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.
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?”
“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.”
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.
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.
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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