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Up in Smoke

We were just about to pop open a bottle of wine, both of us old friends looking at emails and doing what friends do when they are hanging out, when a phone call came in from my neighbor who lives in one of the other stairwells. “Adrian, there’s smoke in your stairwell. Get out of your apartment at once!”

“Oui, oui. Merci. Merci madame. Barb, get your coat. We have to get out of here! Now!”

We wasted no time — grabbed our coats, our phones and just what was handy, leaving anything behind that wasn’t essential. On the other side of the door was a stairwell filled with smoke. That did not deter us from heading into the gray billowy clouds to head down the 70 stairs from the third floor. There was no time to think — just do it.

Part way down, the lights went out. We inched down step by step in the darkness and the smoke. “Don’t breathe!”

Barb slipped and fell on the stairs. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay, I’m okay.”

 The courtyard - Paris, FranceThe courtyardParisian firetruck - Paris, FranceParisian firetruckBrave firemen - Paris, FranceBrave firemenThe carriageway into the courtyard - Paris, FranceThe carriageway into the courtyardAll's clear on the Leeds door - Paris, FranceAll’s clear on the Leeds door

Going down the stairs seemed somehow faster than usual, although we didn’t take the chance of running down and falling again, but we managed to get out and ran out the cobblestoned courtyard to the street.

That’s when I became hysterical. We were breathing, choking, crying — at least I was — hysterical.

The ground level machine shop was billowing smoke. It was going up past my apartment windows — the only lit windows in the building. The police and firemen were just arriving. They started to block the street and moved us all down away from the fire.

All of the residents were out on the sidewalk watching our building go up in smoke and the “pompiers” set up to fight the fire. Several trucks pulled up nearby. Men in full gear with their gladiator-style silver helmets were everywhere. The hoses were stretched down rue de Bretagne and turned down rue de Saintonge. Crowds started to gather. We were all wondering if everyone got out in time and what would happen next. My first floor neighbor was in a panic. I thanked the neighbor who thought to phone me about 10 times — I was so grateful.

The firemen asked us for the keys to our apartments in the affected stairwell and all of us handed them over without reserve. A lovely young woman came out of the café down the street with a glass of water for me — obviously, she saw my hysterics. It was so kind. The café started to fill little by little with the building’s residents while the firemen did what they came to do. There was nothing we could do except suffer from the scene, the cold and our hunger — it was the dinner hour.

I was also personally thankful for having so many friends with me — Barb who was visiting from her Provençal home, poet Cecilia Woloch who had just arrived and my three cousins who were visiting Paris, just having arrived home after going to the top of the Eiffel Tower. Over wine and fresh pumpkin soup at the café they helped me stay calm as I fretted over the state of my humble home and treasured possessions.

The firemen had set up a control station at one end of the street from which they gave directions. The possibility of an explosion must have been high on their list considering the machine shop worked with toxic chemicals with which to do chrome plating. There were firemen, police and emergency personnel everywhere on the scene. No one was hurt, thank goodness.

The episode took place over the course of a few hours until the fire was out and it was safe to re-enter the building. They returned my keys and allowed us in. The courtyard was black with remnants of the fire and the odor was horrific. Inside the stairwell was the same and on the doors were notes written in chalk that the apartments had been checked and cleared for re-entry.

The apartment was in pristine condition. They had gently moved my plants away from the windows so as to open them fully and let it air out. Nothing else was touched. Other than the stench of the smoke and the fumes, one wouldn’t know anything had happened there. To say I was ‘relieved’ is a gross understatement — seriously, it was a miracle.

It was cold, but it needed to air out, so we sat in the living room fully bundled lamenting about what had taken place there and how fortunate we were on so many levels. Barb and I could have easily not made it out in time, and the apartment could have easily burned to ashes. We were so lucky to be alive, well and in tact. We slept in the apartment that night without heat (the gas had been cut, of course) and with the lingering fumes, but with our health and well-being.

The job the firefighters did was impressive. There were six trucks and dozens of professionals on the scene. They were fast and efficient. The neighbors showed a level of camaraderie and mutual concern that perhaps one might say was “normale,” as they often say in French when kind behavior is expected from someone.

By morning, one might not even know there had been a fire. The shutters on the machine shop were shut tight. The debris had been hauled out and bundled up for pick-up. The only signs were the charred windows. The resident on the first floor had no fire damage, but terrible smoke damage for which she had begun the clean-up.

We don’t know how it started, although there is speculation of an electrical cause — believe it or not, from a newly installed electrical system. I’ve always worried about fire. For that reason, I am loath to even light scented candles for fear that something will catch fire. It happens so fast and the damage it can do can be disastrous and life-threatening.

It’s hard to know what one might do in the case of a crisis or emergency. I learned the hard way: We didn’t think. We just did what we had to do.

The next day I brought my neighbor a bouquet of roses with a thank you for having saved our lives. I cried, she cried and we hugged one another. It will be an experience we will have shared and will be remembered the rest of our lives.

Hat Sternstein - Paris, FranceHat SternsteinThe next morning, just when I thought all was right with the world, I got news that our old friend, Hat (Harriet) Sternstein, was found dead in her apartment in Tel Aviv from no immediate cause. What’s going on here?! Can’t there be just one day without a tragedy?

You may remember Hat as the proprietor of “Mon Bon Chien” here in Paris, a ‘gourmet pet bakery,’ before the French government wouldn’t renew her license and French visa. She subsequently moved to Israel where I introduced her to my oldest friend’s daughter (Talya Rasner) who was opening an American-style bakery and was looking for a baker. Hat quickly became more than the baker at “NOLA” — she became part of their family and helped the café/bakery achieve a huge success. Hat will be sorely missed by everyone who knew her or tasted her baked goodies. News of the funeral is pending.

Hat Sternstein and Talya Rasner - Tel Aviv, IsraelHat Sternstein and Talya RasnerSo, next time you or your friends are in Tel Aviv, be sure to visit NOLA American Bakery at 197 Dizengoff, Tel Aviv, Israel, phone +972 3-523-0527, and be sure to tell Talya that “Adrian sends her fondest condolences and best wishes.”

For more information and if you’d like, read a past Parler Paris all about Hat, Talya and the bakery.

A la prochaine,

Adrian Leeds, The Adrian Leeds Group - with cousin Leslie KellerAdrian Leeds

The Adrian Leeds Group

(with cousin, Leslie Keller, of Seattle, WA)

Respond to Adrian


Shooting Stars Photo Workshop for Teens at RiskP.S. 
Do something to empower teens at risk — support the Shooting Stars Photo Workshop for Teens at Risk, a non-profit project sponsored by photographer, Erica Simone. Visit or for more information.

École Militaire - Paris, FranceP.P.S. It’s tomorrow! You’re invited to Parler Paris Après-Midi on Tuesday, December 9, when our guest speakers will be two former commanding officers of French Foreign Legion regiments who will tell you more about the world’s most famous fighting corps. We meet from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. upstairs at Café de la Mairie (formerly La Pierre du Marais), on the corner of rue des Archives and rue de Bretagne, 3rd arrondissement. Métro Lines 9, 3 et 11, stations Temple, République or Arts et Métiers. Costs nothing except whatever you drink!


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