There’s a short story I want to tell you, a story that has been rattling around in my memory since the moment I glanced at a TV and saw the fire burning.

It is a story about a building, but to me it is more than that. Maybe it is a story about how a building can make you feel something profound.

It happened five years ago, at the end of our first-ever night in Paris. Sarah and I had saved for years to take our fifth anniversary vacation. We stuffed money into an envelope marked “Europe or Bust.”

When we finally had enough, I picked a country, Italy. Sarah chose a city. Paris.

We landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in the late morning, still the middle of the night in Omaha. Some combo of anticipation and the broad-shouldered gentleman leaning aggressively onto my armrest had kept me wide awake the entire flight.

We glanced at the Eiffel Tower through the windshield of our cab. I then promptly fell asleep on Sarah’s shoulder.

When I awoke, we went to lunch, walked around a bit, got lost in the city for the first of many times.

But we were jet lagged and cranky. Let me rephrase: I was jet lagged and cranky. I think I was a little nervous, too.

How will this vacation of our dreams fare when compared to the months of anticipation? How can this trip possibly live up to the hype?

That night, after a long and much-needed nap, we wandered back out into the City of Lights. The following things happened: We ate at a classic brasserie where we watched, amazed, as a small French child inhaled beef tartare like an American kid wolfs pepperoni pizza. We found a cocktail bar where the French bartenders revered New York cocktail culture, and since Sarah and I were practically New Yorkers — we didn’t mention the slight distance between NYC and Nebraska — they quizzed us for hours about the mysteries of the city.

Sarah and I stayed way too late, drank a drink too much, bounded back into the dark and decided to take a long walk back to our hotel.

We promptly got lost again. Really lost. A pre-smartphone level of lost, since we had cheaped out on the international cellphone cost and now our phones functioned as useless hunks of plastic. A “suck up your pride country boy and ask a French person for directions” type of lost, except there were hardly any Parisians around. In my memory, it was well past midnight on a weeknight. The streets of the old city stood dark and mysterious and mostly empty.

We were turning in circles, trying to follow a non-Internet GPS on our phone, walking this way and that, bumping our way down impossibly perfect cobblestone paths, breezing past magnificent centuries-old parks, laughing at our predicament and ourselves, laughing at the wonder of the night, when it happened.

We stopped. We looked straight up.

Wow, we said. I can’t believe it, we said. I ... I ... we ... this ...

We tried to take some photos to capture the cathedral we had just quite accidentally bumped into. We tried to capture what we were seeing. We could not capture it.

So we just stood there, held hands. We fell silent together and continued to stare up.

I thought I would always remember the way it looked in that moment, its massive pavilion emptied of tourists, its magnificent Gothic form shrouded in darkness. But, honestly, I have started to lose that image now, like a Polaroid that goes hazy after you lock it in a drawer.

But I will never, ever forget how we felt in that moment.

Part of what I felt was surely this building’s importance, its history, what it had survived, what it had lost.

It took 182 years to build. It has hosted the crowning of kings, and an emperor named Napoleon, the state funerals of French heroes and the ceremony that made Joan of Arc a saint. It has withstood rioters, invaders, revolutionaries, Nazis, all previous acts of Mother Nature and centuries of off-and-on human neglect. It is home to the crown of thorns that Jesus may have worn on his way to be crucified.

It practically oozes religious, political and historical importance, which is why 13 million tourists visit each year, though only two of them were standing here wide-eyed now.

But what we felt was not just history, not just architecture, not just importance.

In that moment I remember all my cynicism melting away, all my worry about the trip, all my snark.

Instead, we both felt childlike wonder at the idea of a city where you can get lost and then simply bump into a marvel of the modern world.

Instead, we felt lucky.

In that moment, as we stared silently up at Notre Dame, we felt fully, electrifyingly, impossibly alive.

Sarah and I stood there for what seemed like an eternity, but was probably a half-hour, and then wandered away in what we hoped to be the general direction of our hotel.

That’s the story that has been rattling around in my head, since I glanced up at a television and watched, dumbfounded, as it burned.

It’s the story of a building, and a moment and a gift. It is the gift that Notre Dame gave us the first time we accidentally visited.