Dinner was great: chicken milanese, ratatouille, and spiced pears for dessert.
Trigger alert: if you’ve been in a fire and have been traumatized by that, this might not be the best thing to read. It is scaring me just to type it.
Last Wednesday night we were finishing dinner when we heard loud bangs that didn’t stop. Our power went out and came back on. The banging continued so Ramon looked out in the hallway and saw sparks. He said, “We should get out of here.” I finished my wine (!) and took our plates to the kitchen sink (!!), and noticed the spiced pears in a Pyrex, ready to go in the oven. Shaking that thought out of my head, I loaded a bag with money, passport, laptop, and a headlamp Kyle gave me. I was still wearing my apron from cooking dinner, over shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops. I really thought this would be like a fire drill – we were coming right back. A couple of umbrellas leapt into my sack as well – after all, it was raining cats and dogs outside. Then…
…we opened the door. The lobby was a wall of swirling black smoke. I lurched out into it, heard Ramon ask where his keys were, and took a breath to tell him I had my keys. But I couldn’t take that breath – there was no air, only smoke. I turned to look for him and couldn’t see him, even though I was two feet from the door – couldn’t see, in fact, my hands in front of my face. I bent down as low as I could to see if I could escape the smoke down there. I couldn’t see any better, but I was low enough that, when I stumbled down the two steps that I KNOW are there, I didn’t fall completely on my ass.
Ramon had gone back into the house to look for Plan B. Given that the electrical system was down, he feared the front door – which is latched by an electric lock – would be locked. A deathtrap lobby. I didn’t know he wasn’t right behind me. I tried to take another breath, this time with the apron over my face; that didn’t work either. I gasped or made some sort of noise and someone outside heard me. They called to me, “Keep coming!” I stumbled ahead and miraculously I was outside.
But Ramon wasn’t with me. Could I go back in? The front door was gushing smoke, like an open tap. I might say the smoke was “billowing” out, but that sounds too pretty. This was some pretty sinister billowing. Going back in would be to run uphill, blind and without breath. I screamed to him from the relative clarity of the front steps. He was in the apartment, figuring out if we could drop from the window to the balcony below (and then to balconies below that till we made it to the street.) He heard me, and realized I wouldn’t be yelling at him to come out if I hadn’t made it through the front door. He came. Seeing him emerge from that black swirling maw is the most relieved I think I’ve ever been.
All this was surely less than two minutes, and fewer than thirty feet, I know, looking back on it. But I’m still in there, a little bit, you know? I see it a couple times a day, though thankfully it’s getting fainter.
A little history
The apartment is – was – beautiful. Situated on a hill overlooking the wide swing of the bay, we could see for miles in every direction, watch storms out over the Mediterranean, marvel at the people kite-surfing, or watch the early morning fishermen out in their rough boats. We have loved it there. Even during Covid, it has been our perfect perch.
But we knew there was an electrical problem – our aircon had been burnt out and replaced three or four times over the last 15 months, always burning out in the hottest weeks of the year. We had heard pops and bangs and smelled smoke before – but always localized. It burnt out my printer, a computer charger, my little indoor garden, several smaller appliances. Sometimes it just threw breakers over and over, even if nothing was on. This time, of course, it was much larger, affecting the whole building. We told the landlord and all the handymen (not real electricians, I’m convinced) that the problem was bigger than the aircon, and that it should be fixed. But they didn’t listen, and, let’s face it, we were just grateful to have the aircon back on.
Guess who just found out how wrong you can be, believing nothing bad will happen?
There was a big rainstorm going on outside – making it seem all the weirder that a fire could even happen. We stood in a few inches of water rushing past us down the road, under our umbrellas, talking first to one and then another neighbor. All of us got out. Ramon and I were last, it turned out. (We can thank my steady-headed, headlamp-and-passport-grabbing self for that.) It was 30 minutes before the fire truck came, and another 45 minutes till the electric company turned off the power so the pompiers (that’s French for firefighters – the French, right?) could pour water on it.
Meanwhile we walked around the block. Smoke poured out of our bedroom and kitchen windows. Colorful flames from burning electrical components lit up the rain. We staked a neighbor who had not a penny in her pocket. A phalanx of men I’ve never seen before was suddenly rushing around, as if they were helping – I don’t know what they did, but they sure did it in a panic. The checkout lady from the grocery store saw me under the umbrella and rushed across the street to hug and commiserate. The landlords arrived, disappeared. Police in rainjackets and boots stayed in their car, never speaking to any of us. Smoke filled the street, the rain continued, the smoke kind of cleared, then (ahem) billowed again. The building handyman smilingly told me it would all be cleaned up in a couple of days – no big deal.
Our indefatigable driver Ibrahim came for us. We waited for news. The electricity finally got turned off, the flames reduced. The fire brigade came through with their hoses and put everything out. Our door had been open and had sucked the smoke through but no fire had entered our unit. The smell was overwhelmingly toxic – all that plastic in the electrical system, apparently. Ramon and Ibrahim went back in, and got Ramon’s computer, a stray pair of pants with the belt still stuck in the loops, my phone. Ibrahim’s eyes were raining tears and their faces were both sooty. I finally insisted, no more, and we left.
There’s a before, and an after, people say. Something big happens, and you begin to count your life before and your life after as distinct periods. They’re so right! Before, I had just bought a bunch of ingredients at the market for healthy dinners I was planning. Before, my camera roll is filled with cats I saw while walking in the neighborhood.
After, we were at a hotel and now we’re at a friend’s house, washing and sniffing things (once, twice, and if it’s still not clean, tossing them), and eating take-out.
The next day, we walked in to find our landlord directing the building handyman to brush the walls with a broom. Maskless, naturally. The painters were coming, and they would soon be painting over the black. (I KNOW. He also said the sofa would clean right up – no need to replace it! Thanks, but no. We’re going.) He was desperate to keep us as tenants, offering us everything, he’ll give us a month off rent, he’ll pay for all the cleaning. He is convinced it wasn’t his fault, we’re convinced it was precisely his fault and that of the other owners. We’d have to sue him to get compensation. He has blithely offered to pay us back our advance rent and deposits – minus a month because we’re supposed to give him notice before we leave!
We’ve been back in the apartment repeatedly, taking out what we could. I kept seeing those pears prepped in Pyrex, huddled up for the oven. Little did they know!
The smoke got everywhere except where it didn’t, for reasons of its own. Gray soot powdered the shoulders of jackets still hung in the closet by the front door, like anti-dandruff. Thick coats, leather shoes and belts, cloth suitcases – all of these don’t clean, it seems. Kitchen stuff: is glass okay? All the spices in plastic yogurt cups I’ve assiduously collected while learning to cook? The plastic food processor? All the stuff I brought back from the U.S. in the lightest packaging I could find? Aleppo pepper in a paper sack, gochujang paste in a tube like toothpaste, my gummy calciums?
Everything we saved is outside on the patio of my friend’s house, in various states of clean.
I brought some, left some, with little logic and lots of long uncertain pauses. I soaked my eyeglasses for two days and finally the smell seems to have gone from the frames. I’ve scrubbed the keys of my keyboard, but they’re still rimmed in black and they smell like hell. Computer cables and the surge protector (a necessity given how often the electrical system surged and burnt out our appliances) smell horrible, and are harder to soak. Oddly, the four jigsaw puzzles I brought back from the states, in cardboard boxes, smell good after several days on the porch. Dare I hope?
After days of moving things, Ramon’s back screeched to a halt. We’ve got five more days here in my friend’s house before she and her kids return from vacation, so we’re triaging the cleaning, sequestering the keepers, and trying to make plans. AirBnB? A new apartment? Work from Madrid? Ramon’s job was going to keep us here in Tunis six more months. What to decide?
Our “after” is pretty tame, considering. Life does go on! These little guys kept growing in the wake of all this:
If those little delicate stems can survive and thrive, what can we accomplish with a renewed sense of life and joy? I’ve got some work, a blog backlog, and a sack of market veggies to try and cook something more healthy for dinner. It’s hard not to think several days or weeks out, but surely best to just repose a bit here, while we can, and take a breath.