Getting work done, as distinct from doing it yourself, isn’t easy in rural France. The job is either too big or too small. It took Louisa and me at least three years to find a contractor willing to build an extension onto the end of our house. There was much shrugging, chin-stroking and Ooo-là-là-ing on the part of the local artisans, following by assurances that they would get back to us as soon as possible, but not before the summer and perhaps not until the following spring. 

In the end, it all worked out. Jean-Yves, locally based and strong as a horse, and his mate Damian, from nearby Bulat-Pestivien, took on the job and after six weeks of hard labour presented us with the room – windowed all round, with French doors leading out onto the terrasse – in we spend our evenings and entertain visitors. It was expensive – a shade over 35,000 euros including carpentry, but worth every penny. 

Two further jobs now beckoned. We needed a new front door. The old one, as thin as tissue paper, was at least fifty years old, only held together by the layers of paint – pillar-box red – that I applied every two years or so. And, now that we thought of it, a glass door between the original living room (now my office) and the new extension made sense, especially for the winter months when heat retention is a must. Having been well pleased with a set of new windows installed in 2017 by a firm in Carhaix, some 10 miles away, we supposed that the same experts would come up with a couple of doors in a matter of weeks. 

Not so. Jamon, the representative who came to assess our needs was sorry – désolé – but the opening  between our salon and the extension was not of a standard width, meaning that our sought-after glass door would have to be made-to-measure at a cost twice that of our recently acquired Bosch washing machine. 

We demurred (and I am not a man to whom demurring comes easily). What, though, of the front door? Sharp intake of breath. Well – not to say, alors – the problem here was that the frame around the door, surmounted by a small pane of frosted glass, was rotten and would have to be replaced, which was a mornings’ work in itself. I see. Go on! Jamon got out his calculator and showed us the result: €2,697, including VAT. 

We sighed and signed. This was last November and we are still waiting for the door, the price of which has in the meantime risen by just short of two hundred euros. It will apparently be installed at a date yet to be fixed in July. We can’t wait, except, of course, that we will. 

But now we get to the good part of my story, where real people live. Not only did we need a new front door, we also wanted a window in our bathroom. In fact, we have wanted a bathroom window ever since we bought our house, as a holiday home, in 1999. The only problem was that we couldn’t find anyone to do the job. It was tricky and hard work and not really worth the sweat involved. Hmm. But then, about three months ago, our new German neighbour, Bertie – with whom I now play pétanque – introduced us to his pal Peter, a builder from the Rhineland, who said he would do the job the next time he came to visit, probably in a couple of months’ time. 

No rush, we said. After nearly a quarter of a century, we could happily wait as long as it took. Nor were we in the least concerned when the two months became three, then four. What we weren’t reckoning on was Bertie’s entirely misplaced sense of guilt. Last Saturday, he turned up on our doorstep with Thomas, another new arrival from Germany, who is a builder by trade. The two of them, he said, would be back on Monday morning to install our missing window.

Well, blow me down! 

Thomas is a lovely bloke, newly retired from running his own business in Darmstadt. He has a mountain of work ahead of him renovating his own, newly bought house just up the road from us, but for some reason he was more than happy to knock out a window for us, with Bertie as his boy. 

I don’t know if you appreciate the complexity of cutting a hole more than a metre square in a solid wall three metres off the ground. First, a scaffolding tower had to be assembled, then a lintel and sill bought, together with cement, silicone and God knows what else. By ten o’clock on Monday morning, Thomas was hard at work, wielding an enormous Bosch drill. The concentration and sheer physical effort was extraordinary. Eight hours later, covered in dust and debris, he finally broke through, letting light into the darkness. 

As fetcher and carrier, Bertie was almost equally busy, scurrying around, delivering hammers, drill bits and coffee while I, as a septuagenerian with a gammy leg, looked on in awe. How Thomas managed to lever the heavy lintel into place above his head, and how Bertie managed to hoist it up to him, I will never know, but I was put in mind of the medieval masons who built Europe’s cathedrals.

And the evening and the morning were the first day. 

On day two, the task was to render the exposed stonework and install the actual window, bought months before from France’s biggest suppliers, Leroy Merlin. Bertie was now required to mix cement and mortar at a rate of knots while Thomas, from both inside and outside the house, got busy with all manner of tools and a spirit level before finally positioning the glass in its metal frame and pronouncing the job a good one. 

Which it was. You will probably not be surprised to learn that my two new pals have refused to take any money for the work they did. We will, naturally, ply them with fine wines and treat them and their wives to a slap-up tea. But even then, both meister and assistent were adamant that we should eat locally, not somewhere special. What they had done, they said, was as friends helping out a neighbour. Even as I confront the rubble left behind, I am humbled and full of gratitude. My wife can now relax in the bath and look out at the blue skies of summer. I call that a result. 

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