The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Welcome Home

We crossed the Alps around nightfall, the last leg of the long drive back from Italy's Cinque Terre (just 6 hours drive time, but an eternity in driving-with-small-children time), and made the last hour or so down the western slopes and into Lyon in weary silence. I slotted the rental car into a space in the Republique parking garage, and we loaded our arms with suitcases, half-empty Orangina bottles and semisleeping toddlers.

We had lunched on a beach on the outskirts of Genoa, where seagulls shrieked and our gelato dripped meltily onto the sand, but here in Lyon a cold wind blew purposefully as the mild autumn gave a resigned sigh and shuffled off in search of its overcoat and scarf.

Strung-out and road-funked, we go up the escalator, across the street and into the doors of our building, where our footsteps leave tracks in the plaster dust of the entry. Men have been at work here for several weeks now, ripping out the old wall covering, rerouting electrical conduit, tearing out the old tile floor and cementing down new tile--but for the long-weekend Toussaint holiday they appear to have left their tools and sacks of plaster and cement right where they fell at 5PM on Wednesday.

I unlock the door to find kitty staring back at me accusingly, as he does whenever we go out of town. It's cold in our apartment, really cold. I set down my load of stuff and go to the kitchen to turn the heat back up. Then I see it--the red trouble-indicator light blinking at me menacingly, like a Cylon centurion.

It is the chaudiere--an infernal device mounted over our kitchen counter that uses gas heat to power the hot water and the radiators simultaneously. It has a self-protection system that prevents it from damaging itself further in the event of freezing, loss of pressure or water leak: In true French fashion, at the first sign of trouble, it surrenders.* When the chaudiere turns turtle and goes into "security mode", there is nothing for it but to call your local depanneur de chauffage, who will charge you 90 euros to come out and twiddle a few valves and hit a mystical hidden reset button.

In the meantime, you will have no heat and no hot water.

Sigh. OK, I decide to start heating up some water on the stove so at least we can give the boys a bath and get them to bed. I twist the knob on the gas stove, hit the ignition button and... nothing. The sparking of the starter is laughing at me: snik--snik--sink--snik. There's no gas.

So not only do I need to get the chaudiere man, I need to get the gas company on the case first. And it's Sunday night, which means nothing doing. So I'll have a bunch of phone calls to make on Monday morning, when I should be preparing for a meeting with the Agency's director... a meeting I'll have to go to unshowered. At least I'll have some clean clothes to wear, once I get this load of laundry into the... oh hell no.

Monday morning in my (heated, thankfully) office, I start working the phones, en Francais.
First to the building management: Hey, um, y'all weren't doing any work on the gas lines over the weekend, were you? 'Cause my gas is off. No? OK.

Then to Gaz de France: Yes, I'd like to report an outage. No, I don't know how long it's been out. I was out of town. No, I'm not there right now, I'm at work. My wife's there, though. She can let your repairman in. Oh, but it'll have to be before about 2:30 or after 4PM, because she goes to pick up my son from school. But it's 9:30 AM now, so that won't be a problem, right? Great. Thanks.

About 3:30, my phone rings. Hello? Yes, I'm the one who reported an outage. No, of course I'm not there. I'm at work. No, there's no one home to let you in. Like I said there wouldn't be when I called six hours ago. Could you come back in maybe 20, 30 minutes? She'll be home then. No? Um, OK. You need me to call the dispatcher again when there's somebody home? Fine, fine, have a nice day, bye. [slam.] Jerk.

It goes on like this for the remainder of the day--me calling Gaz de France, GdF making vague promises, no one showing up, reindeer herds migrating across my living room, V. looking into nearby hotels.

At 10:30 that night, the doorbell rings.

We look at each other. Boog and Tater are asleep under their respective piles of blankets, V is in her wooliest jammies, and I'm fumbling through my closet to find my cleanest dirty shirt.

Is your gas working? The GdF man asks.
Of course it's not working. That's why I've called your office 10 times today.
Is your gas working now?
Non. Il. Ne. Marche. Pas. Jeez, is my accent that bad?
He reaches over to a gas pipe sticking out of the wall on the landing and gives a twist to something I would never have recognized as a valve. Something that could easily have been knocked askew by the painters who put a fresh coat of paint on the hallway while we were gone.
Try it, monsieur.
I walk to the stove, twist the dial... and hear the hiss of gas. I walk back to the door.
You complete freaking retard, he somehow restrains himself from saying. Passez une bonne soiree, monsieur, he actually does say. He is not as successful at restraining the smirk.

*Yes, that was uncalled-for and mean-spirited, I admit. But your spirits would be mean, too.


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