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March 2011 | Uncivil service is part of the appeal



Claude the office cat has learnt a new trick. By jumping up and hanging off the doorhandle, he can let himself in. If only some of my co-workers could develop the same skill... I haven't seen Pierre the project manager for days, though over the phone he claims he's still working for me.

Today's the big day. Our most important project starts on site, a restoration of a fortified manor house for the Blythes, set in the woods above a proper damsel-in-the-highest-room-of-the-tallest-tower castle, and so subject to the approval of the Architecte des Bâtiments de France, France's equivalent of English Heritage. I am due to meet the head conservation officer for the Département at 4pm but she's an hour early and arrives when I'm deep in conversation with the stone dresser about vaulted balconies (I'm for them, he's agin 'em). Meanwhile the terrassier, the groundworker, has used his enormous 360-degree excavator to drag away all the banked-up soil from the north wall. In his enthusiasm he has gone below foundation level and both Madame from the ABF and I scream like girls when we catch sight of it, thinking he has undermined the house and it's about to collapse into his trench.

(I should perhaps point out at this stage that Madame from the ABF is a female and therefore entitled to scream like a girl, but I am not, even though she did initially address me as Madame Neil when we first ever spoke over the phone).

The electrician wanders over to say the power's gone off and, yes, in his enthusiasm, the groundworker has indeed cut the mains supply cable to the entire site. The roofer's gang arrives to start assembling their crane but find that the groundworker, in his enthusiasm, has erroneously excavated the eastern half of their base and piled the spoil on the western half. While this might result in a crane set at a jaunty beret-style angle it won't do much for its ability to, you know, actually lift stuff.

Now I don't want you thinking that this is a normal state of affairs on my projects. Nothing could be further from the truth, other than saying nothing ever goes wrong on any building site anywhere. I have to leave but Pierre has rung the groundworker to say he's on his way, and I get a call from him just after 6 to say everything is now under control and the electrician is no longer crying. (PS the electrician is not a girl).



Grrrr. Tin hats on everyone, Vesma's about to go off on one. In the post this morning not one but two identical letters from the URSSAF, social security, telling me they haven't had this month's direct debit. I wouldn't mind, but I've already written to them twice to say I've changed my bank and giving them the new details. French civil servants are notoriously inefficient and trying to get through the bureaucracy here is one of the biggest frustrations for a Brit, however good one's language skills might be.

I would go on, but I've got clients coming in in five minutes and it's unprofessional to go into a meeting with steam coming out of one's ears.



Yesterday's meeting (after I'd simmered down) went pretty well. I'm building a house for Joe and Trudi, contemporary in style with lots of glass for the view of the brooding Chateau Biron, bang on the skyline over the trees and hills. We're at the tender stage now (tender in both senses of the word) with the contractors' tenders coming in and the client's bank balance feeling tender as we finally find out for real how much the house will cost.

Not that I leave my clients unprepared. It's part of my rôle to estimate the cost of my design, and to match it to my client's budget throughout the design stage of every project. But the simple fact is that it's only when the tenders are opened that we know for sure.

But now we have the real figures or, as it turns out, most of them. Pierre has done an analysis of the prices and, as often happens, different contractors have missed different items in their quotes, but we end up with an overall cost which is within 5% of our predictions. We have also been able to check the contractors' rates against each other and against previous projects and it's clear that nobody is trying to pull a fast one and overprice the work.

So Joe and Trudi went away content, and we’ll meet again later in the week to introduce them to the French contractors and talk about start dates and contract periods. In the meantime I ask Charlotte to update our background financial and insurance checks on the contractors to make sure Joe and Trudi's interests are fully protected.


A quiet morning in the office focussing on my second-favourite occupation of invoicing, and my all-time favourite of reading poorly-spelt and ungrammatical emails telling me I've won a lottery (today both the Thai and Canadian National Internet Lotteries) or begging my help in exporting vast caches of Nigerian gold if I will only tell them my PIN number. If the fools only knew it's 1234! Oops...



I have nearly calmed down now about the URSSAF's incompetence, thanks to ongoing therapy courtesy of Messrs Médoc, Burgundy and Côtes du Rhône, who started off by asking me what really annoys me about France. I answered:
1. Impenetrable bureaucracy.
2. Enormous supermarket checkout queues while the cashier has an extended natter with someone she has not seen for 217 years.
3. Can't buy glue on a Sunday.
4. Approximately-steered rust-riddled Renault Espace tailgating whilst driver chain-smokes and yells into mobile phone.
5. Snails.
6. Sixth-formers holding up traffic demonstrating against the increase in the age of retirement (I was already late for lunch). I mean they'll be lucky to find a job when they leave, let alone qualify for a pension...

But then it dawns on me. If these things didn't exist, nor would France. I'd be living in some bland pointless Euroland with all the charm and character of a multi-storey car park in Basingstoke.

 Neil Vesma’s Architect’s practice is at Villeréal near Bergerac. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or tel 0033 675 847 176, or visit his website www.neilvesma.com