Sunday 19 July 2009, in La France
Yesterday I went to Nice’s city center to shop our summer sales, then buy groceries for the week. After finding some clothes and DVDs, I went home. As I walked into our building entry, my upstairs neighbor’s middle son asked me whether I knew how to turn off the building’s water, since they had a leak. “You should have a cutoff for your apartment,” I offered helpfully, “I have one in mine.” “We don’t, or we can’t find it,” he said worriedly. “Where’s your leak?” I asked. “In our bathroom… a pipe beneath the bathtub blew out…” Suddenly I realized I was probably being inundated. I ran downstairs, opened my door, and sure enough, there was water streaming down my walls, as you can see here. I moved the stereo and computer away — luckily the wood table over my PC had protected it, and only my stereo and the tabletop were wet. Then I took the photo you see here.
The neighbor’s son and I went into the building’s plumbing and heating room, but couldn’t find which valve to turn; there were nearly a dozen. I shoved the Pages Jaunes (French Yellow Pages) into his hands, since he didn’t know any plumbers, and told him to find one and call them. Then I ran back into my apartment to save more things and strategically place buckets to catch the rainfall from the ceiling.
Thankfully, my neighbor across the hall got home a few minutes later. “Bonsoir !” I said quickly, then “do you know where the building’s water supply cutoff is?? A pipe burst and we can’t find the valve, meanwhile my apartment’s turning into a lake!!” He showed me which valve to turn. It was in a small back chamber of the plumbing room, which was black with age and entirely dark. Once the building’s pipes had emptied most of their remaining water, the rainfall in my apartment subsided to intermittent dripping. Mission accomplished — and now our whole building was without running water.
A plumber, drunk, finally showed up two hours later. Diagnosis: the pipe that had burst in my upstairs neighbors’ apartment was part of the building’s main line. We don’t know when it will be able to be repaired; it’s made of copper, which erodes with age and hard water. Probably all of the building’s pipes need to be replaced — as a matter of fact, two weeks ago I had noticed micro-leaks in pipes that run through my WC, which I’d reported to our building management and my insurance. (French homeowner rule #1: never trust a syndic — building management.) We told the drunk plumber to go home for the evening since he could do no more, and I called another plumber, the one who looked at my shower last year. He doesn’t work weekends, so I had to leave a message, and we won’t know anything more until tomorrow. My living room looks like this, and my bedroom was affected too. The good news being that nothing else was damaged, and I’ll likely have both rooms repainted by my homeowner’s insurance.
I did get to see my upstairs neighbors’ apartment. It’s about 60 square meters (645 square feet), two bedrooms, one bath, separate WC, living room, and separate kitchen. Six people live in it. Two adults, their three sons, and their eldest son’s daughter. It’s not unheard of here, since real estate prices are so high, but it was the first time I’d ever witnessed such living arrangements myself. It humbled me, having 45 square meters (480 square feet) all to myself. I certainly don’t look at my place with the same eyes as before.
On a related note, this MetaFilter post led me to a wonderful site about communal living in Russia: A Virtual Museum of Soviet Everyday Life. Once you’ve chosen your language, you may need to set your video options, which can be done with the “Options” tab on the right there. It’s fascinating. Apartment buildings in France weren’t too different up until the mid-20th century. Although apartments themselves were private, not many had their own toilets, which were shared, one on each floor depending on the building’s size. This is why my own WC is so small — originally, there was only the bathroom; the WC was put in later, its size minimized to save space.