Drips, leaks and blocked drains in chic Paris

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Visitors to Paris cannot fail to admire the city's architecture. Cream-coloured stone, wrought-iron balcony railings, shuttered windows... street after street of elegant symmetry. But inside life may not be as comfortable as it looks, warns the BBC's Hugh Schofield.

The first sign of trouble was water trickling down the bedroom door jamb. Water always seeks the line of least resistance - so Niko tells me (he's the plumber) - so when it pools under the upstairs floorboards, it first finds a little nook where wood meets plaster then it sends in the troops. When the water comes from a leaking pipe and the upstairs owners are away for several days, then there can be quite a reservoir waiting to descend.

Today my bedroom walls are still a wreck.

Then there was the old lady two floors up with a faulty washer. Slow leak, but she's doddery and didn't see a thing. The water flowed through the building on the outside of the downpipe. My first inkling was when I noticed a huge bulge in my son's bedroom ceiling. It is - was - a false ceiling made out of some stretchy material and it sagged like a balloon. With Laurel and Hardy-esque idiocy, I pierced it with a carving knife while standing underneath.

After that there were rumblings in the actual shower-room, and a murky miasma began gurgling up from the depths, like something in a Stephen King novel. I took to bailing it into the sink until I realised it was just going round in circles and coming up again in the shower. It would subside for a time and I'd think the blockage had cleared, but then a few days later up it returned, debouching on to the floor, buckling the parquet. I called a man who came with a machine parked way out on the street and a 50m hose. He drilled a hole in the downpipe and fired the hose down. He looked concerned as nothing happened for a while, and then - "Aaaah!" A smile of relief. What was it? A rat? A pair of socks? A human head? We'll never know.

I'll bore you if I go on with this litany. Suffice to say that since then there's been the washing machine upstairs, and then a week or two ago another dodgy pipe - both occasioning more pooling in the ceiling, more crumbling plasterwork. It's all covered by the insurance, but the problem is at this rate the work will never get done. It takes months for the damp to get out of the brick, but every time it's nearly ready, the whole thing gets another dousing.

The only good to come out of it all is meeting Niko, and through him I've discovered a host of interesting peculiarities about Paris plumbing.

I sort of knew it anecdotally but it's true: most leaks in Paris take place in August. Why? Well, it's because the city is half empty. The pressure from the mains is the same, but there are far fewer people using taps, and thus relieving that pressure. So the chances of a joint popping are all the higher. We also had an interesting chat about sanibroyeurs, which are still surprisingly common. Sanibroyeurs are machines Parisians use when they install lavatories in places where they're not supposed to go - i.e. with an outlet pipe of insufficient gauge, like a couple of centimetres. In order for this to function, the… errr… material has to be rendered as it were less... lumpy. So the sanibroyeur uses a blade and electricity to chop up the deposits so that they can pass down the tube.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Life was simpler before plumbing, at least for the rich

But the bigger point about my own plumbing problems is actually quite telling. Because what's really going on is that the state of the housing stock in Paris - or a lot of it - is very very poor. My building for example is a century old, but nothing has been replaced - except in utter emergency. When they do take out bits of old pipe, it's frightening how dilapidated they are. "Mais c'est de la dentelle," one of my neighbours keeps saying. "It's like lace!"

And the reason why nothing's replaced is that… there's no money. People are poor. My neighbours' flats may be worth a lot of money, but they have very little. I've seen one of them going through the rubbish.

And the cost of building work - inflated by France's notoriously high labour costs, and by cosy arrangements that keep out new competitors like the Poles - is exorbitant. My "co-propriete" - that's the co-owners syndicate - will never vote for major renovation.

It's a classic sign of an unhappy economy. Work not done. And leaks.

More from the Magazine

In the apartment blocks of Paris, amid the echoing floors and antique parquet, bitterness and hostility are thriving, writes Joanna Robertson.

Nightmare Neighbours: Behind the chic facades of French apartment blocks

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