Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Leak no more, and noise outside the window

The meter technician returned Monday morning. He instantly claimed that the leak in the kitchen was not the responsibility of ista-CIS, despite the extraordinary conjunction of “coincidences” that clearly pointed a finger at the previous technician's visit as being the cause of the leak. He seemed rather grumpy but nevertheless offered to call his office to see if they wanted him to fix the leak. He couldn't get through to the office, and while waiting to call back, he looked at the leak. Apparently the cause was just a leaky washer, so he pulled out a wrench, replaced the washer, and fixed the leak in a few seconds, grumbling that it wasn't the company's responsibility during this time. The leak stopped.

With the leak gone, I was happy, and immediately after fixing the leak, he left, grumbling a fast “Au revoir” as he walked away. Well, at least the leak is gone, and that's all I'm worried about. Although if I catch anyone trying to bill me for anything, I'm not going to be happy.

He insisted that the leak starting during the previous technician's visit was a coincidence. However, I calculate that the chances of that leak started by pure coincidence at the same time that the technician was working on the meter are about 1 in 600,000, which doesn't seem very likely to me. Even if the technician had visited 100 times, instead of just once, the chances of a leak occurring during any of his visits would still be less than 0.017%. I'm sure he must have bumped something or did something that started the leak. And it was on the joint that connected the meter to the apartment, although this technician said that the company is responsible only for the meter itself.

In the old days, I would have just had the leak fixed at my expense—not because it would be my responsibility (it wouldn't), but simply to avoid the tremendous hassle of trying to get people to take responsibility for things. I did that routinely in the past; it was one of the many advantages of having money. Today, I have no money at all, so that option no longer exists, and so I must battle to get other people to do what they should already be doing out of conscience.

In France, in particular, avoiding responsibility seems to be a national institution. In the United States, it is less so, not because Americans have any stronger conscience (that would be too good to be true), but mainly because Americans worry more about possible litigation. In the United States, law substitutes for morality and conscience: if it's legal, it's moral, and if it's illegal, it's immoral. In France, litigation is less of an issue, even though French people sue each other regularly. The difference, I think, is that litigation is more likely to go either way in France, whereas in the U.S. corporations usually seem to lose to individuals. That may come from the fact that France tends to adjudicate most issues using trained judges rather than untrained juries—it is one of the claimed advantages of such a system, although an increased risk of corruption is the flip side of the arrangement.

Right now, there's a tremendous amount of noise outside my window, as a building across the street has its facade steam-cleaned. Paris city ordinances require that facades be cleaned at least every ten years; the laws were put in place thirty years ago and transformed the city from a pile of soot into a photogenic gallery of mostly nineteenth-century architecture. Anyway, the noise is horrendous—but the weird thing is that I was able to sleep through it this morning. I'm so used to street noises (Paris is a noisy city), that the sound of steam cleaning right across the street (loud enough to impede conversation, had I anyone with whom to converse) does not disturb my slumber.

The weather has been very nice these past few days, still a bit warm and humid for my tastes, but nice. Fall weather is often just as nice as spring weather in Paris, but there are fewer tourists (relatively speaking only—there are always lots of tourists in Paris in an absolute sense). I have no money to go out (you can't step outside in a big city without spending money), but the weather is very inviting. I need to look for something else to sell on eBay, maybe.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The heat is on!

Well, a moment I've been dreading has come: the building management for my apartment building has turned on the central heating. It's 76° F outside, and they've turned on the heat. Now I have to pay for the heat that they are wasting, plus I have to pay for the electricity to run an air conditioner to remove the heat from the apartment, unless I want to croak from hyperthermia in 90° temperatures. I can't believe the incompetence of this company. How do they make their decisions?

At the same time, there's been no move to fix the increasingly severe leak in my kitchen. I called ista-CIS again, and they told me they'd send someone out on Monday morning. We'll see. In the meantime, I have to empty the 6-litre bucket in the kitchen every 2-3 hours.

I tried bringing some things to the store that just opened in my neighborhood that sells your stuff on eBay. They accepted two of the things I brought, but not the third, which was just too worthless in their estimation. I don't have much to sell because the government seized my personal property years ago, and of course I've never had the means to replace anything. But I'm trying to scoop up whatever trinkets I can find and maybe get something for them. I only have €20 left for many weeks to come, so every euro helps.

My last grocery errand brought me to the Carrefour City supermarket I talked about a few posts ago, in order to see what the place was like. The choices were poor, the prices were no better than Monoprix, and the lines in front of the cash registers were all 20 minutes long. I won't go back. The only advantage it had was that it was on the way back from school, but that's not enough of an advantage to stop going to Monop Daily.

Several people have reneged on debts they owed me, leaving me even more poverty stricken. I have a diet of flavored rice and pound cake with milk.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

France revealed

Once a year, the French government sponsors a weekend called the Journées du Patrimoine, during which places that are normally closed to the public open their doors and conduct tours. This weekend marks the Journées du Patrimoine for 2009 (the weekend is usually around this time of year). About 15,000 different places have opened their doors this weekend for people interested in seeing them. The most popular is probably the Élysée Palace, where the French president lives—the lines are typically hours long to get in for a tour, starting early in the morning. There are plenty of other places that are less crowded, such as subway repair centers, or historical monuments that may already be open to the public but without guided tours under normal conditions … such as La Coupole, a huge and popular restaurant near Montparnasse that dates from the golden years of the Montparnasse area, when it was one of the major hot spots in Paris (the area still popular now, but with fewer socialites and no gangsters).

I haven't gone out, since I'm not that interested in standing in line for anything, but overall this event is always a great success.

Only 40 years behind

A supermarket near to where I live underwent a transformation over the summer holidays. It used to be a fairly conventional supermarket; now it has been converted into a more upscale, trendy supermarket called Carrefour City.

The incredible, unbelievable, miraculous breakthrough represented by this supermarket is that … it's open until 11:45 PM, Monday through Saturday. Big deal, you say? Perhaps in the United States this wouldn't be remarkable, but in France, supermarkets that don't keep banking hours are quite a new development. If this trend continues, French consumer society will be caught up with American consumer society before the end of the next millennium, instead of being mired in 1971. The mind boggles!

Of course, the French influence is still apparent. The supermarket is closed on Sundays, precisely the day of the week when most people are likely to have free time to go shopping for groceries. And it's open until 11:45 PM, instead of midnight, because allowing employees to leave by midnight is more important than providing good customer service.

The competition does a bit better: Monoprix's Monop' Daily supermarkets stay open until midnight. Carrefour City has even adopted the color scheme of Monop' Daily. So much for taking risks with originality. (Carrefour, by the way, was fined again by the government for not following rules on expiration and refrigeration of foodstuffs a few days ago.)

There are some other chains that are staying open “late,” meaning until 10 or 11 PM. I suppose progress is being made, slowly but surely.

This particular Carrefour City was closed on the day I photographed it; signs on the windows said the closure was due to a fire (I couldn't see any sign of a fire, but perhaps it was in a back room somewhere). The layout of the store looks a lot more sleek and modern than its predecessor, in any case.

There's already a Daily near me where I tend to shop, and it's open until midnight, but I might make a stop at this new store sometime just to see what the competition is doing. There are also many smaller supermarkets in most neighborhoods that stay open even on Sundays and late at night, usually because they are family-operated and can thus work around labor-law restrictions and avoid the 16th-century attitudes of labor unions. In French these tiny markets are sometimes called “neighborhood Arabs,” because so many of them are run by Arab immigrant families (the term is not meant pejoratively—it mainly reflects the often stronger work ethic manifested by immigrant families starting small businesses, as compared to laziness of the native bourgeoisie).

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Web sites that suck (in France)

France as a country has long been very good at building very bad Web sites, profiting from its two decades of lag behind the rest of the developed world to produce sites that look like they were designed by seventh-graders on their first day of computer class in junior high. A new record for terrible French Web sites was set just a few days ago, when erstwhile failed presidential candidate Ségolène Royal had a site created for an association, Désirs d'Avenir (“future desires”—sounds like the name of a DVD that you'd find in the backroom of the video store), that supports her political activities.

By a truly amazing coincidence, this new Frankensite was created by her current boyfriend, André Hadjez. Her honey spent two months giving life to the monster, and charged her association more than $57,000 for his handiwork. Somehow, out of that bare-bones 57-kilobuck budget, he managed to find the funds necessary to use a background image taken from the set of desktop wallpapers that ships with Microsoft Vista, a stroke of artistic genius that was instantly identified by observers. Hours after the original site debuted, it was replaced by another site that sported an eye-straining day-glo magenta background. The last time I tried to look at the site from school, it was inaccessible. A few hours ago, when I tried to see it from home, I was unable to view it because—like every French Web site designed since the extinction of the dinosaurs—it consists entirely of a Flash animation, and I don't run Flash animations on untrusted sites for security reasons.

Ms. Royal supposedly said that “This idea is Andre's. He's a very talented man in multimedia and very much in love.” I'm not sure how being in love helps one to build Web sites. In fact, looking at this site, I'm more inclined to conclude that being in love somehow puts talent (if any) into suspended animation.

Anyway, this mess attracted strident hoots of ridicule from every corner of Francophone society (the rest of the world was mostly indifferent). The site is terrible even by the extremely undemanding standards of French web-weaving. I could easily do ten times better for ten times less, and so could the vast majority of webmasters working in this century. If this is an example of what Ségolène's beau produces for $57,000, I shudder to think what he might charge for a site that were actually presentable and modern.

If you search around on the Web, you can find copies of the two initial home pages of the site pretty easily (which has changed several times as the association struggles to carry out damage control). It's impossible to say anything complimentary about them.

There are also many lampoons of the site popping up, although I don't know if they'll be around for long once the 15 minutes of fame that this site has bought for its owner have expired. Some people have even speculated that the site might have been deliberately designed bad, in order to generate buzz, because it's hard to believe that anyone could create anything so inept without wanting to.

This does help demonstrate that, if you find burning $100 bills in a hibachi to be too solid a financial investment, you can always waste money even more efficiently by hiring a French firm to build your Web site.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Another retirement-by-suicide and other forms of hysteria

Today another employee of France Télécom tried to kill herself, right in the office, by taking an overdose of barbiturates. Apparently she had been moved around the country and had been given very few real things to do, and she had just been told that she was being retroactively demoted and moved to yet another location.

Obviously FT has some very serious management problems, but it's not the only French company to be poorly managed, not by a long shot.

Speaking of hysterical overreactions, it has been revealed recently that the government (specifically the Ministry of Justice) has an extreme plan for suspending civil liberties in order to protect against the apparently hellish prospect of a swine flu epidemic. The list of measures under consideration is long and frightening—far from the type of thing you'd expect to see in a nominal democracy. The mere existence of such a plan is worrisome, and it's even more worrisome that anything so extreme would be considered for a public-health situation that is very tame by comparison. Swine flu infections tend to produce milder symptoms than ordinary strains of the flu, and only 13 people have died of the swine flu in France (which is nothing when you consider the number of people who catch the flu). How the government got from something so non-threatening to a plan that effectively imposes martial law is a bit of a mystery. As it is, schools are being closed every day due to hysteria over the swine flu, even though all the kids who catch the disease seem to be recovering just fine after three or four days.

A French doctor in a televised discussion has suggested that vaccinating everyone might not be such a good idea, either, because the vaccine has been prepared so hastily and so carelessly that it presents more of a danger to public health than the flu itself. He speculated that the vaccine, if universally administered, might kill perhaps three times as many people as the flu would kill, making it a bit foolish to insist on immunizing everyone. He suggests that the pursuit of money, not public health, is behind the push for vaccination. Given the sorry history of France with respect to public health crises in the past (such as the affair of HIV contaminated blood transfusions some years back), this would not surprise me. Indeed, it's odd that such hysteria surrounds a disease that has killed only 13 people, whereas a heat wave that killed 15,000 in 2003 elicited virtually no action or suggestions at all on the part of the government, apart from suggestions to drink more water!

Anyway … the weather is quite cool at the moment, although it is very humid. The leak in my kitchen continues to worsen, and I still have no money to fix it (and I still wonder why I'm expected to fix it at my expense). I have to turn the water off a lot to slow it down, and I'm not even sure if that is working.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Après nous, le déluge

Well, the leak in the kitchen is dripping four times faster than it was last week, when it mysteriously appeared as the water-meter technician did something to the meter.

I talked to the insurance company (Matmut). They said it's not their problem; they only reimburse for water damage, not the cost of repairing leaks. The building management company also says it's not their problem. And ista-CIS, the company that sent the technician who apparently caused the leak, also denies responsibility (through the technician). Apparently I'm expected to pay for repairs, but I have only €36 to my name right now.

I empty the 6-liter bucket I put beneath the leak every three or four hours. It isn't going to hold a full day of leaks once I go to work tomorrow, so there's a good possibility that there will be water all over the kitchen floor (at least) when I get home. At the insurance company's suggestion, I'm sending them a letter (shown here, redacted, in French) describing the leak and its circumstances in the hope that they might be able to compel ista-CIS to fix it. But I'm not optimistic.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Not happy with your job? Jump out a window.

Suicides are again in the news in France, after a 32-year-old employee of France Télécom who couldn't stand her job threw herself out of a window. A bit unusual, you might say. France Télécom says she had issues.

The problem is that 21 other people at France Télécom have committed suicide for the same reasons. And there have been many suicides at Renault, as well.

In the United States, if you don't like your job, you quit and find another job. But that's not how it works in France. In France, your elders decide for you what career you will pursue while you're still a teenager. You are then shunted into a specific educational program that aims at the selected career path, which simultaneously closes other paths. Once your schooling is complete, you are expected to find a job in the selected career domain and retain it for the rest of your life.

Changing careers is seriously frowned upon in France. If you change careers in the U.S., it might be considered evidence of versatility; in France, a career change on your resume will inevitably elicit the question “You changed careers … what went wrong?” Someone who changes careers is considered a failure, or a rebel. How could anyone not want to do the same job for his entire life?

Even changing jobs is risky. Not only does it make you seem unreliable in the eyes of French employers, but it might be impossible to find a new job after leaving the old one. It takes a very long time to get a job in France. If you are over 40, or if you are changing or have changed careers, or you look or sound like an immigrant, or you don't have a network of well-placed friends to offer you a sinecure, you may not be able to find any work at all. The unemployment rate in France has been high since time immemorial. It's hard to fire people, and it's also hard to get hired (because it's so hard to fire, amongst other reasons).

This all being as it is, it's not surprising that some French people consider killing themselves to be the only escape from job dissatisfaction. You can imagine how dire the situation must be if people are committing suicide. Many French companies are still managed in an authoritarian, eighteenth-century style that is not conducive to worker happiness at best, and leads employees to jump out windows at worst.

Even knowing these things, I'm still astonished that people would kill themselves rather than change jobs. I know most French people are hysterically paranoid about losing their jobs, but still. I've never heard of this happening in the United States. It's pretty weird. It's hard to understand how France can hope to compete in global markets with serious problems like this haunting it.

I'm reminded of a classic example of French cluelessness: the color scheme of Orange, France Télécom's ever-confusing doppelganger. I guess nobody there ever did enough research to discover that orange and black (the company's colors) are associated with Halloween in the United States.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Rice cooking, leaky pipes

I don't know how to cook, but I do have a rice cooker that I received as a gift. After my parents sent me some money for groceries, I went to the store and bought some butter, four eggs, and some frozen chopped spinach, plus a jar of tikka sauce. I already had a bag of rice. I managed to concoct a rice meal that doesn't taste too bad. There's enough to last for several days. It's hardly French cuisine but it's one of the few things I know how to make, and in theory, at least, it should be cheap—my calculations reveal that it works out to about 2 euro per serving, which is a slight savings over ready-made meals (although it's more expensive than a small loaf of pound cake, which is one of my other low-cost meals).

I found a plastic pail that's bigger than the cup I was using to catch the leak in the kitchen that I've had since the meter man worked on the meter. I had to cut one corner away to make it fit beneath the leaky fitting. It holds six liters instead of the single liter the cup held. However, the leak is now dripping once per second rather than once every two seconds, so it still fills up every few hours. No progress yet on getting the meter company to fix it (or pay to have it fixed). I don't have the several hundred euro a plumber would charge to fix it, and my insurance has a deductible that probably would prevent it from covering the repairs. That's what I get for letting the meter man in (at the syndicat's insistence).

The weather is turning hot again, after about a week of very nice, cool weather. Sometimes the weather is simply seasonal, but most of the time it's warmer than seasonal, as usual (if that makes sense). We are getting far less rain than we need.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Everyone for himself

There's a water meter inside my apartment. In France, sometimes they don't put meters outside, where you'd expect to find them; instead they are inside a residence, which means that meter readers must periodically enter the residence to read the meter, which means that somebody has to be there to let them in. It's a very bizarre arrangement. My electric meter is outside, so that can be read without entering the apartment, although the electric company usually “estimates” my consumption (by taking the real consumption and tripling or quadrupling it) instead of actually coming out to read the meter.

Anyway, the water meter is inside the apartment. Years ago, the company that runs these meters, which is apparently called ista-CIS (I'm not sure, as it has only been identified to me as “CIS”) installed electronic meters that magically transmit their readings to some central point, so that nobody has to come into the apartment. Which was great as far as I was concerned.

This electronic meter apparently runs on a battery, which has to be replaced every few years. In February, my syndicat (that's how the French refer to a building management company) sent me a letter telling me to be ready on a certain day for a technician to come out and (apparently) replace this battery. So I took a day off work, losing a day's wages … and he never showed up. There was a note on the wall in the lobby when I got home that said he was “sick” and wouldn't be able to come (I guess this company has only one employee for this task, or something).

A few weeks ago, the syndicat sent another letter that said I absolutely, positively had to let this technician into the apartment to do whatever has to be done to the meter. They said it was defective and had to be replaced, or maintained (the letter wasn't consistent on this point), otherwise I'd be charged a hefty fixed price for water (500 cubic feet per month). The date for his visit was September 2.

I wasn't working on that day (yesterday), so I was there waiting for him. He showed up early. I showed him into what passes for a kitchen in my apartment: a very crowded little alcove with a fridge, an unused washing machine—that's a separate story for some other day—and a sink with a cold-water faucet. He shifted the small washing machine out of the way, and went to work. It only took a few minutes. I didn't keep an eye on him so I'm not sure exactly what he did.

As he was finishing, he said “look, you have a leak.” I walked over and peered into the very crowded space behind the washing machine. Sure enough, at the fitting that connected the output of the meter to the water supply inside the apartment, there was water dripping from the fitting. Beneath it, there was a tiny puddle of water a few inches wide. The fitting dripped at about once every two seconds. I had never noticed any leak before, and it seemed odd to me that something dripping every two seconds would produce such a tiny puddle, but I made a note of it. The technician then put the washing machine back into place and left.

Several hours later, I walked into the kitchen, and the floor was covered with water, which came as a shock. It had been dry that morning. In fact, it was normally dry. I looked behind the washing machine and realized that the leak was dumping water all over the floor. The thing is … there had been no water before the technician came, and I now realized that with a fitting that is dripping every two seconds, there is absolutely no way that it could have been leaking before the technician came, or the kitchen would have been covered with water long ago. Since the kitchen had been bone dry before his visit, and was soaking wet only a few hours after his visit, the appearance of this leak precisely coincided with his visit. I had not previously noticed the leak before he pointed it out to me because there had previously been no leak.

To me it's just too hard to believe that by some magic coincidence this leak decided to spring up at the very moment that the technician was working on the meter … therefore the meter technician must have done something to make the fitting leak. There's just no way that it could have been dripping like that before he came without leaking water all over the kitchen floor (which is exactly what it did in only an hour or two after he left).

So I called the syndicat to tell them that the technician must have broken something, because I now had a water leak in the kitchen. They called ista-CIS, and the technician called me back the next morning (this morning). However, he said that his responsibility was the meter only, and there was absolutely no way that he could have caused a leak. Yes, he pointed the leak out to me, but it wasn't him. Maybe the kitchen was dry before he came and wet afterwards, but it wasn't him. Maybe it was on the fitting that connected the meter to the apartment, but that wasn't his responsibility.

That seemed very difficult to accept, given that I had had no water at all in the kitchen before his visit, and now the leak was flooding the floor. I had to put a plastic cup beneath the pipe (the only thing I had that would fit beneath it), and empty it every two hours to keep water from getting onto the floor. He should have realized this himself, because the floor was dry when he came to visit. But he denied any connection between the leak and whatever he did to the meter.

So I called the syndicat. They said it wasn't their problem, either. They said it was my problem, and it was up to me to pay for repairs. After all, what proof did I have that the ista-CIS technician had caused the leak? I guess a dry kitchen before his visit and a wet kitchen afterwards weren't stufficient proof—or, more likely, they simply assumed I was lying and had taken this opportunity to blame an existing leak on the technician.

It's hard to believe that the technician could deny a connection if the kitchen was dry when he arrived and wet two hours after he left. It's also hard to believe that I would leave something leaking in the kitchen for years, waiting for the once-in-a-decade maintenance visit from the ista-CIS technician just so I could blame it on him. But in France, everyone is assumed to be a liar until proven otherwise, and proving otherwise consists of having the best lawyer.

It's very tiring. Why does everyone in France try to escape all responsibility for everything? Why can't people be honest? Why would I lie about a leak in the kitchen, especially since a sudden leak would presumably be covered by insurance, anyway? How could a technician not see a connection between dry floor on arrival and wet floor after departure? Why not just come back out and fix it? Why is everyone in France so hellbent on shafting his neighbor? It's a weird cultural thing, but it's very fatiguing. Is it the Latin/macho influence? I don't know.

And to compound this all, I'm broke. I won't have anything until the 15th at the earliest. I'm down to my last fifty cents, literally (all I have is what's in my pocket, and in my pocket I have fifty cents). I spent half of my last twenty euro on milk and pound cake, and the other half on the laundromat (if you're wondering why I go to a laundromat when I have a washing machine at home—well, like I said, that's another French-culture story for another day). A plumber would charge hundreds of euro for a leak I didn't cause, and I don't have a credit card or even checks. A lawyer would want several hundred euro per hour.

I still have to try calling ista-CIS one more time, but, it being a French company, I pretty much know how that will go (“Mais non, Monsieur, ce n'est pas nous!”). I may stop by the insurance agent's office tomorrow to see what they can do, against my better judgement, even though that will probably only make things worse (I'm not sure how, but taking any positive action always makes things worse, and of course it's a French insurance company). In the meantime, I have to empty the plastic cup under the pipe every two hours, 24 hours a day.