Oct 28, 2022

“Midnight in Paris,” but I’m a firefighter on an engineering program

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9 min read

Hold on… What do you mean you’re a firefighter?

First things first… My name is Hugo, and I’m a Brazilian who recently arrived in the suburban south of Paris to study at the French engineering school École Polytechnique.

As a first year student of the “Ingénieur Polytechnicien” program, my first few days at the campus, silly enough, didn’t take place on campus. That was because the Student Association organized many trips for the class of 2022 to bond. So, actually, one of the first things we did was to go camping in Chambon-sur-Lac 🏕️. You can’t deny that the chalets there were neat, nor that it was amazing to ride pedal boats with my Russian friends. Not to mention that it was funny to hear the French students sing their lungs out to the lyrics of the school’s anthem and “La Marseillaise” during dinner; in fact, this was the first time I saw how lively and prankish the students here could be (just you wait for it, there will be more). No, you can’t deny it, yet the secret trip I did with a new group of friends was what really made the 9 hours bus ride to Chambon-sur-Lac worth it.

Some Chinese guys and I, instead of attending the party that was going on that night, decided to wake up with the singing birds to visit the nearby medieval town of Murol. On our way, we even shared mooncakes 🥮 they had brought with them all the way from China, just so that they could celebrate the Mid-Autumn festival on this side of the world. Luckily, the moon was setting behind the mountainous horizon as we strolled by the lakeside, so I managed to take the picture below. Flawless, isn’t it? Once in Murol, not only was the historical downtown as wholesome as it gets, with its flowery, stone-built houses, but also there were people flying on air balloons that day, so the photos came out with colorful dots in the sky. We also had breakfast at the local bakery (I think it was the only one in town!), which had so many colorful pastries that I had a hard time choosing 😩. At the top of the hill where the Château de Murol stands, we appreciated the panoramic view of the landscape while discussing ecology with an eremite that was passing by! He taught us that we should look out for our planet, especially because we had to set high standards as students of Polytechnique.

After returning to the campsite, a friend told me we probably couldn’t have left on our own. But I honestly didn’t think much of it; after all, the trip organizers had partied all night long and were for sure fast asleep while we were away. Just don’t go around telling them and it’ll be alright 😉.

Source: personal gallery

However, my favorite trip by far was going to Parc Astérix—partly because I had never been to an amusement park before. If you too, like me then, have never ridden on a roller coaster in your life, let me tell you this: it’s too addictive for its own good! The ride goes by too fast, and the rush of adrenaline is just too high. It leaves you begging for more.

Concerning the best rides, though Oziris and Discobélix were close seconds, Goudurix was arguably the most fun. I mean, it’s a roller coaster where you turn upside down 7 times. I repeat: 7 times 😱! How could it not have been fun? I would’ve been riding it again and again if it wasn’t for the long lines… So I guess a pro tip would be to get the (a bit more expensive) ticket that’ll allow you to enter the special, shorter lines. Tip number 2 would be to try visiting the park in the summer, this way you’ll profit from the attractions that wet you 🌊.

It sounds really fun! What about it makes you a firefighter, though?

Okay, okay… So after Parc Astérix, we finally came back to campus. And it was time to get some bureaucracies done, which is always something complicated to do. This was when LivinFrance did what it does best: help international students moving to the land of macaron, baguette and croissant. Most importantly, their content really demystified French social security, public health insurance and all those kinds of things that are knotty to figure out on your own when you’re moving out from your parent’s house for the first time like I was. For example, I found a great deal on a civil liability contract thanks to LivinFrance!

Returning to campus also meant eating at the canteen, visiting its sport facilities, attending presentations at the amphitheaters, being surrounded by military staff, jogging around the lake in the morning—

Wait, could you repeat that?

You know… It’s a lake… which is on campus. And we jog around it. There’s nothing much to it.

No, no. I mean what’s up with the military staff?

Oh, okay! I must’ve forgot to mention that École Polytechnique is a military school 😅. Let me get things straight and tell you a bit more about the institution itself then.

As a matter of fact, the “École Centrale des Travaux Publics” wasn’t originally under the Ministry of Armed Forces. Only later would the school go on to gain military status, as well as a name change, a neologism where “poly-” means plural and “technique” means method. And that’s clearly a denomination synched with its multidisciplinary curriculum. Here students receive education based on advanced topics in both mathematics and natural sciences, with an interesting sprinkle of humanities and economics. The idea is that a graduate 🎓 of École Polytechnique, also called “polytechnicien,” should be able to interact with and propose solutions to specialists of a multitude of areas. And such excellence has proven to be prolific over the course of more than two centuries, with its alumni and professors being among historical government officials and even French presidents, as well as founders and CEOs of huge corporations. Not to mention the scientists whose works are on every textbook, such as Laplace, Lagrange, Fourier, Carnot, Becquerel, to name a few… Did you know our professor Alain Aspect was even awarded the Physics Nobel prize this month?!

As an integral part of this varied formation, the polytechniciens go through a military or civic internship before the beginning of classes. This is exactly what I’m doing right now: I’m an intern at the fire brigade of the school!

Now things are starting to make sense! But what do you do at the brigade, after all?

So you might have guessed that my first days in France have predominantly been involved with some crazy ‘firefight-y’ stuff. And you would be correct! I began by learning some basic procedures. For example, how to install smoke detectors and what types of signals they can send to headquarters. Or the types of fire extinguisher 🧯 and how to use them. It sure is nice to know that only the extinguishers filled with powder should be used to extinguish a flammable gas fire, but I honestly hope I won’t be needing this knowledge in the future. And just between us, doing the maintenance of fire extinguishers is kind of fun—who would have thought it, huh? It’s obviously still fun for me because I’ve been doing it for some weeks, but I assure you that the veterans at the brigade, who’ve been cleaning fire extinguishers for decades, will disagree with me on this. Oh, and remember I said students here are prankish? Well, some days I go around the campus, identifying and sealing fire extinguishers whose safety seals have been snapped out by the sneaky fingers of students 🖐️.

Also, the once “new” campus is getting old, meaning probably there’s a construction or a repair or a demolition taking place as you read this 🏗️. So a significant part of my day is to write fire permits, which allow for an exceptional use of fire for the sake of a work that’s being done on campus. Thanks to this, I’m lucky enough to see inside new campus buildings before all other students 👀! The surprises don’t stop there: the firefighters use all sorts of nooks and crannies to get around the school, like the one in the picture below. When you least expect it, they’ll open a door so discreet that you had never even noticed it was there, and they’ll make you go, “Wow, I didn’t know this led here.” Unfortunately, once my internship has ended, my magnetic badge will lose many of these advantageous accesses, but at least I’m starting to know the map of the campus like the back of my hand!

Source: personal gallery

Then, there’s the more action-packed stuff we do. Everyday, at least once, someone calls in for rescue. Be it a student who falls from their horse during polo practice or a doctoral researcher who burns themselves with a laser, we are there to offer first aid and even take them to one of the nearby hospitals if the situation calls for it. One of our guys is even trained on handling radioactive accidents ☢️!

Of course, major fire aren’t common around here, and in the event of one, I’d just not participate in it for my safety (and the safety of others). Nonetheless, this doesn’t mean I didn’t receive a brief training on hydrant and hose handling! I even got to use a proper fire suit! Can you imagine how awesome is that? (You don’t need to, just peep at the photo below 😁.) Basically, the chief taught me simple things like how to manage a hydrant to use its water, how to quickly unroll a hose, how to wield a fog nozzle, what types of jets to use depending on the fire, etc.

Nowadays, I'm learning how to use the “Rescue and Fall Protection Kit,” i.e. the equipment to help you hang from tall places. The test on this is next week, so wish me luck!

Source: personal gallery

There’s still one piece of the puzzle that’s missing, though. Why the Woody Allen reference?

Oh, that? That's me being corny... In “Midnight in Paris,” Owen Wilson’s character enjoys strolling through Paris at night, and that somehow transports him back in the time when the clocks hit midnight. I often stroll through the campus at midnight too! Of course, I don't do it because I’m trying to escape a materialistic fiancée. It's rather because I work 24-hour shifts sometimes. That’s right, 24 hours: from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. the next day! Unfortunately, however, the campus is not as interesting as 1920s Belle Époque Paris, nor am I lucky to meet Picasso, Matisse, Fitzgerald or Hemingway like Owen Wilson can in the movie…

By the way, don’t worry, though. I don’t literally work for a day straight—I have some time to rest too 😴.  It’s just that I need to be readily available the whole night, so I have a walkie-talkie with me at all times. Did you know I was even given my own little room at the headquarters? Yes, it has a tiny window, and its door is hefty because it was previously a vault. Sure, it’s not as comfy as my dorm, but the bed does the job. And the guy who used to sleep there before me (he retired almost as soon as I arrived) was one of the funniest guys I met here. He looked very threatening but was very kind; he was bulky and used to be a boxer 🥊; he was proud of and joked about his strabismus. If this is not a fully fleshed-out character who could be in a comedy movie, I don’t know what is.

24-hour shifts come with its perks. For example, I get free tickets to student parties to do its fire security! When I did it for Stix, a much beloved student party at Polytechnique, I had a privileged view of the tecno light show! Nevertheless, that night, I found it very strange that the same song played two or three times 🎵. And I wasn’t even there for the whole party! I worked there for just three hours, while the party lasted seven. If I couldn’t stand listening to that song again and again, imagine the other people at the party. Or at least that was what I though, but I later found out that I couldn’t be more wrongly mistaken…

As the days went by, I started to notice that students here absolutely love this song! I still don’t know its name (in order to avoid it), but the fact is that they play it when working out, when picnicking, everywhere… I wonder how they can be so unoriginal about songs when they’re so creative with, for example, pranks. And I mean it in the nicest way possible. This week I literally had to use a jack to lift one of the school’s vans because students had placed two bricks under it, which rendered the van unable to roll. See what I mean? Oh, well 🤷.

So that’s it, people. I hope that you enjoyed reading about my first experiences here, and that at least one of these silly adventures made you laugh or made you want to come to France! If it did, feel free to like, comment below, ask any questions, and share my article. If you come, I guarantee you can count on LivinFrance.

(Cover imagem from personal gallery)

Update: I passed my “Rescue and Fall Protection Kit” exam :)

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