One of the periodic frustrations of living in the Provençal countryside is that phone services and electricity are prone to give up the ghost fairly frequently. Since 2004, when I began to live here full time, the phoneline has always stopped working for a day or two after heavy rain. “Won’t be able to call or email you tomorrow” I’ll tell a friend, ”there’s a lot of rain forecast.”
Often the line goes dead for no apparent reason. Once your Livebox stops showing the steady little green light and starts flashing a little red one, you know you’re in for several weeks of trouble. Since your fixe (landline phone) and internet both depend on the Livebox, you can find yourself stuck up a track in a forest without internet or telephone for weeks on end. Since I’m the only person on the planet not to use a mobile phone, bang goes my entire communication system.
In 2009 when my line stopped working, it took 6 weeks and 7 visits by 14 young France Telecom subcontractors to restore the service. They persistently turned up without ladders, so they couldn’t work on the line attached to the top of a post. Cynical I may be, but I guess that France Telecom pay these subcontractors every time they turn out to a client’s home. Therefore they have every incentive to turn up, find an excuse not to fix the line and come back a few days later. Rinse and repeat.
The last time they fixed the line, instead of connecting the cable in the air between two posts, they left it draped across hundreds of yards of my neighbour’s land, on the ground, among wild herbs, flowers and shrubs. “It’s a temporary repair” the young technician said. “So I see. D’you think the permanent repair can be made soon?” I asked. He shrugged. “Insh’allah” he replied. So, here we are in France in the 21st century and I have to rely on allah for my phone service.
Repeated pleas to a France Telecom manager to connect the cable properly had zero result. At one point, he told my neighbour that I had to make a complaint (it was my phone service) and told me that she had to make a complaint (it was her land). The fact that we’d both made the complaint, several times, achieved nothing.
Over the months, the cable moved around in shrubs swayed by the mistral. Passing wild pigs no doubt picked their way across it and the local shepherd got annoyed because he couldn’t let his sheep graze around it in case they inadvertently tugged it loose and disconnected me. I don’t suppose I’m the only customer in Provence to worry, when I spot a wild boar, that my phone line may go down or to feel guilty that the local sheep can’t graze because I need to use the internet.
Eventually the inevitable happened and the cable trailing on the ground got tugged by wind or beast and disconnected from the telephone pole. When the service went off I wondered out to inspect the cable and found the end of it lying wrapped round a small pine tree.
France Telecom promised to send a team to repair it yesterday but they didn’t turn up and reported that they couldn’t find the house. Silly, really, as they’ve visited many times. Still, they’ll be paid to try and find it again in a few days… Meanwhile, the girl at the FT depannage service told me darkly that the line has been tested and the problem is beaucoup plus compliqué than I think. Not being a telecoms engineer, I can’t really comment but it certainly looks quite simple to me. The cable is disconnected from the pole.
I have a friend who lives nearby whose service was off for nearly three months this year. It worked intermittently at first – two minutes on, five minutes off, ten minutes on, three minutes off…. Each time it came on, she’d scramble to call FT customer service to report the fault. Naturally, the reply each time was that the line seemed to be working perfectly well at that moment so there was nothing they could do. By the time the problem was resolved she’d spent over 1000 euros on a clé 3G, on internet cafés, and calls to FT and Orange. She absolutely had to have internet access for her work. France Telecom offered her a refund of her subscription amounting to 180 euros and she’s currently discussing the issue with the ombudsman.
It’s not just France Telecom that has trouble providing a service in rural areas either. Electricity supply can be a patchy affair. The electricity tends to go off during a storm whether there’s rain or not. Sometimes it comes back on quietly, of its own accord. Once, the pole got struck by lightning and a squad of handsome men turned up like circus acrobats, with impressive gear – harnesses, ropes, power tools - and reconnected the supply within days. EDF just contacted me this week though, with a new problem. My electricity counter apparently hasn’t counted my electricity consumption since 2010. They’d continued to send me estimated bills all through 2011 and I’d continued to pay them. But when they sent a bloke to read the real figure in December 2011, it was the same number that showed in November 2010. The dial simply stopped turning a year ago. I was asked to call this number and that to have an engineer turn out and fix it. After a morning of getting nowhere, a young girl at EDF told me she couldn’t send a guy out because there was a general systems failure in the EDF offices. OK. So I wrote them a letter saying that when the current goes off it’s my problem but now the counter’s stopped turning it’s their problem. They can send an engineer whenever they like since the counter is outside the house. Voilà – and we’ll see how quickly they turn up to fix it.
Friends tell me that I’m quite wrong to think there’s anything particular about power and phone supplies in the countryside in Provence. One friend told me her boyfriend had a problem with his phone line and internet service last year and it was three full months before FT got it fixed. ”And think of where he lives” she said. Bang slap in the middle of Marseille. The second biggest city in France.