Since last week I have been brooding about Ahmed, the fork-tongued, pointy shoed, fast talking, self declared roofing expert. Or rather I have been
brooding over the almost impossible task of selecting excellent, reliable artisans.
One way is simply to pick up a card near whatever till you are at and ask the cashier (usually a girl) what is known about the artisan who is advertising his skills. I did this at the Mensignac baker's only a few days ago and was promptly warned off: he's a drunk, his wife's a cow, and he's lost his licence . A pretty comprehensive indictment which confirmed my telephone experience, always a semi-comatose woman answered the phone with the refrain he's out.
References from previous clients should be reliable but are not always so. Work styles and attitudes that suit one person may not suit another – we have had at least two experiences along these lines. On the other hand, M. Doly, he who is repairing Ahmed's omissions, was recommended to me by the local fire-brigade. I had telephoned to ask for help with a wasp's nest, a service it no longer offered. But M. Doly, a part-time fireman, had taken over. And every time I call him in a panic, either for myself or for the holiday makers, because there are hornets – Asian or local – he arrives within the day. Sometimes, much to the joy of visiting children, he puts on his full anti-hornet/wasp gear, helmet with all round shoulder length veil, elbow length gloves, trousers tucked into lace up boots. Very impressive, very effective.
On the whole we have been very lucky with the artisans we have employed. Some have been more skilled than others, some develop businesses that outgrow our relatively simple needs. Indeed, apart from Ahmed (my fault) only once in the thirty plus years we have been here, have we been truly taken for a ride.
It was in the very first few years and seemed so simple. JP had always wanted to plant trees of differing kinds at La Chaise. There are two very successful cedars, also two magnolias, some holm oaks and an entire pine plantation. He had plans for putting more walnut trees in the fields, for the existing trees were getting quite old.
Thinking back I cannot remember quite how the paysagiste who said he could undertake this job came into our orbit. But, like Ahmed, he was very plausible, talked knowledgeably of the different types of walnut – franquettes, parisiennes, – and was not dismayed when JP said he wanted the trees to be a double fin. That is, trees for wood as well as nuts, which implies a different way of pruning them.
The fields were selected, the emplacements for the young trees marked with a stick. The paysagiste suggested we employ a local entrepreneur with his own tractopelle (JCB). He said to give him a cheque for 3,000 francs, payee name unmarked, which he would take to his favourite plant nursery. Of course, we never saw him again, or our 3,000 francs, or the trees. And this is how we learned that cheques in France are sacrosanct, as good as money in hand. You cannot just stop a cheque because you are in a snit with the recipient. The upside of which is that one can accept cheques in all confidence – writing a cheque in France without the means to meet it is an offence which could deprive you of our checking account for several years. But it was an expensive lesson.