In an earlier post, Surviving in France: 10 Top Tips, I suggested that being nice to builders was a good idea. I’m starting to regret it.
To say that we have had difficulty getting work done over the past couple of years is a masterly understatement. Crisis, what crisis? From failing to turn up to measure up the job, through omitting to send the devis (estimate), to neglecting to deliver on time (or at all), we’ve seen it all.
When I say ‘builders’, I mean anyone you engage to do something to your property. So, in addition to maçons, couvreurs, plâtriers, plombiers, menuisiers and terrassiers, it also applies to tree-fellers, swimming pool maintenance people and satellite dish installers.
All these tradespeople are bound by an unwritten code of practice. This stipulates that what they say is not quite what they mean. They also practise an arcane, Masonic ritual of nods, winks and hand gestures. So here is a lexicon of builder-speak with my interpretation of what it really means.
‘I’ll come on Friday’ – note they are careful not to say which Friday. You, of course, assume they mean Friday of this week. But this actually means Friday of any week over the next three months.
‘Things are very busy at the moment, but I’ll see what I can do’ – you’ll never hear from me again.
‘I’ll send you the devis by the end of the week’ – you won’t get it until at least the end of next month.
‘It’s not a standard size, so it might be hard to find one’ – I can’t be bothered to do any more about it.
‘We’ve been let down by the factory’ – I forgot to order it in time.
‘The wholesaler sent the wrong size, so we have to wait for a replacement before I can do the job’ – I ordered the wrong size, so we have to wait until I get round to sending it back and re-ordering it.
‘My wife/child/dog/second cousin twice-removed has been taken ill’ – I forgot that I had another job scheduled for this week.
‘I promised Mme X I would go there first, but I’ll be with you by 11h00, sans faute’ – it is very unlikely that I will turn up today.
These phrases are usually accompanied by the universal get-out clause, ‘normalement’, which covers them against all attempts to make them eat their words. See Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence for a comprehensive description of the accompanying body-language.
When they meet you in the street several months later, they don’t display an iota of embarrassment or contrition. Are their memories really so short? A French friend, while sympathising, suggests that life is just more laid-back in rural areas. Anything that requires too much effort is detrimental to their well-being, so they don’t do it. I don’t find this explanation entirely convincing, but am hard-pressed to find a better one.
Of course, they are not all like this. Unfortunately, just as you find a tradesman who appears to be reliable, he invariably decides to change metier or retire. I have to make an exception for our plumber, too. Whilst he is a masterly exponent of the builder’s lexicon when it comes to scheduled work, he always comes in a crisis.
When they do turn up, they usually work hard and don’t take coffee breaks. Sometimes, though, the job is rushed or inadequately supervised by le patron, who has other chantiers (building sites/jobs) to deal with. They need to be watched like hawks so that they don’t squash your rosemary (ours has never recovered from an assault by a mason’s truck), reverse into stone walls, drill holes in ancient stone lintels, slap ill-matching concrete over electricity cables or place steps the wrong way so that puddles collect when it rains. We’ve experienced all this and more.
I daresay there are similar problems in the UK, but I have been away too long to know. The solution? Do it all yourself. In fact, I’m seriously thinking about retraining as a plumber.
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