Money Flying Up the Flue: Chimney Maintenance in Paris
- Published on Wednesday, 30 January 2013 00:00
- Written by David Jaggard
What’s Long, Hollow, Dirty and
If you own one of these, you have to shovel cash into it. In a sense.
I never really thought about chimneys until I moved to Paris. Like everyone else, I had sat in front of the occasional roaring fire, dimly aware that there was this long, hollow, flameproof pipe running from the top of the fireplace to the roof somewhere, but it never crossed my mind that one day a chimney would figure in my life as a responsibility, an expense and an item on my must-do list.
Then Nancy and I bought an apartment in Paris, and started learning about all the little, and some not so little, obligations that homeowners have. It’s a long list, including, in no particular order, taking out property insurance, paying quarterly fees to the building management company, attending owners meetings, tipping the concierge before summer vacation and Christmas and trying to figure out which neighbor makes that loud, weird noise during sex.
Oh, and getting the chimney swept once a year. Most old buildings in Paris, including ours, have fireplaces in every sizable room because, of course, burning wood was once the main source of heat, back in the days when candles were the main source of light, horses were the main source of locomotion and imagination was the main source of pornography. And toilet paper.
Of course, a fireplace has to have a chimney, and a chimney has to be cleaned regularly to remove the soot that slowly builds up, eventually clogging the flue with a foul-smelling, greasy residue. Unfortunately for the French, sprinkling perfume under the andirons doesn’t solve the problem. So a city ordinance was passed, and still stands today, stipulating that Parisians who use their fireplaces must have their chimneys swept annually.
The idea is not so much to prevent smoke backup in apartments that are probably already steeped in cigarette fumes anyway, but to avoid chimney fires. Apparently, if your apartment burns and the flames spread to your neighbors’ place via your sooty, filthy, unswept chimney, your insurance company will not pay for the damage.
Or at least this is what the chimney maintenance companies claim. Several times a year, a notice is posted in my building announcing that sweeping service X will be in the neighborhood on date Y, and anyone who needs a good reaming, so to speak, can call number Z for an appointment.
This, of course, is cause for great alarm. Chimney sweeps in France are viewed with distrust. Their image is less like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins and more like Steve Buscemi in Fargo. Essentially because they’re low-paid strangers who come into your home, they are constantly suspected of being dishonest in one way or another.
Supposedly, if you don’t watch them every second, they’ll clean the chimney badly (or not at all) or charge you too much (or both). Or, to hear some people tell it, they’ll clean your apartment of any valuables they can find and then give your building’s access code to their friends, all of whom are burglars, who will soon come and finish the job.
I have never heard of anyone actually getting fleeced by one of these alleged wolves in sweep’s clothing, but I did unmask a (sort of) dishonest chimney cleaner a few years ago.
One August, when the concierge was on vacation and no one was watching who came into the building, a notice appeared on the outside door for a chimney service. Thinking it odd (and suspicious) that a tradesman would want to come around when nearly everyone is gone, I copied down the company’s name, address and trade-register number and looked them up on the Internet.
All three were fake — there was no such company listed anywhere, and the address did not exist. So I took the flyer to the nearest police station. The policewoman I talked to also thought that where there’s smoke there’s a liar, so she called the cell phone number shown on the sheet — the only thing that turned out to be genuine — and invited the man who answered to come in for a little chat.
And then invited me to stay until he showed up. I was intending just to drop off the flyer, share my suspicions and get out of there, but the police needed a civilian, namely me, to file the complaint, and they insisted, rather emphatically and persuasively, that I stick around.
Time went by, but eventually the flue flusher showed up. He was a real chimney sweep all right, with the grubby clothes, the long articulated brush and even the old caved-in hat.
My impression was that he was probably not a criminal, but just a working stiff trying to scratch out a little income who hadn’t bothered to set up his business properly. But, as the cops pointed out, if he wasn’t officially registered, his receipts were worthless and his customers’ insurance would be voided in case of a fire. So indeed, unlike his brush, he was not on the up and up.
After interrogating him for some time in the next room, the officers in charge decided to press the investigation, but then announced that they couldn’t take my testimony in that particular office (no reason given — maybe all the pencils were getting dull), so they loaded both me and the suspect into a paddy wagon and drove us halfway across town to a bigger station house.
All of this took several hours, which amounted to several hours more of my time than it was worth to catch someone who was simply going through channels without going through channels, as it were.
In any case, I finally gave my statement, and when I left the guy was still in custody. Then two days later I saw more of the exact same flyers around the neighborhood, with the exact same fraudulent information, so I guess he got off with a warning and went right back to his life of grime. He probably spent less time in the hands of the law than I did.
Furthermore, he was probably more honest than the guy from another sweeper service who knocked on my door about six months later and started giving me a hard sell. According to him, even though Nancy and I never use our fireplace, we had to have the chimney cleaned anyway, preferably by him, because “air pollution gets inside the flue and you end up breathing that pollution.”
How this was any different from breathing any other Parisian air was not clear to me. But it started me thinking: I had no idea how much the previous occupants had used the fireplace. For all I knew, it was caked five inches deep with insurance-voiding sludge.
And thus, motivated less by the specter of respiratory failure and more by the chunks of crumbly black crud that fell out onto the hearth once in a while, I decided to get the old conduit done at last. But not by Mr. Air Quality — I asked our building manager for a recommendation.
I was expecting it to be a long, arduous, dirty process, sort of like reporting a spurious service provider to the police, but when the flue crew showed up, it turned out to be quite simple: one of them held a tarp in front of the fireplace while his partner climbed up on the roof, lowered a cylindrical metal brush on a chain down the chimney and shook it around for a couple of minutes.
Net result: a few tiny bits of soot (it was surprisingly clean). And a bill for €80, which I figure came to about €7.50 per soot hunk. And, in case an insurance adjustor or irate, ash-smudged neighbor ever needs to see it, an official certificate with a little notary-like seal on it asserting that I have indeed had my duct de-mucked by certified professionals.
So it’s done. I have fulfilled my duty as a homeowner. I can now sleep soundly. As least when the dude in 3C isn’t making that god-awful noise.
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Reader Margo Berdeshevsky writes: "You may sleep soundly, David, but I'll say this: never, never, never open the door unless you know your good Papa is there. Alas, there are more tales of evil chimney sweeps than croissants on the bakery shelf. I'll be conservative. The one who pulled a knife on my neighbor (true, she should never have opened her door) and forced her down the stairs to a money machine. She let him in because through the peephole he looked so young. When he was finally caught, he blamed the gypsies for putting him up to it. Or the one who somehow bypassed the door code in my building, entered and was ringing every bell, up and down the stairs. I knew there was a woman who spoke very little French caring for two young children overhead. I ran down and begged our guardienne to accompany me. We bravely climbed the stairs. The door of the flat with the young children was ajar, the woman had not understood why he was there, the children were crying. He appeared at the door on the inside and challenged me to get lost. I said, 'I'll call the cops. You have no right to be here!' He said, 'Just try.' I ran downstairs and bolted my door. An hour later I discovered there was no water in my apartment; he had left and had managed to turn the key to cut off water on our entire side of the building. 'Revenge!' said the guardienne. The police said, 'Call the water company." I did. They came to restore the water and to insist that no one but themselves had such a key. Insert 'sad face.' Okay. that's two tales. Not counting the three others: one who gave a false certificate and had nothing but a brush under his arm; one who told me through the shut door, which I refused to open, that I should die from asphyxiation and gas poisoning; and one who came on the recommendation of the co-owners' association, at last. (Never, never, never take one without a recommendation.) That one came, 'comme il faut,' with his buddy and lots of equipment, and they sang to each other, one with his head stuck in my fireplace, the other on the roof, and they sounded like doubles for Les Frères Jacques. I had a clean chimney, paid my money and shut the door until next year."
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