I could write here about Saturday, about the Grand Colombier, about the Most Difficult Ride I’ve Ever Done (based on pure statistics. Emotionally there have been rides far more difficult). And I will. But for now, instead, I will write again about Swiss firemen. More on cycling later.
A blurry figure appears in the peephole of my front door. I’m in the flat alone, this being Pentecost weekend my landlady and flatmate are away. I’m a little startled to hear the doorbell ring. Nonetheless, I answer the door to find a thin, elderly man in a pistachio-green bathrobe. His eyes are a clouded blue, either from age or from having having just awoken; His white is hair tousled, probably for similar reasons. He looks disconcerted.
Bonjour, he begins speaking to me in French. Of course, I can’t really understand, but I know what he’s talking about.* He is saying that he’s the downstairs neighbor, and there’s water leaking through his ceiling. My stomach drops four stories and hits the ground.
Puis-je regarde…ton salle de bain? He asks. Can I have a look in your bathroom?
Oui, entreé. Yes, come in.
He follows me to the bathroom. I open the door and am greeted by a pool of ankle-deep water. How did I not hear the leak? I touch the water and a mild shock runs up my arm; For some reason, the pool is carrying a charge. He sees me draw my hand away. Est-il chaud? he asks. Is it hot?
Non non non…erm…electrique? I reply. Ne touchez pas…
His worry seems to increase and in a whirl of French which I cannot parse but can somehow miraculously understand, he bids me to come see the mess in his apartment. As follow him down to the third floor, it dawns one me that he is the resident of the apartment bearing the Gerant de Fortunes, Expert (Expert Fortuneteller) plaque that I have passed by in wonder every day for nearly two months. I am about to enter the fortunteller’s apartment, at last.
Once inside, I’m struck by the fact that every horizontal surface is covered by an oriental tapestry and every vertical surface is covered in indigo hued wallpaper; the place is absolutely saturated in detail. I haven’t the energy to take it all in, though I wish I did. And yes, there is water dripping from his ceiling, though it is not as bad as I feared. His wife, with a face kind like a turtle’s, seems less like a fortuneteller’s wife than I would have imagined. She is standing staring up at the drops, hands on her hips. She smiles at me and seems to be a good sport about the whole ordeal whilst I apologize profusely. Il pleut, I say, in a somewhat vain attempt at levity. She smiles encore.
Mr. Fortuneteller, however is only slightly amused and is trying to tell me that he wants to call someone. Given that I’m at the point in my French book where one learns things like the names of fruits and vegetables, all I hear is: Je vais appeller le pamplemousse. Meaning, “I am going to call the grapefruit.” My neighbor, the fortuneteller, wants to call the grapefuit. I am fully aware that this is not possibly correct, and whatever he’s saying doesn’t sound exactly like pamplemousse anyway. I am at a loss for ideas.
Oui? I answer, half-heartedly. Pas compri… I utter, but it’s too late.
I return to my apartment, don rubber gloves and rubber soled shoes, begin to bail the water into my bathtub with a pot, and manage to stop up the leaky joint in the floor that is causing the fortuneteller so much grief.
A scare ten minutes later, there are three rather massive humans standing at my open door. I stop bailing water, rush to the entry and on the shirts of these humans I read the words: Pompier-Feu. Upon seeing it written I understand immediately. Pompier-Feu, pamplemousse. Ah, oui, there was my grapefruit. Except he isn’t a grapefruit, he’s a Fire fighter. Pompier-Feu. Bonjour, says the grapefruit. Bon. Jour. My neighbor called the fire department on my washing machine.
In what could be a textbook example of Massive Overkill, my bathroom is soon flooded not only with water, but with three Geneva City firemen. Apparently, they have nothing better to do than to go around answering calls about washing machines from Fortunetellers and hapless anglophones. All of them are at least twice my size and are wearing monstrous rubber boots. At once I am painfully aware of the fact that I am still in my pajamas, a which involve a (very comfortable but embarrasing) pair of purple leggings.*
I’m helpless as Les Pompiers Feu swarm the washing machine. One of them pulls out and hands me a busted rubber washer, the kind I’ve repaired numerous times on kitchen sinks, bathtubs, and pressurized 500 liter dewars of liquid Helium. About this point I realize I probably know more about how to fix this washing machine than these firemen do, seeing as appliance repair is not typically in their job description and, let’s be honest, experimental physics involves a good deal of glorified plumbing. Despite the Physics@Berk t-shirt I’m wearing, this fact is not entirely obvious to the firemen. I attempt to explain what happened and what I think went wrong. Le eau est sorti le port, peu-être la port n’est pas fermeé! When he begins correcting the gender of the nouns I’m attempting to use,** it becomes clear that this language barrier is insurmountable and he phones a supposedly English speaking colleague. We have a brief chat on the phone which is not very helpful to me, but the grapefruit seems satisfied when I hand him back his phone. He hangs up and says something presumably funny.
“Rigole!” he says smiling. Now, this word I understand: Laugh! “It iz a jjoke!”
“Ha ha ha,” I reply, with only thinly veiled irony. My tone is translingual, and for once during this bizarre interaction all four of us reach a point of perfect understanding. A Joke, indeed. Now, the real laughter. He recommends I contact a technician and warns, finger waving included, Ne touchez pas la machine! Don’t touch ze Machine! D’accord. I promise them I won’t. We all wish one another Bon week-end and part ways. I sop up the rest of the water, change out of my purple leggings and bike to CERN, where the tale of my morning brings at least some mirth to our grim progress on far more complicated feats of plumbing
As soon as I get home the first thing I do, obviously, is touch the machine. I see that they’ve turned off the water and the power, and after a brief inspection I ascertain that nothing is actually wrong and something must have been caught in the door during the wash, causing it to leak. I flip on the power, open the water valve and run a test cycle. Mercifully, the washing machine works properly. As of yet, there is no water on the floor and the fortuneteller has yet to return with further greivances.
However, seeing as I have no idea how much the Geneva fire department charges for house calls involving washing machines, nor how much damage fortuntellers claim for dripping ceilings…when my landlady gets home, I may be as good as dead. Pray for me, dear reader.
**Dear Francophones: it is not our fault your language is so complex and aphonetic. Cut us some slack.