Paris — Our kitchen faucet had been leaking for weeks. The solution appeared to be a simple matter of replacing the worn rubber washer inside the nozzle, but the trouble is that few utilitarian items are standardized in France. The corresponding size was unobtainable as the double faucet is 20 years old, a model which no longer exists.
When the plumber finally showed up he instantly announced that the entire zinc sink, the tile base on which it is mounted, and one whole wall would have to ripped out and replaced. It all corresponded to an updated version of the old fable, "For want of a nail the shoe was lost -- then the horse, the rider, the battle, and subsequently the war."
In this household parable the plumber was rapidly dispatched to go plumb elsewhere and the drip, drip, dripping faucet eventually repaired by a kindly and compassionate house guest: a "do it yourself" expert from the United States who arranged matters with a bit of string, putty, rubber bands, and lots of optimism.
With the shattering costs of labor more and more unskilled French amateurs are tackling difficult projects to embellish, beautify, and enlarge their homes, or simply try to keep them from collapsing. The annual "bricolage" salon held here for two weeks every November now averages a daily attendance of more than 25,000 people. It is estimated that at least 60 percent of the adult French population are bricoleursm who at least try to do it themselves. And the surprising fact is that women far outrank men in this domain, having decided that it is no longer enticingly feminine to be impractical and at the mercy of the plumber, carpenter, and electrician.
In France there seems to be as much individuality in household appliances, screws, wall sockets, and light bulbs as in the character of the French themselves. The one or two year guarantee for a new appliance -- the maintenance agreement or "service apres vente"m -- is more fictional than factual , and the philosophy of the US -- buy inexpensively, throw it away when it's broken, and buy another one --has generally taken over here. The days of clever old artisans operating out of dusty attics who would come on a moment's notice to fix almost anything are long since gone.
Gerage bills and repairs stagger the average car owner, who has always considered his automobile engine closely akin to a work of art and loves to tinker with it in his spare time. A common sight in all Gaul during the spring and summer months is the whole family enjoying a Sunday picnic by the side of the road while monsieur dismounts his motor and spreads the parts around the grassy greensward. Usually he can't fit them all back together again -- there always seem to be several left over. Too often the vehicle and family must ignominiously be towed home behind a garage repair truck.
According to one manufacturer at the Salon du Bricolage, tools are revered like art objects by hardware store freaks who keep buying every new gadget even if they haven't a clue how to operate it. An impressive assemblage of collector's items may range from canoe glue for the nonexistent canoe to hollow cleft sticks to send secret dispatches like the famed journalist in Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop."
One of the main attractions at the most recent bricolage exposition proposed offbeat ideas for the garage, aside from the obvious purpose of keeping an automobile in it. Latest schemes involved kicking the car out of doors to fend for itself against the elements while the garage is transformed into anything from a gymnasium to a swimming pool, mushroom garden, miniature zoo, or an air raid shelter. Enthusiasts also point out that almost any damp, dark cellar can go through the same metamorphosis.
Prefabricated swimming pools measuring about 20 by 9 feet are available in kits selling for about 15,000 francs. The metal side panels can be set up in a few hours time and the plastic liner filled with a garden hose. Scatter some sand on the floor, install an electric fan blowing through a tall palm tree (real or realistically made of platic), and presto: an instant seaside resort at your doorstep!
An even more ambitious project urges building your own sailboat in the garage. It's another "kit" deal. A moth-class boat, measuring 11 feet long, comes complete with sails for 4,200 francs. If one has a two-car garage, which is relatively rare in France, one can presumably combine the swimming pool and boatyard side by side, eventually testing the seaworthiness of the boat in the pool.
A French aristocrat bearing the title of Chevalier, a knight directly descended from the medieval crusaders, is an ardent handyman and jack of all trades. Lionel LeGrand putters endlessly in the small garage adjacent to his weekend house in the Marne, about 40 minutes drive from Paris. He owns three lawn mowers, seemingly enough to cope with less than an acre of garden, but he's getting very bored with mowing the grass and is all set to embark on grander projects. He parks his chic little British car in the unpaved country lane outside the stone wall surrounding the property while he rearranges the garage in a new wave of enthusiasm after a recent visit to the bricolage salon.
Three ideas are under serious consideration: building the small boat to sail down the estuary of the River Marne, which flows at the end of the garden; constructing a little plane from a US kit, also on display at the exposition; or embarking on mushroom culture. The plane, a sort of motorized hang glider which closely resembles several of the Wright Brothers' earliest efforts, ranks third on the list of priorities.
"I'll probably make a mess of everything," he candidly admits. "Americans practically invented these do-it-yourself schemes, and they are really much handier than the French. Last year on a business trip to the 'States' I tried for days to make an appointment with the president of a major retailing store in Chicago. The man's secretary told me I couldn't see him for a week. He was home redoing the entire plumbing in his house."