“I can’t sleep… but at least I can write”
My heart is racing; my face is dripping, and I am 90% sure that my classmates are looking at me like I’m a crazy man. I learned however that crazy and spoiled share some boundaries. Paris was gorgeous. I was a tourist that was pampered, and I was thrilled to just be fortunate enough to do it. Paris was a lovely city, and I plan on visiting the city at least once more.
Dijon is another story compared to Paris. While there is no Eiffel Tower or Louvre Museum hiding within Dijon, the city harbors a charming demeanor. Perhaps the city gets it small charm from French architecture or perhaps the small boutiques that grace the streets. Either way, Dijon is another story from France. They may come from the same book, but they are certainly different chapters.
As I write this, I still try to process what just had happened. Several hours prior, my colleagues and I were drinking something cold among the heat of about 100 degrees despite it being nighttime. We were talking and laughing and happy to have just been able to conversation. After saying goodnight, we retreated to bed for the first time. I walked into my room, closed my door, and I sprawled on my bed to close my eyes and sleep. That is when the accident happened.
Before I can tell you that story, I must begin with this one. We were told before the French do not believe in the American concept of air conditioning. The French do not believe Air Conditioning is a must in hot weather, and often come to believe that those who have air conditioning are tampering with natural weather and should not be. A French tour guide who showed my group and I around the Eiffel Tower even went as far as to say, “Air conditioning is EXPECTED of by Americans. You are spoiled in America.”
I never considered myself to be spoiled, but after tonight, I am reconsidering. Regardless enough, today had been rough. The scorching heat was enough to drive me up the wall and my team as well, so we had taken the tram to the local mall within Dijon. As we neared the mall, we joked that the fountain that was near the mall was worth diving into and swimming around in because we had seen some of the locals do just that: they swam with their bathing suits in the fountains. We found it odd, but we deemed it appropriate for the situation. As all answers should be evaluated and deemed ideal for the situation.
After running into Carrefour (the French equivalent of Walmart), we were shocked to see that France indeed sells fans.. for a modest price of €167 euros. We knew we did not have the funds, so we went to eat dinner in defeat. My group and I went to eat at “Five Guys”, an American named burger joint. A lovely place to eat good, hearty burgers.
Upon ordering, I took a cup as I normally would any other burger joint. I went to fill my drink with some Coke, but when I went to place my cup in the soda fountain, I was greeted with an error message saying, “Please enter your cup in the tray in order to begin”. I was dumbfounded. My colleagues were able to gather their drinks just fine, but I was unable to get my drink. Perhaps there was something wrong with the machine by the time I used it?
I was wrong. The French cashier looked at me with almost a disappointing look, as I were a young child who was kept prodding their parent for candy. Relentlessly. “Pardon me monsieur…”. Without a hesitation he handed me another cup, but with a sticker on the bottom. Stickers are nice, but this is not the solution to my problem. After watching a local take his cup to the fountain AFTER the cashier handed him his drink, the machine spurred to life for him. I understood at that very moment that it was not a sticker, it was a scanner.
I apologized to the cashier, thanked him, and I went to pour my drink. There was a display icon saying that my cup was good for only 1 more refill. Double take moment. Why was there was a limit to drinks? We found that the French do not drink or eat as excessively as we Americans do. They are modest when they consider situation and they deem drinking soda as bad for your health and therefore limit the consumption of it. I could not believe it. In the states, free refill is not only common but a symbol of American food and cuisine. Thirsty, I ordered another drink and accepted the reality.
We returned home where we flash forward to when I said goodbye to my team, and I went to bed. I didn’t dream, but I did hear beeping in my dream. Loud, annoying beeping. I tried to control my dream by destroying the beeping with some mind magic, but it was useless, so I laid there wondering why I dreamed about beeping. Then the smell hit me. Burning. I wasn’t dreaming. There was a fire.
“Fire.. oh. FIRE OH!!!” I sprang onto my feet, grabbed my shoes, passport, wallet, phone, key, and ran. I locked my door but sure enough there was a smoke like smell coming from my hallway. There was not much thought to it, but I did what I was taught. Inspect handles before opening them to check if there is a roaring fire outside your door. Look for the nearest fire escape signs. Survive. I was ready to bolt when I realized.. there were people here probably still asleep. I raced down the halls knocking on all doors. Sleepy people of all backgrounds opened their doors and one by one with broken French, I told them there was some kind of fire.
I told them to take their important stuff, lock their doors (in case it was an attempt to force people out of their rooms so the people who pulled the alarm can sneak in and retrieve valuables) and get out right away. I thought, “I will not let them die to a fire” as I made everyone go out the door. However, as I raced to get everyone, there was a young woman who looked about 20 and spoke French who scoffed at me when I tried to evacuate her. With her broken English, she said, “no, it’s nothing”. After much insistence, she finally broke and left. Walking calmly. I shrugged it off and evacuated the rest.
As we got to the lobby, a storm of people went back upstairs. The same people I had just evacuated. They all looked at me almost with a look of disappointment mixed with a little resentment. I was confused. Where was the firefighters? Where was the rest of the campus? Why am I being looked at like I’m a madman? “I told you. Nothing” said the French women with her side glance as she passed me, heading upstairs. Making note of her action, the others followed. All who remained was my team. I proceeded to ask questions but we were just as confused as we were concerned.
The nice clerk who was smoking outside informed us that the fire was merely an accident. We should head back to bed. We did, but I stayed to ask more. I was shocked that they were so calm. “It happens more often than you think”, exclaimed the clerk. He proceeded to tell me that someone just burned something and it wasn’t serious. I asked him what about the firefighters. He looked at me with a smile and said, “they don’t come unless we ask them to”. I couldn’t believe that. “What if it had been a real fire?” I asked. With a shrug and another puff from his cigarette, he smirked and said ,”then we handle it”.
Normally I’d object, but I was too taken aback that I merely said goodnight, thank you and went back to my room. In the states, firefighters would have rushed on scene and handled the evacuation. They would’ve cleared us after they made sure nothing happened. The officials made me feel secure. France doesn’t believe that, and I found that out the hard way. The French did not seem the situation as needing firefighters so they waited to see if it did. It did not matter if the fire was small, they would only call if it threatened life.
As I sat back down in my bed, I could not help but just flashback to the air conditioning and free refill incidents I had today. I was a spoiled American to the French. I had cold air when I wanted, all the soda I could drink, and others to secure me in case of fire. Here, the French handle everything and if it is nothing of severe importance, they will leave it be or handle it with no rush. I never would have considered myself spoiled. Generally, I do not like sticking to my bed in 100 degree weather; I like being able to drink till I am full, and I am used to letting someone else handle my fires. But this doesn’t make me spoiled, now does it?
An American would say no, but the French say yes. What I learned today was that I take for granted the gifts I have in America. I have what I want, when I want, how I want it. I live in a country where procedure is normal, and we follow it as advised. However, we enjoy ourselves and expect the world to adhere to our standards. As an American who had received the worst looks for waking them up and making them leave their rooms, I can confirm that this is not the case.
The French culture is significantly different than that of the American culture, but I cannot complain anymore. The more I learn, the more I realize that I am very privileged. The American lifestyle is big, bold, and brash. The French are wise, petite, and reserved. They enjoy themselves, but they watch out for their looks and health; The people drink wine, but do not like becoming sloppily drunk; They do not call out fires if the fire isn’t roaring and destroying the building because it isn’t big enough to bother another.
Even as things calmed down, I still am in shock. I am a spoiled American, and I realize just how different this country is. It is not bad. It is just different. Today did not deter from learning, but it did make me realize that when studying in France, if the locals aren’t freaking out. You perhaps shouldn’t either. They are after all, residents and you are a visitor. Since my time in France, I rarely have seen emergency vehicles. The French do not see calling them for every little thing necessary. They observe the situation and find the best solution. They think, process, and sure enough the problem gets resolved. I just can’t believe I ran out in shorts and a tank top, making those people all run because of a “fire”… only to be looked at like I am the crazy one. Welcome to France. This is the first week.