Finding a French Contractor

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We chose the cheaper contractor, of course. The two estimates – or devis – were different to the tune of something like €5,000. Part of that more expensive estimate involved several hundred euros to pay for parking. A bit much, really, given that if you got to this part of town early enough, you could most days probably find a parking spot, even for a van, on and around the Rue Léon Cogniet, home to my friends’ apartment.

Anyway, I had to break the sad news to M. Gougis that he wasn’t getting the job. His voice betrayed so much disappointment that I worried he might cry. This burly builder who was gruff and laconic in person became almost weepy on the phone when he learned he wouldn’t be painting the apartment.

M. Gougis started to give me a rundown of all that had gone wrong in his business up to that point. From disappointments in love to last-minute cancellations of big jobs that caused quite a bit of financial hardship, his life was unraveling. What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds nipping at his rear end. I felt for him, but playing on my sympathy wasn’t really a good ploy to drum up business. In any event I’d already told the other contractor that he had the job. In addition to being cheaper, M. Mateus would be ready to begin the next week. I couldn’t really wait all that long for an opening, so I was eager to move ahead.

Getting a contractor in France is rather similar to getting one in the U.S.: You ask around and hope that the recommendation holds up. And if you’re lucky, you get a chance to view the work that’s been done elsewhere.

I had called a couple of contractors recommended by friends, and had seen the results of their efforts at the apartments of these friends.

M. Gougis had redone the apartment of my friends Walter and Bertrand, who had bought a place in a charmless 1960s-era building on the Rue Saint-Martin, near the Centre Pompidou, an area referred to as Beaubourg. M. Gougis had done nice work there, turning the drab place that my friends had bought (it was centrally located – very important to Parisians – and had two parking spaces, which is almost unheard of in space-starved and car-mad Paris) into something much more in line with their cosmopolitan tastes. He couldn’t entirely erase the dreary fatalistic-contemporary vibe – or dampen the sound from the busy Rue aux Ours below – but he’d at least made the apartment more homey than what I had seen when I’d walked through it just after my friends had bought it. Still, Walter had intimated that here and there some of M. Gougis’s work wasn’t holding up even a bare few months later.

I ended up with M. Mateus because not only was he a bit cheaper than M. Gougis, but his work seemed to be better, to judge from how he’d transformed the home of my friends Daniel and Sasha.

The old auto-body shop that Daniel had bought had become a cozy duplex in an area of the 13th arrondissement that had begun to attract a more sophisticated homeowner, one drawn to cheaper prices in what had been considered a less-desirable part of town. It was an old out-of-the-way neighborhood of small businesses and workshops that had begun to grow increasingly bobo – an abbreviation of the French term for a class of slumming chic Parisians known as bourgeois-bohemians who had created happening neighborhoods out of quasi-desolate parts of town. Rather like hipsters avant la lettre. In New York City, the Yankee equivalent of the French bobo had for a couple of decades been gentrifying certain seamy and under-served areas in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. In Paris, this kind of thing had started about a decade later (though bobos have been around for quite a while).

This part of the 13th arrondissement near the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand hadn’t quite turned into Williamsburg or Bed-Stuy or Long Island City, but it had grown increasingly desirable, especially as real estate in several other Parisian arrondissements had become too pricey for all but a well-heeled few.

And the good work that M. Mateus had done for him was, Daniel had told me, affordable. M. Mateus had made a home for them out of the former auto-body shop on the ground floor, or rez-de-chaussée, which also opened onto what had become a small communal garden for the other flats in the complex that had been reclaimed from light industrial use. M. Mateus had fashioned a bedroom and bath from the basement area – or sous-sol – and had turned the main floor into a loft-like space.

The work at Bob and Loraine’s apartment in the 17th arrondissement would be less of a total redo than what Daniel had wanted (and also less than what my friends Walter and Bertrand had needed from the other contractor) and more of a facelift: plastering, painting, touching up the woodwork, and taking care of various odds and ends. Still, it was a sizable job, considering that I’d be living there while the work was going on.

Often, contracting work in Parisian apartments is done while the owners are on vacation – especially in the summer. This would be a little more difficult for the contractors here since I was staying in the apartment for a few months to supervise their work. And as I worked from home rather than in an office elsewhere, the crew had to accommodate my presence as they went about their business. But the two young Egyptian immigrants who did the bulk of the work were friendly and eager.

I simply had to choose the color (similar to what was on the walls, but fresher-looking), and to figure out where I’d sleep during each phase of the work. I also had to learn the vocabulary of home repair, something that hadn’t been covered at Alliance Française, where I’d studied French. But that would come. I’d already picked up a few expressions from the estimate that M. Mateus had sent – ponçage (sanding or smoothing), rebouchage (resealing) and polyane (a brand of polyethylene plastic that the contractor used to indicate the drop cloths with which he’d protect the furniture). As always, I looked at every interaction as a way to improve my French.

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