenees Mountains. While the parents visited with neighbors, their daughter and I went outside for a walk and were chased across an open field by a fast and surprisingly vocal donkey.
- I had only packed a handful of clothes, which I would wash in the bathroom sink. But I didn’t have time to do laundry before we headed out for a bit of tent camping on the Mediterranean coast. So, I waited until everyone was asleep, washed my underwear in the public restroom, then laid them on the grass outside to dry. I stayed awake all night, making sure I could sneak my lawn decorations in before everyone else woke up.
And then… Paris!
We traveled to Paris for Bastille Day. But this wasn’t just any old July 14. This was 1989—the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the French Revolution. The bicentennial. To this day, it was the biggest celebration I have ever seen. More spectacular than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Fireworks, big-name musicians, parades under the Arc de Triomphe.
That foreign exchange trip changed me.
It stretched my view of the world. It inspired an insatiable hunger for travel. And it made me realize that I could do hard things—by myself. That I was strong and capable and could navigate obstacles. (It also made me realize that buildings from the 1950s weren’t “old.”)
I have visited countless cathedrals in dozens of countries since that pivotal day three decades ago. But none have captured my heart like the French Gothic giant born 850 years ago. I only walked her spiral steps once. I thought she would always be there—that I could visit again anytime to climb the staircase that helped lead me toward myself.
Thank you for the memories, Notre Dame. I hope your spire rises again.