mercredi 11 mars 2009

Au moins il y a de soleil

The base of the house

When did I say it? Or, how many times did I say it? I know I said it here, but the actual words, the ones that say Oh, we'll get the work done, but it will be less for more, they must be in another post, of which there are 50.

We will get it done, but done will be a renegotiation of the meaning of "done", and it will be less for more, but don't worry, it isn't we who will lose. No. It's the contractors who have already lost. That's what Joaquim says.

"Je vais te monter la morale," he said. Go for it, raise my spirits. I kept right on bringing the heel of my Wellies down on the sidewalk, where Georges was sitting in the sun with his back to the wall of the neighbor's garage just a few feet away, clumps of dirt and grass falling away from the tread in the rubber soles.

I laughed with precious little mirth, looking at the bits of wet dirt and grass while Joaquim danced next to me, trying to get into my line of site. You see, he refuses that you be angry with him. He's right and he's good. The bad guy did this to us, and we're all suffering now, but no one as much as he and his workers.

"Je vais te monter la morale. Tu sais comment? Tu sais?" No, but I was going to hear it. "Parce qu'aucun artisan n'aurait pu faire ce que j'ai fait ici pour ce que vous avez payé. Si on appelle n'importe quel expert, il vous dirait que vous nous devez d'argent."

"Non!" popped out of my mouth. No one could tell us that we owed him more money. We had signed a contract, written with a verbal understanding of what those nearly worthless words meant; we owed them no more than we had paid. But, that wasn't what he meant.

"Si, ce qu'on a déjà fait vaut deux fois le prix que vous aurez payé." Figuratively, it could be argued that we "owed" him any additional amount within certain difficult to establish boundaries, having to do with margins of profit.

"Ce que vous voulez c'est plus d'argent."

"Mais non! Je ne veux pas plus d'argent. On élimine quelques postes et vous aurez l'essentiel --"

"Ou nous payons plus cher pour tout avoir. Vous ne voulez pas forcément plus d'argent, mais de prendre les sommes contractées attribuées aux autres postes et les mettre dans l'essentiel du projet: le ravalement." He nodded; I had gotten it. He didn't necessarily want more money; he wants to spend less time on the job for the total of the contract, and we can decide what we'll give up to get the most important to us. Less is more.

"J'en ai déjà parlé avec mon mari. Très bien, vous ne faites pas la petite maison, et vous faites la chaux sur la partie plus récente de la maison." That's where it all began today. I finally understood that he really did not intend to apply the chaux to the newer part of the house.

This had gone through several phases of comprehension. The first, which was that it would be stripped to the structure, just like the older part of the house. The second, which was that this was not actually possible -- I had misunderstood the intention -- because it is not plaster but cement, and that the cement would receive a hydrofuge treatment to prevent the cement from absorbing more water, and then be covered with the natural stucco (chaux). I had asked if it really were possible to simply apply the chaux directly on the cement base, and he had said that it was. I remember that conversation, proof of my understanding, perfectly.

The third was today's interpretation of what he had intended that I understand and believed that both my husband and I had fully grasped back at the time of our first "coming to terms", namely, that he would be applying only a chaux-based patina to the newer part of the house so that it would be the same color as the rest of it, but would not have the same actual appearance.

"Vous n'allez pas appliquer la chaux sur cette partie de la maison?"

"Mais non. Je vous l'ai expliqué quand on a parlé de la couleur de la maison," and he went on to tell me precisely when he had told us and how.

"Non, vous avez dit que vous allez appliquer une patine partout, tout autour de la maison pour que les différences en couleur d'un support à un autre soient minimisées, mais vous avez très clairement dit que vous allez appliquer la chaux par dessus du ciment. Je me souviens car je m'étonnais, et je vous ai posé des questions très précises. Alors, c'est un liquide la patine?"

"Oui, à la base de chaux."

"Mais c'est un liquide, comme l'eau, et pas de chaux?"


"Alors, cela donne la couleur mais pas l'aspect de chaux, comme partout sur la reste de la maison?"

"Oui. Ca n'aura pas le même aspect." We arrive, at long last, at mutual understanding, and I didn't like it. In fact, I nearly lost it. I did my very best to stay calm. I have already broken every rule I followed in practice in the States because nothing was respected, and there is no such thing, really, as residential architecture here. There is the tyrany of the trades.

Of course, I was right that he had said that he would not be removing the surface treatment on that part of the house because (first (bad) reason) it was cement, not stucco like the rest of the house, and so it was part of the structure of the wall, and then (second (more justifiable) reason) it was not damaged, and (real reason) the contract sum was too small to pay them adequately for the time they'd have to spend on it, so they were whittling away parts of the work assumed in the contract to stop the flood of financial damage to themselves they are claiming to suffer because he wouldn't now be basically saying that they will do it, if we drop some of the other work from the contract but maintain the contract sum, were it not a finnagle from the begining.

It's about money.

Georges and José, he says, haven't received salary for 2 months. They are living, he nodded toward Georges, on credit. You are merely not receiving some of your "toys", he said.

"Nous ne sommes pas des gâtés," I retorted, flaring back up. We are not spoiled, and these are not toys. This is a real and very important, long-anticipated and saved-for renovation of our home.

My husband works 13 hour days at the hospital, I shot back, which are not counted in his salary calculations, and he works nights on duty that are paid a song, and, sometimes -- like the Saturday afternoon that he'll do this week -- not at all. The work might have been underestimated, it might not be enough to cover their salaries, but we did not do the estimate nor write the contract, they did, or Eric did, but Joaquim allowed us to make a first and a second payment against it. If it weren't enough, and he knew it, then he should have refused the contract. He should have, in other words, called Eric out for what he was in the story, and said that we needed to start all over again, regardless of having a bank loan approved based on it.

"C'est l'histoire typique. On l'entend tout le temps. On sousestime le contrat pour démander plus d'argent plus tard." I looked up from the clumps of wet grass and dirt and straight into his eyes. It's a form of blackmail. Sign 'em up cheap, then tell them it cost more than expected and they'll have to pay more to get it done.

Here, he took umbrage. This was not the case, he argued. He had not underestimated the job to get us to sign, figuring he'd get it later. Eric had written a load of garbage on the contract, he insisted again, which he never saw until it was already signed, the loan for it approved, and I, the smiling client, was waiting for him to show and get going on the work.

"Ca c'est moi," he said. I was kicking the sole of my Wellies against the railing on the other side of the street now, listening. "Je suppose que je n'aime pas dire des choses comme ça contre les gens, j'essaye de l'éviter --"

"Et, comme ça, vous occasionnez encore plus de problèmes pour tout le monde. Personne n'aime dire les choses désagréables. Tout le monde est maintenant déçu, frustré, perdant. Ce projet aurait pu être un vrai plaisir pour nous tous, mais il laissera toujours un mauvais goût dans la bouche de chacun d'entre nous."

"Sauf vous. Vous n'aurez pas perdu. Vous aurez gagné une très belle préstation pour votre maison, mais nous aurons perdu d'argent."

"Vous auriez du dire depuis le début que vous n'avez pas fait le devis, que le coût du projet fut réellement plus élevé que la somme du contrat, et que vous ne etiez pas dans la capacité d'honorer le contrat car, quoi qu'il y en soit, nous n'aurons pas tout ce qui fut promis dans le contrat, qui est depuis un certain temps à la poubelle, figurativement, j'entends. J'ai su depuis longtemps que vous nous ameniez ici. C'était une evidence." I saw Georges smile, despite himself, because he knew. We all knew that we knew. It's a terrible business.

It won't be just the application of the chaux on the "petite maison" that will go in order to get the entire house done properly. Why, I asked him, would I ever have come to him, put up with all of this, gone through all the samples if we had only ever intended to redo some parts of the house? Why would he even have ever taken the care that he had had we not intended to do the whole thing? It was obvious. He knew it, and he knew that I did.

For ages, I had been saying that there was a reason that the work on the chaux had stopped short of the newer part. It was the arm twister. One explanation is the one Joaquim preferred that I understand: that it would never be done like the rest of the house. But, the other one is the true one: we both knew that there was no question but that it had to be for the work to be a success, and that if he were to do it, he would need more money, or not to do other pieces of the contract. That is why it was left along with the other pieces of the contract: for the final negotiation of what we drop to get it the way it must be.

Bad guy? I don't know. Maybe Eric is. Maybe you are only an accidental bad buy.

Bad method? Yeah. How much more would it take to get it all, Joaquim? Should we give it to you? Or, should we find someone else, or do it ourselves?

Better method? Be up front. Say what things cost and for how much you'll do them, and then get them done.

"Au moins il y a de soleil," said Georges, a smile forming on his lips. I think sometimes that he would do things differently, if he had a say. I hope so, anyway. I like Georges. It was a sort of peace-offering.

"Celui-là, il se contente du soleil," said Joaquim.

"Au moins il y a de soleil, Georges," I nodded back. I am determined to take it. What else can I do?

Call a lawyer.
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