There I was being all smug, talking to some friends about keeping warm in winter.
“We have one electric heater that we huddle around,” said Angie. “The house is freezing.”
“We tend to just stay close to the wood burner,” said Chris. “And wear lots of sweaters.”
I told them about our fabulous heating: blistering hot radiators, scalding water on command. How both Eric and I are lightweights when it comes to surviving the cold.
But when we got home, the heating had stopped working. We worried that we’d run out of oil and figured it was time to switch to the alternative – using the old wood-burner system to heat the radiators. Problem is we’d never used that part of the system before.
We bought fire lighters and scavenged wood from around the place. It’s been a while since we had fuel delivered – the stuff is damn expensive – and this being a lean month we got all enthusiastic about heating with wood.
“We can take turns stoking the fire!”
“It smells great, the woodsmoke, doesn’t it? So cozy. And it doesn’t cost a thing – there’s nothing but wood around here.”
The fire was good and strong but the radiators still weren’t getting hot. I got a little nervous when Eric was standing in front of these pipes and valves, twisting and turning them. What if something went wrong and steam and hot water came spraying out?
We left the 19th century behind and were sitting in the kitchen in front of a space heater when an explosion shook the barn.
The part with the heating system was full of smoke and we called the sapeurs-pompiers (firemen). Luckily we’d sprung for their annual calendar when they came around a week or two ago. But had our donation been enough? I wondered if they had a telephone system like Domino’s, where they know your house (and the amount you gave) by the phone number. If it was under a certain amount, maybe they’d take their time coming?
They told us to get out of the house. We figured we weren’t in much danger – these buildings have stone walls a couple of feet thick. But we were pretty shaken up.
A firetruck arrived, blue lights flashing. The guys all trooped into the barn with flashlights. The smoke had cleared by now. The wood burner had blown up – sending the cast iron doors flying across the room, spraying the barn with hot water, steam and ash, and making a fuel delivery an absolute must. No possibility of heating with wood now, ever. Not with the old system anyway.
Six or seven firemen stood around the exploded burner, surveying the damage. They chuckled but were sympathetic, and they pointed out how lucky we were not to have been in the barn when the thing blew up.
I thought they’d leave at this point, back to the station house to play cards or eat cassoulet. But then another fire truck turned up, and a police car. Our neighbors were all coming outside to see what had happened. The Chalus firemen had to say their hellos to the St. Mathieu firemen – lots of handshakes. By now there were about fifteen firemen hanging around.
Angeline next door said, “Offer them something to drink.”
I asked if they wanted some coffee or wine.
“Aperitifs! Aperitifs!” a couple of them shouted.
“Some wine?” I asked again.
Their leader shook his head. “Le whiskey?” he asked. “Ricard?” I said we didn’t have either of those.
“Forget it.” The French have standards, and this was not a wine occasion. Then they went back to hanging out. The St. Mathieu firemen, who’d been first on the scene, had to show the Chalus firemen the exploded wood burner. Everyone stood around laughing and talking for another ten or fifteen minutes. By the time they left, they’d probably forgotten why they were even there.
And I know a lot more about heating than I ever intended to learn.