Tough Love: Home Upkeep in the Côte d’Azur

I couldn’t write this post until things had been resolved – or mostly resolved, as the case would be. Even then, I didn’t know if I should bother.  It’s France. Everyone expects home maintenance problems.  And how can anything be a problem, really, if we’re talking about summer in the shimmering Côte d’Azur?

But when you have a home in this fairytale land, it’s not like checking into a swanky resort, mine’s a raspberry mojito, s’il vous plaît, just pop it over there beside the lounger at the pool – yep, that’s the one, with my latest paperback splayed open on a freshly laundered hotel towel.

We knew it wouldn’t be like that.  Just two days before Philippe, Lolo and I arrived in Antibes for the summertime, we’d received the diagnosis.  Bellevue’s air-conditioning was on the fritz.  Again.  This time the technician was recommending désembouage.

Mud didn’t belong here.

I had to look that word up. De-sludging.  Basically put, our climatisation machine hadn’t been cleaned in years, so the water inside was black, and the system was caked in something the technician called pâte noire, and then in parentheses (boue).  Mud. The system finally had said ‘enough.’

We arrived on un weekend, of course.  That’s not good for maintenance problems.  Temperatures in the Côte d’Azur had begun to soar toward 30°C in the daytimes, and we Canadians needed a puff of polar air.  We bided our time sweating, and checking out our new domotique.

“La domotique” is a word I’ve heard people use and understand when talking about our house here, usually while shaking their heads.  I’ve always called the domotique Bellevue’s “brain.”  The system governs the lights, alarm, buzzer, WiFi – basically everything that takes electricity in our home, except, as it happens, the air-conditioning.

The skies aren’t always blue over the Côte d’Azur.

The Côte d’Azur has some mighty storms now and then.  (While I listened to Monaco-based Riviera Radio on a stormy morning this month, the signal suddenly cut out, then popped up again.  The presenter promised to soldier on in the dark.  She would use the flashlight on her phone – if she could just find her phone.  Would someone please ring?)  One stormy day in April, then, a few months before our arrival at Bellevue, a mighty strike must’ve hit closer to home – and blown the brains out of our poor domotique.  The storm also wiped out the area’s (fairly ancient) phone lines, meaning that the Cap d’Antibes had plunged back into the Dark Ages.

An earth-rattling storm over Antibes fried our so-called domotique.

It took some time to source our new domotique, coming as it did from Belgium, but both the brain and the phone lines were up running again by the time we arrived at Bellevue. As we inspected our home after the months away, we discovered that the light switches worked in new and awesome ways. One switch turned on absolutely every light inside and outside the house, the sudden blaze illuminating home and garden like a pop-up festival.  Our new entry system at the roadside gate looked fancy, also being lit up in the nighttime, but we were finding that it buzzed through to the house with only moderate predictability.  The WiFi: What joy to learn that our contractor happened to be in residence, fixing the current problems, at the very moment the Cap d’Antibes was entering the modern world!  Orange (pronounced or-AHNJ), the company that governs fixed phone lines in France, had finally decided to update the World War II-era (for real) network in the Cap d’Antibes and bestow upon us state-of-the-art fiber optics. Bellevue handily linked in.  As for the alarm, it had some new quirks, we realized, but by all accounts the extra beeps and messages seemed reasonable.

It was the air-conditioning problem, then, that sunk into our bones on arrival in France this season. We’d been here before.  Bellevue’s original climatisation system imploded a couple years after we moved in, and our air-conman promptly fired us.  (He was upset that we’d let someone else tamper with his system.  In our own defense, water had been gushing out of the ceiling while our expert was holidaying on his sailboat, but apparently that wasn’t proper justification.)

We replaced that first a/c system with a commercial machine that should’ve served at least three homes. Now, moments after its warranty had expired, this clime machine also had petered out.  The problem arose remarkably in-step with the frying of the domotique, but apparently the two events were separate. In any case, our trusted climatisation guy arrived and took apart our system, but with only a couple weeks remaining before our summertime arrival, the machine remained scattered on the floor in bits, and our technician refused to answer his phone.

Someone has fortunately put our clime machine back together.

That’s when our local agence unearthed the latest expert.  He was a specialist in this particular brand of clime machine, and he had heaps of gung-ho, so we all had decent hopes.  The new guy swung ‘round in early June and discovered all the mucky boue in our system, so he launched a prescriptive, multi-day, uncaking process.  The first désembouage didn’t work.  Whoops, he’d missed a filter – so, in the initial week of my family’s summer stay, we bagged front row seats for the repeat.

In these early, sweltering days around Bellevue, Philippe, Lolo and I adopted a special regime.  As dusk fell and the air began to cool, we were tempted to fling wide the windows to our stuffy home.  But at that very moment, a healthy crop of mosquitoes also arrived in full force. The rules of our special regime were simple:  Windows open, lights off.  Lights on, windows closed.

It worked fine for a few days, after which one member of the household inevitably behaved as if the mosquitoes had disappeared.  The open windows let in beautifully cool air, even as we read our books.  Lolo woke up the next morning on the living room couch, where she’d begun spending the nights as her own bedroom lacked not only air-conditioning but all form of air circulation.  That morning-after her feet and ankles – and my left jawline – could’ve belonged to an acne-ridden teenager.

At the end of the first week, the energetic new specialist gave his result:  The second désembouage hadn’t worked. With another long, sweaty weekend ahead, the climatisation specialist suggested we take out all 12 sections of the machine and reinstall them.  Philippe suggested a second opinion.  The clime chap actually agreed.  So we kept on the mosquito bandwagon, only opening windows at night when the lights were off, before again someone believed this medicine had cured the world of mosquitoes, and in the morning we were colouring our bodies with the stinking Itch-Eraser pen.

We used our best defenses against the mozzies.

The second opinion on the clime machine came thanks to Cathy, who owns my favourite clothing shop in the Côte d’Azur.  Conversation meandered, as it does, from dresses to air-conditioning services.

Clime Denfert, she insisted. She pronounced it CLEEM don-FAIR, like the French would say “Air-Conditioning From Hell.”

The name was too good not to call.  Philippe double-checked the recommendation with Anitou, our wonderful femme de ménage.  Not only did she know the company; she also knew its boss, Jeremy (zher-a-MEE).  This was key. Personal connection matters in France more than anywhere.  Encouraged, Philippe dialed their number first thing Monday morning.

The well-recommended company couldn’t come for dépannage – repairs – until the following week.

Is your patron zher-a-MEE?  Philippe asked.

Oui . . .

My husband then mentioned their good client, Cathy’s clothing shop, and finally launched his best attack.  He laid on the Quebecois.

I’m from Quebec, he said. (Subtext:  I’m your long-lost cousin.)  I only get here, to this beautiful part of the world that you call home, a few weeks of the year (and it’d be really nice if the air-con worked for those few weeks).  We have a large installation for a house.  (The guy agreed.)  And we have this high, like tippy-top, government official coming to stay soon. (This air-conditioning, my friend, is our big, shared problem.)

Leave it with me, the man said.

There was another problem with the open-window policy, and that was the cello.  I’d just rented a beauty of an instrument for the season, and now it was my duty to protect it – but a cello, like any stringed instrument, is picky.  Especially about humidity.

The humidity monitor ran straight up to 80%.

I’d learned the hard way in Toronto.  A seam had sprung open in my cello’s wood, and it sparked my new obsession over a humidity gauge.  While Toronto cellos like 30-40% humidity, their Côte d’Azur cousins, I was told, preferred 50-60%.  In any case, with our clime defunct, the humidity inside Bellevue fluctuated on the whims of the weather.  One afternoon a summer storm cracked through the mountains and swept into our bay.  The numbers on the humidity monitor shot up.  I hovered, listening for popping strings.

At the same time, a wasp had begun making its home inside Lolo’s bedroom.  One morning I struggled to peel my 13-year old from her bed (to which she often retired around 9 a.m., when the living room became noisy).  Suddenly a wasp flew through Lolo’s open window, darting straight across the room at nose height into one of the bookshelves and nestling itself behind a pink stuffed bunny.  By the time we’d come to our senses, the wasp had done a uey and escaped back through the window.

The pink bunny had a secret.

I dared move the pink bunny. The intricate artistry of a wasp’s nest had begun to appear on the interior wall of Lolo’s shelf, tucked within ranks of old lovies.  The air-con situation was getting out of hand.

Still we opened the windows at night.  There was little choice, even on the night our charming port neighbours threw their annual party, complete with accordion music and the theme from Top Gun playing through the wee hours.  Lolo moved more enduringly to the living room couch. The situation delighted the dog, who now decided she could sleep on the couch, too.

But how could I complain? How could I write a blog about problems that, in the scheme of the world, were simply inconveniences?

Meanwhile our agence had dug up their own second opinion.  Another guy showed up in a white van, looked around Bellevue for a couple hours, and left.  When I returned from errands that afternoon, I pushed on Bellevue’s front door and stepped inside from the blistering sunshine.  Cool air clung to my sweaty shoulders.  It wasn’t the biting air of a monster air-conditioning machine – this air was on the warm edge of cool, if I can put it that way – but it was fresh and delicious.

Our system had begun to shudder again.  The latest technician had found a filter buried within the machine’s bulk that was caked with about a centimeter of gunk. Flushing out the boue was a far better option than taking out 12 big pieces and reinstalling them.

Still things were precarious with the machine, and we were open to ideas.  We kept our forthcoming rendez-vous with Air-Conditioning From Hell, who’d managed to slip us in at the end of the week.  When their technician arrived, he had an intelligent look around the house and offered some good suggestions involving the vents.

Lunch in this land is always a treat, no matter what you learn.

That same lunchtime, as luck would have it, I was recounting our air-con saga to my local friend Kristine.  She nodded sagely through my tale.  She understood and offered a single piece of advice.  “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t call Clime Denfert.”

The clime machine has continued to huff and puff throughout the summer.  It doesn’t produce the super-chill you’d expect from a commercial unit attached to a house, but that’s fine by me, and it certainly worked for our political guest.  And only once during her stay was she trapped outside in the street, cars and motorbikes whizzing by, while the fancy new gate buzzer chose not to send its signal.

The domotique still isn’t fixed.  Some of the same lights still pop on and off with neighbouring switches, and there’s at least one bulb in the house that I can’t turn on with any button whatsoever.

But these problems were tiny compared to the alarm. One midsummer morning Philippe got up and let the dog out.  Shortly I came downstairs and opened the terrace door.  Bellevue rang out like I’d won a Vegas jackpot.

“Didn’t you take off the alarm?” I asked my husband.


“So how’d you let the dog out?”

Discovering a defect in your alarm system – by chance – does little for a sound night’s sleep.  Especially in this part of the world.  (Bellevue’s big robbery happened 11 summers ago.)  I went around every window, door, and shutter.  It turned out we had not one, but nine gaping holes in our newly revised alarm network.

At least we had a decent early warning system.  With the clime functional but imperfect, especially in Lolo’s room, our teenaged daughter and her fluffy dog still slept on the couch at night.  A bark is a bark, fluffy dog or not.

We should’ve been seeing more of Antibes from this perspective.

With the end of summer now in range, the alarm is fixed, the a/c continues to splutter, and we keep waiting for our chap to finish off his tweaks to the domotique.  And we harbour joyful, holiday memories of sourcing, scheduling and waiting for these various technicians to show up.

Now Philippe is dreaming of a new climatisation system.  He envisions one that works on compressed gas.  If we order it in September, he says, all the work should be done by December.

I’m already counting my lucky stars.  French Lessons will have some glorious material for next year.

8 thoughts on “Tough Love: Home Upkeep in the Côte d’Azur

  1. Climate change brings more heat, humidity ….and also more mosquitos. The trend will only get worse in the coming years so we better prepare for it.

    Spending the summer in Gascogy (south west France), we also had to figure out what to do about the mosquito invasion at night. The locals advised us to buy “RAID mosquitos plugs” . It worked out perfectly.

    Outside, or In case the electrical system goes off the “spiralle anti-mosquitos” are also very efficient.

    But as you say wrightly, these are only invonveniences.
    Have a nice summer end !

  2. Well at LEAST you’ve learned, we all have, some great new vocabulary words! Better put in the agenda to revisit this post around about January…in Toronto…:) !! Loved it!

    1. Yes! Domotique is the vocab word of the summer! And I’d thought I’d learned all the important terms (prise, tournevis, heurtoir) on the original go a dozen years ago!

  3. Almost comical reading all your A/C issues, but certainly not experiencing them. Especially, your description of the mosquito bites. They can be painful. No mosquitos here as I’m sure you remember, but currently heavy smoke from fires in the Western States. You cannot see the mountains. Fortunately, a temporary inconvenience.

  4. When we were renting a house in Le Lavandou, not far from your place, we experienced similar mosquito horror one summer. We came back the following year with our own portable mosquito nets. They worked marvelously well.
    Never understood why they are still not popular in France…

  5. The key, as you say, is a personal relationship in the south of France in order to get anything done! Figure out which one of these various technicians is the best of the lot, and start with thanking him with a bottle of wine “for his time and so he can share with his wife/mother/amour” or give him toys for his kids. Invite the kids for a swim while he works on the AC. I would bet he will show up super fast to fix that AC every time you call if he knows there’s a bottle of wine or a play date for kids involved. Whatever it takes!! (Ps: this is how I get my gas/electrician to show up ASAP lickity split!!). Good luck, France really is crazy when it comes to home maintenance. Ugh.

Leave a Reply