How I almost set my apartment on fire

I feel ever-so-slightly iffy about posting this because as I still live in said apartment, blogging about this is essentially an admission of guilt if Housing sees this. So let’s hope this blog post doesn’t make me homeless.

Anyway. This happened a couple weeks ago; I was getting mysterious bug bites on my legs and I was sick of it. I’d heard that burning candles can keep bugs away (though I looked it up on the internet after the fact and found that non-citronella candles are actually ineffective. Whoops) so I bought a 99-cent pack of tealights at Target and a small glass tealight holder. Lit candles and open flames are banned in my on-campus apartment, but that’s a stupid rule, right? It wasn’t like I was going to start a fire or anything.

I proceeded to burn the little tealights in the evening, feeling rebellious and sophisticated. One night, as my little tealight burned, I decided to tidy up my room. As I threw away scraps of paper and such, I thought that it would be fun, for no reason, to burn little bits of them in the flame.

I know. This is where you’re banging your head on the desk going “Sharon. You’re such an idiot.”

The thing is paper actually burns a lot slower than you’d think. I’d tear off a small corner of paper, set the tip of it in the flame, and watch as the fire caught, slowly ate through a bit of paper, and die out before it had even made it an inch up the scrap.

So it went like this, me cleaning, occasionally lighting a scrap of paper, and then throwing it away.

Soon I found the large bundle of recycled paper that my glass tealight holder had come in. I duly ripped off a piece and touched the tip of it to my little candle.

It went up in flames faster than I could blink.

I quickly tried to blow out the little fire quickly approaching my fingertips, but the thing only burned more. I could feel the heat searing my fingers, so I dropped it.

On the pile of the rest of the very flammable recycled paper.

There’s no calm way to say what happened next.


So I had this huge inferno of paper blazing on my desk. I did the only thing that made sense: I grabbed that fireball with my bare hands and ran to the bathroom, thinking that I’d throw the burning mess in the toilet, where it couldn’t burn anything else and the water would put it out and ow my hands hurt ow ow ow.

Here’s the thing. Paper on fire is still paper. And if you, in elementary school, ever folded up a paper note and tried to throw it to your friend across the aisle only to have the paper flutter impotently into the very visible middle of the aisle, then you too have learned the hard way that throwing paper is a bad idea.

So kids, throwing paper is a bad idea.

Because as soon as I saw the toilet, I pitched that awful burning fiasco in my hands towards it. And instead of landing safely in the toilet bowl like I’d hoped, the blazing inferno showed that it was still capable of having air resistance, and landed on the floor right in front of the toilet, where it kept burning.

OhgodohgodI’mgonnaburndownthewholeapartmentmylifeisover, I thought, running to the sink and filling my toothbrush cup with water.

That’s when two things happened: the paper ball of hell magically burned itself out, and the fire alarm went off, causing my roommate to run out saying, “Sharon, what happened?”

I quickly stomped on a smoldering corner of paper. “Uh, I lit a candle,” I offered lamely.

“I didn’t know a candle could cause that much smoke!” my roommate exclaimed, fanning at the smoke alarm.

“Well…I kind of set something else on fire,” I admitted, eyeing the scorch marks on the outside of the toilet, and hoping they’d come off.

For a week afterwards, our bathroom smelled like smoke, there was ash on the floor no matter how much I tried to scoop it up, and our toilet had some characteristic scorch marks which have thankfully come off by now.

I’ve also promised my roommate (who I later told the whole story in a fit of penitence) that I’m not going to burn candles anymore.

Sprechen Sie Englisch?

Before I started taking German here, the only useful phrase I knew was “Sprechen Sie Englisch,” which means “Do you speak English?” in its formal form.

Of course, one could argue that it’s a useless phrase as anyone who’d answer yes to “Sprechen Sie Englisch” would understand “Do you speak English?” anyway, so it wouldn’t make a difference, but I like to make myself feel better by feeling like I tried, at least, to not be That American.
The thing I’ve noticed though, is that every time I someone “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” and they do, in fact, speak English, they don’t just say yes. They always say “A little bit,” or “Yes, only a tiny bit.” That’s a perfectly reasonable answer, but here’s the kicker: they always speak perfectly good English. And yet if you ask them if they speak English, it’s always “only a little.”
I don’t know if Austrians are a modest people, or if they really underestimate how well they speak English, or if that’s what they’re supposed to say. I can almost imagine, in Austrian schools, children being told exactly how to respond to such a question.
“Klaus, if an American comes up to you and says ‘Sprecken zee Engleesh,’ what do you say?”
“I say ‘A little bit,’ Lehrer!”
“Perfect! Have a Mozartkugel.”
Though I suppose if someone came up to me and asked if I spoke Spanish, or Chinese, I would respond the same way. I suppose answering that you only speak a little bit of the language excuses you from having to say anything more than a few basic things, and getting away with it. I guess it also saves you from extended conversations you don’t want to be part of.
“Sprechen sie Englisch?”
“Yes, a little.”
“Where’s the nearest McDonald’s?”
“It’s over there to your right.”
“Great! Say, what’s your take on foreign policy?”
“Sorry, I told you I only spoke a little English. Auf Wiedersehen!”