Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Tale of a Septic Tank and Spancy Man


It was with some surprise that we received a letter from SPANC (Service Public d’Assainissement Non Collectif) on my birthday, 23rd September to advise us that “Le Technicien du SPANC” (hereinafter referred to as Spancy man) wished to visit to inspect the fosse septic (septic tank) on Monday 19th October at 3pm.

I wonder if this is the most original birthday greeting I have ever received. We were surprised to receive notification of this proposed visit so soon after the installation of a new system, the tale of which goes something like this…..

We bought our house in France in 2003 and soon discovered there were European Grants available to install new fosse septiques for people with properties bordering on rivers.

The existing Fosse was supposedly functioning well, but as this was a whole new way of waste disposal for us, we decided to proceed with the Grant application, which would pay 50% of the cost. This is probably the only time when the Government has offered to give us anything.

Completing the paperwork and submitting a Devis (French estimate for the work to be done) was exhausting, but approval for the work was given within a couple of months. We had found a Company, which was English run, but employed French labour. This seemed the best compromise, as although we wished to support French tradesman, it was necessary to be able to communicate effectively with the people doing such important work.

On the appointed day in early 2004, the workmen arrived and Monsieur Darling was delighted to see that awe inspiring and allegedly fantastic big boys’ toy that is known as a ‘Hitachi crawler excavator’ trundle onto our property. The whole process of digging holes, laying pipes for a filteringy~soakway malarkey and the ceremonious burying of a 5000-litre collection tank took about five days.

The digger man, Tony, a delightful Yorkshire chap, had us in hoots talking to the Maire’s office, arranging inspections at various stages, in perfect French with a Yorkshire accent.

At one stage, the digger hit a main inlet water pipe and with a combination of various words, in English and Yorkshire French, all work stopped. Rushing to the front gate Tony started looking at the tarmac on the road, then as we all gaped at the torrent of water rushing down the drive, he thankfully revealed his inner thoughts and asked where the stopcock was. (water still flowing)

We had no idea so he contacted the Maire and requested assistance as soon as possible. He was told that help would be immediate BUT after the centuries old French custom of the two-hour lunch break (water still flowing) we did not hold our breath. Fortunately, the local water board people arrived within an hour to intending to stem the flow; particularly cross~making as we are on a water meter.

So there we are, watching this water board man expert, who has now adopted the looking at the tarmac pose, and then he asks us where the stopcock is! ([the water still flowing)
Eventually, M .Darling, Tony and the water boardy man eventually decided to put a new stop cock in (thankfully the water then stopped flowing). How many men does it take to turn off the water?

At this stage, it is worth pointing out that statutory services, in the event of an emergency in France respond, in our experience, very quickly.

A contrite Tony continued to dig his trenches with great care and precision, whilst continually warned to watch out for the slightest obstacle which appeared. Thankfully, his brilliant sense of humour, and no doubt the cheque at the end of the work kept his spirits up.

Allegedly grown men, including M. Darling, desperate to play with this big Tonka toy, all offered immediately when he asked someone to move the digger whilst he did something else. It was so funny seeing grown men jumping up and down, waving their hands in the air, demanding “me, me, me” and glaring at their competitors.

I am delighted to say M. Darling won by saying “but I live here!” This will remain one of the highlights of his life. I suppose this does not say much for his current life experiences or excitements.

At the time of all this shenanigans, we had friends, John and Jenny, staying with us. They too were fascinated by the work involved to safely dispose of effluent, and watched amazed as the waltz of the digger continued around the garden.

Various different inspectors arrived, the first one said we had to have a grease trap so we bought and installed one for about £50. The second inspector was not at all interested in a grease trap and said it was not necessary. This was our first experience of the alleged myth that the French invented bureaucracy and then do their best to circumnavigate it. (It is interesting to note that bureau is French for office, so my translation of bureaucracy is crazy, cracy or crappy office, kinda relevant I suppose).

Finally, the day arrived to connect the new Fosse and seal off the existing one. I dread to think what is lurking in the old one, but suppose it will provide food for thought, or something, for archaeologists of the future.

Tony advised us not to flush loos, turn on taps until he gave the all clear. Typical of a middle aged, menopausal women, someone had to use the loo at an inappropriate time. I am not the guilty one on this occasion. Jenny was desperate to visit the loo and, as she told us later, she repeated the mantra whilst going about her business, which I hasten to add, was the complete set. “I will not flush, I will not flush”. I can only suspect that a flushing of a different type occurred and, yes, she did flush the loo.

The first we knew of this was a scream from upstairs from Jenny, followed by Tony, who was disconnecting and reconnecting the pipes to the new fosse, uttering the now immortal words, “Bloody hell I didn’t come to France to be shat on”

As you can imagine, Jenny was absolutely mortified and could not apologise enough, to us I point out, not to the victim of the shatting, and she refused to come out of the house until Tony had left. He had seen the funny side of it, and merely asked for a shovel to bury, without ceremony, the offending delivery, which now means a unique part of Jenny lives in a French field forever. Unfortunately, Jenny still blushes at the memory of her misdemeanour,

At the end of the job, three people from the Maire came to inspect the work and sign off the papers. We only had to wait for about 6 months for our €5000 refund as part of the Grant agreement, not bad I suppose for France.

All in all, I can report that the fosse has been a roaring success; we never realised it could be such an amazing topic of conversation. Visitors are reminded not to put anything, which has not passed through their body down the loo, and we have had no problems. The garden area has regrown and all is well.

So…. back to this week, it was with some interest that we awaited the arrival of Spancy Man and M. Darling located and cleared the necessary places. At the appointed time, we waited for spancy man to come… and waited…. and waited.

The following morning I rang Spancy man’s office to find out what had happened, and a nice lady told us he had forgotten us and he had now “exited for the land”. She said he would call us back about a new appointment. Surprisingly he rang about an hour later, obviously not finding the land that interesting. He said he would arrive at 3pm that day. I said that was not convenient, gotta put up a bit of a fight, he agreed to come between 1.30 and 2pm.

He arrived at about 2pm. We hesitated shaking his hand, but assumed he had some cleansing products available. We were disappointed that he did not whip a pair of disposable marigolds from his briefcase. He checked the two big round holes, and the two smaller square holes. He said he was happy with his viewing and settled on a garden chair to complete the paperwork.

I asked him if he was inspecting every fosse in the village and he said no, just ours. When I queried this he just smiled and shrugged; very odd, as the letter clearly stated the Maire had, following a law in 1992, the responsibility to inspect all the fosse septiques in their commune, which is why SPANC had been created.

Paranoia often rules in times of specific selection by French fonctionnaires. Our village is very old, both the houses and residents, and we doubt if the neighbours even have a modern fosse, let alone one to be inspected, or inspectable.

I also asked about his letter, saying he was due the previous afternoon, again a shrug, and an explanation that the letter was wrong. Why can’t these people apologise I wonder? They do not rule the World, yet.

He completed about five pages of twaddle and asked me to sign. He offered me his pen, which I accepted, as I did not wish to appear churlish. He then left and shook our hands. I immediately washed mine in antibacterial soap, but wondered what a forensic examination of his car steering wheel and indeed his own body would produce; doesn’t bear thinking about really. No overalls, no gloves, no protective mask for his inspection of the fetid fosse.

Oh and I also noticed a damp patch on the garden chair he had used; whilst not casting aspersions on Spancy man, it was a little strange, but a bit of bleach spray rectified the possible spillage.

But hey ho.. Poo Patrol Spancy man was happy, so we are too.