May 27th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Pipe and Plombiers Part One (Spitting, the Elbow Shaker and the Hot Water System from Hell)

(to recap: we bought the house, we moved to France, now we had to fix the plumbing)

"Cavagnac! Cavagnac! Le voleur de la Montagne!"

I don't think he liked our vendor.

"La grande merde! Merde! Merde! Merde! Merde! Merde! MERDE!"

We waited. I didn't think there were any more merdes but there was a lot of muttering and, I suspect, some spitting, along with the mandatory arm waving and even more colourful expletives. From what we could understand our plumber would never have come to our house if he'd known who the previous owner had been.

Eventually we calmed him down long enough to hear about his friend's house and how it had been a Cavagnac, the aforementioned ‘Thief of the Mountains’ and All-Pyrenean Grande Merde, who had caused the damage. Everything had had to be ripped out. I think that's what he said. And never, never would he have anything to do with that man again.

There was another bout of merdes and spitting on the ground. Plus a ritual grinding of the spittle into our tarmac drive with the toe of his boot. This was a pretty impressive demonstration of Gallic dislike and I dreaded what would happen if our previous owner took this moment to return to his old house and pay the new tenants a visit.

Though I suspect it would have been filed away under justifiable homicide - there's bound to be some ancient French Loi Plombier that grants all plumbers the right to execute summary justice whenever the wind blows from a particular direction.


It seemed that our vendor's expertise as a designer of fires was only exceeded by his flair for plumbing. After all, plumbing does have far more scope for the creative mind - all those miles of pipes and limitless configurations. It must be something like designing a railway network; I could see the appeal.

But I could see a plumber who didn't.

The problem had started on our first day - as most of our problems had. I think we must have ripped a sizeable hole in the space-time continuum the moment we set foot on French soil. It's the only explanation that makes sense.

Unlike our hot water system.

We had been told that the previous owner had installed a dual system with a summer/winter switch. It sounded clever. The kitchen range heated the water in the winter, storing the water in a tank, and in the summer you switched over to a gas-fired heater.

Very sensible and it may well have worked four years ago when it was last used but it didn't appear to want to work for us. We tried the gas heater first, we connected up our new bottle of Butagaz, turned on the tap and…

Nothing.

Was our system set to summer or winter?

We went in search of the switch.

Unfortunately it wasn't obvious. We were told it lived in the cupboard behind the range but so did about eight others and ten spiders. Eventually, by trial and error, we found something that worked and discovered the gas heater didn't.

So we called in a plumber.

Who arrived in his Citroen 2CV van a few hours later. A slight, smiling sexagenarian wearing bright blue overalls and a beret climbed out. I went to shake his hand and was surprised to be offered an elbow. I'd never shaken an elbow before and wasn’t quite sure what to do. Should I grasp it manfully and give it a tug or roll up my sleeves and rub elbows?

I went for the manful tug, always the best option during a First Contact situation. I later learned that elbow shaking was the local custom when your hands were too dirty to inflict on the unwary.

Either that or he was a Mason.

We explained our problem as best we could. Resorting to the script on frequent occasions and reinforcing the message with a certain amount of gesticulation. Antlers, however, were wisely kept to a minimum.

It started well. The plumber understood. He'd disconnect the hot water and take the boiler away for tests.

Three hours later he was still trying.

The problem appeared to be that he couldn't shut off the hot water. Every time he thought he'd succeeded, he'd turn on a hot tap and water would appear. It was like magic.

We'd see him in various locations throughout the house, pushing his beret back over his head and scratching his hair, then rushing off into another room and trying a tap or tracing the path of a pipe. I don't think he could believe the number of appliances we had. Just when he thought he'd located every tap in the house, he'd open a door and there were another three.

I think he liked his plumbing simple - exposed pipes which you could trace, useful taps where you could isolate appliances, labels.

Whereas our system had been designed by an artist. And someone with enough copper pipe to match his imagination. We had pipes interconnecting and disappearing into concrete floors and walls, splitting into threes and fours, recombining, disappearing and, for all I knew, breeding in the wall cavities.

Heath Robinson could have taken notes.

But it did have a built-in resilience. You couldn't switch it off. We could probably take a minor nuclear strike on a back bathroom and still have a tap working somewhere in the house.

Our plumber went home, temporarily defeated. But he would be back. Tomorrow.

(next instalment: marking territories and the London Underground in copper)