Monday, May 19, 2008

Bricolage blues

Once upon a time we lived in a cozy, two-family house in the suburbs of Boston. We lived on the bottom floor, with a sunny kitchen, solid, well-worn hardwood floors, and a breezy back porch. Our landlords, who were also our upstairs neighbors, gave us free reign of the backyard, let us plant our own vegetable garden and use their gas barbecue. I remember long, lazy summer evenings spent outside over hamburgers and beer, and winter nights spent watching the snow pile up from my warm perch on the couch under the living room window. When I'm asked what I miss about the US I realize I'm so happy here that few things come to mind, but that house is one of them.

In addition to being friendly and generous, our landlords were about as responsive as one could dream. The husband was a plumber and could fix just about anything in less time than I could explain what was broken. He dismantled and repaired our garbage disposal in fifteen minutes one evening after dinner (I'd assured him it wasn't urgent, but no matter!), and when our water heater went out one morning, he bought and installed a new one before the end of the afternoon. We were truly spoiled.

So when we moved to France into a large, impersonal apartment building, I knew the hassles we would face when something broke would be somewhat of a shock. It was bad enough when we were renters and I had to negotiate repairs through the gruff building super. Now we own the place, and everything from finding qualified and not too crooked specialists to scheduling the work to negotiating the cost is up to us. After almost five years as an expat, it is one of the only things that still makes me feel like a bumbling and incompetent outsider.

To the extent we can we try to do stuff ourselves, but born do-it-yourselfers we are not, and there's always the possibility that it ends in disaster. So it was when we tried to install a lock to prevent le Petit from opening wide our sixth-floor bedroom window. The drill bit broke inside the aluminum window frame and the window was effectively locked shut permanently. Last week I finally worked up the nerve to find a guy to come over and take a look.

It went a little like this:

He came, he tugged on and frowned at the window, he told us that it couldn't be fixed but a new one could be installed for a mere 1300 € plus tax. I believe that it can't be fixed, for I've turned the problem over in my head enough, and the window he proposed as a replacement would have a child security feature built-in. However, 1300€ is a lot of cash, so we told him we'd wait for a more detailed estimate (and get some other estimates while we were at it).

Today he showed up, still with no detailed estimate, but ready to saw the window open for us.

Thirty minutes and much sawing and frowning later, large pieces of aluminum decorate my bedroom floor and the window opens but no longer latches shut. For this I was charged 80€. But now that the days are getting hotter, I'm grateful to no longer be without ventilation. I'll tape it shut with duct-tape when the need arises.

He claimed that for a detailed estimate he'd have to take the window with him. I may be naive and bricolage-impaired, but I saw through that one at least and said no. In the meantime, one of my husband's colleagues kindly informed us that most homeowners insurance will pay for a replacement even if you are the idiot who has broken the window. So we called our insurance and they're sending someone over for an estimate Wednesday, and I've got a third person coming tomorrow.

The good news is that with every one of these homeowner misadventures I feel smarter about it all. We've repainted, had our bathroom remodeled, and installed hardwood floors. Since we bought the place we have learned how to paint, how to ask smart questions about estimates, and how to fit all of our belongings into the basement, kitchen, and bathroom so that carpet can be ripped out. So it gets easier.

I'm sure this window fiasco will teach me something, even if it is just some window-related French vocabulary.

In the meantime, I'm headed on a pilgrimage to the BHV to ask the bricolage gods to take pity on me. And buy some fun stuff for me, too.

(For the record, we of course follow the common sense rule of not leaving le Petit alone in a room with an open window, but a possible fall scares me more than just about anything. So, I'm looking for a way to securely block the window open just a few inches, well within the security parameters to prevent him from falling yet allowing us to ventilate our southern-exposed apartment without me feeling terrified. The new window will be an oscillo-battante, which is kind of a cool concept that I don't believe exists in the US: one side of the window can be opened up a few inches at the top then blocked in place.)

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