Domotique: Small firms light up French life

When we returned from dinner at our friends’ place the other night, my family and I were startled by the look of our home. It was midnight, and Bellevue’s exterior lights, which Philippe had specifically switched on before leaving, were dark. Our property was pitch black. From the driver’s seat of the car, Philippe punched the remote for the driveway’s rolling gate. It refused to budge. 

Bellevue’s electricity had been cut. In the Cap d’Antibes, especially during the heady summertime, this situation did not bode well. Neighbours recently had warned us about all sorts of thefts in the area – yet again, I should say.

Philippe reversed down the road and slid our car into a roadside slot. Along with teenage Lolo and our miniature poodle, Yoko, we walked back up the Cap’s dimly lit ring road and unlocked Bellevue’s pedestrian gate. None of our home’s windows were broken, and the front door was sealed. Opening it, the alarm still squealed, but its diminutive screen said something was amiss.

We were enjoying the view (seagulls included) from our friends’ terrace at Antibes’ Plage de la Gravette – when back on the other side of the bay, gremlins were infiltrating our EdF box.

Yoko was our next signal. Frightened by her shadow and baby Chihuahuas, our poodle would warn us if someone had been in the house, but Yoko pranced around like everything was normal. We had not been burgled. The electricity had simply gone out. Then we realized it was Friday night. Things always went wrong at the start of the weekend.

Some minutes after midnight now, and still merry from the laughter and meal, Philippe, Lolo, and I crept with flashlights down our home’s dim utility staircase and scanned the fuse boxes. No switch had popped.

“It’s probably on the street,” Philippe said. “Where’s that key from Sandrine?”

This little gizmo does the trick with the electric box.

“The key from Sandrine” is a euphemism. It’s a homespun tool used to jimmy our Électricité de France box in the street, and it didn’t come from our property agent but from her brother, un homme à tout faire, or a handyman. When I first held the metal gadget a couple years ago, the nonchalance of this DIY approach stunned me – normally government employees are the only folks allowed to touch that EdF box – but, well, when in the Côte d’Azur….

In any case, I found the special key and we shuffled back onto the Cap d’Antibes’ ring road, pried open the metal electrical box, et voilà! Philippe pushed the offending fuse back in place. Bellevue’s exterior walls lit up like a fairground.

All was well – except that back inside our home, we still couldn’t turn on the lights. More weirdly, the kitchen lamps that I’d switched on just before leaving for dinner, blazed brightly – and they wouldn’t turn off.

Philippe shook his head. “It has to be the domotique,” he said. “Part of the domotique might’ve got fried.”

How was plastic so complicated?

In France, mention of the domotique always involves someone shaking their head. Basically the brain of a house, the system can suddenly malfunction and throw a household into a panique. Bellevue’s domotique controls the lights, alarm, buzzer, and Wi-Fi (pronounced WEE-fee) – everything that governs the state of the occupants’ well-being and happiness. To make it worse, the system is an inscrutable array of plastic building blocks. They are artfully crafted with bits of copper and wire, but they are plastic nonetheless.

Whatever gremlins had struck Bellevue’s electricity box, they seemed to have blown only part of our domotique’s brain. The alarm still worked, and more stunningly, so did the Wi-Fi. With one o’clock now approaching, we stumbled back downstairs to the fuse boxes. We flipped some switches off and back on, launching an array of beeps that indicated things weren’t right. Then we called it a night. “The air-conditioning’s still working,” Philippe said. That was good enough for him.

Flashlights certainly helped in Bellevue’s back staircase.

The issue seething beneath Bellevue’s latest headache was that we’d just fired our domotique man. He was the fourth or fifth tech specialist we’d employed in our 15 years at Bellevue, and perhaps that’s not a bad record, but this change seemed overdue – especially because the latest chap rarely turned up for work anymore. What we’d love to find is an established, midsized technology firm that employs a string of domotique experts – one central business that maintains a record of Bellevue’s system and its tangled wires, and a cadre of specialists who actually turn up.

That’s not how it works in France. The country may be known for its vast, multinational companies – household names like Carrefour, Crédit Agricole, Peugeot, Danone, and L’Oréal – but as is common throughout Europe, the real pedal-to-the-metal work happens in the country’s small shops. Few of these businesses grow into midsized companies because of regulatory rigidities. Things are gradually changing in France (with the ensuing upset and yellow vests), but put simply, once someone is hired, it’s a herculean job to get rid of them. So shops stay small.

Fortunately, our gardener – an industrious man who runs a small business of his own – had recommended a new domotique specialist to our housekeeper. This young guy was a family friend, our gardener said. He was smart and a good worker. 

That’s as much as Philippe and I knew. Before turning in in the wee hours, Philippe sent a text to our housekeeper to see if she could contact the bright, young domotique man in the morning. 

Our gardener lives in a peaceful village like this one in the hills near Grasse.

By mid-morning, our housekeeper had replied to Philippe’s text. She’d been ringing the domotique guy all morning, but he wouldn’t pick up his phone. An hour later, her message was more upbeat. Our housekeeper had effectively roused the Côte d’Azur on a leisurely Saturday morning. From her apartment in Cannes, she had rung the gardener, who lives in the hills near Grasse. The gardener rang the young man’s mother-in-law, who rang her daughter, who told her husband to answer his phone. Thomas then telephoned our housekeeper in Cannes and promised to get to Bellevue in Antibes by late morning.

That it was early afternoon when he arrived is splitting hairs because the fact is, Thomas showed up – on a Saturday, no less. A lanky young man with artful tattoos on his arms and legs, he greeted us with a surprising can-do – even if he wasn’t sure he’d be able to solve the problem. His partner, in fact, was the domotique specialist, but Thomas was an electrician and he’d have a go. In the end, he found the piece of the domotique’s brain that was brûlée, gave the system a partial lobotomy, and then declared that no replacement part would be available until next week. Somehow in the process he’d managed to switch on Bellevue’s living room lights, which was extremely useful for the evenings – until we realized that we couldn’t turn them off.

Within days, Thomas and his partner returned to Bellevue, and now the domotique brûlée has been replaced by a shiny new piece of plastic. The system works again – at least for now. Philippe is certain there are bigger issues infesting Bellevue’s electrical circuit, thanks to work done by the last domotique man. The new duo will return to Bellevue in the autumn to fiddle with the brain-bending system.

This time, though, we have an unexpected comfort. If Thomas doesn’t show up to work, we can always ring his mother-in-law.

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28 thoughts on “Domotique: Small firms light up French life

  1. We can empathize! Here our “domotique” is called “Creston” . It does the same lights/AV/shades freezing thing. Nothing more embarrassing than having guests and not being even able to turn off the lights in their rooms. Give me a simple on-off switch anytime!

    1. Creston: Of course! Is it worth mentioning how I still have a boombox in Antibes (and in Toronto) to play my CDs? And that occasionally I use them? Ugh, that makes me sound like un dinosaure. 😊

  2. Always love your cheery perspective on the idiosyncrasies of French life! And I too was reminded of numerous Crestron nightmares! E’s front door won’t open when it goes down. My old knob and tube wiring hasn’t let me down yet.

    1. Many mercis, Kim! And honestly, a front door not opening? It has to be worse if you can’t get inside your house, illuminated or otherwise!

  3. I redid my entire apartment the first thing i had the contractor put on his list was a new electric box and rewiring well worth the funding. I live in an post Korean building in New Jersey the second item on the list was a second air conditioner in my bedroom the rooms are so large one air conditioner never really did the cooling. The last thing i did was to change to a lock system on my door which no longer needs a key for me to loose I just remember four numbers it is wonderful Thank you for writing about your adventure reminds me of my electric problems till I rewired the whole apartment

    1. You are so right that everything happens on Friday night. I can so relate. We had to completely rewire our Scottsdale condo. I’m really glad you are no longer in the dark!

      1. Rewiring is very expensive and there is nothing for the eye to see however after rewiring you sleep well every night one of the best thing i every did to my apartment

  4. Hello again Jemma,
    Since we are remodeling our antibes home this is so so familiar. We have run into spectacular trades people, and some – not so. But I’m in the market for a good handyman and since you mentioned one perhaps you could recommend ? Happy to return the favor if you are looking for a great staircase builder, window makers or electrician.

    Wonderful to read your blogs again. As if the world is back to normal…

    Ilan (Antibes old Town)

    1. Bonjour, Ilan, so good to hear from you again and to create some “normality” for both of us with these missives. Thanks for offering building recs. I’ll get in touch with you direct.

  5. Hi Jemma,
    One of my good friends who owns accommodation stores, once recommended me to buy 6 large batteries-fed lamps to have one in each room «in case of». I didn’t have time to follow his advice but less than a month after, we had a power failure in the building where my condo is. I then called him and joke fully said: «Did you come to cut the power in order to sell me batteries lamps?». We had a good laugh but in the following days, I really went to his store to buy the lamps.
    So check on your security cameras, if the owner of the tools store nearby has hanged around the house with a cutter the day that the power went off. (lol)

    1. Hahaha, now that you say it, Andy, Bellevue’s security camera did capture some unknown guy at the gate that afternoon… 😳

  6. As always, so enjoyed reading the latest adventures… this time, enjoyed all the comment as well.. I have no idea why our electricity keeps working in Bermuda… but am not asking!

  7. You have no idea how much I enjoy your blogs. Your writing allows us to actually visualize and experience the moment. Keep writing!!!!🥰🥰

  8. Glad the situation was resolved so quickly. Moral of the story….one needs good connections….including electrical ones!!

  9. You sound so calm when dealing with these inopportune occurrences- my goodness! I admire you as we have had enough times with electricity going out here in Rockford the last few years and that is when I realize how dependent we are.. At least I now know how to unhook the garage door opener to manually but I am nowhere near as patient as you. Thanks for sharing your stories again- I always enjoy reading your blogs.

    1. You’re right, Mary. I think repetition breeds composure – or have we simply been worn down? Funnily enough, our midnight-thirty story also included a magic key that makes the driveway gate manual… Thanks for chiming in.

  10. Something like “this brightened my day” might not be appropriate? You always look on the bright side maybe moreso…

  11. Not that I need a reminder, but my domotique is getting pretty finicky with age as well. I certainly control my occupants’ well-being and when my wires are really tangled my domotique guy is never to be found and he’s an electrical engineer. I should’ve married the gardener. I love your blog.

    1. 😂 Love it, Donna. But hey, if you married the gardener, think about the state of your garden! (And merci.)

  12. Mon Dieu, yes, what a mess! We live further south near the Spanish border and the electrical wiring in our village house is a mystery. I did enjoy your story, and when living in a foreign country, a sense of humor is a must!

    1. How good to hear from a “neighbour”! Merci for reading a commenting, and I share your joy in the lighter side of these matters.

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