I am sure many of our readers have stayed in those small hotels that are so typical of Paris. Over the years they have been reconfigured to add modern conveniences that were not in the original design. We remember one that had a triangular-shaped bathroom shoehorned into a corner, where, if one were so inclined, one could open the French windows, sit on the toilet, and enjoy the view of central Paris outside. The shower stall was so tiny that there was very little room to do any actual washing without getting bruised elbows. If you dropped the soap, you had to get out to pick it up.
These buildings were not designed for elevators, either. But as this became the expectation of most visitors, many were installed in the stairwells. There was not much room, but an elevator slightly larger than a dumbwaiter could do the job. But what was the job? In an earlier era, the porter would carry the bags upstairs while the guests squeezed into the elevator and enjoyed the stately ascent to their rooms.
Alas, porters have disappeared in these smaller places, so the elevators have gained another function. In that same hotel (not the one pictured above), we did what was presumably expected of us: we put the suitcases inside the elevator, pushed the button for the appropriate floor, let the doors close, and raced up the stairs to await the arrival of our baggage. Passenger elevators had become freight elevators. And with their open metal cages and often lovely woodwork, they were the finest freight elevators I had ever seen.
Elevators are now a feature of most Paris apartment buildings. And we got to know one small one quite…intimately, last December. One Friday night, we were going to have dinner with friends, who live in a charming old building in the Marais. We had been there before and knew the elevator was tiny. We succeeded in penetrating the building with its different entry codes for the street door and the interior lobby. At that point, we had to make a decision.
Philippa asked me, “Do we take the stairs or the coffin?” I opted for the latter. It had been a long day, and my feet were tired.
We inserted ourselves into the tiny space. With our winter coats, plus a potted Christmas rose for our hosts in a paper bag, we were squashed. Fortunately, we don’t mind being close together. We pushed the button and after some hesitation, the inner doors closed and the elevator started to move. We ascended slowly for a few seconds. Then the elevator stopped. The doors opened, but instead of seeing the landing in front of us, we faced a concrete wall.
We pushed the button for the third floor again. Nothing. We pushed the buttons for some other floors. Nothing. We pushed every single button on the panel. No luck. We tried a button with the image of a bell on it. A bell rang. We called out, not too loudly at first, but with more alarm as time went on. No answer.
There was an intercom/telephone contraption on the wall, so we tried that. We heard some ringing followed by static. Then we were put on hold. We hoped that this particular corporate function had not been farmed out to some offshore location where the operators who were standing by spoke neither French nor English.
Then everything happened at once. Our friends upstairs heard our cries and the bell, and realized that since we were due to arrive at that time, it was probably us making all that noise. As we heard their voices coming closer, the telephone came to life. I was shouting to let our friends know where we were, and Philippa was shouting into the telephone. The lady on the other end asked for the address of the building; we provided it. Then she seemed particularly anxious to know the number of the floor at which the elevator had stopped. We had no idea, because this was not one of those openwork elevators with a view of the surrounding staircase. The walls were solid.
The edgy sense of panic receded once we were back in contact with the world. Our host went upstairs to call the repair company and returned with the news that a repairman was in the neighbourhood and would be there in 30 to 60 minutes. His wife stayed nearby and kept us talking. She said she had once been stuck in the elevator with her children and had told them stories to keep them amused while they were waiting to be rescued.
When the conversation flagged a little, Philippa sang a few Christmas carols, just to keep panic at bay. When she ran out of ideas for carols, she sang “O Canada” in English and then in French. Time passed.
The repairman finally arrived. When the inner doors suddenly started to close, we yelped in surprise. The elevator sighed its way downwards, the doors opened and we stepped out into the ground-floor lobby again. We reckon we had been in there for about 35 minutes. Had we a bottle of wine, we would gladly have given it to the repairman. We didn’t think he would want the potted plant. Nonetheless I think he understood we were very grateful. We bid adieu to our kind angel of mechanical mercy and walked upstairs to our friends’ apartment. Our host thought we might need something a bit stiffer than wine to start with, and offered Cointreau on ice. We highly recommend this for anyone in a similar situation.
Over dinner, we mentioned that on the Air France flight a week earlier, we had seen a 1982 film that is often replayed at Christmastime: Le Père Noël est une ordure (Santa Claus is a bastard). It is a frantic comedy set in the offices of a crisis call centre on Christmas Eve. In the film, one of the office employees, burdened down with gifts and food for her family in Creteil, gets stuck in the elevator when she is leaving the building. She spends much of the film in the elevator (one of the open kind) eating the Christmas food and using the children’s toys to try to extricate herself. When the elevator repairman arrives… well, maybe we won’t tell you, in case you ever see the film. We wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise.
Here she is, as played in the film by Josiane Balasko. Alas, we didn’t have a trumpet to summon help.
When it was time to depart, we put on our coats, took one look at the door of the coffin (our host later told us that the dimensions of the floor were 52 x 54 cm or about 20 x 21 inches) and without discussion, walked down the stairs and into the Paris night.
We took the stairs more often after that.
Text by Norman Ball, image of hotel elevator from TripAdvisor (Hotel Langlois), photographs of elevator door and interior by Patrice Roy, photograph of intercom by Philippa Campsie.