All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

The English don't pay

DufferPlumberImage via Wikipedia

A friend has just had a scary experience.

She and her husband are converting their barn into a house for their daughter and grandchildren who are, God help them, moving to France for a better life, and had engaged professionals - les artisans francais - to do the bulk of the work. You are almost obliged to engage what is laughingly called a professional these days if ever you think you might want to sell your project as otherwise you will have to buy insurance to provide a ten year guarantee of work done by your good self, which costs another arm and a leg. You can soon become financially tetraplegic in France. Apart from which, there are the 'norms'...which change with alarming regularity...and then there is French plumbing, which is incredibly primitive in its conception. Tubes and fittings are labelled as 10/12, or 14/16, whatever that might mean....and every piece you want is sold separately, so you spend hours in the DIY store matching it all up and then find they have run out of one of the parts vital to your project. Also, although this did not apply in their case, if you are installing electricity for the first time in a building, you need to have an inspection and you can bet your boots that if the inspector doesn't see the name of an electrician on the request, your installation will be turned down, meaning that you have to pay for a further inspection. If he does see the name of an electrician on the request, it is also a fair bet that there will be no inspection at all, as the body responsible permits itself to pass installations performed by 'reputable' firms without its' inspector ever setting foot on the premises. You still pay.

For reasons which now escape me...I think I dozed off during the original description of the project...a waterpipe had to run across the premises, which meant it would be under the new floor....under the plastic sheet, the wire mesh and the concrete. This had been explained to the plumber, with emphasis on the importance of the pipe not leaking, and he had made no demur, which in itself was unusual as they normally insist on everything being visible for 'when' whatever they have installed springs a leak. That pipe and all the others having been installed, they called the builder to get on with the floor and the other work necessary before the plumber could return to connect up the sinks, baths and showers. The builder took a bit longer than they had anticipated, by which time the plumber was agitating, so they paid him half of the estimated sum, as the bulk of the work was done, and this kept him quiet until they were ready to proceed.

He duly arrived, connected everything that needed connecting, turned on the water and everything worked. They took a glass of wine together and he left, saying that his wife would send out the bill during the week.

During that week, they did not do much in the barn, but one day the husband went in and discovered a damp patch on the concrete. His first thought was a leak in the roof, as the patch was under the cathedral ceiling section of the conversion and there had been heavy rain. He went up, could see nothing, but put a bowl down to catch the drips, just in case. Well, the next day the bowl was empty and the patch was don't need me to tell you that the underfloor pipe was leaking.

They called the plumber. His wife said he would call them back. He didn't. He was incommunicado for days, so they called the builder, who said it wasn't his problem. The plumber's bill arrived. They called again, asking him to come out and see to the problem. The patch was now definitely wet. Their neighbour dropped by with some veg and they showed him the mess.....something had to be done, but no one seemed to want to do it. He called his son, who works for the water company. The son came round in his works van with his colleague and said that if they could take up the portion of floor affected he and his mate would mend the leak - just tell the Dad when they were ready. They tried the plumber again, but the wife replied that he could do nothing until his bill was paid. The builder, who had been paid - his wife being a bit smarter with the billing - reiterated that it was nothing to do with him, so there was nothing for it but to take up the floor. They were lucky in that English friends had family visiting and a couple of young men volunteered to do the work. The picks went at it, the wire cutters were employed, and the leaking pipe was exposed. What was not exposed, however, was the anti-damp plastic sheeting specified in the builder's estimate and paid for. It had not been laid.

The Dad was alerted, his son and colleague came round in the works van and the pipe was repaired. As always in France, it had been brazed, not soldered, and there had been an incomplete seal. The water went on again, and the pipe held. Son and colleague refused payment, as the couple were friends of Dad, and went off again in the works van to continue their legitimate employment, having had a frolic of their own on the company's time. There was still the problem of the plastic sheet and the hole in the floor.

They called the builder. They called several times before he came to the 'phone and blithely announced that it was, as it happened, a good thing that he had not laid the sheet as otherwise they would not have discovered the problem for a long time by which time they would have had an enormous water bill. But they had paid for the plastic sheet to be laid. Well, that was all in the past...they had paid the bill and that was that. End of conversation.

Taking up the whole floor was out of the question...who would do it and how would they pay for it? Their budget was tight enough as it was. The young men filled in the hole with concrete, levelled it off, and that was the floor problem solved. Not ideal, but the best they could do in the circumstances.

That left the plumber. They had paid half the bill in advance, but surely he would make a small allowance for the extra work caused by his incompetence? They called and the wife said he wouldn't. They called again, and said that they would make a deduction for the cost of the repairs. She said that they could not do that. They went round to the neighbour to see what he thought could be done and he suggested that they make the deduction and send a cheque for the rest, accompanied by a registered letter making it clear why a deduction had been made. They discussed what it would be reasonable to deduct and did as he suggested. He helped them write the letter so that there would be no misunderstanding due to language. The letter was sent.

Three days later, my friend had her scary experience.

She was in the garden when the plumber arrived, bursting out of his van like a rocket, shouting and waving their letter. Her French is not bad, but not up to situations like that, though even if it had been perfect, she could not have slipped a word in edgeways. He wanted the rest of his money....she and her husband were cheating foreigners, taking advantage of poor working wonder they could not pay their bills, just look at the luxury in which they lived....coming over, taking advantage of France.....couldn't even be bothered to learn the language.... Suffice it to say that the stream seemed endless, well laced with words she either knew or guessed to be extremely impolite, but the gist of it was that he wanted his money and he wasn't going until he got it. She was frightened but eventually managed to tell him that he wasn't getting a penny more than they had already paid and at that point the solids really hit the fan. He grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her against the wall, aiming a kick at her as she went down, then, perhaps realising that he had gone a little too far in the art of gentle persuasion, he left, still shouting as the van drove away.
Where, you might ask, was the husband during all this? Every woman knows the answer to this. Whenever you need a man, he is in the lavatory. Apart from which, it had all happened so fast that there would have been very little he could have done. Shocked, they made tea and wondered what to do. The neighbour was out. They telephoned the gendarmerie to make a complaint.
'Are you injured?'
'No, not really, just shocked.'
'Well, why don't you pay your bills if you don't want problems?'
That was the limit of official intervention.
When the neighbour came back, they went round to see him. He suggested seeing a lawyer, and made an appointment for them.
The lawyer listened to their tale and then told them to pay the rest of the bill.
'But we explained why we were making a deduction. We sent it by registered letter.'
'What difference does that make? He's just going to lose the enclosure and say that you sent the cheque and bill by registered post. It's more trouble than it's worth. Pay him.'
'What about the floor?'
'Did you get a bailiff to certify the state of the floor?'
'Well, how are you going to prove anything? Forget it...put it down to experience.'
They went back to the neighbour. They drank a glass of wine. They put it down to experience.

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  1. My God! What a horrendous tale of woe, incompetance and terror!

    I think all "professional workmen" live in a country of their own, and the laws of their country seem to supercede the laws of all the rest of the countries- atleast in Europe.

    We have heard of similar experiences here in Greece tho the Greek workmen are almost always open to negotiation. That or they stop showing up.

    Living in any foreign country costs. The hidden expenses of "experience" are the most expensive.

  2. The more I read your posts, the more horrified I am. But also convinced that things are not that much different here in Spain, from some of the stories I've heard. I thank my lucky stars that I'm married to someone from here, which means that I (mostly) manage to escape those "put one over the foreigners" tricks, and i (mostly) leave him to deal with all those things that would drive me crazy because I just don't get "how things work" here!

  3. This 'artisan' is sadly just a product of a rubbish education system that ensures that he will never have a single independent thought in his head. He did the work and should be paid is how he thinks. The fact that his work was crap doesn't figure in his tiny Gallic brain. I'm so sorry that your friend had such a nasty experience with this brutish man.... and the attitude of the gendarmes? Well no surprises there! There's an award for you over on mine - or there will be in about half an hour!

  4. There is no point in going to the gendarmerie. Not without any witness anyway. They should go to the chambre des metiers. They might be surprised at the enthusiasm at which these people will involve themselves with both their builder and the plumber, even after the event.

    For a start, the norms require, I believe, pipes run through concrete floors to be made of plastic these days.

  5. Not all "professional workmen" live in a country of their own when it comes to doing the right thing, only those masquerading as skilled tradesmen. I've made a living, and a bloody good living by trading on my own name.

    I cannae speak for the gentleman in question, or the standard of his work as I am unable to see for myself the level of his alleged poor work.

    There is always some course of action a homeowner can take when it comes to remedial work, it's just knowing the 'right people' to contact should things like this happen.

    As for the hands on approach from Mr Frenchie. If it had been a member of my family who had been manhandled, Mr Frenchie would have been buried next to his own leaky pipe.

  6. truestarr, if the plumber had agreed to come and look at the problem, none of this would have happened, but his attitude is all too typical of the contempt of French society - from top to bottom - for immigrants of whatever type. Immigrants don't help either, by being so eager to assimilate that they don't kick up.

    mondraussie, it is a compliment to the straight hair genes in my father's family that my hair hasn't become an Afro over the years in France!
    You meet some really nice, good people, but they are just hardwired to accept being shafted by their system...the older ones have a mournful refrain
    'Nous sommes pour rien.'...We count for nothing. I come from somewhere else. I count for nothing as well.

    VLiF, thank you for your award....most kind of you with everything else on your mind.
    My experience with French workmen is that they were taught to do one thing and they expect that knowledge to last them a working lifetime. I think they panic when the client asks for something else.
    As for the gendarmerie, let us never forget that they are not there to keep the peace between citizens...they exist to keep the populace subservient to the state. If they didn't pretend to be other, they would not be such a disgrace.

    Jon in France, I want to say something with tact and diplomacy which means it will probably read like a rogue elephant loose in a Buddhist temple, gongs clashing like the trump of doom. However, my intentions are good!
    You are doing well in France because you have adapted to the French way of thinking.
    'There is no point in going to the gendarmerie'. There ought to be a point...the woman was attacked.
    As to the Chambre de Metiers, I had suggested it, and the neighbour will help, but I think they are anxious about further dealings with the plumber after the incident in the garden.
    In my experience, whatever the norms say, if the plumber is used to fitting copper pipes, then copper pipes he will fit. I wonder how they do the joins in plastic pipes? I saw my neighbour having a go with a blowtorch....

    Jimmy Bastard, I take your point about commenting on work that I have not seen, and about taking the proper measures when something goes wrong.
    They did the right thing in asking the plumber to come back and take a look....he refused.
    I'm with you on Mr.Frenchie, but then I've always been a fan of direct action....

  7. Fly - I'm very adaptable! France is not the only place I've lived as a foreigner but it is the easiest.

    There are very few places in the world (certainly not France or the UK) where an assult - for that it what it is - would be treated seriously by the police if there were no witnesses or injury. That is a sad fact of life.

    That said, I am afraid to say that I regard the gendarmerie as being fairly useless and certainly not a patch on the UK police. It's the unnecessary carrying of firearms as a matter of routine that gets me most.

  8. Sorry - plastic piping seldom needs joins because it comes on rolls of 50 or 100m. Just cut to size. It can be joined if needed with brass compression fittings. Piece of cake. A moron like me can do it.

    If you can persaude the lady concerned to visit les metiers she may be doing herself and others a favour. They are obliged to investigate complaints and have some pretty swinging powers, as I am sure you know.

  9. Jon in France, thanks for the heads up on plastic piping...goodness only knows what my neighbour was up to...probably trying to save a sou or two by joining up two bits of downpipe.
    No, France isn't the only country I've lived in either which gives a point of comparison. One thing I'm sure of...I don't want to live in the U.K. again.
    As to the Chambre de Metiers, it's all very well doing others a service by doing the right thing, but, on the practical level, she is frightened of another encounter of the plumbing kind.
    I don't mind the firearms, I do mind the attitude.
    Glad you took my comment in good part.

  10. My father works in the construction, he's an architect and I hear crazy stories like that sometimes. It's really pathetic to see that kind of attitudes. I'm so sorry for your friends. I mean things could be so simple sometimes if some were less greedy and more honest. And not violent ! I'm shocked by this.

  11. Louise M, thanks for your sympathy...they could do with it. All it needed was a little common sense on the part of the plumber...and a little more honesty on the part of the builder. What struck me was his bare faced cheek in congratulating himself on not doing his job properly!
    They're not all like that, but out here in the sticks we have some real arrieres....sorry for lack of accents.

  12. I am curious as to what you like about living in France, since it seems you have been there for a while.
    Any thoughts?

  13. Zuleme, yes, I have been there a long time and seeing what I tend to blog about it's a really good point you make.
    We have made friends...mostly French....and have a quiet but good social life in their company. Health and age limit our contacts, but there is the 'phone and the blessed e mail. That is the most important factor.
    I like the sense of space, but that is being spoiled over the years as factory farming takes over and more and more chicken and pig concentration camps infect the countryside.It's quite a shock when another one appears in a well loved country scene.
    Earlier, we travelled widely in France and its architecture, from all periods from the Roman era onward, is stunning.
    The variety of landscape is also wonderful...I don't need family snaps to remind me of the wind blowing across the grasses of the Causse, the grey and green of the Pyrenees from the little yellow train that runs along the chain from le Tour de Carol, the marshes of the Brenne, the tiny ironbound coves of the Brittany coast and the windswept estuary of the Somme, whence my father took his leave of France in 1940.
    I liked the sense of community, but that is dying out with the generation who went through the hard times between the wars. People are retreating into their families for their social life, rather than the evening gatherings that were still going in my early days in France..the veillees..when the neighbours would get together, the chaps playing cards, the women knitting, perhaps someone playing a fiddle...Didier complains that no one wants to come to the little palets tournament in his hamlet these days...they have television and no one wants to talk about the state of the crops or the garden. I think I was lucky that I came when I did.
    We still go out to pick the grapes with our neighbour and all the other naughty's not as bad as they tell you, but you need little hands for the grape secateurs. Mine ache at the end of the day and only bleach will take off the stains.
    The food can be interesting when you meet traditional ways of handling local produce, but restaurants leave me cold. Give me Helene's duck...specially bred for her dish of duck with ceps.
    Using the produce of the fields and woods..the wild asparagus, the dandelions for salad, the sloe shoots for epine and, above all, the mushrooms...just never go a mushroom exhibition or you'll frighten yourself to death!You just know that you've eaten the one with the skull and crossbones label alongside it.
    Thinking it over, there are things I enjoy very much, Zuleme, but it doesn't alter how I feel about the structure of a society which crushes individual initiative. I started blogging because friends living abroad were asking me why I didn't sing from the same hymn sheet as the magazines extolling life in France..and a blog seemed better than a round robin letter.
    Thank you for giving me the chance to concentrate on the positive!

  14. Merci,
    I have two French friends here this week, Julian has never been to the States so we'll see what he thinks of it. Elisa is on her fourth visit and loves New Hampshire.
    We will be in France for two weeks, going back with them and then driving to Provence and back up to Brittany to visit her family.
    My husband spent summers in France when he was growing up in Sweden and he loves it. I think I would like to spend some time there (might have to bring my cats though).
    I think the French culture does crush initiative, the friends are still in school, doing their best to fit into the system. Elisa has done it for security (she is not stupid) and will have a Master's in Urban Planning, but she really just wants to be an artist. She is trying to find a way to do that. Julian is a computer programmer, I don't know him well yet so I don't know what he wants to do, but computer guys usually manage these days.
    Elisa says she is lucky because her father is a lawyer and her mother is a social assistant. They have a building they are thinking of opening a gallery in. I guess that is initiative.

  15. Zuleme, you've said it....Elisa IS lucky in that her parents are reasonably well off and can help and advise her. I see bright kids out here in the sticks whose parents don't have the money or experience to get them started in a system that thinks that advancement is getting a job for life with the govenment. It is so sad.
    You'll have agreat time holidaying in France and as you're with locals you'll see all the stuff off the tourist trail.
    Wow, from Provence to Brittany! You must be having such fun planning your route!

  16. Yes, we will have fun. Our friends from Texas have rented a huge Grand Mas for their friends to enjoy with a pool and Elisa will take the train down to join us for the journey north. Her parents really appreciate us having their children to stay in the US (one more to come for some computer training) and they are looking forward to treating us to visits in Brittany. Not so long this year but they keep offering to rent us a beach house. I will be sure to take them up on that some year.
    And I will be sure to appreciate the sunflowers.
    I enjoy your down to earth stories about real life in France.
    Time for goute.