The European Union Laid Bare by a Spare Part

If it’s not the WIFI, it’s la climatisation.

This summer when we arrived at Bellevue, our home in Antibes, I clicked my heels when the little green checkmark appeared on my iPhone beside the name of our WIFI network. It worked! The WIFI actually worked – three, whole, little crescent-shaped arcs of it! It had survived all nine months of our absence!

As Philippe, Lolo and I heaved our suitcases up the circular marble staircase at the core of Bellevue’s frame, though, we realized all was not well. Somehow it never is when we return. We’d failed to notice it during those first jubilant moments through the doorway, but the air inside the house was notably dense.   The air-conditioning – the Rolls Royce of a system that we installed a year and a half ago – was bust.

Mais Mr. Marc vient de la nettoyer! our estate agents insisted on the other end of the telephone line. Mr. Marc just cleaned it! It worked on Friday!

Unfortunately it was no longer Friday. It was Saturday.

The gauges were stuck way off their target.
The gauges were stuck way off their target.

Someone managed to locate Mr. Marc – despite the high jinx of Euro 2016 consuming the country – and the stocky man with a crew cut and gold neck chain arrived later that evening to play with the control panel in Bellevue’s basement. (It is this extraordinary service that landed Mr. Marc his sudden, and now enduring, job in the first place.)

Sunday afternoon he returned, having studied the instruction manual. No joy.

The landscaping is looking especially lovely in Antibes’ old town this early summertime.
The landscaping is looking especially lovely in Antibes’ old town this early summertime.

There have been other occasions when la clim has worried us. Normally the system breaks down when temperatures in the South of France stretch to the heavens, or when guests are imminently arriving, or more likely both. But this summer’s beastly heat had yet to arrive in the region. It was beach weather, for sure, but Antibes’ flowers were still in their lushest and most vibrant bloom.

Mr. Marc sent his son and another colleague to Bellevue on Monday. The young men made a day of it. They purged the machine of its water and air bubbles and any other possible hiccups. They reprogrammed it. No luck. Then they tore the whole thing apart, piece by piece.

The young specialists drained and burped and reprogrammed la clim machine.
The young specialists drained and burped and reprogrammed la clim machine.

Nous avons trouvé un défaut, the son told me on the way out that evening. It was a needle sunk into the intricate and unwieldy Rolls Royce of a haystack, but they found a problem. They promised to order a new part.

Ordering a new part is never a good omen in France. Combien de jours pensez-vous que nous l’attendons? I asked. How long until we receive it?

The young man shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know – but it only would be quelques jours, he thought. Later this week. Not too long.

Philippe and I knew we were in good hands with Mr. Marc, who always will remain Mr. Marc to us. He’s not a formal-looking guy, with scruffy chin, rounded belly, and casual uniform of shorts and t-shirts, but the relationship will remain a formal one. We’ll never be privy to his first name.

Mr. Marc landed a job at Bellevue when our first air-conditioning specialist fired us. La climatisation had been our enduring nemesis since we renovated the villa and moved in nearly a decade ago. In those early days the system clanged all day (and all night) long. It was as if we’d taken delivery not only of Bellevue, but also of her ghostly occupant who wanted out, now, of the big metal box in the basement. Some years later I discovered that la clim had gifted us with a graceful water feature that trickled from the ceiling of the pigeonnier, the round attic room where I often work. Shortly afterward it brought us an impressive waterfall that plunged through the electrical sockets in the ceiling at Bellevue’s front door.

That was the precise moment when our first air-conditioning pro was off sailing for the weekend, so our estate agents found Mr. Marc as an emergency back-up. Long story short, once the first specialist discovered someone else had touched his handiwork, he refused to return. He fired us.

Philippe rings Mr. Marc this afternoon. Any news?

Oui et non. He planned to get la pièce from the manufacturer’s store in Saint-Laurent-du-Var.

That’d be good news. The town is only 20 kilometers from Antibes.

But the store didn’t have the part. They had to order it from their shop in Belgium. Delivery would take eight days.

Mr. Marc asked the manufacturer whether they could deliver the item express – Fedex, DHL, whatever.

Non, they didn’t do express deliveries. It would take eight days.

This sort of cooperation makes me marvel at the whole European Union project. How can the very same company, working within two EU countries, fail to cooperate as an efficient unit? And how can this be the case when the countries in question are hardly Sweden and Greece, polar opposites in the supposed political and economic union, but Belgium and France, two neighbours who share not only a border but also a common language?

That said, it was precisely Belgium and France who fought over the seat of the European Parliament all those years ago. The outcome, of course, was far from efficient: Today the EU has two Parliament buildings, one in Belgium and one in France, along with the associated travails of uprooting its Parliamentarians and all their hangers-on and plastic trunks to the alternate headquarters every month – before everyone and everything is transferred back again, socking EU taxpayers with a bill of around $170 million every year.

Maybe express delivery between Belgium and France was too much to expect.

Mr. Marc got la pièce by hook or by crook.
Mr. Marc got la pièce by hook or by crook.

But the French always seem to have ways of getting around the rules. Perhaps this attribute helps them cope with all the madness. One day it might even help circumvent the risk of Frexit.

Mr. Marc is resourceful. He won’t wait eight days for the Belgians. He might even suspect that the Belgian arm of the company doesn’t have the part either. Who knows, the Belgians might be buying time to source la pièce from Great Britain.

Our clim specialist has concocted an alternative route. The shop in Saint-Laurent-du-Var has a machine similar to ours. Who knows the source of this box – perhaps a showroom model, perhaps the working unit that cools the factory floor, or possibly even a broken piece of equipment in the repair shop from the Dubois family’s home up on the hill. Whatever the story of this machine, the shop agents agree to rip out the critical part and hand it over to Mr. Marc’s team.

Mr. Marc arrives at Bellevue later this afternoon. He extends a meaty hand. He has la pièce, a fist-sized black-and-gold cylinder on the end of a short pipe.

But it’s not the real pièce, our air-conditioning specialist says. “C’est une adaptation.” He hopes it will work. In eight days’ time he will reverse the process, extracting l’adaptation from our box for insertion back into the machine in Saint-Laurent-du-Var, and fitting our clim with la pièce from Belgium – or wherever it comes from in the end. With that, Mr. Marc scurries to the basement to join two of his young colleagues who already have arrived.

Even the pros sometimes read the fine print.
Even the pros sometimes read the fine print.

The trio bang around with pipes and monitors in the basement and outside, too, at the long, metallic side of the Rolls Royce. They unscrew its panels to check the connections and meters. At one point I actually see the crew pull out a manual.

Oui, il descend,” one of the young guys says cautiously as he looks at a circular gauge. The dial is fluttering in the right direction.

Shortly, as I type this post at Bellevue’s dining room table, I hear a faint whoosh of air in the ceiling vents. A trickle of cool dusts my shoulders. Thanks to French ingenuity, we could be in business.

Now I have just one remaining thought: I hope the WIFI holds up.

16 thoughts on “The European Union Laid Bare by a Spare Part

  1. Jemma! I love your writing. I felt I was right there with Mr. Marc in the basement of Bellevue. Enjoy a few days of cool until the real part arrives…and then who knows!? You made me smile.

    1. Making you smile is what I like to do, Shari!
      I’m impressed that you found this post before it was circulated on the subscriber email. To share your cleverness: New French Lessons posts usually go up on Friday afternoons…. j

  2. I love seeing M. Marc, he is just as you described! And you’ve surely made his summer by posting his hearty countenance on your blog! I am cracking up, it all sounds too familiar….’nous avons trouvé un defaut’…..puis, une toute petite complication avec la livraison……hilarious!
    I am impressed you have AC at all –
    that is one monster of a machine!

  3. Not a laughing matter, but you sure had me chuckling. You must let us know if the real “piece” ever arrives. In the meantime, stay cool and enjoy the wifi.

  4. Oh what a joy to read about your experiences in France again. I am guessing most of us have dealt with the loss of air Conditioning but yours was more fun to read about ?.
    I feel like summer has finally started now that you are back on line. You make the mundane into an adventure!

  5. Painful for you perhaps but very fun to read! Actually, I’d have to say I can “feel” being there and love the idea of Mr. Marc and Co. whipping out a manual ! What a guy! Absolutely love reading your “lessons”. This one made me chuckle–again!

  6. A “nail-biter” of a story. I hope the Rolls Royce is still working! If not a bottle of rose may be more in order than a glass. Salut.

    1. Merci, merci, ladies! I now can report that la pièce has arrived from Belgium, and the Rolls Royce is once again purring with all her real parts. Life is good: We even have WIFI!

  7. Wonderful posting–thank you for bringing the joys and challenges of the cote d’azure to life (and loved the photos!)

  8. While on medical leave from work, I am finally getting got up on my emails and was pleased to find the link to French Lessons. Mr.Marc reminds me so much of my Dad, who always found a way to make something function once again even if he didn’t have just the right part.

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