Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Emergency -- Restrain Your French Snuffbox Now!

Paint could never improve this scene

“souche enduite sur cour (la face de la souche, situé à l’aplomb du pignon, est en bon état et n’est donc pas concernée par les travaux”

“suppression de tabatière
depose du chassis existant”

“Suite à chute d’enduit chez le voisin côté rue Berlier il est aussi nécessaire de procéder au travaux de réfection du pignon et des cheminées situées à l’aplomb et ce afin d’éviter de nouvelles chutes d’enduit qui pourraient se reveler dangereuses ou occasionner de dégâts aux biens situés en dessous (verrière) – 11 000€

Nobody ever told me it would cost so much to learn French.  And I still don’t understand a thing.

Soon after Brad and I arrived in town one of our neighbors encountered us on the stairs and started waving her arms and spewing out French with such urgency that it sounded like the apocalypse was coming.  She slapped her hand, hard, several times on the wall of the apartment building and said, in English, “see – not falling down.”  She repeated often “tres cher, tres cher,” then asked in broken English if we were going to be at the meeting.

Meeting?  What meeting?  We hadn’t even had time to stock our refrigerator and put sheets on our bed.

Lucky us.  We arrived in town just in time for a condo association meeting, otherwise known as Assemblée Generale.  Oh, yeah.  The fun doesn’t end once you buy that dream apartment in France.  Apparently while we were on the plane heading to France, a folder of documents an inch thick was taking its own trip across the ocean in the opposite direction with all the questions of order for the meeting.  So we went to the syndic, or property managers, to get a copy and prepare ourselves.

And so that’s one reason why I’ve not been keeping you up to date with life here.  I’ve been translating descriptions of renovations requested, both d’urgence and idéal.  I’ve been trying to understand vocabulary I never got in a single French class, like what exactly is a souche?  It’s either a stump or a person of “pure French origin” – neither of which I see standing in my courtyard, but at least it was pas concernée.  Whew!

It took awhile to discover that we didn’t have an urgent need for suppression of a snuffbox on the roof, but rather needed to do something about a skylight.  But that matter was reserved for a vote at a later time, so I have a few more months to figure out why it’s a threat and needs to restrained.

There's more than one way to brighten an old window

French language flew at the meeting.  My brain held on by its fingernails, but with French people talking over French people and debate happening up front and in the chairs all around me it took every degree of focus not to collapse into a language meltdown.  Brad understood about every third word, which was two or three times better than me.

Votes for action are divided according to how many square meters you own in the building.  That means that we wield tremendous power, the second highest of all property owners.  Which can be fun if you want to throw your weight around and bend the world to your will.  Not so great if you don’t know the issues, don’t understand the language, and every vote “yes” will cost you more money than your neighbors.  So we were stuck between the American mindset of fixing things now so they don’t become a bigger problem/expense later and wanting to be good neighbors with these people we hadn’t met (except for the one who we knew was very much against all renovations).

Since we also vote in order of our power (theoretically), Brad made a request to vote last.  If he could understand where the majority stood, that’s where we were going, too, for our first meeting.  Not as easy as it seems, however, since questions were thrown up for votes before we even could figure out that the debate was over.  The meeting leader would then say “Et monsieur?” -- leaving Brad to quickly calculate which way everyone had voted.

My one contribution, aside from – well, nothing much – was to insist we vote oui to fund repairs to a pipe that seemed to be causing problems in a downstairs neighbor’s space.  The cost was small compared to goodwill we could build.

So after all of this, pignon is still a mystery to me.  We received dark, grainy photocopies of a picture of the chimney taken from the ground, so I still don’t know where the gear is that is so essential to keep part of the roof or chimney from falling off and creating chaos on the sidewalk below.  However, that’s in the category of d’urgence and it costs 11 000€, about 2 000€ of that covered by us.  The facture, or bill, will show up in our American mailbox later.

And so this mid-life love affair comes with a cost.  The American side of me wants to call a work day where we all roll up our sleeves, rent some tall ladders and a power washer, and get to work painting the ironwork with anti-rust paint, cleaning the walls, and scraping/repainting the wood window frames and historic shutters.  I’ve already pulled a few weeds in the courtyard and plan to do some more before I leave.  But I’m not sure that’s the French way (especially since no one suggested it).

So it’s back home to learn the language of marquise, echafaudage, protection sur chantier (a big one since we’re in an historic district), and maybe – just maybe – souche.  When they all vote oui at least I’ll know what it’s for.  And maybe, eventually, I’ll have enough language skills to be brave enough to vote whatever way I think is best.

Are you a do-it-yourselfer?  Tell us in the comments box any home renovation stories you have -- at home or abroad.  Or language stories from when you were in over your head.

Roses improve everything


Helen Devries said...

This is France. You can't do it yourselves because of the insurance implications.

Julie Farrar said...

Thanks for reading, Helen. That's what my husband said his friend told him yesterday. It's just me being my American self. The roll-up-the-sleeves-and-get-it-done attitude.

Nadine Feldman said...

Wow. Kudos to you for your willingness to be in a situation that is so challenging. I have difficulty just ordering from the menu in French! Once I tried to speak to a French landlord on the phone, who told me to speak in English because I was butchering the language so badly...then, as it turns out, her English was about as bad as my French. Sigh. And unfortunately, I've let my French studies lapse, so I'm back at the beginning.

Just think. All this language immersion is good for Alzheimer's prevention, eh?

Patricia said...

Hmmm- you have given my husband more fodder for his case in favour of continuing to rent! This was a great post, Julie. You brought us right there with you at the meeting and i certainly felt the confusion. Bonne chance!

Julie Farrar said...

Well, Patricia, right now owning still seems better than renting because everything is exactly as we want it -- especially in the kitchen since we love to cook. On the other hand, I already have to start thinking about getting someone here in October to check the radiators.

Liv Rancourt said...

Wow! I didn't learn those words in my high school French class either, and I'd have been right there with you in the language melt-down puddle. What fun, though!

Vivian said...

I speak French fluently, and still would have problems with some of terms you mentioned! Not exactly words used in everyday conversation, that's for sure...

Now I'm glad the three times I lived in France, I was a renter...and I let the French hubby deal with apartment issues. Pas facile!

Ellen Gregory said...

Sounds incredibly daunting to me -- but at the same time, what an exhilarating experience! I'm really enjoying your 'life in France' insights, Julie.

Muriel said...

Ah, the syndic meetings...We have a house in London, and I am grateful not to have to deal with the syndic de copropriete any longer. Good luck with the pignon then!

Annette Gendler said...

Love those figurines on the window sill!

Julie Farrar said...

Hi Annette. Maybe someday I'll do a photo post of all the things I've found on French windowsills.

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