Trouble in Paradise

A close up of a grassy hill

My wife Val and I live part of the year in Provence, that magical corner of France. We were once expats in Switzerland, and when our expat gig ended we tried to find another one, with no luck. So we decided to invent our own, quitting our jobs to become consultants and spending part of the year abroad, working from a distance.

This started about 15 years ago, back when we didn’t speak much French, which led to more than one mishap. Like the time I somehow–don’t ask–accidentally got into someone else’s car and couldn’t understand what the woman who owned the car was saying and why she was so angry (it turned out to be, “Sir, you are IN MY CAR.”) But that’s another story.

We’ve tried living in different towns and finally settled on St-Rémy-de-Provence. It’s a nice size, big enough to have plenty of shops and cafés, but small enough that we can walk across it in ten minutes. And it’s near a small mountain range, which is great for hiking and biking.

Friends often ask us if we are going to buy a place in St-Rémy, and we’ve certainly thought about it. It’s a romantic idea, having a little ivy-covered pied-à-terre in France. But then we hear stories of how much work it takes, all the maintenance and repair. And we have friends who once bought a place, then had new neighbors move in that were monsters, and had to sell. So, we rent every year, which is less hassle than owning.

The biggest disadvantage to renting, however, is that we have to schlep a lot of stuff back and forth from our home in California. And there are a few things we buy every year in France that are too big to bring back with us. We have friends in Provence who keep our bikes and a few boxes, but we can only ask them to keep so much. So, when we leave, we often have to give some things away or leave them at the dump, or déchetterie, which is a waste.

The Best of Both Worlds

This year, though, Val figured out how to have the best of both worlds: she rented us what the French call, “a box”—or, a storage locker. It’s in a big building in the middle of nowhere, but we can get to it in 20 minutes.

Our box is about four feet by five feet, big enough for our bikes plus plenty of clothing and household goods. Now, when people ask if we have a home in France, we can say, “We have a little place in Provence.”

We stored some things there during a recent road trip around Europe, then went to pick them up when we returned. We used our codes to get in the building, grabbed a trolley, and took the elevator upstairs. Everything worked perfectly, just like always, which is impressive because there’s no staff onsite—it’s all automated.

The only annoying thing was the dark hallways that only lit up when the motion sensor detected us. The lights went off every two minutes, which meant we had to keep flapping our arms to turn them back on.

After we collected our bikes and a trolley full of boxes, we headed to the elevator. We had so much that it required two trips, so I went first with the bikes, then sent the elevator back up for Val. While I waited for her, the lights went out, so I started flapping my arms. But nothing happened. “Hmm,” I thought. “That’s weird.”

Houston, We Have a Problem 

Then I heard Val’s muffled voice coming from the elevator. The power had gone out and she was trapped inside. Merde! We were alone in a dark building, in the middle of nowhere, on a very hot summer day.

Val and I did our best to communicate, which was hard through the elevator doors, and she had no phone signal so we couldn’t call or text. We shouted back and forth for a few minutes, and then I started trying to find help.

Val hit the elevator’s emergency call button, while I called the box company. Nobody answered me, so I left a strongly worded message, explaining very clearly that my wife was trapped in the elevator, it was hot in there, and they needed to fix it now.

I usually make mistakes in French, but this time I was so focused I could tell my French was excellent. I was feeling good about myself as I spoke, with my proper French and my righteous anger, and then I got to the part where I had to leave my French phone number. I never remember that darned number, so I fumbled around and then hung up to look for it.

I was no longer feeling quite so good about myself.

At this point, I heard a voice outside. I walked over to the main door and heard someone talking on the phone. It was a woman trying to get in, and she was talking to the box company, trying to figure out why the door wouldn’t open. When she finished, we started comparing notes about what was going on—me in the darkness and her in the hot sun—and then my phone rang.

It was the box company, who told me they were trying to find out if there was a power outage just in our building or the whole neighborhood. Noooo! I had visions of a downed power line and a day-long repair job, while Val slowly withered away in the broiling elevator.

Hitting the Panic Button

The box representative promised she would call right back. But when the “right back” part started to feel ominously slow, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I pushed open the emergency exit door to set off an alarm—this was my wife, after all, in a hot elevator with no food or water, and something must be done! I had visions of burly firefighters rushing in and chopping open the elevator with their axes. But then nothing happened, except for the alarm blaring away. So I waited.

Meanwhile, Val talked and talked to voices on the other end of the elevator’s emergency intercom, voices she could barely hear and which seemed to be passing the buck to one another, so nothing was happening there, either. We waited some more.

Finally, the box representative called and told me they were sending an electrician who would be there soon. I let Val know, as well as the woman outside, and sheepishly hoped those burly firemen wouldn’t show up after all (they never did, thank goodness.)


Eventually, the lights went on, the elevator started, and Val escaped from her sweaty prison. When its doors opened, she was still on the second floor, and was about to hit the “down” button when she thought “I’m not staying in this elevator! The trolley can go on its own.” She got out, hit the “down” button, and took the stairs. She gave me a big hug, then grabbed the water bottle out of my hand.

The outage only lasted a half hour, but felt a lot longer. It was nerve-wracking, being by ourselves in a dark building, not sure what to do, not sure when Val would get out. Plus having to sort things out over the phone, in French, added to the stress. The only thing we know for sure is…we’re not getting in that elevator again!

I guess our little place in Provence isn’t as maintenance-free as we thought. But we’ll keep it because it’s convenient, and the occasional hassle is a small price to pay for living part-time in Paradise.

Keith Van Sickle splits his time between Provence and California. He is the author of the recently-published An Insider’s Guide to Provence and the best-sellers One Sip at a Time: Learning to Live in Provence and Are We French Yet? Read more at Life in Provence

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