mercredi 2 septembre 2009

La rentrée, dwarfism, the pillars, the sob stories

The brick,
Weinerberger's hand-molded "brun marron"

"Tu as vu la brique?" asked Audouin, rushing into the house to ask if I had seen the brick they delivered and sounding quite undone.

"Oui." That stopped him in his tracks.

"Je veux dire de près." Had I seen it up close? "Je ne pense pas que ça va te plaire. C'est tout," and here he made a gesture with his hands to say that it was not right, damaged in some way, and picked up the other hand-molded sample brick we had chosen for the walk, "Ce n'est pas de tout le même que l'échantillon, ou -- oui, mais --"

"Ce n'est pas la même brique que l'échantillon. Ca c'est la brique pour les poteaux, la cheminée et les murs. A monis qu'ils ne soient pas trompés et ce n'est pas la brique que j'ai commandé." The last sentence I spoke to myself and the animals; he was halfway across the terrace, hurrying to get a brick to show me so I could reassure him about this other brick I had ordered, or thought was the brick I had selected for the chimney, the pillars and the walls.

He returned and held it out to me to show me the marks on the two large faces. That didn't, I explained, matter because we were using it the other way around. The color was much better up close than I had thought, deep claret red running through a brick that tended to a brick orange and browns. It would go with the colors of the house. I had chosen this brick for the colors, because it was available in the thin brick for the chimney right away (or so they told me at the warehouse and headquarters; the supplier is telling Georges otherwise), and because of the fabrication technique that molds the brick by hand, making for an authentic old brick feel that's perfect for an authentic old house made by hand.

It was something else that made him head over to talk to me this morning, a piece of the small balcony in his hands.

"3,200 euros c'est trop pour le mur là-bas en brique." Come again? Could I have a preface, the background, a little orientation. I had jumped out of bed and driven across Mantes to pick up the papers we had never gotten from the school, the ones Sam needed filled out to give to his head teacher at 10:30 AM, stopping on the way back to make a photocopy of the bac results that still cause us agony, only to have Sam harangue me that he would be late if I so much as finished signing my name to the last paper.

It was a little overwhelming, walking up to the big doors of the lycée. There were lycéens everywhere, and all the girls were about a head taller than I am. At the department store yesterday, buying some back-to-school clothes for Sam (his jeans are tissue paper-thin and shredded, with the exception of two), I caught a glimpse of myself in a mirror. I avoid these. They are unkind. It was not pretty. I realized that my father's genes were worse still than I thought. The legs I saw belonged to his side of the family. I gasped. Sam looked over from the dress shirts we were considering for Audouin.


"My legs. They aren't normal."

"Yes they are."

"No, they are really, really short and stubby. I look like a dwarf."

"No, Mom. They aren't. They are normal for someone your size." Right, like I said. There are subtle cases of dwarfism, and they said I had a little lordosis in grade school. I remember Dr. Wilkinson showing my mother. Something to do with the dimples at the base of my spine and a curve. My arms are also a little short for my trunk. I know this since I trained to teach yoga and the teacher noticed my difficulty with certain positions that required the arms.

"Your arms are a little short for your body length," she had said. "Try doing it this way." That was another bad day.

We passed another mirror in another store, and I made myself look.

"Sam, I look kind of more normal in that mirror."

"Mom, you are normal." I wasn't completely reassured. I feel even more self-conscious now. I would never survive high school here.

"Attends, 3,200 euros de plus à cause de la rajouture de la brique sur l'autre mur qu'on avait prévu en chaux?" He nodded yes. They wanted 3,200 euros more to do the bit of wall alongside the entry court in brick instead of natural stucco. "Ca me parait beaucoup. Le brique n'est pas si cher que ça," I said, Starting to head back inside. Of course, in as much as I don't know the actual price of the brick because I can't get anyone to tell me, it's a little hard to know. I'll have to go to the local Point P and ask the father of the kid from Sam's old soccer team, Alain. He'll tell me. The others don't want me to know so that I can't figure out their pricing. It's a little tough to work that way.

"Oui," added my husband, "mais c'est trop pour ce mur là. Tu penses que c'est vraiment la peine?"

"Non," I didn't think it was really worth it for that bit of wall. Georges had another point of view.

"3,200 euros additionnels pour ce mur là?" I asked Georges. There it was, that Georges grin, like a kid who's just gotten caught doing something stupid. He made a gesture with his hands, as though to say "Wait, wait. No." I was really confused. Did it have to do with not wanting to talk money in front of Jose because he has no idea what they charge compared to what he makes? I let it drop. We finished reviewing the instructions for the brick laying for the pillars; plans are tough for them, it seems. When we had finished, Georges followed me back inside.

"La brique, Madame [Sisyphe, shall we say], pour les murs --"

"Oui, Georges, mon mari préfère qu'on la laisse tomber. C'est trop."

"Mais, ce n'est pas 3,200, mais 2,300. Monsieur Audouin à du se confondre." Maybe he had misunderstood, but if I knew my husband, he wasn't going to be relieved by this bit of news.

"Je comprends, mais je pense qu'il va trouver ça toujours trop cher pour ce bout de mur."

"Mais, je vous assure, ce n'est pas de vol. Vraiment. Il faut faire l'enduit en dessous tout droit, et puis la colle à 36 euros le mètre carré, et le brique, 7 mètres carrés de brique qu'il faudra poser brique par brique." All that to say that the price of an additional 2,300 euros to cover that wall in brick was justified by the labor involved. I nodded. I reassured him that we didn't consider it an overcharge, especially not my husband. It's just that if I want, for example, the new windows up on the west elevation, I am going to have to give in somewhere else.

"La brique, elle est déjà commandée."

"Vous l'avez payé?"


"Bon, ça ne devrait pas poser de problème. Ils ne sont pas en train de la fabriquer exprès pour nous," I added. It's not like they were making the brick just for us. It wasn't paid for yet. The order could be canceled.

"Mais, c'est mieux en brique, non?" Yes, it might be better in brick, but that wasn't what was going to make the difference to my husband. We'd do the chimney as anticipated, but I'd settle for the same color natural stucco on the side wall as along the base of the house and the low wall adjacent to the brick pillars. Tant pis.

He started again on the prices.

"Il y a des gars, s'il y a deux sur le chantier, ils facturent 1,000 par gar pour le main d'oeuvre, mais nous, on n'est pas comme ça. Vous savez, il a un portugais, un monsieur dans un Nissan quatre-quatre noir qui déjeune à midi au restaurant," the bar and restaurant just up the street from us, "et il est passé un jour pour voir les travaux. Il dit que lui, pour tout ça, il aurait pris 100,000 euros. 100,000 euros." His eyes shone. They say they don't like to have to talk about this, but. I think they love it. It's a game. I'm getting used to this. It's meant to wear you down. The old story I've suspected and told all along. Sob stories. Write the estimate and the contract low, then wear your client down for more. Adds here and there, saying, "But, we never understood that," and describe something the client could never have intended as what they understood. Better yet, do it as two people, as Georges and Joaquim do.

Every time he starts, I say, "Joaquim knew perfectly well," and I describe in detail what Joaquim and I said and when.

Take the windows as a case in point. This morning, I reminded him that the windows of the house are in oak, and the new windows were also to have been in oak, at the very least in pine, like some of the windows on the second floor, not in some exotic wood.

"Chêne ou pin, pas de problème, comme vous voulez, Madame [Sisyphe]." Très bien. Then make it oak.

Later, when I was back from my race to and from the school and we had finished discussing the 2,300 extra for the brick, he let me know that he was very sorry, but it would be 30% more for oak. I nodded.

"Oui, Georges, mais il fut compris dans le devis et dans le contrat que les fenêtres devaient être remplacées par des nouvelles exactement pareilles. Je les ai vu une par une avec Joaquim. Savez, d'origine, vous avez été sensé de réstaurer des éléments dommagés de chaque fenêtre et les peindre dans le prix. Nous avons vu chaque fenêtre en détail ensemble un jour, avec Eric, et nous avons décidé quelles fenêtres à garder et lesquelles à réparer. Il n'y avait jamais question d'un bois exotique. Il est seulement quand j'ai poncé les fenêtres déjà faites, qui ne devaient pas avoir reçues une sous-couche d'ailleurs, que j'ai vu qu'elles ont été faites en bois exotiques." Silence.

Summary: it was understood in the original estimate and contract that certain windows were to be restored and others replaced as replicas of the originals, which were in oak or in pine. Joaquim and gone over them one by one in minute detail with me. Never was it said anywhere that exotic wood was alright, and it was only when I sanded them, which I shouldn't have had to do because they were never to have received a primer, that I noticed they were not in oak or pine like those of the house. This was greeted by silence. He knows. He knows I know. But, it never ends there. We have to find a way forward where they get a little something more without getting as much as they'd have liked.

The two new ones for the upper story of the west end of the house, two little windows?

"Elles ne seront pas loin de 2,000 euros pour les deux," he said, eyes trying to convey perfect sincerity and sympathy.

"Georges, elles sont plus petite que l'autre là haut, qui n'a pas coûté 1,000."

"Pas loin." Not far from it, he said.

"Georges, j'ai des amis qui ont fait faire toutes leurs fenêtres plus grandes que ça et en chêne pour 1,000 chacune."

"Oui, mais il y a ceux qui sont plus ou moins chers." Yes, he acknowledged, maybe our friends had paid 1,000 for each of their many new windows, exquisitely fabricated in oak, but not everyone charges the same price.

"Surement, mais je sais qu'ils ont payé assez fort pour tout ce qu'ils ont fait. Ils l'ont dit. Ils éstimaient que ça le vallait." Certainly, I agreed. There are those who charge more and less, but our friends didn't low-ball the prices. They said so. "Ce que je veux c'est un devis pour ces deux fenêtres qui ne sont pas dans le contrat avec option en chêne et en pin, ou sapin s'il préfère -- c'est la même chose. Je veux aussi un échantillon de son chêne et de son pin, et je ne voudrais pas trop de noeuds dans le produit final si nous choissisons le pin."

Summary: Here's what I want. I want an estimate for those two small windows with an option for oak and for pine. I also want a sample of his oak and pine, and if we chose the pine, I want a finish product that uses the clearest pine possible, without knots.

We'll see what I get.

"Et ça," he pointed to the detail in the brickwork for the pillars and the wall, looking a little like a cross between hesitant and disbelieving. "C'est beaucoup de travail. Quand je l'ai montré à Joaquim, il a dit que c'est beaucoup de travail, et à Point P, bon, ils disaient qu'ils n'ont jamais vu quelque chose comme ça." I was waiting for that. The detail in the brickwork for the pillars was a lot of work. They'd never seen anything like it at Point P. They told Georges that it's a lot of work.

"Et oui, Georges, regardez autour de vous à ce que devient la France, le Portugal. Partout c'est laid, le bâtiment bon marché. On ne fait que ce qui ne coûte pas cher. Plus personne ne sait travailler." Look around you, Georges, at what you see everywhere in France, and in Portugal. It's ugly. It's cheap construction, and it's ruining the architectural landscape and no one knows how to do good work in which they can take pride anymore.

"Oh! Mais on sait le faire. On sait travailler, c'est juste que nous avons compris que --"

"Oui, je sais, vous l'avez dit la dernière fois mais ce n'est pas de tout ce que j'aurais imaginé, des pilliers faits par section, toute faite. N'importe qui peut aller chez Leroy Merlin est acheter cette merde. Demandez Joaquim. Si nous avons choisi de travailler avec vous c'est parce que Joaquim semblé lui aussi apprécier le bon travail artisanal et savoir le faire." He looked corrected. He was.

If we had hired their company, it was because when Joaquim came here to see the project with Eric more than a year ago he convinced my by his way of looking at things and discussing how to do the work that he valued good work by artisans who know their trade as much as I do. That is why the window from Lapeyre shocked me. That is why the missing details from the balcony shocked me. That is why claiming that it had never been in the contract to do the newer part of the house, only to treat the colors superfically, shocked us. That is why saying that they had never understood that they were to build the pillars brick by brick, but by prefabricated sections, shocked us.

"Georges, pour mieux comprendre, il faudra que vous rencontriez mon beau-père. Savez, on ne balance pas le moindre bout de bois car ça peut toujours servir un jour. Ils ont élevé 8 enfants sur le salaire d'un officier de la marine française. Il n'a jamais eu des vêtements neufs à lui. Il ne claque pas l'argent 'comme ça'," I snapped my fingers. "On a des amis qui dépensent facilement, mais il n'est pas comme ça. Je l'accepte. C'est comme ça. Vous le voyez là-bas, en train de faire son propre balcon pendant ses vacances?" He considered for a moment, and he grew quiet.

Even my own son, on the way home on the highway after an entire afternoon spent in the shopping mall.

"You know, I was sort of imagining coming home with a couple pairs of more classic jeans, a couple of somewhat dressier checked shirts, suede shoes."

"Mom, did you think about what that would have cost while you were imagining? It would be much more expensive." My son, who had just bought his first clothes at the less expensive department store, suggested that we check out the factory outlets over on the other side of Paris in Marne la Vallée for the Diesel jeans, who has learned to shop the second-hand stores, the friperies, of the Marais. No, I guess we don't "claque" money easily, any of us around here.

Meanwhile, Audouin is cutting the wood for the small balcony now with a handsaw (see photo) mounted on his little table in the absence of the ribbon saw he really needs. This is not going to be a perfect finish result.

"Il travail bien pour un médecin," said Georges, full of admiration.

God help us.
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