Beware of bad neighbours. I suppose that’s the lesson to be learned from the terrible fire that took 10 lives, injured 33 and left dozens of families homeless in Paris a few days ago.
I’ve posted before about the French art of hating one’s neighbour. At the time, it was funny. Hilarious, even, if you’d like to take a look. But what happened on Monday night at 17 bis, rue Erlanger in the très chic 16th arrondissement of Paris was nothing less than tragic.
It began with a problem that is all too prevalent in French towns and cities where people live so close to each other. Noise. A woman who was playing her music too loudly, too late at night. A couple who had to work the next day. And so the woman dared to knock on the door and ask her neighbour to turn it down.
Did she know she was dealing with someone who had serious mental health issues? Hard to say. What is known is that the woman with the loud music made a rude comment and refused to turn it down. The couple ended up calling the police. At first they refused to come and deal with what surely seemed like a mild dispute between neighbours. Mauvais voisinage. When the couple insisted, they agreed to make the call but took their time getting there. The police showed up an hour later, attempted to reason with the woman, then left.
A few minutes later, the loud-music woman made a comment to the male neighbour, who happened to be a fireman himself, that as he was so good at putting out fires he would certainly enjoy himself. The couple smelled fire and realized she had actually set fire to the place. What happened after that is somewhat confused.
The building blazed liked a tinder box. A recent renovation of a 1970’s building, 8 storeys high, it had an unfortunate location on an inside courtyard, inaccessible from the street. That meant that the firefighters were unable to access it with their trucks or automated equipment. They had to drag their hoses through the inner courtyard and manually raise ladders from one floor to another. A dangerous operation at best. Still, they managed to rescue the 50 people trapped and who had taken refuge on the roof. Eight firefighters were injured in putting out the blaze. It took five hours and 250 pompiers. Neighbouring buildings were evacuated and the jury is still out as to whether the building can be saved.
All because of a bad neighbour.
The woman was arrested and is undergoing psychiatric evaluation. She is 41, the mother of a 10-year-old boy (she does not have custody) and with a history of mental illness and setting fires. She had only just been released from a psychiatric ward.
This was the third deadly incendie to ravage Paris since the end of last year. It’s a horrific reminder that even rich neighbourhoods are vulnerable to crazy people. And cheap insulation (which is one theory as to why the fire spread so fast.)
Once again, kudos and gratitude go out to the brave firefighters, les pompiers de Paris.
The positive side is that residents in the local quartier have come together in a show of support. People are opening their doors to help those who’ve been rendered homeless, donating warm clothes and holding fundraisers. Perhaps people are finally getting to know their neighbours.
And it raises a question: how can we live together in harmony? In a society that creates more and more barriers and walls between people, in which each of us is increasingly isolated as we stare at our own screens, that is a tough question.
I’ve experienced before how it feels to have a neighbour dislike you on sight. It is not pleasant. The usual reaction is simply to avoid each other. That’s the easy answer. Pretend the other person doesn’t exist. Go about your business. Until an emergency happens.
Maybe we need to rethink our approach. Create more connections with those whose lives go on just beyond our doors.