Painting (and Patisseries) in Paris, Part 1: The Journey Begins

My version of the famous quote by Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is: A journey of unfamiliar processes in a second language begins with a single step … up to the third floor to see my neighbour, Bernard.

[note: for privacy purposes, throughout this series of posts, I’ve changed the name or given a nickname to every French person. The previous post contains an introduction to this 5-part series.]

Bernard is un vrai parisien, a true Parisian. He and his family’s history are intertwined with the history of our building and the quartier; his great-grandfather once operated a business on the site where our building now stands. Bernard and his wife, Berthe, were the first neighbours I met, the day after taking ownership of the apartment.

I trust Bernard and Berthe implicitly; they have a key to my apartment. Over the years, Bernard has done countless, unasked-for favours such as gas and electric meter-reading. He keeps a watchful eye not only on my place but also on everything that goes on; he may even know more than our concierge, though of this I cannot be sure.

Berthe assures me her husband enjoys his ‘involvement’ with my apartment, but I worry as he’s now in his 80s and his health is deteriorating. Still, when Clive and I saw the hideous splotches on my bedroom ceiling, we agreed the first person to talk with was Bernard.

Bedroom ceiling

Bernard and Berthe don’t speak English, nor do they use email. No matter: we communicate well via letters across the Channel.

After Clive and I left Paris, Bernard checked out the bedroom. Then I received a letter from him, with a few enclosures. He wrote that the leak originated in a third-floor apartment owned by Monsieur P. I’m on the first floor; the leak had reached my apartment and I wondered if my neighbours above and below were also affected. I knew Bernard would find out.

Monsieur P and his leak

Monsieur P is an elderly Frenchman, somewhere around Bernard’s age or maybe a few years younger. I’d met him briefly at one or two of the building’s assemblée générale (annual general meetings); my impression was that of a gentleman who personifies French courtesy and politesse. After 19 years, we still address each other as Madame Barnabo and Monsieur P.

(Clive and I have only been on first-name terms with Bernard and Berthe for about five years. Berthe adores Clive, which I think has something to do with it!)

Bernard’s letter included an insurance form called a constat amiable, which translates literally to ‘friendly report’. I find this extremely amusing, since the form requires often-opposing parties each to provide details of their residence and insurance policies. I wonder if any insurance report, by definition, would ever be considered ‘friendly’.

Perhaps I’d read too many ‘renovation disasters’ and ‘horrible neighbours’ memoirs, well-written and enjoyable as many are, at least for the reader. I was thrilled to discover Monsieur P had already completed his half of the constat amiable form. He also attached a handwritten note, expressing apologies and his hope the form would be satisfactory to me. He thanked Bernard for forwarding them.

Friendly insurance form

In his letter, Bernard also offered to get estimates, if I would like him to do so?

Filled with gratitude to both him and Monsieur P, I replied, ‘Oui! Merci!’

A new year

Thanks to Bernard, eventually I received the estimates. I nearly fainted over the high amounts. Once I got my breath back, I completed my half of the constat amiable and tucked it in my bag to take to Paris over the New Year period. I wanted to go over the paperwork with Bernard before sending everything to the insurance company.

Over New Year’s Eve champagne and Berthe’s famous coconut custard concoction, which she makes especially for Clive (or Cleeve, as she and many others call him in French), in-house expert Bernard OK’d everything. He urged me to send the forms to my insurance agent as soon as possible. Clive had examined the ceiling; it looked like the stains had stopped spreading, but he asked Bernard if he was sure Monsieur P had definitely fixed his leak.

Bernard, as always, jumped to assist. A day or two later, he rang our doorbell and presented us with a copy of Monsieur P’s plumbing bill, evidence the work had been done.

The culprit: a kitchen tap. Oh la la. It seemed inconceivable a tap leak could cause so much damage. But given a turn-of-the-(last)-century building and ancient plumbing … when it comes to leaks and water damage, it seems everyone in Paris has a story.

I sent up a silent prayer of thanks for Monsieur P’s responsive, courteous and responsible handling of the leak and even bigger thanks the damage into my bedroom hadn’t been worse.

Also at our New Year’s Eve soirée, Bernard and Berthe told us a new owner had purchased the apartment above mine and below theirs – and planned major renovations in early 2017. I pointed up and said I feared for my ceilings. I felt I had enough to worry about with the bedroom ceiling, but tried to practice my mother’s oft-proffered wisdom, ‘Don’t look for trouble.’ Oh la la.

Insurance matters

I packaged everything together and sent it via snail mail and email to my insurance agent. The office is located in a city 250 miles from Paris; other than mailing an annual policy renewal check, this was my first claim since buying the apartment.

A reply arrived from someone named Monique; the subject line was Sinistre Dégâts des Eaux.

This phrase I loved, because the damage was most definitely sinister.

Monique’s in charge of Service Sinistres, ‘sinister services’! In the months that would follow, our communications did take time, but she always replied within a few days, answered my questions and provided knowledgeable guidance on each next step. There were a couple of complications with one of the estimates, but in due course, she sorted everything out.

In all of our communications, Monique wasn’t exactly friendly, but I wasn’t looking for friendly; we both had questions and concerns and a job to do. She was unfailingly professional and business-like, which I liked and appreciated very much.

Maybe Monique was (and continues to be) helpful because I wasn’t pushing her for a date or seeking exceptions to the process or complaining about how long everything took. I had no reason to; the leak had been repaired and the water damage had stopped spreading, which for me were the important things. I just wanted to understand the process, do what I needed to do and get my ceiling fixed. Experience in other countries and bureaucracies has taught me that sometimes this is the most effective and least stress-inducing approach.

Thank goodness for email and the ability to communicate from anywhere, whether at home in the UK or on our family travels to New Jersey and Australia. And thank goodness for Google Translate, though (no doubt showing my age) I always feel a pang of nostalgia, or that I’ve lost something important, when a translation instantly appears. It’s a terrific timesaver but so different from the ‘old days’ and the satisfaction of searching the dictionary and finding just the right French word.

My file grew thicker and thicker as the weeks passed, bulging with insurance forms, estimates, hardcopy letters from Bernard and occasional email print-outs.

A new neighbour

Meanwhile, during this same time period, I received an introductory email from our new upstairs neighbour, Marc. He’s a lovely young Frenchman who writes and speaks excellent English.

Marc confirmed he was beginning work on his renovations. He mentioned his bedroom ceiling had also been damaged by Monsieur P’s leak. Marc’s insurance expert had assessed the damage, with the estimate apparently taken into account during the negotiations of his purchase contract.

We exchanged pleasantries and agreed we looked forward to meeting in person the next time we were in Paris.

So far, so good.

For about a week.

Then another email arrived from Marc. His renovations were underway and there seemed to be a few problems. The email contained an attachment with alarming images: not only my bedroom ceiling, but also my kitchen and bathroom ceilings, both badly cracked.

The photos showed Bernard in the kitchen (he would have had to let them in); I was relieved he was there. To my eye, the ceiling cracks looked beyond horrifying. I thought the ceiling might fall down any minute. But in the photos Bernard didn’t look unduly concerned, and when Clive examined the photos, he said the cracks didn’t look too serious (for an old building), though of course we needed to see them in person.

Kitchen ceiling

If the new ceiling cracks weren’t bad enough, Marc also reported a water pipe that runs the length of the building had burst, flooding my bathroom, kitchen and entry.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. Once again, Bernard wrote and offered to get estimates. Once again, I gratefully agreed. Thus began a parallel universe of more reports and insurance forms and letters and communications.

I now had two growing files and tried to keep my wits about me with respect to what forms and communications went in the bedroom sinister water damage file and which into the kitchen and bathroom cracked-ceilings file.

March madness

We arrived in March to the cracked ceilings and a shiny new copper pipe running down the bathroom wall. My bathroom storage bins had been moved from their high shelf and stacked onto the white dresser; the ceiling above the shelf was and is undamaged; the reason the bins were moved remains a small but puzzling mystery.

Bernard gave us a dramatic recounting of the day of the flood, describing how Marc’s workers, the concierge and the building’s syndic manager (property manager), along with Bernard himself, had all crowded into my little entry space to witness the spectacle. I’m still not exactly sure who cleaned up the mess.

With estimates and insurance forms in progress for the cracked ceilings, there wasn’t much Clive and I could do. We returned the bathroom bins to their shelf and ran off to see Vlad and process the latest events over a kir.

A restorative kir

Several days later, we met Marc in person. A stylish, professional Parisien, he readily and easily calls us by our first names. I’d introduced us that way in my reply to his first email, and we’d been using first names electronically since then.

After so many years of ‘Bonjour, Madame Barnabo,’ from one and all, it feels both good and startling when Marc says, ‘Hi Carolyn’—which actually sounds like, ‘Hi, Caroleen,’ in his beautiful, fluid French accent.

Marc gave us a tour of his renovations-in-progress: living room walls down, bathroom and kitchen locations swapped, bedroom wall and door changed and everything completely redesigned to open plan. As impressed as I was with the changes, I found them all a bit overwhelming when I thought of my poor ceilings below.

We complimented Marc on the work and thanked him for the tour. I felt another visit to see Vlad was in order.

Comforting café visit (Vlad in photo background)

That same week, just to add to the noise and mess and billowing dust, our building’s courtyard was torn up and repaved, a project previously approved by the residents.

Summer sizzle

Summer brought more appointments and experts and a new batch of letters and emails. Thus ensued another round of clarifying questions from me and responses and explanations from Monique.

I learned the insurance company would, after approving their expert’s report, mail me a check for a partial but significant amount of the bedroom ceiling repairs. The remainder would be paid upon the work’s completion.

This surprised me; it seemed quite trusting to send the client a check for such a large amount before the work was even scheduled. I had incorrectly thought the contractor would bill the insurance firm directly. I’m not sure how the process works in other countries, but the French approach makes sense to me from the standpoint that it puts clear responsibility on the client to get the work organised and paid for.

I kept the paperwork going for the bathroom and kitchen ceilings, but deferred planning the repairs until 2018. The bedroom ceiling was enough to worry about and I wanted to get that finished first.

Clive and I spent a week in Paris during the June heat wave, when temperatures soared to 39C/102F. We managed to get out and about in the cooler mornings and spent most afternoons lying on the bed with the shutters closed and the fan on, staring up at the splotchy ceiling.

Heat wave in Paris 39C

By the end of August, I had in hand the necessary expert approvals and the first check from the insurance company.

It was time to schedule the work.

I’m afraid it is

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next to come: Part 2, Reluctant Realisations.

2 Responses

  1. Ohhhh boy! This is going to be interesting……

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