Dans le noir

We had a storm the other day and suddenly, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, the power went out. This happens fairly often around here, but the outages only last a short time. Sometimes we get ‘micro-coupures’, just long enough for me to lose whatever document I’m working on, and to have to battle to recover it while rebooting the box that connects us to the whole wide world. All the while cursing and swearing at EDF – Electricité de France – that public utility company par excellence.

What was not typical this time was that our coupure de courant lasted a good long while. For almost 24 hours we were in the cold and dark. Not just me but our whole village – that’s about 1,000 people in the dark. Like many French households, ours is 100% electric, so we quickly ran out of heat and hot water, not to mention light and any means of cooking. We do have a fireplace, though, so as the evening grew dark, I scrambled for firewood, and lit as many candles as I could find.

It would have been romantic, even a real adventure if I’d had anyone to share it with. As it was, husband was away skiing (and probably warmer than I was, the bum), kids were off blithely pursuing higher education in the neighbouring Switzerland and the UK. I was left holding down the fort with cats and dogs. Wondering, how on earth did we ever survive without modern means of communication? My phone and laptop soon ran out of juice. Even the land line was disconnected as all our phones require electrical power.

There were no streetlights to provide the ambient yellow light that usually filters in to our house even at night. No blue light from screens lighting up with notifications, no flashing red message lights, no blinking of batteries recharging.

We were dans le noir — literally and figuratively.

Of course, nobody knew anything about what had happened or how long it would take to fix it. I drove into town but everything was closed, and on the radio there were reports of what had happened far away in Brittany, dans le Finistère, where the storm had hit hardest. Nothing about our little corner of Lac Léman.

It was spooky, even eerie. And I wasn’t just cold. I was bored.

For entertainment, I grabbed a LED flashlight I use when walking the pups on moonless nights and began making shadows on the walls. The light bounced off in interesting ways and made a pattern on the walls and ceiling. When that got old, I dug out my trusty Itty Bitty Book Light, a wonder of technology that has saved my bookworm soul in more than one hotel with no decent reading light. Snuggled under the covers, I read until bedtime. Which came even earlier than usual.

And then it was morning. Any residual heat was long gone. I looked longingly at the coffeemaker, and grew resentful at our induction cooktop. For a moment I considered hooking up the gas bottle to the barbecue to heat some water, but the high wind and pounding rain made that unappealing. It would be quicker to get dressed and go into the city, I decided. I had a job to finish for a client by noon, and hopefully the power would be back by then.

As I was leaving, my neighbour beckoned from her yard. She was also home alone but unlike me, was stuck in the drive behind her electrically powered gate. I offered to help her climb over the fence but she decided to sit it out.

We live in a gated community, but fortunately someone had been able to figure out how to open the main gate. I stopped at the nearest gas station and got a lovely, hot, steaming cup of coffee, then went to work at the business centre in Geneva.

Just after lunch, I got a text message from the security company informing me that my alarm was once again functional. Hopefully the burglars hadn’t noticed our momentary lapse.

All was back to normal by that evening. In the end, we were lucky. We had no flooding, no medical emergencies or small children to worry about feeding. But how vulnerable we are to wild weather, and how ill-equipped to survive even one day without modern conveniences.

How’s your weather been? Have you been in the dark lately?

34 thoughts on “Dans le noir

  1. Hard time hey ? If this happens regularly some things can be done . I live in a huge forest near the south-west coast, which means winds and falling trees . So I have a gas cylinder movable heater on wheels, I kept my classic telephone line, the one that works without a bloody box and computer, a phone that works on batteries and ancient times light devices . All this just in case, but every 2 or 3 years it proves useful . Of course a gas stove working on a propane cylinder as well as the water heater . When you live in the countryside you can prepare for hard times this way .
    I did all that years ago when they started the privatization of public services . I don’t trust at all private operators who only want profit . Thirty years ago EDF and France Telecom worked perfectly, like the trains . I was nothing but pleased with their service . To give you an idea in the early 90s a tremendous hurricane devastated my forest and I stayed 3 days without power (that’s when I bought this alternative stuff) . Then in 2004 another storm ; 2 weeks without power . Then in 2009 another one : this time 5 weeks ! EDF preparing its privatization still downsizes its salarial mass, which means every year less and less workers and employees and more and more untrustworthy subcontractors . The same thing occurred long before that for the phone, the postal services and of course the SNCF that reminds me nowadays what I witnessed in third world countries rail transportation in my youth, when France was still the République Française, with public services not meant for profit but exactly this, serving the public .
    So nowadays you’d better prepare your devices to face life in a third world country . This is even more urgent if you need a hospitalization, because what our “governments” have done to the superb health services we once had is far beyond than to other services . I often read expats grievances against French “public” services, but what these people don’t know is 30 years ago most of their grievances wouldn’t have existed . Serious problems, structural ones, all followed the sellout of national infrastructures .

    1. Wow, five WEEKS with no power! You are a survivor! That’s really good advice, and I also thought about getting a camping stove and a gas bottle to keep for emergencies – along with lots of back up batteries. You’re probably right about the public utilities, although with my North American reasoning I’m more inclined to assume a little competition is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean laying off experienced staff and replacing them with poorly paid contractors – which is probably what is happening. Thanks for your insights, as ever, Phil, full of wisdom and interesting stories.

      1. Thank you for your mind openness . In France at least there are rather secret pacts than competition between big trusts, and to gain state markets they reduce costs by firing half of their workers and using cheap material , which triggers endless hassle for the public . Look at the time you need now on the phone to actually speak to someone competent in any “public” or officially private service. In my youth when I called EDF I immediately spoke with a local competent technician, working at 10 minutes from my place . And technicians, either form EDF, the PTT (post, telephones), SNCF, etc… were old school professionals who made a point and took pride of leaving a perfect situation behind them . I really enjoyed dealing with members of this now extinct species Now after waiting 10 minutes on the phone I get a cheap dude answering from one unique place for all France, who has no idea of the local situation and who knows very little about practical quetions .
        No, for me privatization means worse service and higher costs . Plus many more unemployed people around of course . Logical, the billionaire shareholders only want to increase their fortunes and they give orders to what we naively still call “our governments”.
        BTW this “evolution” also explains the famed rudeness of the remaining public servants . They are only half of them left, with the same amount of work, rather more due to the infinite complexification of everything, and they remember how things were and should be . This is France, a country that experienced an advanced social (and technical !) civilisation from 1945 to the globalization plague, and unlike in the USA people have an idea of what civilisation means for the masses’ everyday life .

  2. I was in the Peace Corps in Africa in the ’80s and spent two years without running water or electricity. But in a way, I was set up for it. I installed a gutter on my corrogated-iron-sheet roof and captured rain water (of course, that didn’t help me in the dry season, but it was something). I had a two-burner gas cooktop, and jury-rigged an oven using a gigantic pot with stones in it (my brownies were the delight of neighboring children). On the equator, I didn’t need heat (or hot water).
    Our French home also is 100% electric. As the river near our house threatened to flood recently and the electricity repeatedly cut out, we evacuated to town rather than be stuck with no heat, no hot water, no way to cook, and quite probably no clean water.
    The future is decentralization. When all rooftops have solar panels, we will be able to get by (even during storms, solar would generate enough electricity to at least charge a phone and cook a meal). A decentralized system, where individuals generate most of their own power and top off their needs from the central grid, is more resilient against attacks, by nature or other. But it’s less profitable. EDF might be mostly state-owned but the rest of it is publicly traded.
    For all that people point fingers at electric generating plants’ pollution, they have vastly improved. We would be in terrible smog if people still heated mostly with fireplaces, not just during emergencies.

    1. All very good points. I am in humble admiration of your time in Africa: the stories you must have to tell! You are a far braver woman than I, although I do think that necessity being the mother of invention, I would probably survive (kicking and screaming). We do have one solar panel that heats our water in fine months, which is independent of the EDF network and it commercially driven interests.

  3. So far so good here but in Cantal I have the most aggravating electricity which trips the dark fandango regularly. When this happens, as it turns out, mostly it is in my control and entails going downstairs and taking the key hung on a nail in the communal (for me and my young neighbours) entrance hall, climbing the fence into the nursery school housed on the ground floor, unlocking an outside cupboard and finding the right fuse box. Mostly, the big red switch has dropped because I’ve been crass enough to think I can boil a kettle AND have the lights and heating on all at once, but sometimes this doesn’t work. Then it’s back into the flat and fiddle with the box in the very compact loo. Just once I called EDF out and M. Helpful (and mildly condescending) arrived after a night such as yours and explained v.e.r.y s.l.o.w.l.y that I needed to do all of the above. I remember being caught somewhere between embarrassed and furious. Embarrassed by my own ineptitude and furious that no bugger had bothered to show me how the damned place works (I’d been installed about 6 weeks at the time and like your bum of a husband, mine was globetrotting and being important somewhere and I actually and physically hated him for a fleeting moment!). Anyway, I am very sorry you had such a horrible night. Electricity is wonderful stuff but only when it works!

    1. Laughter is the best medicine and the dark fandango got me started, then your cool description of the steps need to hit reset and the passion you felt for your absent hubby revved me right up! There is something about having to depend on people like M. Helpful for essential services that gets my goat, too, as my dear old Mum used to say. Here’s to lots of juice to keep us going (while mindful of the good fortune we have to enjoy it!)

      1. Glad it hit the right note – and I find the excuse of good fortune and good humour perfect when it comes to partaking of a little liquid sustenance 😉

  4. A cautionary tale. What would we do? Well, we have planned for this.
    There is space to cook and put a kettle on top of the log burner and the chimney from that goes through the bedroom above to warm it. We are also having a conventional landline with broadband system put in as I cannot afford to lose my documents half way through as they are incredibly complex!
    We have survived periods without cooking facilities, electrics and hot water during the project so this now holds no fears. A fully wired house and a hob and oven will be a novelty!

    1. LOL. You will see how quickly the ‘novelty’ wears off! Still, it is smart to have planned for a degree of independence. If only I could find an old corded phone that would still work without electrics, I’d buy it in a flash. Sadly, they no longer see to be available, or won’t fit the fancy network plugs we have now.

  5. Oh , and Trevor is OBSESSED with having at least one torch handy in every room. This dates back to having to go from the bedroom down two flights of stairs to the only toilet in the whole house.
    I did find it a bit OTT but a scenario like you describe is the perfect example of prepare or suffer

    1. Not OTT to me! I keep a tool kit in our basement bathroom because my neighbour once got locked inside hers for several hours….with no window or source of communication. If you’re often alone, the idea of getting stuck for days (possibly forever…) is awful. Silly things like that only have to happen to you once in order to become obsessive. 😉

  6. The first time that my husband left me alone with three young children in my still-unfamiliar France for work purposes, he left me cold. Only, this wasn’t an EDF failing, he had inadvertently flicked the switch in the cellar that assured our warmth. Problem was that that required a trip outside through the cold and dark to the scary-if-on-your-own-in-said-dark cellar to reinstate the heat. Similar emotions as you and Osyth!

    1. Oh, dear….and he’s still alive? Ha, ha. My father-in-law is OBSESSED about turning off all electrics and water every time he leaves home for more than a few hours. Hope you don’t have to deal with such scenarios often, but I suppose it was a good way to figure out where the switch was!

  7. It’s actually quite scary how much we depend on electricity for everything. Yes, be prepared, but in some ways, it’s easier said than done, especially in cities.

    1. That’s exactly what I thought. Along with various end-of-the-world scenarios in which wild weather had won the day and we all lived in a gloomy, polluted landscape. It is very scary, and makes you think twice about keeping basic survival tools close at hand.

  8. Back to basics gives us all in the first world a big kick in the butt hey? We have had some nutty weather, extreme highs with a few short power outages due to a heavy load on the electricity supply because of cooling air conditioning use. In the reverse, we are now we are experiencing heavy rain, thunderstorms and hailstones the size of my palm. Lightening has blown up one or two small devices but as the power on our street is underground, we haven’t lost power as much as others. Like you though, we have an induction stove top and electricity and if it was cold, we have gas central heating but that requires electricity for the fans to work it, so I think an open fire is probably your saving grace for days like that. Maybe you need a grill and a kettle and a jaffle iron for days like that?

    1. Those are some big hail stones you guys are getting! I was in the dark about ‘jaffle iron’ but good old Google enlightened me. Yes indeed! We need to think about keeping a few basic survival tools on hand. We have a kettle, and nothing like wood and matches to save the day, although a camp stove with a gas bottle might be easier. As for the heat, I’d rather have to put on an extra layer and stoke the fire rather than swelter. Must be my Canadian roots.

  9. I haven’t had to deal with a long power outage in quite sometimes. We did have a major blackout in Toronto (and in all of the Northeast) in 2003 but it was in August so we didn’t freeze and by morning the power was back just in time for our first cup of coffee. I even had to walk back home from work as, obviously, neither the subway or the streetcars were working. Luckily we only lived about 4km away from downtown. I remember sitting on our flat roof in the evening and looking at the sky as we could see the stars as the whole city was black. It was quite amazing and we could see what we were missing because of the usual city lights. But you are right that we depend too much on our power sources for our entertainment…We do find ourselves at a lost on what to do when we don’t have access to all of our electronic equipment.

    1. Thanks for sharing that memory of Toronto, Suzanne. It made a bit nostalgic for that downtown sky. I can only imagine it was impressive under a blackout.

  10. @”How’s your weather been? Have you been in the dark lately?” – sunny and mild, 18°C… you do know where I live, right?… 😉 never been in the dark, BUT… des coupures d’eau, now and then, last Monday, about 3h, which was kinda upsetting(je reste polie…), ’cause we weren’t prévenus… 🙂

    1. Rather frustrating about the water supply, but good to know that sunny Toulouse lives up to its reputation. And, of course, you would never be in the dark, Mélanie – it’s not in your sunny genes!

  11. My Immediate response was to turn on the heat and wrap a wooly scarf round my neck. Even if it is 50 degrees in Paris. Better to be prepared just in case. I have no survival skills at all…

  12. We live on the top (6th) floor of a NYC-suburb apt. building — and it is full of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s, so any power outage is really serious if the elevators stop working, for example. We spent $80,000 (we all own the building, a co-op) on a generator about five years ago and it is a huge relief to know that a power outage is temporary as a result.

    Our outages happen because Con Edison (grrrrrr) does a poor job of trimming the many many many trees near or touching its power lines across our large county — in high wind, snow, ice (hello, climate change) once they come into contact, hello darkness my old friend. 🙂

    We always have flashlights, candles and a portable, chargeable wi-fi hot spot handy. If I have to work I’ll go out to our local library, but it’s useless because every 14 yr old is hogging the Internet there.

    1. I suspect some mismanagement on the part of EDF is behind our frequent cuts but I’d need killer journalist skills to crack that nut! The outages sound challenging for you and your elderly neighbours, but good thing you found a stop-gap solution! I’ve often wondered about a backup generator of some kind – sounds like something every Canadian cottage would have. 😉

      1. The other issue with outages — and this happened to us several times one winter — was loss of heat w loss of power, mid-winter. Then we all moved to a nearby hotel ($150 night) which is a lot of $$$ and we really had no choice. I also, then, had a very bad left hip and just walking down 6 flights of stairs left me crying in pain.

  13. I’ve just discovered your blog via Lost in Lyon and am indulging in a read-a-thon! So far I can relate to pretty much everything I’ve read and this one really stood out because we’ve had 2 16 hour powercuts in the last month in my corner of the Alpes-Maritimes! The first time I sat it out, and guess what, my bum of a husband was travelling too! But the second time I refused to go without coffee and rigged up the camping gas stove for hot water. It was a life saver when everything else was dead. I also lent the stove to the German guests in the gîte I run who I think just could not understand how it was possible that the power had gone off! I honestly think they didn’t believe me when I said there’d be a huge storm (Zeus) in the night and the power was out for 100,000 homes as it was a lovely calm sunny day by the time they woke up. Surely Germany gets storms? I’d love it if you’d link one of your posts up to my monthly linky #AllAboutFrance, on now over on my blog. Very happy to have found your blog.

    1. Thanks for chiming in! I suspect German efficiency means that such an outage would be an exception rather than the rule as it often is in France whenever we’re struck wild weather. Sounds like you were pretty good at surviving – the camp stove sounds like a life saver! Thanks for suggesting your link-up, will definitely check it out and follow along!

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