With the arrival of a new administration in the United States and a presidential election looming here in France, it’s difficult not to be thinking about politics. But somehow I manage. Lately I’ve been thinking instead about planned, or just thoughtless, obsolescence.
This line of reflection began a couple of weeks ago when I was taking a bath and the “hot” index button on my tub’s tap suddenly disappeared. (Actually, the button says “chaud,” but you get the idea.) It had split into multiple pieces and fallen into the water, leaving a gaping hole in the faucet handle.
Not wishing to go through life with a disfigured faucet, I fished out the broken bits and noted, not without interest, that although the tap itself, which is about 10 years old, is of course made of hard, durable, rustproof steel, the hot and cold buttons in the handles are made of cheap, breakable, nothing-proof plastic. Obviously, they were never going to last anywhere near as long as the device of which they are a permanent part.
Note to literature professors who use “C’est Ironique” as a coursework model for their PhD students: the keywords in the previous sentence are “obviously,” “anywhere” and “permanent.”
So, just as obviously, the solution would be to replace them.
Note to Parisian readers suffering from the winter blahs who think that hearing a whole roomful of people laughing hysterically will cheer them up: translate this column into French, take a printout to a plumbing supply store and read it out loud, from the beginning through “replace them,” to the staff.
As clairvoyants, plumbers and readers who followed my instructions in that last note have already figured out, this proved to be impossible.
Since I’m such a note nut, here’s one for readers who are sensitive to gender stereotypes: this is a home repairs story and, for better or worse, the next section has a lot of guys in it. Just thought you’d like to know.
Armed with the fragments of my former chaud stopper, I went to my (convenient) neighborhood hardware store, where the guy told me to try the (professional) plumbing supply showroom five blocks away, where the guy told me to try the (immense) DIY section of the BHV department store downtown, where the guy told me to try a (nationally known and respected) spigot specialist on the other side of Paris, where the guy told me to go caulk myself.
Well, not exactly. What he actually told me was that they only carried replacement buttons for certain brands of taps, and mine wasn’t one of them.
When I showed him a photo of mine and asked what brand it was, so I could try the manufacturer directly, he didn’t know. (And it’s not marked on the fixture itself.)
When I asked if I could buy a different brand of buttons and try to make them fit, he guaranteed me that it would never work.
When I asked if there was any way in hell or a Sartre play to order anything that might solve my problem at any cost, monetary, human or environmental, he said no.
When I asked if he thought it made any sense to have one fragile, friable component in a fixture meant to last for decades, he said he didn’t know.
When I asked if he buys a new car every time he gets a flat tire, he told me to go ballcock myself.
So I never was able to replace my index buttons and my faucet looks (permanently) like crap — I glued the broken one back together as well as I could, but I didn’t do much better than all the king’s horses.
On the bright side, I learned some new French vocabulary from the experience. The word for “faucet handle” is croisillon, the term for index button is pastille de température and the expression for “#&£%@!” is #&£%@! (same word, but with the accent on “%@”).
And it’s a good thing I learned that expression, because I might be needing it more often come June. This is because, as alluded to above, France is having a presidential election in May (I didn’t say I never think about it) and the early frontrunner is the radical extreme right candidate.
Of course, since French politics embraces more parties than Lindsay Lohan, we have to have two rounds of voting to pick a president, and coming out ahead in the first round is no guarantee of winning.
In France, as I explained during the last presidential election, political parties come and go like “Jeopardy” contestants, often formed to back a single candidate. We even have one centrist in this year’s race who’s running with no party at all, and doing quite well in the polls.
The disadvantage of this “hey, where’s the party?” system is that it’s confusing for voters, who forget which box to check on the ballot; for journalists, who forget which way to sling the mud; and for elected politicians, who keep sitting in the wrong chairs in the legislature.
The advantage is that it’s also confusing for Russian hackers, who keep losing track of whom to attack.
Which might explain why so far, on the political scene, France has yet to shoot itself in the foot, like its largest Anglophone neighbor to the north. Or in the head, like its largest Anglophone neighbor to the west.
But now’s our chance – we have a candidate who wants to do both! The far-right contender, who shall remain nameless here except to say that in Opposite World her name would be Terrestrial Le Teller, wants France to pull out of the EU, NATO and the realm of human decency, sealing the borders, ejecting all the slow-running immigrants, declaring xenophobia an art form and generally pursuing a selfish, short-sighted “France first” policy.
Gee whiz, why does that sound so familiar? To stack the parallels even thicker, she’s also suspected of having shadowy support from our largest Russophone neighbor to the east. On the other hand, her hair looks pretty good.
But not as good as the hair of the panhandler who sits outside my bakery every day, who has also been on my mind recently. She has replaced a guy I wrote about a few years ago, a beggar who, I found out, was spending what must have been a measurable percentage of his hard-cadged cash on breath mints.
And not only has she taken over his workstation, she is also perpetuating his professional practices: she too blows money on what seem to me like discretionary purchases for a mendicant.
For starters, like so many French store clerks, receptionists and brain surgeons, she spends most of the workday talking on her cellphone. And on top of that (literally), a week ago I saw her in a nearby supermarket buying (see if you can guess how this sentence ends…) hair dye. And taking a long time to pick exactly the right shade.
Naturally, even beggars are free to spend their money however they want, and hair colorant is arguably a more sensible choice than some of the other items of ninth necessity that she could have bought, like rotgut whisky, rotbladder beer or Rottweiler wine. Still, I wonder if her priorities are as straight as her budget is straitened.
I offer this ramble about plumbing, politics and panhandling as a parable for the French electorate, whom I hope will learn from the USA’s recent mistake. Which means that readers who have been yearning for one more note in this article will not be disappointed…
Note to the people of France: beware of buying into a mechanism that’s supposed to last for years but turns out to have a key component that isn’t well-suited, that once installed tends to fall apart and fly to pieces, revealing itself to have been unfit for its function from the very beginning. If that happens, it might be very difficult, or even impossible, to replace.
And if it does happen, correct it quickly however you can. Don’t waste your resources trying to prettify something that’s never going to change at the root.
The next new C’est Ironique will appear on March 22.
An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.