Midnight in Luche Pringe is extraordinarily silent. Tuesday night at midnight Karen was asleep, and I had just slipped quietly into bed. A violent explosion shook the house and a brilliant orange flash filled the room. I bolted to the front window, opened it to look out, and there was a second boom.
Outside in the street I could see nothing, save a woman running from her house across the street, screaming something unintelligible as she ran towards the village square, then back towards her house. I was getting dressed when Karen looked out the kitchen window in the back of the house, and called to me. There was an enormous fire two doors down, with flames shooting 50 feet in the air, maybe more. It looked to be the butcher’s.
Out in the street, oddly, there was nothing to be seen when standing in front of M. Emmanuel Methee’s boucherie, but walking into the square and looking at the back of the building, it was a raging inferno, with billowing smoke and the sound of crackling wood. It was out of control, and, living two doors down, we were in danger of being caught up in it.
The pompiers, the firemen, seemed to take an eternity to arrive, but I’m sure it was only a few minutes. When they did arrive, they needed to call out their hook and ladder truck with a water gun rising a hundred feet in the air, shooting high pressure water down into the fire.
In the street in front of the church people gathered. Manu’s wife, in shock, stood in the Place watching, sobbing, “Chez nous, ches nous,” while Karen and other neighbors tried to console her. Enormous clouds of smoke billowed into the night air.
It was miraculous; the fire was brought under control, and although there was some damage to the house next door, our place two doors down was unscathed, with only a trace of smoke scent in the lower floor, although we learned that pieces of the roof were blown as far as the bridge into town by the explosions. Manu’s business appeared a total loss.
The next morning, only a few hours after the blaze was extinguished, the cleanup had begun and although the back of the building was wrecked and the inside of the store was all smoke and water damage, the front glass windows and door were unscathed, and the curtains were drawn as they would be any time the store was closed. From the street there was almost no sign of the fire, except for a small pile of burned wreckage outside.
No one knows what caused the fire, but the explosions were almost certainly from gas tanks used to fuel his cookers. No doubt he had them working overnight to slow cook specialties he would have displayed the next morning.
The fire is a tragedy for Manu, his wife, and the village. It is a disaster. Manu and his boucherie are part of the village heart. For so many people he, his wife, and the shop are part of daily life. It was never clearer than this week. Manu on occasion, made burgers, but only on occasion, and by special order in advance. These are burgers from local beef, on special rolls from the baker, with all the fixings. For the French living in a somewhat remote village, this is a special thing. Manu had five hundred orders for burgers for this weekend, Valentine’s Day. It was going to be a big day for a shop working on slim margins. You don’t get rich operating a boucherie in a small French village.
Now, there is uncertainty about the future and whether or not he will come back. We are told they lost everything, and the question of insurance and what it will provide is an unknown. But within 24 hours collection boxes appeared in the boulangeries and the epicerie, donation boxes to help Manu and his wife repair and reopen.
Life in the village will be different, maybe for a time, maybe forever. For us there is the lost convenience of Manu two doors down, always available for a last-minute decision about dinner. But it’s more than that. We will miss walking by every morning on the way to the boulangerie and back, with Manu and his wife looking out the window, waving back with a smile at the odd behavior of those Americans who always wave when they pass.