There are things that are very simple in France. One of my favorites is the “set it and forget it” autodebit for most of your recurring expenses: your EDF (electricity bill), UGC pass, or your mobile phone, just to name a few. Then there are those things that are not so simple, like getting internet.
Running water or internet? Internet, please.
Now, I had been a bit misled on this point because establishing ultra-high speed Fibre internet at my chambre de bonne, the shoebox in the sky in the 17th where I spent my first year in Paris, had been a breeze. I gave the internet company the necessary information, they scheduled the installation, and on the appointed day, the technician (with an apprentice) showed up, ran the wire, gave me the router, and just like that, I had some of the fastest internet in France. Something no one ever tells you is that before you go in (or online) to establish service, you’re going to need a little code that’s just outside your apartment door. This tells your internet provider the “location” of your apartment within the complex web that is the Parisian building ecosystem.
When I moved to the apartment I was in now, I told my landlady that I wanted the fastest internet possible. Her first move was to ask the existing internet provider, named Free, to up the speed to Fibre. They first sent a technician to run the wire, and then he told me when the box came it would simply be plug-and-play. It was not. After 2-3 weeks of back and forth on the phone and my at-the-time dreadful French (I would use phrases in French like “I am running the white wire into the green square in the back of the the black box” which I would have easily said in English as “I’m running the fiber into the incoming slot on the router.”) I gave up on Free and ordered Bouygues. They turned out to be even more incompetent (how is this possible, I wondered) and I gave up on them faster than I gave up on Free – only giving them about a week to work. SFR was the one who originally hooked up my Fibre back when I was living in the 17th, and so I told my landlady to order SFR. And, just like that, I had high speed internet within a week. SFR has been my mobile provider since I arrived and has been the most reliable internet provider I could have hoped for. This is to say nothing of the fact that my mobile plan allows me to use my data and phone in the USA when I visit (allowing me to cancel my T-mobile mi-fi subscription, which I mentioned here).
Degats des eaux (Leaks)
So, one thing we all have in common in Paris is stories about leaks in our apartments. When I first arrived I listened in horror as a date told me that she had had mold growing in her bedroom due to a leak for over a year and had a landlady who refused to work on the issue for her. I’ve had a Canadian friend who persevered through numerous challenges here but finally gave up when the roof of her apartment caved in due to a leak from the upstairs neighbor. And I myself have three different leak stories.
The first one is from my upstairs neighbor who is the near opposite of a model neighbor (think “likes to have loud parties on weeknights until 03h00”). He was away in Brazil when a leak started to come in from, quite obviously, his shower, which is above my bathroom. He sent in a friend to examine the issue – and his tenant – a nice Dutch kid who I was acquainted with, was very understanding – and I let him use my shower and bathroom while we tried to investigate the leak. It kept coming, but at a very slow rate, so we figured that there must be something wrong in the walls. He had planned a complete gutting of his apartment in 6 months, so he wanted to delay destroying the walls of his shower to fix the problem until then. As the leak was intermittent, and I didn’t see an effective way to press the issue (a tenant, not an owner, going to war with the syndic over a slow leak dispute with an absentee owner – that just sounded exhausting) so I waited patiently. It would be another 6 months before the relevant paperwork had been completed (his insurance people came to visit, my insurance people came to visit, I had a handyman come out to estimate – he told me I would need to wait at least 3 months after the leak ended so that the walls could dry so that he could then strip and repaint). And my upstairs neighbor was in denial the whole time that he was at fault, until one day he, myself, and my next door neighbor, Martine, who really had some words with him during the summer of renovation, went up into his apartment. I pointed out to him the rusty main pipe which clearly was the source of the leaks. He had been looking in the wrong place. He immediately quieted down and never said anything more on the subject. Eighteen months after the leak had started, the bathroom was restored, repainted, and frankly, was even better than before – as there was a new main pipe which had been run all the way from my apartment into his. About halfway through this process, sometime in 2015, I learned what all people in Paris who have apartments must know: this is normal. And franchement, I had it pretty easy, as even though it was something to “endure,” I wasn’t out of pocket for anything – my neighbor’s insurance picked up the bill for the renovation of the bathroom, and the Syndic paid for the new main pipe. And I learned something essential to know when living in Paris: a leak is always going to take a long time to solve.
The second leak occurred while the last story I told you was still in progress. My downstairs neighbor Virginie, who I’m on very good terms with (you can really bond with your good neighbors in common opposition to the bad ones), rang my doorbell at 06h00 one morning. I sleep like the dead so I’m rather surprised I heard the doorbell at all but she had been pressing it for a while and when I showed up looking like I had just gotten out of bed, she asked me to “Please turn off your water.” I simply obeyed her and gently turned the master water cut-off for my apartment. I then followed her downstairs and stared in horror at her bathroom ceiling. It had partially collapsed and was raining water. This wasn’t an ongoing leak, but rather looked like a bunch of water that had accumulated and finally broken through. My eyes mentally went up into my flat and I realized that the items above that part of her bathroom were my washing machine, kitchen sink, and dishwasher, all potential culprits. The likeliest one was the washing machine, which had been installed some months before. Perhaps a leaky slow drip? The plumbers for our building came later that morning (after they too, woke up) and discovered that yes, the people who had installed the washing machine had failed to tighten something, leading to a slow drip which, after 6 months, had destroyed Virginie’s ceiling. Another series of insurance visits later (I was becoming a pro) I found out that due to the repair costing less than 1000€, that the Syndic (or was it Virginie’s insurance?) would be taking care of the repairs – I was off the hook. Given that I was already developing the maturity from my own painful leak at this time, I took this one fully in stride.
I won’t bother you with the story of the third leak – suffice to say, I’m a leak expert 🙂
Chauffe-Non! (my hot water heater – chauffe-eau – breaks)
Last Saturday around 10h00 I got into my shower, only to discover that the hot water refused to come on. After two minutes of penance in cold water, I got out to investigate. My E.L.M. Leblanc water heater had a blinking red light, which could only mean one thing: it had finally died. I say “finally” because last summer it had had a major “illness” and the repairman at the time stated that it was on its last legs. My landlady, understandably, who had watched my oven, dishwasher, and washing machine all break down over the years (to be fair, she purchased the apartment in the mid 90s, so the fact that we were replacing in the mid 20-teens was to be expected) and then replaced them with brand new appliances, was reluctant to drop the nearly 2500€ that a new water heater would cost. But alas, that’s what she ended up paying today when the same repairman was back, took out the old one, ostensibly to give it a decent burial, and put in one that resembled, rather like my washing machine, a spaceship. It even had a wireless controller that uses your daily schedule to optimize the energy usage of the machine.
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There’s a few things to note here.
I have an exceptional landlady. She’s always been there for me. I’m sure she can’t have been happy about having to replace all these items, but she knows their breaking had more to do with their age than anything I did, and my patience with these issues and her diligence with all the repairs have made for a winning team. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve befriended all the best neighbors and always pay the rent on time, and agree on marginal increases in rent each year. I don’t take for granted that I live in one of the best locations in the city, in the heart of the 2nd.
I have wonderful neighbors. While my neighbor upstairs likes to pretend he is the only one in the entire building, my next door neighbor and downstairs neighbor are great people, and I’ve hosted them for dinner at my place, where they got to try my signature ginger sesame chicken on rice. Getting to know your neighbors in Paris is a choice, but it’s a wise one considering how often you might need them (or they might need you – Martine rang me up at midnight to let her into our building a few weeks ago because the pin pad for our building was on the fritz, and she couldn’t get in).
All of these are happy endings. As I noted above, I’ve had friends finally give up on Paris after one incident too many regarding housing. As you’ve read before on my blog, life in a foreign country is challenging enough without everyday incidents on top of them. Americans are used to – by and large – being able to call and get these things fixed tout de suite, because the only thing that matters in that country, other than the state of the Kardashians, is the customer always being right, whereas in the most recent incident regarding my hot water heater, I just started laughing when I saw the blinking red light, as it was SATURDAY and there would be no one who would come out to my place to fix the hot water heater. I knew I would just have to wait until 09h00 Monday morning, and I and my guests ended up taking showers at Virginie’s over the weekend. Which reminds me, I need to bring her some speculoos cookies from Belgium, where I am writing this.
Like quicksand, the more you struggle, the worse it will be. Last year I started doing mindfulness meditations using Headspace (here’s a link for “take 10” which gives you 10 free meditations to try it out) and it only helped reinforce a personal rule that, like the large breakfasts I cook, is out of place in France: refusing to complain. I won’t even allow myself to complain in my head, privately. Complaining accomplishes nothing (when you say this to French people 1 out of every 4 or so will cite some “scientific study” in which it was shown that complaining helps you be less stressed. Color me skeptical.) and actually I think complaining makes things worse. In all of your challenges in French life – not just with immigration but in living in apartments, it’s always best to remember how very first world these problems are. So your hot water heater is out. Boo hoo. At least you have running water into your Parisian apartment. So there’s a leak. Big deal. Get over it. Your internet isn’t working. Wah. Go to a Starbucks and get it for free in the meantime.
Don’t focus on your problems. Focus on solutions. Doing so gives you more time to wander in the Louvre, enjoy a coffee, and walk with a friend through our picturesque streets and parks, which are some of those simple pleasures that I wish everyone in Paris could enjoy as often as I do.