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How to Set Your House on Fire Abroad

So, I finally set my house on fire…

It was only a matter of time, really. At this point, I’m more surprised that I haven’t caught something on fire sooner. (And, no, unfortunately this blog doesn’t end with a truck of sexy Sikh firefighters coming to rescue me).

Friday I was working from home in the late afternoon, enjoying things the Haryana Department of Education lacks: AC next to my bed, high speed internet, and the leisures of not wearing pants. My laptop was safely plugged into the wall (it’s always good to keep it full, you never know when the power will go out).

When you straighten half your hair before work and then the power goes out
When you straighten half your hair before work and then the power goes out

Suddenly I heard the AC turn off followed by a deceptively innocent sounding “pop” from the outlet. I looked up to see smoke squeezing out of the socket. Naturally, I panicked, slapped off the power to the outlet, unplugged my laptop, and carefully removed the (hot) plug from the wall.  I decided it was nothing (mostly because I wanted to ignore how potentially bad this could be) and decided to leave my AC off for awhile.

Switches to turn the outlet on and off


So I turned the fan on.


Then I tried the light in my room.

Still nothing.

I hoped it was just a routine power outage. I tried the light in the living room.

It tried so hard. I could see tiny bits of light flickering around the corners. I almost pitied the pathetic little thing. Likewise, my router still had the one red light flickering.

That was it. Not a single other light/fan/or appliance worked. But since those two sort of worked, I knew it wasn’t a power outage. So I went to the breaker box and turned everything off and everything back on.

Still nothing.

I spent another ten minutes standing around hopelessly, plotting whether I could sleep at Priya’s house, not sure how to survive June in India without a fan, AC, or wifi. And then after ten minutes my lights all miraculously returned. For some reason my router only stayed on if the living room light stayed on but I assumed that was just “something Indian” and went back in my room to work. Crisis averted!








Nothing can ever be that easy in this country.

After about ten minutes I smelled smoke so I reexamined the outlet. Then I realized smoke was billowing into my bedroom. I ran into the living room to see the living room light spewing smoke and blackening the wall behind it.

Indian buildings always have way more switches than appliances/lights associated with them
Indian buildings always have way more switches than appliances/lights associated with them
I literally only know what two of these switches do
I literally only know what two of these switches do

So I turned off all the lights, turned out everything on the broker box, and sweating from 3 minutes without AC, called my landlord. He told me he, and the entire family, would be gone until late the next day.


He asked if it was an emergency. I calmly said, “yes. I believe your house is on fire.”

I explained the story two or three times to him but he was still unsure of the details. At some point he hung up and called back. He told me the handyman who lives at the house was also gone for another hour or so but he would call an electrician.

Yes. Anything. Bring him.

Of course, attempting to speak to the electrician was another matter. I sat outside on the stairs out of the sun reading To Kill A Mockingbird for about 30 minutes before the man came. I didn’t know how much the landlord had explained to him, so I used my best Hindi.

I pointed to the breaker box
“toh…sab atcha hai,” (so…everything is good) 

I pointed to the living room light
“lekin yuhuh dhuaan the,” (but here was smoke)

I pointed to the outlet in my bedroom
aur yuhuh dhuaan the,” (and here was smoke)

toh…..nehi atcha hai.” (So….not good)

He seemed to get the picture and started doing something. I just sat inside and watched sweat pool from my forehead onto the book. At some point he summed me outside and was saying something about a wire and so I nodded furiously as he spoke. Then I realized he was asking me a question, so admitted that I didn’t understand.

My Tardis: because it's bigger on the inside
My Tardis: because it’s bigger on the inside

After about thirty minutes he had everything working again and had me run around the house and test every light switch and every outlet. He spent some extra time on the AC and then kept asking me things in Hindi so I just kept saying, “sab tik hai” (everything is okay) “abhi sab atcha hai” (everything is good now).

Honestly, I have no idea what he did and if this is a long-term fix to the fact that I had a small electrical fire. But I sort of completed an emergency task in Hindi so I’m giving myself a gold star for adulting abroad today!

What is the verb “to adult” in Hindi?
Witch Burning Prague
Asia Czech Republic Europe Festivals Abroad

They Burn Witches in Prague

Every spring, on the eve April 30th, the Czechs celebrate pálení čarodějnic or “the burning of the witches.” I celebrated three years ago near the end of my 10-month stint teaching in the country. Having written a 70-page thesis on early modern witch trials (which recently won the Gerhard Weinber Award for best article in European History), seeing this festival was a must. My former boyfriend and I had heard the celebration in Ladronka to be one of the best so we set off to the outskirts of the city.

Witch burning Prague
Image 1: Notice for a witch burning festival

We arrived a bit late, the bonfire had already been built and the witches already burnt. The “witches” constitute small cloth-made witches which are tied to the pyre.

Image 2: A young girl lights the pyre covered in handmade witches

Other times, one large central witch is placed in the center

Image 3: Cloth witch in the middle of the pyre

Then the bonfire burns. After that, it seems like a pretty typically “Czech” festival except that all the children were dressed like witches. They even had brooms. There was a stage with some music, lots of beer and food stands, and people building smaller fires to roast sausages which they brought from home. People from all over the country set up little stalls of crafts and jewelry. I bought some clay-fired heart earrings which I still own and wear on a regular basis.

Why Burn Witches?

Traditionally, it is believe the witch burning festival began with pagan rituals celebrating the spring equinox. Later, the date became associated with the date witches are most attracted to attend the Witch’s Sabbath (beginning in the 14th century until the late 17th century, witches were believed to fly into the woods at night where they would dine on rotting food, boil babies for their fat, copulate in orgies with the Devil and demons, and pervert anything Christian). It is most likely due to the pagan origins of this celebration that those not following the rules of Christianity in the 14th century would perform rituals in the woods on this date, which later became thought of as “witchcraft.” With time, communities began to gather on hills and light large fires to “ward off evil witches.”


It is also likely this festival originally celebrated fertility. The next day, May 1st (May Day), Czechs will visit Petřín Park which is covered in blossoming Cherry Trees. It’s considered a day of love. Couples kiss under the trees. Legend says any girl not kissed under the trees will “wither and die” within the next 12 months. So obviously I drug my boyfriend there ASAP and let’s just say I neither withered nor died…

Petrin Hill
May Day under the Cherry Blossoms


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