Take the Stairs
"If you die in an elevator, be sure to push the Up button."
- Sam Levenson
No one likes to feel trapped, whether in a job, a relationship, a particular environment and certainly not in an elevator. Especially an elevator in another country where the people on the other end of the elevator alarm button speak no English and you have at least a mild version of claustrophobia. Yep. That happened Saturday to me and my son.
We left our apartment to do our first real day of extended exploring in the location we just arrived in and boarded the elevator from the 5th floor (6th floor in the US). About halfway down, the elevator stopped and all the lights went out including the lights on the elevator buttons. It was the kind of darkness where you cannot see your own hand an inch from your face. Total, complete darkness that we rarely experience in life. It's strange how in moments like that you immediately realize the situation but for a brief, yet eternal, second you are somewhere between moments and there is no time.
I got out my cell phone so we could use the flash light to locate the elevator buttons (and felt very grateful for modern cell phones and their built-in flashlights). I pushed the alarm button and also the first floor button again. Suddenly, the lights came on and the elevator started moving. We both gave out a huge sigh of relief...until the elevator stopped again, this time about a foot shy of the ground floor. This would have been perfect for jumping out if we could have opened the door. Many of the elevators in Europe have two doors. The first one is a door you open just like the front door to your home and the interior door is the kind that slides to the side. After we were stuck just above the ground floor, my son managed to get the sliding door open in hopes that we could also open the outer door and get out. No such luck on the outer door but opening the inner door did allow light to come in through the narrow, opaque window, which was very helpful to me and my strong dislike for enclosed spaces. He even got the sliding door on the other side to open, which brought in a little more light even though it was on the elevator shaft side. I would not have fared as well if we had been stuck in a part of the shaft that had no light coming in.
As soon as we realized we were not going to be able to get ourselves out, we pressed the elevator alarm button again. It rang for a long time (seemed like forever) and when a man finally answered, he did not speak any English. This is totally understandable to me. If someone was visiting the United States and did not speak English our elevator alarm companies wouldn't be able to understand them either. I always remember that I am in their country and no one is under any obligation to learn an outside language just to make it easier for travelers. I also know from personal experiences that with some thought and gestures (though, gestures wouldn't have helped in this case) much can be understood between people without language. The man at the elevator company spoke for a couple minutes and then hung up. We called back, listened to several recordings we could not understand and when the man came back on I started trying different words. "We're trapped. Help! Emergency!" Since some words can be similar between languages, it seemed worthwhile to try a few and I knew he would figure something out simply because someone was pressing the elevator alarm button and sounding stressed. We called three different times so they would know that it wasn't accidental, such as someone bumping into the button, or a prank, and I was hoping he would find someone who could speak English.
After our third calling attempt, a neighbor in the building came to try to help. Bless her. She spoke both languages fluently and, after hearing some of the details, she asked us to press the alarm button again so that she could speak to the person on the other end in the native language. We tried to do this twice but the elevator personnel could not hear her well enough through the steel door to understand what she was saying and she could not hear them well enough. She tried several times but finally gave up and said we would just have to wait for the elevator company to show up. I was so grateful that she stopped to try, her presence and her kindness were very calming for both of us.
After she left, it dawned on me to call the landlord we were renting from. I got his voicemail so I called his local property manager who said she would call a neighbor in the building that might be able to help. Just before the neighbor came down, the elevator repairman arrived and unlocked the outer steel door, releasing us. Whew.
What an experience. I was so grateful that we were only trapped for about 30-40 minutes. I can't imagine how awful it would have been if it had lasted for hours and I was glad it was only myself and my son in the elevator when it happened. I think it would have been far more stressful to be stuck with a group of people shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowded elevator (which in Europe amounts to three people). Tiny elevators! I can now say I have survived one of my fears in life though I will be getting some good exercise by taking the stairs for a while.
Sam Levenson (1911-1980), quoted above, was an American humorist, writer, teacher, journalist, and television host.