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Monday, August 13, 2012

What the...?


When the plumber arrived, I felt a frisson of excitement—this was really starting to happen!

The garage, as I showed him, was already full of items awaiting their new homes: a new hot water heater, three sinks and faucets (a real luxury when you consider I’ve been living the past five months with just one viable sink, in the kitchen), a new glass shower and shower pan, a dishwasher, oven, sliding closet doors and rails for my first ever closet in this house, and a slew of cabinets from IKEA in varying stages of assembly, including the vanity and medicine chest for the new bath.
The car has been relegated to the road and my elderly neighbors always stop on their daily walks to watch me in amazement, as I've been assembling the cabinets with the garage door open. Do Americans actually do these kinds of things? They all wish me bon courage! It happened so often I was beginning to wonder what they knew that I didn’t. 

My carpenter was already several weeks behind schedule, having sprained his hand, so the construction of the new kitchen window, not to mention my eagerly anticipated screen doors, unheard of in France, still only existed on paper. Was there anything else I should be anticipating?

Then the electrician arrived, as did Chris who’d come by just to meet the “crew.” Unlike the plumber who speaks a little bit of English, the electrician spoke only French and all of it very fast. Chris speaks no French at all so this was going to be interesting. The electrician walked around with me as I showed him the plans and told him what I’d need.

“Merde,” he muttered, looking at the fuse box. Chris chuckled. No longer up to code, it was going to require full replacement. (Although he agreed to reserve it to use out in my dependance, the outbuilding abutting my garage, itself a former little 19th century four-room house. He blanched when he saw the do-it-yourself electrical setup out there.) “Non, non, pas possible. Tout cela doit être remplacé,” he kept repeating to himself as he walked from room to room. Everything was going to need replacing.

I could hear the ka-ching, ka-ching echoing in my head. The plumbing estimate was quite reasonable. Clearly, this was going to be literally shocking. But I am a believer in doing things right so I figured I’d have to bite the bullet on this one. At least at no point did I feel he was taking me for a ride. I asked him to break the estimate down into separate jobs so I could judge which ones might have to move to the wish list for now. And he made suggestions on how to simplify things to keep the price down. I decided I liked him.

The plumber and electrician would work in tandem, running pipes and wires, starting in the new bathroom first. Chris had left the sheetrock so they could unscrew it easily and run as much as possible between the rails, a real luxury in these ancient, solid stone houses where all wires and pipes are visible. (Chris had promised to box off what he could when we finished the job so that I wouldn’t have pipes running all over the place, like I do in the living room, thanks to the hot water radiator system.)

The electrician assured me he could finish the first stage, the bathroom and water heater, and start running connections for the new kitchen before he left on vacation for two weeks on August 3rd. He would return on the 18th, just as the plumber was leaving on his vacation. As vacation schedules go in France where most people have off the entire month of August if not part of July as well, I was faring pretty well.

The first job would be installing the new water heater. Unlike the old one which sits prominently in the old bath where I crack my head on it each and every time without fail when I mop the floor, I wanted to stow this one above the new bathroom where the grenier, the old granary, is, an unfinished room on the second floor which, were I to connect it to the rest of the second floor where my current bedroom is, would require passing through a door barely suitable for a miniaturized Alice in Wonderland. 

I had been very careful to buy the largest hot water heater I could find (150 liters, 51.5 cm wide) that would still fit through the upstairs granary window, 52 cm, admittedly a tight fit. I was mortified as I watched the plumber and his assistant muscle this monster up a ladder to the granary window only to find that, because it was still in the box, there wasn’t a chance of it fitting through the gap. They had to maneuver it back down the ladder, unpack it and start again. They brushed off my apologies with chuckles. Clearly they were no strangers to this kind of snafu.

Chris was nudging me to get the plumber to focus on the bath, however, and get the pipes run first so that he could tile the room while they were fiddling about upstairs. It made perfect sense to me. I guess that’s why it didn’t happen that way.

I was already determined not to micro-manage and I confess Chris’s reliability and work quality has spoiled me. The plumber began by drilling the hole in the granary floor to run the pipes down to the bathroom below. He worked quietly if not efficiently. He’d arrived at 10am, left at noon for lunch, returned at 2:30pm and, at 5pm, he was shaking my hand, bidding me bonsoir, and promising to return the following day.

I saw him off, returned inside and stepped inside the new bathroom to view the progress. I stared at the ceiling in disbelief. I reached for the phone and called Chris, who lives in the next village. He came by fifteen minutes later and I poured him a very large glass of red wine before escorting him to the bathroom. He was silent for several moments, staring upward, swallowing the colorful language that threatened to emerge.

"I think the words you're looking for, Chris, are, 'What the f*%k?'" He burst out laughing. 

"Yeah, that's pretty much it," he admitted. The pipes were coming out in front of the wall smack in the center. He pointed to an interior corner along the same wall.

“Get him to move those pipes so they come out alongside the ceiling beam and run them down through the sheetrock so you can’t see much of them. I’ll box them off alongside the beam.” 


The following day, the plumber sighed dramatically and shrugged. The end of that day they were emerging from another hole in the ceiling, this time four inches away from the corner. What part of "against the wall so the builder can box them in" didn't he understand, I wondered? (And no, it wasn't my faulty French.) The third time was the charm but that's because, by then, I’d given up any idea of trust and started hovering. It wasn't great for my work productivity, but it did cut down on the number of holes that were appearing in the ceiling.

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