Qu’est-ce Qu’on est Serrés…

Have you ever ridden in a European elevator, or more specifically, a French elevator? Well, long story short, they’re tiny. I’m talking, like, two people at a time, MAX. Not to mention, French elevators have a reputation for being old, rickety, and just downright sketchy. You don’t mess with French elevators; I’ve lived in France for almost two years, and just learned this the hard way.

You see, back in Lyon, my friends and I decided to try to outsmart our AirBnb apartment building’s elevator. We had just rolled in around 1 AM after a late dinner and (quite) a few drinks with friends in town, and none of us felt like climbing the 4 flights of stairs to our third story apartment. We also couldn’t be bothered with taking two trips upstairs and waiting in the lobby. Luckily, it was fate– the elevator was on the ground floor, waiting especially for us. “Three people, or 300 kilos max,” it told us. “Psshh, whatever,” we thought, as we crammed in four. We were on fire; on top of the world.

The elevator lifted a few inches.

And then, SLAM. Followed by silence, darkness, and no movement. We looked glanced nervously around at the buttons, at the floor, at each other. I turned on my iPhone’s flashlight. We pushed ALL DA BUTTONS. Open, close, up, down, open, close– over and over, again, and again, and again. What do we do?

We are literally INCHES from the floor. If only we could open the door and simply step down, it would be so simple…

“How about we take a selfie and post it to social media– maybe someone will see it and come help us?” 


Stuck in a French Elevator. ENVOYEZ LES POMPIERS!

(Photo taken by Jeff)

**Spoiler Alert: Nobody came. Thanks, Facebook friends.

  • Plan B- press the emergency button in the elevator (does this thing even work?)
  • Plan C- Call the fire department. What even is the emergency number in France for the Fire Department? (18, by the way.) Thank goodness for 3G internet and smart phones!

Luckily, we did have a nice responder on the emergency intercom in the elevator. “How many are you in the elevator? 2? 3?” she inquired. “Four,” we admitted, shamefully, tails in between our legs, unable to make eye contact with the intercom speaker. “Is that an English accent I hear?” she asks, “We’ll have someone there in 30 minutes– either our maintenance man or the fire department.”

Thirty minutes!? Génial.

We look at each other, bewildered. What could POSSIBLY take 30 minutes!? Who on earth could also POSSIBLY be stuck in an elevator in Lyon at this time of night? What do we do in the box, for 30 minutes!? If we were in an American elevator, we could sit down and play cards, or Never Have I Ever, or even have a mini dance party if the elevator was big enough.

Alas, I busted out my iPod, determined to lighten the mood, and not think about the lack of oxygen in such an enclosed space. I scroll through my playlists, until I find what I was looking for:

Les Sardines: Patrick Sébastien

Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite,
Chantent les sardines, chantent les sardines,
Ha ! Qu’est-ce qu’on est serré, au fond de cette boite,
Chantent les sardines entre l’huile et les aromates

Known as our unofficial dance song here in the north, this gem is busted out at the peak of every party. The lyrics include come from the point of view of a bunch of sardines who have had the unfortunate luck of being caught and then crammed all together into the bottom of a box alongside the oil and herbs. The song is also frequently heard being sung by drunk students or sports fans in metro cars.

Needless to say, my friends were not very amused (just trying to ease the tension, guys!) so we spent the rest of the time in silence counting down the 30 minutes, until 31, 33, 35, 40 minutes had passed. Stresses were high, people were tired and tipsy, one of us was claustrophobic, and no one had come, so we decided to take matters into our own hands– call the fire department again ourselves, as well as ring the lady back up on the emergency line.

I called the Fire Department on my phone. I was connected with a man, to whom I explained our situation– that we had been stuck in an elevator for 30 minutes, and that we had already been in contact with someone on the emergency line, but the person they had supposedly sent hadn’t come, and we were wondering if maybe they received an alert from them about us, and if not, could they come and help us out anyways?

But no, the man explained. The fire department doesn’t “deal with” elevators, and we’d have to figure it out and call someone else.  It doesn’t matter that the emergency line seemed to have been a dead-end, and that no one had come in almost 45 minutes. It wouldn’t have mattered if one of us had become sick, or injured; it wasn’t his problem. I was so flabbergasted by this difference in government, in administration, in culture, that I lost my ability to speak French. My friend diligently clicked the “hang up” button on my screen, in rage. To my bewilderment, the fire department didn’t call back.

We were approaching the 47 minute mark, when we heard the shuffling noise of someone in the lobby. Could it be, we wondered? “S’il vous plaît, on est là!” I pleaded. And sure enough, the elevator door popped open. The maintenance man in charge clearly was not having any of it– he had to leave his office to rescue a bunch of stupid foreigners who tried cramming 4 into an elevator equipped for 3 at two AM. We muttered, “Merci, monsieur, bonne soirée,” and scurried upstairs, not daring to look back.

Needless to say, a few beers were shared following the escape. I don’t think any of us have stepped foot in a French elevator since.

Do you have any elevator horror stories to share?



10 thoughts on “Qu’est-ce Qu’on est Serrés…

  1. Argh I hate elevators. I have a love-hate relationship with the one in my building (it’s so slow!) which I only have to take down to the basement for laundry (I live on the second floor so just one flight up). But omg, such a good reminder never to get stuck in an elevator in France!!! That is SO LIKE the fire department to tell you they don’t help liberate people from stuck elevators! I would have cursed out the 911 dispatcher had that happened to me in the US, been like “FIND SOMEBODY WHO DOES!”

    The ones in my office though, I swear, are haunted or something, they are so creepy! Though sometimes people are SO infuriating. Just the other day I was taking it down after a long day at work and another woman got on and asked me if I knew this company and what floor it was on. I did not. And she proceeded to HIT MULTIPLE RANDOM FLOORS all the way down from the 11th to “check and see” if the company was on that floor. And of course she never found the right one. I finally told her to stop and we could get down to the lobby where she could ask the doorman, she was being ridiculous. We got towards the bottom (like 4th or 5th) when all of a sudden instead of going down to the lobby the elevator ZOOMS BACK UP TO THE 21st FLOOR!!! I wanted to throttle her. No doubt the doorman/security guard got confused with somebody pressing random floors all the way down when there were only two people in the elevator and sent it back up to the 21st floor to get more people. I was seething and wanted to slap her, so much rage haha.

  2. Dana! That sounds so terrible! I am generally not claustrophobic but I have been in French elevators before and 4 people in 1 of those for 45 minutes would be horrifying. I am so sorry that happened to you!

    I must say, the elevator in my host family’s apartment building in Paris must have been top-of-the-line. It was still tiny but when my host dad came down to greet my roommate Alex and I when we first arrived, we had 4 rolling suitcases between the two of us- 3 large 50 pound ones and 1 smaller carry-on suitcase. And he beckoned for both of us and ALL our suitcases to join him in the elevator. I said I didn’t think there could be enough space but he said, “Non, non, Ça va!” and we fit (very tightly however) and the elevator worked just fine…


    I will be sure to take your post into consideration and not try to be daring like François because not all French elevators are created equal.

  3. Oh my god. That song – absolutely hysterical! Not the situation though, of course. That happened to me not once but twice in my apartment’s elevator last year. Sadly, I was all by myself, and had nothing but the increasing amount of pastries I kept eating to blame. Seriously though, it can be terrifying, and people can be so incompetent. Good for you trying to lighten the mood!

  4. Nothing as crazy as this, but I’ve often sent just my luggage up (or down) in a French elevator and taken the stairs to meet it on the right floor. Partly because there wasn’t enough room, partly because I didn’t want to get stuck in an elevator and have to call the pompiers 😉

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