I have always been a deep sleeper.
I grew up in a peaceful neighborhood just 15 minutes west of here, in Newton. Eventually, as I began to feel that it was a bit too quiet, I had this urge to break out of the Newton bubble, to travel and experience something new. At the age of 15, I had the chance to participate in a two-week language program in Biarritz, a small town in the southwest of France near the border with Spain. Up until that point, I had been living a pretty sheltered life – the most independent thing I did was take the green line over to fenway to catch a red sox game with a friend.
My French host parents, Josette and George Darlay, could not have been more welcoming. They were not particularly well off, but they were very generous in sharing what they had, which included delicious meals that George would put together. Two Spanish students, Manolo and Alejandro, joined me at the Darlay’s. On the 11th night of the program, Manolo, Alejandro and I had a pretty typical night hanging out on the beach with some of the other kids on the program, and we headed back to our apartment a bit after midnight.
A few hours later, I was awoken by banging on my door - “bhack, bhack, bhack” – I heard a baritone voice bellow out - “il y a un feu!” It took me a few moments to come to my senses, cause remember, I AM a really deep sleeper. Eventually able to translate what I had heard, I realized that my host father George was telling me that there was a fire in our apartment building, and the smell of smoke in the air told me that this was no practical joke. I leapt out of bed and opened my bedroom door. My Spanish roommates were already in the hallway, and they looked ready to dash out of the apartment. Standing next to them, I could feel the heat emanating from the other side of the door. As Monolo reached for the doorknob, Josette, our normally mild-mannered host mother, rushed over to us, and forbade us from leaving through the front door, as the fire was in the area of the stairwell, and she thought we were better off waiting in the kitchen for the fire department to answer her call.
Josette gave us all wet washcloths to put over our mouths, and we wedged a towel underneath the kitchen door, since smoke had started to fill the apartment. Looking out the window we could see the fire consuming the section of the apartment building right near the stairwell - we were on the second floor, and the fire was on the ground level. We could hear the sound of glass breaking from the extreme heat.
It was strange - there we were, in the kitchen, which had been the setting for so many enjoyable meals in previous nights, but instead of sitting around the table enjoying each others company, we were all standing, filled with nervous energy, the agony of waiting, knowing that the fire was below us but could certainly be closing in. Suddenly George had had enough of standing around, and he flung open the kitchen door, and just like that, he was gone, leaving in his wake only a whirl of smoke and the noise of his stomping around the apartment and slamming doors closed. He was trying to save family mementos that might otherwise be lost in the fire. Needless to say, Josette did not think this was wise, as she pleaded with him to come back to the kitchen, tears streaming down her cheeks, and we all breathed a sigh of relief when he finally returned back to the kitchen.
It seemed as if time stood still while we were huddled together with our ears straining for the sirens that would signal our escape. Finally, after about 15 or 20 minutes - which felt like an eternity, we heard the faint sound of the siren – it gradually grew louder and louder as the fire engine approached our apartment, and we burst through the kitchen door and scurried towards the room that was adjacent to the street. It was frightening just how large the fire had become, and just how close to us it had spread. The thick smoke hit me like a ton of bricks - I felt myself begin to cough as my lungs rejected this noxious air, and I could barely see my own hands in front of me. I grabbed onto one of the Spanish teens, Manolo, to make sure I didn’t lose my way in the smoky haze.
Opening the window we were greeted by several firemen running towards us on the street level. They propped a ladder onto the windowsill, and we descended one by one, each step bringing us closer to solid ground. The moment that my feet touched the pavement I became aware of all of the neighbors who had also been chased out of their apartments by the blaze. At this point the fire had spread all the way to the roof, and the sight of the five of us descending from the window provided only a temporary distraction from the blaze that seemed to be devouring the building with ferocity despite the best efforts of the firemen.
The good guys would eventually prevail, as the firemen were able to quench the blaze after more than an hour of battling it. We soon learned that the fire had been started by a woman in a first floor apartment. She was in her bedroom which was directly below the room I was staying in - she had been smoking in bed and had fallen asleep, cigarette in hand. She was trapped before she woke up, and she tragically did not make it out. The Darlay’s apartment meanwhile, was in a state of utter disrepair, they would not be moving back there anytime soon.
When George was running around the apartment saving items that could not be replaced, he had dragged my suitcase out of my room. So while most of my belongings were smoke damaged, they were intact. I use the word MOST, however, because I had removed my passport from my suitcase and placed it in a dresser drawer, which I considered to be a safer place.
Needless to say, my passport was a goner, and I had to make my way over to the American consulate in Marseilles to get a temporary passport, which was good for only 6 months and featured my picture stapled onto the first page. While not as neatly laminated as my old one, this passport did the trick in getting me back into the good ole US of A. As my mom’s minivan pulled into the driveway of my home back in Newton, I reflected back on my eagerness to get some distance from my insular community and sometimes overbearing parents. As nice as it had been to get away from it all, I couldn’t help but feel a newfound appreciation for boring life in the suburbs.