How I Came to Fear French Doors

How I Came to Fear French Doors

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Image credit: Pixabay, nafeti_art

I have a love-hate relationship with French doors. Before the terrifying incident which I’m about to relate—an incident that has left me, I’m ashamed to say, “door-phobic,” I loved French doors. Paris doors to be exact. The external doors in Paris are elegant. They are of polished wood and gleam blood red, royal blue, emerald and burgundy. They boast carved lions, birds, kings, garlands and goddesses. With their weighty brass knobs and knockers, Paris doors convey history, strength and gravitas. Yes, gravitas. Like French people, they are, on first encounter, more formal than friendly. French doors in their formidable beauty, do not beckon. They bar.

Mairie d’Aix-en-Provence. Image credit: Flickr, Decar66

It is the digicode, those secret four numbers that when entered, produce a discreet click that allows you into the inner courtyard or entryway where most often you will need to open yet another door before entering the apartment building itself. Once inside the building, you confront the front door of your apartment and if lucky, your key will open this door which is most often old— such as 300 years old— first opened by someone in a powdered wig wearing perfumed leather gloves. These doors, thick as brick, always seem to need some trick to open them. Perhaps a slight push in or out, or an extra turn of the key, or a wee wiggle of the knob one direction or other.

Several years ago I was newly divorced and so free of domestic chores and with kids grown and house sold, I rented a Paris apartment for four exquisite months to inaugurate my single life. I arrived smack dab in the center of the Marais on the rue de Sevigné and on New Year’s Day. How fitting is that!

Door knocker in Paris. Photo: Tommy Miller/ Flickr

Soon after arrival, I went to buy some groceries—wine, bread, flowers and wearing my blue beret and hurrying back to my apartment in the cold winter air, I felt joyously Parisian. I opened the exterior door, then the courtyard door but couldn’t open the door to my own apartment. No matter which way I turned the key, it would not open. Hearing music and laughter from the apartment above, I ran upstairs and knocked on their door. I knocked hard, hoping to find a kindly neighbor who might know the door-key trick. I kept knocking loudly for a good while but got no answer simply because they were having too much French fun that drowned out my knocking. At last a young woman came to the door and kindly and quickly went downstairs with me and opened my door. I was embarrassed and even more so because I had to ask her to do this two more times until at last, I learned the trick of pulling the door hard toward me as I sharply turned the key to the right then the left! With a loud, sudden click, the door would open and from then on, whenever I heard that quick click, this happy door victory made me smile.

Labastide Clairence, Poignée main de porte. Image credit: Flickr, Whisky&co

Now you need to know that I wouldn’t be writing about doors at all if it weren’t for that night when I returned from a party quite late and shut the bedroom door only to feel the door handle (shaped like a sideways letter S.) come off in my hand and I know just what you’re thinking. If I was alone in my apartment why did I bother to close the bedroom door? My answer is “the longstanding habit of a mom.”

In America, we have a saying: “When one door closes, another one opens.” This is not true. What is true is the French saying: “Il faut qu’une porte soit ouverte ou fermée.” A door must be kept either open or shut. But I digress.

It was past midnight and I worked anxiously to shove the door handle back in the hole but it wouldn’t hold. My bedroom door stayed shut as a coffin cover. This might have been something I could have dealt with in the morning except what about that pesky nighttime bathroom visit? And worse, what about my growing claustrophobia?
I went over my options:

✓ I could call for help but my phone was in the living room.
✓ I could email someone but my computer was in the living room.
✓ I could find a tool to open the door but my tools were in the kitchen.

MetMuseum door. Image credit: PICRYL

So here I was, as the French say, a woman of “50 and several crumbs” in a weird predicament. So with panic rising like a fever, I did the only thing left to do: use my high school French to shout for help. My bedroom looked out onto a courtyard surrounded on all sides by the other apartment units.

“AU SECOURS!” I screamed into the courtyard. “AU SECOURS! AU SECOURS!!!!”

In the cold night my screams echoed against the stone building. I screamed again and again until at last I heard a man say in a bored voice, “What’s the matter?”

I saw a fifty-ish man with a mustache and wearing a maroon satin robe. He was peering from the little open stairwell window to my window. His accent told me he wasn’t French but perhaps Eastern European and his first language was maybe Romanian or Bulgarian or some other language you can never identify. The man was smoking a cigarette.

“I AM LOCKED IN MY BEDROOM!” I shouted, holding the door handle up as proof. “MY BEDROOM DOOR WON’T OPEN!”

The man took a long drag on his cigarette then with an infuriating languor said, “Eh?”

“PLEASE,” I cried, “I DON’T HAVE MY PHONE, PLEASE CALL THE FIRE DEPARTMENT TO GET ME OUT!”

A Lock in Provence, South of France. Image credit: Pixabay, Hoeldino

He inhaled the cigarette as if it were a joint then said with a gruff chuckle, “Les pompiers en France ne sauvent pas les demoiselles en detresse.

“I am NOT a damsel in distress,” I shouted back, “I am an American locked in a French room!” But even as I said this, I realized it meant nothing. I changed direction and begged, “Then please call a locksmith to get me out. Please.”

Using his cell phone, the stairwell stranger was obliged to call several locksmiths as it was nearing one in the morning but at last, he got a locksmith on the line and after their conversation, he switched to English and informed me, “The man, he say he can come but it is big money. He say the time is late. The time is bad and he must to open two doors: your apartment door and your bedroom door. He want you give him 600 euros.

A door in Paris. Photo: Dale Cruse/ Flickr

“600 euros! That’s ridiculous,” I cried.

The man yawned out one word. “Cash.”

“Cash?! I don’t have cash! I have a credit card.”

“Cash,” he repeated.

Though frustrated and growing more anxious by the minute, I hit on the solution.

“My brother-in-law. Please call him and tell him to come with 600 euros.”

“600 euros,” the man hooted as if paying such an amount would be the greatest folly. But he did oblige. He called Information, learned the number and telephoned my brother-in-law, Jonathan.

Image credit: Pixabay, Falco

It’s true I was feeling guilty about waking Jonathan at this ungodly hour and to trouble him with such a request yet I had little time for guilt as I heard my neighbor say in his tobacco-rough voice, “We have your sister. We have her locked in the bedroom. She can only come out when you come and give us 600 euros. We want the money now.”
Jonathan hung up.

“NO!” I pleaded, “I am the sister-in-law, not sister. And don’t say ‘we have her locked in a room.’ And don’t say ‘we want the money.’ Say the locksmith wants it.”

So, after coaching him on the precise words to say, he called again but as he did, I suddenly got an idea. I dove under the bed and pulled out a box in which I kept all the things I wouldn’t need for four months. I grabbed my car key and wiggled it inside the door hole.

Voila! With a quick click, the door popped open!

“I OPENED THE DOOR! I shouted out the window in victory, I OPENED THE DOOR!”
And so, my brother-in-law didn’t need to come after all and I saved myself 600 euros. Best of all, Jonathan and I had some good laughs about what he first thought was a prank kidnapping call.

Of course after that, it was somewhat embarrassing whenever I saw my neighbor on the stairwell. His face was always a shut door but as we passed each other, I would hear him mutter, “Demoiselle en detresse!

And strangely, these words made me smile— as if at the quick click of a key.

Image credit: Flickr, Stanze

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6 COMMENTS

  1. This made me laugh. My husband and I are in a rental apartment in Lyon and he was unable to unlock the door even doing the pull out and turn trick. In desperation! I coated the lock with vegetable oil which was the only thing I could find. The locks turn now albeit wth difficulty but at least we can get the bloody door open.
    Several years ago, my sister locked herself in the bathroom in our rental apartment in Bordeaux. I opened the lock with a kitchen knife. I understand your door phobia.

  2. Oh, yes, that ‘pull the door toward you’ method to opening a door. I rented an apartment for a ten-day stay and after a long flight, a walk through the Marais to find my place with suitcase rolling in tow, the digicode worked. Yay! And yet, after five curving flights up a tight twist of stairs I stood before the door to my apartment and struggled. I would never get it open! I’d have to walk back to the rental place and ask for help. What was wrong with me? I struggled about ten minutes. Sat there. Contemplated my stupidity of arriving a few days early, alone. (Friends would arrive later.) Then I tried again and with frantic jiggling and twisting and pulling and pushing I finally got it open. I had to pull it toward me to make it open. Arg! I suspect the rental places don’t tell you things like that because they take some humor in knowing we must freak over it.

  3. Loved this story. I have one of my own from many years ago, too lengthly to write here.
    So glad you save 600 euros.Absolument ridicule. Janine

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this article and can identify with the author as I too was once afflicted for a while with French-doorphobia, and that was before the digicodes.

  5. Brilliant. I laughed out loud numerous times, and I will continue to do so each and every time I read this (which I believe will be often). Right up there with another fine American humorist, and one of my all-time favorites, James Thurber. Brava, Maxine! You got the door open (for free!) AND you have cheered me up, and I’m sure countless other readers too 🙂

  6. It seems a common thing, though perhaps everywhere not just Paris. I recall in one of his books, author John Baxter (has about a dozen books on Paris & France, perhaps most famous is The Most Beautiful Walk in the World) he tells the story of when he and his wife were preparing to leave Paris for a family gathering somewhere on either Christmas or NYE, and in this case they couldn’t lock the door of their apartment in Odeon. After an hour of trying he called a locksmith who did indeed charge a fortune as it was late evening on Xmas eve or NYE.

    My own experience was entirely my own fault. I was repairing the dodgy door jambe and changing the lock on my front door and though I had devised a chain tied to my belt to avoid it happening, nevertheless it happened: I managed to lock myself out. Luckily my upstairs neighbour was in and he allowed me to climb out his window from where I climbed down to the balcon filant on my floor (the fifth floor of a typical Haussmannian building in the 10th). Though because the window was on the top (mansarde) floor and therefore at no time did one hang over anything except the balcony below–ie. one couldn’t really fall far–at that height it was pretty freaky and I will never forget it.

    You could adopt this little maxim, or poem, written by your fellow permanent Parisian. Just looking through my copy of Raquel Puig’s Doorways of Paris (2017) I see that she opens with a citation from Jim Morrison who of course famously died in Paris and is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery:
    There are things known
    and things unknown,
    and in between are the doors.

    His band The Doors were named after Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception though Huxley was in turn a referencing something by William Blake. So, if you have any residual horror from your episode maybe better to think of doors in this way, ie. as a portal, rather than barrier, to new experiences and understanding.

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