Season’s End

I am avoiding the August rush. As many of you are unaware, August is the traditional vacation month in France. It is the month where one avoids operations in hospitals because only the junior staff are on duty. The roads are filled to capacity as are the beaches and the mountain resorts (yes, France has two major mountain ranges and the low mountains of the northeast). Paris is hot and the Tour de France is over. To the joy of the French they won it this year, ooh la la or something appropriate. Sp now I have a little over two and a half weeks to wrap up my work for the year. The major work, re-pointing, has been done. I never did get to installing two new doors, ran out of funds for that as well as time. One may order the doors and have them delivered but it may take a month for the truck to show up at your doorstep. I don’t think the French have a word for reliability. I know there isn’t one for service, or at least good service. I think my favorite line from the film, The Americanization of Emily (great book, by the way) was uttered by James Garner. “The French think we Americans are barbarians because we don’t take two hours for lunch. Hell, the reason they take that long is because the service is so bad!” I would tend to agree, in most restaurants, because the tip is automatically included in the bill, one can find it hard to attract the attention of the waiter and waiting for your glass of water to be refilled can take upwards of half an hour. Oh, the coffee refill? Well, it’s not free, one has to order a second cup. Of course I am proud to say that I have never eaten in a fast food place. Yes, there is a McDonald’s in the small city 30 kilometers from here but I have never gone in. There are other nicer places to go for lunch. E. Leclerc has a very nice cafe with decent prices for both hot and cold lunches and alcoholic beverages. Beats the crap out of Mickey D’s.

So now I have a number of small projects to finish. When I first arrived I had a problem with the drains backing up. I found that the gray water pipe ran to the old cesspit which had been loosely filled with dirt. Finding the pit and correcting the problem (removing some of that dirt to the level of two feet) took two weeks of digging. The toilet is connected to a polyvinyl tank under the concrete floor of the bathroom and what that empties into is quite unknown to me. But at least the ground here is sandy with a sandstone base, so the water drains very well and the earth does it cleansing of the gray water. I’ve applied for connection to the village sewer mains but first they will have to put one in, my street does not have a main. Another expense to bear. One thing I have learned is that if one is not French one cannot trust the French word. I was assured by one of the son’s that sold this house, his father’s place, that the house was hooked up to the sewage mains. Even the mayor at the time swore up and down that the house was on the mains. The son just happened to be on the committee for water and sewage and has been for the past twenty years. Yep, pure unadulterated bald faced fraud. And that is not an isolated case. I have heard quite a few complaints of shoddy work and over charging of the non French here and in nearby villages. Contractors say they will start work on this day or that and then never show up for months. Last year my English friend had a stone out building he wanted demolished and the contractor failed to show up for a month. So I did the work and as payment took some of the stone I recovered for use in my own house. On the plus side, the mechanic who lives and had a shop here is an honest man and does not overcharge. But he tends to be the exception.

Now if any of you ever have the desire to buy that holiday get away in France my advice is be very careful. I’ve gotten to the point where I can qualify as a stone mason just by doing my own work around this house. The idea the the stone walls were rated in good condition now scares me. I have found too may places where failure was too close for comfort. I think I have corrected or rebuilt portions of the walls in at least a dozen different places. And I expect to find another two dozen spots before I am finished. The rood is in good shape, for that I am grateful since the cost of replacing it would be about 100 euros per square meter (little more than a square yard). But the copper plumbing is barely good enough. I have run some flexible vinyl supply lines but I don’t have them cut in yet. I was holding off because of the drainage problem. Next year I will simply cut everything over to the new system. So if you really want that holiday home, buy a piece of land and build it from scratch. Otherwise you are likely to find yourself with a money pit. The French are very poor at maintenance of their houses and one of the reasons it the contractor cost. But then the French are bad at DIY and home improvement. The cost of tools is outrageous as is the cost of materials. Most people barely know how to use a screw driver or a hammer. My black humor comment is that the French nails must be gay because I’ve seen very few that were driven in straight. I can understand the problem with the old oak beams, I mean that is heart wood that in many cases is a hundred to three hundred years old and very dense grained. But the pine they used, there is no excuse for bent nails. And I have pulled the bent ones out by the hundred. The French would cover over their problems than fix them. I have stone walls where they smeared mortar over the surface rather than re-point. Most of these walls I judge to have gone a hundred, maybe two hundred years without proper maintenance. Ah, but when I have done the work the walls look just great.

Well, the work does keep me off the street and out of trouble. Another two years and the inside re-pointing will be done and I can concentrate on other items. Or maybe not. I doubt this house will ever be finished in anyone’s lifetime. Perhaps if I were forty and had lots of money I could finish it in thirty or forty years. Yep, it’s a money pit that also sucks the life out of you. On the plus side, I have learned a lot about different methods of building. And I do get out occasionally for the tourist type outings. I need not cram all the activities into a week or two and then return home exhausted and ready for another week off doing nothing. The other thing is the little secrets I have learned. Visiting Switzerland is an extremely expensive undertaking, worse than New York City. But if I rent a trailer (the Brits call them caravans) for a week I cam camp in a campsite just outside of Lucerne on the lake for a few euros a night and bring food with me (and wine). Then I can enjoy that city and only spend a tenth of what the average tourist might. Living here means I can take the train into cities like Strasbourg and not have to deal with the traffic. Most of what I would want to see is within walking distance and it is easy enough to find an inexpensive hotel in the center of the city. That also means a minimum of luggage, just an overnight bag.

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