He called it a cultural moment

Arriving home from work, I was about a block away when I could see the fire trucks–plural.  As I got closer, I could see the people from the apartment amassed outside with their dogs.  The pit of my stomach told me S was not in the crowd. A single phone call confirmed it.

I started to move faster, toward the door, toward the apartment employee and fireman ushering people out of the building.  They yelled that I couldn’t come near and I yelled back that my husband was inside. They told me he wasn’t, but I said I just hung up the phone with him.  They asked what floor. Twelve. And someone took off to get him. I called. Said “get the dog and get out”. I hung up.

After I hung up, I was chastised by management and by the firemen for my husband not leaving. I had to explain that he must not know what is going on. He must not recognize the fire alarm.

It was true—he didn’t.

It wasn’t until after this that the fireman came and said it was a false alarm. They had to check out the building a bit more, but believed it was safe. I was ushered back into the crowd, waiting for my husband to emerge from the doors, waiting for him to walk the dog down 12 flights of stairs, waiting to explain fire alarms.

Six firemen in full suits and gas masks exited the building before he got down. Three, less suited up, went back in.

He finally emerged at the point where I had already re-dialed the number to ask what was taking so long.   Apparently in Chile, fire alarms are high pitched and constant, ringing like an annoying school bell. Apparently, from our side of the building he couldn’t hear the two fire engines roaring up the block and stopping at the entrance.  Apparently he used the key hole to look out the door to see if it was an alarm going off, to see if there were robbers with guns roaming the hallway.

The head maintenanceman  told me that if it had been a real emergency, living on the 12th floor, I would have been a widow.  A widow without a dog. My husband told me it was a cultural moment. I told my husband that I loved him. Well, that I loved him and that next time he needed to leave the building.



  1. Holy crap, that’s the scariest thing I can imagine. Glad he (and Harley) are ok. And I agree, it was beautifully written. 🙂

  2. Woah!! I’m glad Seba is okay. That is a good thing to realize though…that alarms are different in different countries. It’s something I’ve never thought about. I wonder if I’ll recognize a fire alarm here, or just think it’s a new-fangled car alarm? Lord knows there are enough of those going off every two seconds here in Santiago.

  3. Wow, what a story, and what an interesting insight into cultural and country differences. Glad all worked out well, sorry you had to age about 20 years in a few minutes.

  4. You know what? This story reminded me that I did the same thing in Santiago!
    Luckily my husband was home and looked in my room and asked me why I wasn’t getting my stuff together to vacate the apartment. The high pitched ringing just hadn’t registered to me as being a fire alarm.

    By the time we got to the bottom floor, the alarm had stopped and it wasn’t a real fire situation.

  5. Thanks to you we did check our fire alarms last night and made sure the kids know what to do and where to go in the new house.

  6. How scary! I’m glad that Seba and Harley are both ok. And like others have said, the idea of alarms sounding different in different countries is a good point…something to remember whenever we move.

  7. Yikes – make sure S takes the security briefing with a simultaneous translator. He’ll have to learn about alarms and how to take care of himself in dangerous situations. Oh did I mention that he’ll also have to learn how to not piss off his hostage takers ( if he makes them the yummy peach margaritas – he should be good on that front)

  8. I have never even thought about that. Most of the places I have lived in Chile do not have alarms. I brought one with me from the U.S.

    I’m sure your management was less than understanding about it too.

    Glad it was just a false alarm.

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