Monday, December 31, 2007

La fosse septique

It started in the summer. We had been in the house for a few weeks when we began to notice, in the evenings at dusk when we were sitting outside on the front terrace, a smell. It came from the yard, and it was pungent and earthy. Not every night, but some nights. C. and I did not mention it to each other at first, because mentioning it to each other would mean that it was not in our imaginations. But, after a few weeks, we did own up to having smelled the smell, and then we began comparing notes.

It was not always the same strength, and seemed to wander a bit: sometimes stronger on the terrace than in the yard, sometimes stronger in the morning than in the evening. Another week or two and we confessed to each other that each of us had smelled it inside, as well, in the bathroom in the guest room. The room smelled at times like--well, like a sewer. Then one day one of us went downstairs to the basement and smelled it so strongly our eyes watered, and that was the day that we decided it was time to speak up.

I got out all of our French / English dictionaries and found that the lexicographers at most major presses do not see the need to discuss sewers in any useful detail. I had never in my previous life needed to talk at any length about sewers in English, and so figuring out how to do it in French meant starting from scratch. After comparing three printed and several more online dictionaries, the best phrase that I could come up with was mauvaises odeurs: bad smells. It did not seem, somehow, technical enough, but it was all I had to go on.

The next time M. LaChaix--Jules--trundled down our hill--it was August, and he and his family were in residence--I broached the topic with him. Sometimes outside at night and sometimes in the morning, we smell bad smells. And often in the chambre des invites there are bad smells. I hoped that he would understand that I was not talking about some bad yogurt.

A shadow crossed his tanned face. What kind of bad smells?

This was the response for which I had no French, and for which even my English, with my haute bourgeoisie Parisian landlord, would have had to rely heavily on euphemism. Since it was the middle of the day, I took him into the room in question and suggested that he smell for himself. He smelled nothing. Then we went downstairs. Still nothing. I was beginning to feel ridiculous--maybe we had been imagining it, maybe it had gone away on its own--and so, when Jules turned his attention to that day's growth of the wisteria that had been planted a few weeks before, and that he seemed to think would provide full shade on the terrace by the end of the summer if only we watered it enough, I let the matter rest. But before he went back up the terraces, he brought it up again. If you smell the bad smells again, tell me. It could be very expensive.

The bad smells were back that evening, and the next morning, and were strong enough in the guest room, where I had set up my desk, for me to move my computer to the kitchen table. This time when Jules came to smell he brought Olivier with him. We all stood around in the guest room breathing in through our noses, and this time we all smelled it. Jules and Olivier went into a huddle of rapid-fire French about the smell, going out to stand in the yard and gesture at various pipes and covers that I had seen Olivier working around. I lost the thread of their conversation after a sentence or two and wandered off, figuring that someone would fill me in later. They spent an hour or so coming in and out of the house, upstairs and downstairs, flushing toilets, turning on showers and baths, all the time gesticulating and talking and, when they saw me, looking as if there was nothing out of the ordinary happening.

M. Amavet, the plumber, came the next day. He was in his early 30s, a little plump, like he was still eating his mother's cooking every day at lunch, and very pink cheeks. His manner was courtly shading into unctuous: he bowed a little over my hand as he shook it, and then went off with Olivier and Jules to inhale here and there. Lots of gesturing and rapid French later, Jules found me and explained that it appeared that M. Amavet had routed some of the ventilation pipes for the plumbing into the basement instead of outside. That was the source of the difficulty, and M. Amavet would return the next day and rectify the error.

The next evening we were finishing dinner on the terrace when we smelled it again.

Didn't you say that the plumber came today to fix the smells? C. asked.

We looked at each other. When I saw Olivier the next morning, I told him the smells were still there. He frowned. But Amavet came yesterday to fix it.

I know. But we still smell the bad smells. More inhaling, more walking around.

This set the pattern for the next few weeks. The LaChaix went back to Paris, after Jules had come himself and smelled around for a while, and after he and Olivier had bent over holes in the yard. Jules told me to keep checking on the smells, but that they should go away with time, that they were normal, nothing to worry about. Olivier, standing there through the conversation, looked away. Once Jules and family had gone, his morning greeting to me became:

Bonjour. Ca va? Et les odeurs continuent?

And continue they did, throughout the month of August and into September. Every day, sometimes twice a day, Olivier came to check on the smells. They moved from bathroom to bathroom, sometimes stronger, sometimes fainter, but almost always present. Olivier explained to me that the smells were stronger at night because of the cooler, more humid night air. Humidity made the smells more pronounced. At some point in September it dawned on C. and me that our house was equipped with a septic tank and was not on a city sewer system: only two people who had lived their entire adult lives in American cities could move into a hillside house on a two meter-wide country lane in the south of France and not know intuitively that there had to be a septic tank someplace in the yard.

At the end of September, we had visitors for two weeks, visitors who, like us, were city-dwellers, people whose experience of sewer gas had been limited to travels in climes considerably more exotic than this one. Their visit coincided with the first rain of the season. All summer long there had been no rain. On the first Thursday our guests were with us, I watched a storm move across the valley that brought hours of rain in horizontal gusts. By that evening, the guest room smelled like someplace that Mother Teresa would have set up a hospital. And the next morning, a match struck in G.'s bathroom could have caused an explosion.

I watched for Olivier to arrive and brought him straight inside. He covered his mouth with his sweatshirt. Mon Dieu, this is the worst. He knelt on the floor of the bathroom, smelling first behind the toilet, then the shower drain, then the bathtub drain, and then doing the same in every other bathroom. I heard him on the phone with M. LaChaix, and then with M. Amavet. I knew that the wheels were turning when M. Amavet pulled up in his truck before lunch. Olivier brought him inside and we all inhaled sewer gas. Incroyable, said M. Amavet. I have never seen anything like this.

The phone rang with Jules on the other end. Is the plumber there? What does he say? Tell Olivier I am going to call him. Are you guests still there? Do they want to go and stay at my house instead?

They were; they didn't, although C. and I considered it ourselves. I took out my old copy of Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence; I hadn't read it in years, and the last time I read it, I had thought that Mayle was exaggerating. No one's house adventures could be as absurd as he described his across the way in the Luberon. Now, I lay in bed at night rereading it and found that, far from being a fictionalized account, Mayle's book was a nearly scientific report on regional home maintenance.

I met up with the English ladies for Monday morning coffee in the village and told them of our plight: smells that would have made Jean Valjean decide to turn himself in, houseguests whose American sewer system's backups had backups, a plumber who professed never to have seen anything like this before, ever. For the next few weeks, whenever I saw any of them their greeting to me was, Hullo, my dear, how's your fosse septique?

Now M. Amavet visited every day. Olivier cut holes in walls, revealing pipes that he either opened or sealed, relying on a plumbing logic that escaped me but that I had to trust. Jules phoned us regularly: were the smells still there? was Amavet coming? tell Olivier he would call later...and Olivier taught me plumbing terms. Une fosse septique: a septic tank. Un tuyau: a pipe. Un siphon: the little curvey space under a sink, which keeps the septic gas smell from coming out of the drain, otherwise known, in English, as a trap.

Regardless of what Amavet and Olivier did, the smells persisted. Our houseguests packed up and went back to America, concerned about us and marvelling at how anyone could run a country this way. We lay in bed at night with the windows open inhaling sewer gas. This was all, for us, a little like an out-of-body experience. We were watching ourselves trying to figure out the situation, trying to learn French plumbing vocabulary, trying to make our way with our landlord and his equipe while settling E. and G. in school and getting our bearings in a new country. We didn't relish the bad smells, but, for once in our lives, we didn't obsess about them, either. There was simply nothing we could do besides give Olivier and Amavet keys to our house and hope for the best.

A day came when, after yet another failed experiment in containing the smells, Olivier and I went downstairs to the basement. There is a crawl space next to the laundry room, and Olivier climbed up there and stretched out under the tuyau that led to the toilet in the guest bathroom. He cut a hole in the pipe--the toilet itself had been disconnected for weeks at this point--and stuck his head inside it, inhaling deeply. Incomprehensible, he said. The smell was still there.

When the handyman / caretaker / jack of all trades lies down in your house's crawl space and sticks his head in a septic pipe, and pronounces the problem incomprehensible, that is when you know that you have reached the nadir of a plumbing event.

Shortly after that, Jules called from Paris. He had taken desperate measures. Tired of what he termed the ignorance and foolishness of the locals, he, Jules, had phoned one of the four accredited septic tank experts in all of France, and, at great personal expense, had engaged him to come to our house the following Monday to examine the fosse. He, Jules, would make a special trip from Paris for the event, coming down just for the day so as to supervise the event and make sure that the expert's time was well spent.

It needs hardly be said that only in France would there be actual accredited septic tank experts. The mind immediately goes to some ecole nationale superieure des fosses septiques, perhaps filled with students who aced their plumbing quals and wanted to pursue the next level of education septique. And only four accredited in the country: those are some tough exams.

I met Olivier in the yard the next day and we compared notes on our conversations with Paris. Olivier was annoyed. There are four things that all Parisians are experts on, he said. Swimming pools, olive trees, fireplaces, and septic tanks. That's because everyone in Paris has a pool, an olive grove, a wood-burning fireplace, and a septic tank off the landing in the apartment building.

He was just getting started. The reason, a mon avis, that there have been all of these problems is that M. LaChaix refused to have an adequate leechfield dug for this tank. He didn't want to rent the equipment and pay for the labor, and so what he had put in was a trench. Olivier was explaining all of this to me slowly, with lots of gestures, so that I would understand the difference between a field and a trench. The soil here has a lot of clay in it, so it holds onto moisture and the moisture doesn't evaporate, and that means that the trench is not enough for the septic drainage and evaporation. What will have to happen now is what should have happened before you ever moved in: M. LaChaix is going to pay for a proper leechfield to be dug, which is what I told him he should do before, but he didn't want to spend the money. Now they will have to dig up the whole yard and it will be a mess, but maybe finally you will not have the bad smells anymore.

I asked questions--where was the trench? how big would the leechfield be? how long would it take?--and Olivier unravelled the process for me as well as he could, drawing pictures in the air and trying, I could see, to use simple words.

The day of the expert septique dawned. Jules arrived; Olivier arrived; two men to drive the backhoes arrived; the expert arrived. I made coffee for everyone and left it on the terrace, and then surreptitiously took pictures from upstairs as they all conferred in the yard. M. Amavet arrived, with his father and an apprentice, and everyone stood in the yard and talked and gestured and climbed in and out of freshly-dug holes and talked some more. A dumptruck arrived at some point in the day, filled with gravel, and parked at the top of the yard. Olivier and Jules went around the yard, Olivier carrying stakes and stopping every few feet to debate with Jules about where he should hammer them in.

Late in the afternoon, Jules came to the kitchen door and asked me if I had a few minutes to spare for him. I came outside, and he asked me for pen and paper. I went to get both, and when I came back, Jules was seated in the center of the table on the terrace and was in the act of telling Olivier to sit down at the head. I stood between them, uncertain of whether I was needed beyond the pen and paper. Olivier, seeing me, jumped up and offered me his chair; I went around the table and sat opposite Jules, who was dialing up someone on his cell phone.

Tell her what is happening, he said to Olivier. Then the person on the other end of his call answered, and Jules began asking him for a price for clean sand to line the leechfield, wholesale, of course.

Olivier leaned towards me and said quietly: What is happening is, he is going to leave in a couple of hours, and then we are going to fix the problem.

Jules, seeing that Olivier had been quick, barked: Tell her everything.

Olivier sighed. We are going to dig a leechfield; we've staked out its borders, and will begin tomorrow with the digging. Then he told me how a leechfield was designed, and, if it ever comes up, I'll be able to dig my own, although I'll need a dictionary to translate the French terms into English. In the midst of his explanation, Jules interrupted Olivier:

You have to speak to her slowly, she doesn't understand that much French. Then he turned back to his paper and his cell phone.

I had never seen a man think so clearly about clocking someone as I did then. Olivier turned to Jules with an expression of disdain leaning towards contempt, an expression that said: I talk to her every day and I know how much she understands and how much she doesn't. But Jules was back with the septic supply warehouse, getting the best price on a load of sand, and he missed it.

I went back to the leechfield. Will this make the bad smells disappear?

Olivier shook his head.

But then, will we still have bad smells after this? Do we still not know the reason for the bad smells?

No, we know the reason. Olivier thought for a moment, working out how to put the explanation into basic French. There are two pipes that go from the house to the septic tank. One takes everything from the toilets, the other takes all the other water.

Okay. I nodded.

Several different plumbers worked on the system when it was being installed. And the plumber who installed the pipe that takes the other water from the house to the septic tank forgot to put in a trap. So there is nothing to stop the bad smells from coming back up into the house.

There's no siphon? I said, wanting to make sure that I had understood.

Pas de siphon. Olivier watched me for my reaction.

Ah. Well. I understand. That explains the situation.

Olivier nodded. Yes, it does. Now we will fix it.

We left it at that. There was no need for either of us to translate what we thought.

And they did fix it. For a week we had a hole the size of a second swimming pool in the yard, as well as assorted trenches that, when I went within six feet of them, whichever Frenchman was on duty at the time warned me away from, seemingly convinced that I would fall in and break my neck and then, being American, sue him for negligence. Then the tractors and the dumptruck and the backhoes left, and Luigi came to help Olivier. Amavet looked in every day or so, and there were more conversations and more gesturing. And, slowly, the bad smells went away.

We are still a little gun shy, or, maybe, smell shy. If C. or I pick up a bad smell anywhere in the vicinity of our yard or house, we stand around obsessively inhaling for a few minutes, and then we remind ourselves that Olivier said that a new septic tank can take as much as a year to settle in and get itself regulated. Septic tanks have taken on a cultural imprint for me. I realize that I think of them in the same way as I think of baking baguettes, or writing the number 1 with a little front upswing, or knowing exactly the moment when it is appropriate to switch to 'tu' from the formal 'vous' with someone who is becoming a friend: something that will never be obvious or intuitive to me, something that is indelibly French. But the baguettes are a daily miracle for me, and I'm working on my 1's, and I watch for clues about my forms of address. And I am learning to live with, and respect, our septic tank.

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