Coming as I do from middle-class London, where wealthy families living in shoeboxes will do anything to gain a bit of extra space, I am accustomed to building work. I am also accustomed to the rules that accompany such building work there. If you want, for example, to convert your basement, you have to seek the consent of your neighbours to do so. If the work you have already embarked upon will have a specific impact on your neighbours, due notice has to be given and necessary compensation arrangements made. If the work will require road closure or any disruption to services, notices are emblazoned over every available surface for months in advance. If the work will be dangerous, hard hats and hob-nailed boots must worn by all personnel. If you are the person having the building work done, this is tedious. If you are on the receiving end of it, at least these formalities give you a good excuse to grumble over a cup of tea with the neighbours on the other side.
None of this equipped me well for living in France, where, for a country so obsessed by form-filling, there is remarkably little bureaucracy involved in building work. So it was that, a couple of months into the tenancy of our house, I leaned out the window one morning to open my shutters and observed that a large number of vans and heavy-duty vehicles had gathered around the property opposite. My interest piqued, I did what any self-respecting British person would do, and withdrew to gawp at the proceedings unseen from a different window. Over the course of the coming day, the entire house opposite was pulled down. Despite the continuing presence in the street of a flotilla of lorries, this work seemed to be accomplished entirely by one man and his companion, who drove a sort of miniature wrecking vehicle. At no point did either man don any sort of protective headgear. I was fascinated by this somewhat blasé attitude to demolition.
Over the coming months, my fascination has turned to fury at various points since it has transpired that the demolition of the old house opposite was intended to make way for the construction of two new properties behind it. New properties require water, electricity and gas, not to mention high speed broadband. To provide these essential services, it has been necessary to dig up the road outside the house where we live on no fewer than fifteen separate occasions. On one of these occasions, which lasted for a full three weeks, a tatty piece of A4 went up opposite one day in advance telling us that something mysterious was afoot. Otherwise, the first we have known about this work has tended to be the throbbing of the pneumatic drill, which presumably adheres to some quaint French law stating that pneumatic drilling can only be done at 7 in the morning and then only if it is outside someone’s bedroom window. The drilling goes on until the workmen’s two-hour lunch break, during which the hole that has been drilled is covered over with a treacherous looking metal sheet that clanks ominously every time someone drives over it. After the lunch break there is some fiddling around and then the steam roller starts up.
It’s not just the noise. These holes, which usually have about the same dimensions as a portaloo, are dug without any attempt to close the relatively busy single lane road on which we live. Consequently, cars start to build up whilst the workmen drill until, after an interval, with exaggerated patience, they put down the metal sheet and guide the queue of cars, by now usually honking wildly outside our kitchen window, carefully over the top of the hole. Once the queue has subsided the whole process begins again. Apart from the fact that it makes them cross enough to beep their horns, I don’t really care about the discomfort of these other motorists, but I care quite a lot when the hole has been dug directly in front of the gate by which we have to leave and enter our house in the car. On such occasions, I sit there at the steering wheel, gates opened, fury barely contained under a very English grimace, and watch the workmen shrug gallically at me for a while before eventually one of them caves in and places the metal sheet over the hole, guiding me over or round it in a manner that is reminiscent of the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle.
Just today, in fact, I settled down at the computer to work for a few hours, the children having been despatched to their holiday clubs, and noticed that the battery was running low. No sooner had I plugged it in than there was a sad deflating noise and the fridge stopped whirring, the lights went off, and the computer beeped to say that it was no longer being charged. I went to check the fuse box. All was well there. I stuck my head out of our front gate. A small congregation of people was clustering at the foot of the drive leading to the construction site opposite. I joined them. What was going on? Apparently it was a coupure caused by the travaux en haut. Enraged, I stomped up to see the only man on the worksite fool enough to show his face and asked him about the coupure. He shrugged: c’était prevu. I launched into my tirade (there is nothing like a bit of anger to make the French flow): planned by whom; notified to whom; for how long, etc. etc. He shrugged again and walked off.
After that stereotypically Gallic reception I stomped back to the cluster of my neighbours, who were all shrugging too, and treated them to an impassioned statement of my latest stance: France needs more paperwork.