People Find Costa Rica Frustrating….


There are, I  must admit, times when you feel like rolling your eyes, such as when you find that the lawyer responsible for the control of water use in your canton was appointed for a one year term some seven years ago and since then has been carrying on his business without having his nomination confirmed by the council.

Then you bring into consideration the fact that no one has contested his decisions – and certainly not on the grounds of total illegality – so when the council gets round to sorting it out and making him legal again there will be no practical difference.

Unless, of course, they appoint someone else….without informing the Environment Ministry or the lawyer concerned…

Let joy be unconfined!

It is a matter of studying the practicalities of life rather than the legalities when you live in Costa Rica, but I have seen some meltdowns on the Wagnerian scale among North American immigrants during the adjustment period.

I have more than a suspicion that I would not have taken things so lightly when living in France….but France goes in more for the letter of the law than the spirit.

Mark you, looking at the spirit of France, perhaps the letter of the law might be less restrictive.

All this came to mind when reading a post on a blog which I enjoy very much dealing with the renovation of a large house in the French countryside: there was a problem with the woodwork..and a potential problem with the man who was to solve it…the artisan francais.

In my experience those who were ‘living the dream’, having moved to France, were united in their praise of this specimen…repository of age old wisdom combined with the most modern techniques…

I can only suppose they had never encountered a proper tradesman in their previous lives.

Thus something I blogged about at the time:

Cometh the hour, cometh the artisan francais.

The problem is not so much the hour as the day, the week, the month, or, in some cases, the year. When will the blighter turn up? Will he ever turn up, come to that? More worrying, would it be best if he never did turn up?

The ‘artisan francais’ is the generic term for the French craftsman and covers everything from the plasterer to the local baker, but I prefer not to think about the baker at the moment, having grazed my gums on the razor sharp crust of a loaf with a lead weight interior, the result of his not following the instructions on the sack of ready mix from which he concocts his burnt offerings. I really must go to the supermarket and get some decent bread, made by guys who do follow the instructions.

All this comes to mind because this is the time of year to have the chimney swept, and I have summoned up M. Lalou and wife to come and see to it. It is a marathon job here, chimneys all over the place and no inspection traps, and they do a super job, even cleaning out the wood stove in the kitchen while they are at it. So why am I so annoyed? It is because Team Lalou cannot touch the chimney which serves the boiler and for this I have to wait for the boiler man…sorry, the ‘artisan chauffagiste’. The Lalous are perfectly capable of disassembling and reassembling whatever would be necessary, but they know and I know and, what’s more, the boiler man knows that if anything were ever to go wrong with the boiler or the chimney, the insurance would not cover the damage, as an unqualified person had intervened. I wouldn’t be too convinced that the insurance would work anyway to judge by my last experience. There was a violent storm two years ago which knocked out some bricks from a chimney stack which in turn damaged the slates on the roof. I duly descended on the bar at lunchtime, hijacked the local roofer, who calls himself Monsieur Misery because he is to be found everywhere – this is what passes for a joke in France – and sent his estimate to the insurers.

Two months later, by which time I had given up and sent M. Misery up to make the repairs to avoid further damage, the insurers smugly replied that according to the nearest meteorological station no high winds had been reported in my area and they weren’t coughing up. Their nearest meteorological station proved to be some 50 kilometres away. It wouldn’t be too much to expect that if there were to be a fire in the boiler chimney, I would be found to have used unauthorised fuel! Anyway, insurers are universal. I sincerely hope that the artisan francais is not.

The boiler man will come when he thinks fit, cancel goodness only knows how many firm appointments when richer pickings loom into sight, will do all sorts of unnecessary things and present me with a bill of eyewatering proportions. Or rather, he will send his underpaid assistant to do the work, reserving to himself the delights of making out the bill. I could not believe the first bills I received…I was paying more in the backwoods of France than I had been in central London! My senses have becomed deadened by repetition these days…the frisson of horror at the sight of the envelope from the builder is nowhere near so powerful.

Why don’t I get another boiler man? Because the artisan francais doesn’t believe in competition and one man won’t touch anything on another man’s territory. To each his prey. Further, he has a strong suspicion that if he touches the lash up the first guy made of the job, he will get the blame when inevitably it all goes for a can of worms.

To some extent I can understand their taking on work which they can never hope to carry out in a reasonable time, infuriating though it is. It is very difficult to sack an employee in France, thanks to legislation cooked up by an unholy alliance of unions and employers which may be appropriate to large enterprises but not to the little firms of electricians, plumbers, etc who also fall under its sway. Thus, even when things are booming, a little firm will not take on staff to meet the demand because if later there is a downturn, the wages of these staff will have to be paid even if there is no work for them to do.

Further, they have to pay an enormous amount to cover the social security payments for themselves and their employees, which is one of the reasons why the bill with which they present you is so exorbitant. Your money is not going to pay the workman’s wages so much as to support the immense waste and extravagance of the French social security system. There are genuine benefits, like paid time off work while ill, but there are also the parasitic elements, like the private ambulance services who are more like taxis than ambulances proper and whose bills are reimbursed by the social security budget. Sit in the waiting area of any French hospital and you will find as many ambulance drivers as patients. Many of these patients are perfectly able to go to the hospital unaided but, as the service is paid for by the state, they take full advantage. Your plumber’s bill will reflect this state of affairs.

Not every part of your massive bill is explained by circumstances outside the control of the artisan. These days, the taxman demands that his estimate and bill include every nut, bolt and widget that he proposes to use, itemised and costed. Gone are the days of ‘one septic tank and installation 50,000 francs’. This is fine for the taxman, even if the artisan has to take a lot more time concocting the fantasia with which he presents you when you ask for an estimate for repairing the gutters, but it does the client no favours.

Being a small business, there are no economies of scale. The artisan typically will have an account at the big builders’ merchants who give him a discount of ten per cent of the value of his purchases at the end of the month. As he passes on all his costs to you, he is not too worried how much he spends…that ten per cent glistens ahead of him at each purchase. Some of the brighter sparks are now buying at the discount DIY warehouses…where the quality is excellent… and pricing to the client at the builders’ merchant prices, which more than compensates them for the loss of the ten per cent.

I have just had a bill from my plumber for replacing the thermostats on my radiators. He is charging me eighteen euros for units I have priced at what I suspect to be his supplier at three euros. Everyone is happy…the warehouse has made a sale, my plumber has made a small fortune on fourteen radiators and the taxman can see fourteen units in and out of his books with value added tax duly paid. Who am I to strike a discordant note amidst all this rejoicing?

If you wish to get to know your area really well, employ an artisan to work on your house. He will start, then disappear without warning. You will have to retrieve him from all the other jobs he has started only to disappear without warning. Touring the area, you will see his van outside someone else’s house and it is now down to you to stand at the foot of his ladder if he is visible, or knock on the door and and seek audience with him if he is not. He will be a bit like the Scarlet Pimpernel

‘They seek him here, they seek him there’..

but being made of better stuff than the average French revolutionary you will dig him out of his hiding place and persuade him to return. I used to have a lovely little dog who liked to dig around the footings of ladders….he was a great force of persuasion in his time. Apart from recovering the errant artisan you will meet some very nice people…other clients on the same quest…and discover that your village is more interesting than you thought.

He has returned, and it is now that your troubles begin because he attempts to do the job for which he has contracted with you. You have clearly in mind what you want while he has clearly in mind what he proposes to do…the match will not be perfect.

I wanted an extra telephone line run into the house. It could run along a ledge which circled the house at first floor level and enter the house through a hole on the rendering to come out where I wanted it, in a room on the first floor. Invisible. I explained this, and went off to the garden. Luckily I returned before too long, to find the brute about to make a hole in the ornate plasterwork ceiling of the hall in order to bring the wire through the front door, up the stately stone staircase and along the first floor landing! To make matters worse, he proposed covering the wire with those dreadful white plastic strips that disfigure all French house interiors. Very visible, and using a lot more by way of materials for which he could charge me.

More important was the problem with the builder doing my kitchen extension. Having seen the rest of the house I knew that I needed a damp course. He prevaricated

‘We don’t have damp courses in France.’

That is self evident, you only have to look at the problems of damp in French houses. I insisted. He finally agreed and then I did something stupid. He had disappeared for while, so I went off for a week. He must have had me under surveillance because while I was away he struck. I returned to find the exterior wall in place, but no damp course. The kitchen had to be dry lined, all my kitchen measurements had to de redone and the dry lining was, of course, an addition to the bill.

He and his guys had an endearing habit of mixing a load of cement at about ten to twelve and then knocking off for two hours for lunch. The cement, now well solid, would be chipped out and dumped under any handy shrub. This is so common that there is a phrase for it..’cadeau empoisonne’…the poisoned gift. My lawnmower did not appreciate it.

Well, you might say, why do you reserve your venom for the french craftsman? There are bodgers and cowboys all over the world. Because they’re what I’m lumbered with by the French system.

According to their national assocation, you can trust the French craftsman because he is qualified and knows his stuff.

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper.

You can become a qualified whatever you want if you can show three years’ experience and can pass a course which shows you how to fill out your tax forms. I know of one expat builder who specialises in turning out suitably pre qualified workers….one week they’re drawing unemployment benefit, the next week, when the pressure from the labour exchange becomes too strong to withstand, they are roofers. Working on three storey buildings on crippleboards…the unstable wooden scaffolding what somehow becomes invisible when a labour inspector visits the site….they undertake the skilled job of replacing a slate roof. Or they become plasterers. There is another special word to describe the style of plastering they offer…’rustique’ – rustic. If you see a plastered wall with undulations visible in dim light, surreal scraper patterns and the odd lump of unmixed plaster, that is ‘rustique’.

I wouldn’t place money on the ones who have done an apprenticeship, either.

Plumbers want to leave all the pipes exposed

‘for when there is a leak’.

What do they mean…’when’!

Electricians want to festoon the walls with wires covered by white plastic strips

‘for when there is a problem’.

Why do they think I am employing them, rather than just creating the problems myself?

The only reason I will have the artisan francais on my premises is because, nomatter how bungling his work, nomatter how ugly the results, nomatter what damage he causes…here, lovers of Flanders and Swann will begin to sing ‘The Gasman cometh’ and anyone who does not know Flanders and Swann can jolly well rectify the situation…

the insurers will not pay if anyone but an artisan francais does the work.

Since, given their level of competence, there will be problems, you will need the insurers to pay.

Thus, you have to employ the artisan francais.


38 thoughts on “People Find Costa Rica Frustrating….”

  1. Hilarious and so true, even if maybe not quite so bad any more. I use the dodge of getting French guys to negotiate for me. It reduces the “scam the foreign female” nonsense, even if it doesn’t eliminate it completely. Also, thank you Schengen zone, the influx of foreign competition has helped motivate these guys into actually getting a couple of things done, not every time and not always well, as the piles of hardened concrete discretely dumped about the property will attest, but at least done, so we can all move on. My most visible electrical wiring is actually mandated by EDF, yes, for when things go wrong. My pointing out that exposed wiring is much more likely to go wrong than wiring encased in conduit and safely tucked behind a wall was met with stares and silence. At least, just for a minute, they stopped trying to con me.

    1. I remember the frisson of horror that went through the A/F community at the thought of the arrival of the Polish Plumber…bang would go their cosy cabal!

      My favourite memory of building works is running out of white cement: I had bought a supply at the Bricomarche in the large town too many miles away to make a journey to pick up one sack worthwhile so went to the builders’ merchant in the local town.
      The price of the sack – same stuff, same producer -was just under three times more than at Bricomarche, so I enquired (fairly politely for me) why there was such a difference.
      Madame had to understand (a preliminary to every attempt to rip me off in France) that this builders’ merchant only sold materials of professional quality. Thus the price difference.
      But Bricomarche sells the same thing…the very same thing…for much less.
      Madame has to understand that Bricomarche is not professional;

      I let the project wait until my next planned trip to the large town.

  2. Turks have a saying, ‘All carpenters are liers!’ It applies to all workers and is obviously universal. Back in our early days here I needed a demirci (metal worker/blacksmith). Try as I might he would always be coming tomorrow so in the end I bought a second-hand arc welder and set about learning the mysteries of creating a weld. The years have passed and does he when he can look and rue the days he didn’t keep his word and turn up to do the jobs as promised. Welding brings great satisfaction and pride in a job well done which is also the finest of revenge!

    1. We were warned by other immigrants here that we would find it impossible to find workmen….
      We don’t need to look, In Danilo’s family alone there are workmen enough to build a small town, so i haven’t yet had to learn to weld.
      What i have done is to set his younger son up with decent equipment so that he can run his own business without having to borrow the gear from his ex boss.
      And that tells you one of the reasons I like CR…the ex boss was happy to lend the gear to the young man when he wasn’t using it himself.

  3. Clearly there are advantages in the move to Costa Rica, the loss however is a daily page long blog about the characters you meet. Clearly the Costans are less blog worthy than French workers.

    1. The Neighbour? You cannot have forgotten The Neighbour?
      To be fair he has been pretty quiet recently – I think his visit to the Casino and subsequent problems with various Mr. Bigs have meant that he has had to keep his head down…

      1. Yes indeed I had forgotten the neighbour!
        He has been quiet.
        er, has there been any large bulding projects using concrete he might have ventured into perhaps..?

        1. They are repairing the bridge…after two years…and enough material is on site to reproduce the Aswan High Dam, so I can but live in hope that someone will have a bright idea…

  4. The frustration down there has spread or more honestly is ostensible up here and elsewhere. With the economy changing, overpopulation endangering all, and jobs ify “people” are turning more egocentric than in the times when I grew up and a family, a community of neighbors were good for their word and frustration was the exception. I don’t think my hindsight is through rose colored glasses. But to find that gem, an honest hard worker… And yes singing is the benediction! 😉

    1. My father was not one for DIY (Don’t Involve Yourself) so every request for something to be done about house and garden was met with the cry of ‘Get a man in…’
      And the men concerned were good tradesmen who knew their job.
      Coming to house ownership myself I found it hard to find a good tradesman among the younger element and as the old boys were dropping off their perches found it necessary to learn an awful lot very quickly.
      France was the pits for workmen. Fartarse merchants – all hot air and attitude for the most part – though friends did introduce us to some old boys who really knew their stuff and were willing to teach and explain. They were gems.
      Here? It depends. We are lucky in Danilo’s extended family and their skills: I’m not so sure about what happens if you get a firm in as I’ve not had to do so.
      Glad you liked the Flanders and Swann!

  5. We moved into our 6-months home in Grenoble two weeks ago. No heating. No hot water. The old bag who had just done the État de lieu was content to confirm it wasn’t working but since she had been paid and the agency had been paid (because otherwise we couldn’t move in because they wouldn’t surrender the keys) she was not at all interested in getting anything sorted to warm us up. The rental agreement has been drawn up in the name of the Institut husband is doing a piece of work for and all the money is being paid by them. Long story short – after a week of banging her lovely head against a wall of béton, and including being told by one firm that they could come to us in April, the Director’s PA admitted defeat and sent in their own boiler man (an Artisan Français naturally) who fixed it all and reduced me to tears of relief. I now have repetitive strain of the neck from nodding my head so violently as I read your piece and my sides are sore from laughing. It think the latter part is called hysteria!

    1. That’s France…as long as the boxes have been ticked reality can go hang.
      The customer is freezing? Ah, well, she isn’t a customer yet so it’s not my problem – anyway she is English, she’s used to the cold…she can try drinking some warm beer…soon be April.

  6. For the last fifty years I have owned my property and assembled a trusted crew of repair people. I live in a small community, where, as one HVAC installer told me, “my reputation is the most valuable piece of property I have.” Now I live in a home I rent. I must go to “the office” to make a work order for any issue. The maintenance crew is excellent, but I wonder why are there so many manufacturing issues for them to address. The latest was shingles blowing off roofs.

    1. Leo has itchy feet, so we move fairly frequently – thus no immediate community connection to tap into.
      Had a friend not suggested the Turkish builders while we were in France our first project would have been our last!

  7. Shudder at the thought of having to find any kind of workman to do any kind of job here. I’ve seen them all, from the diabolical to the unspeakable. The horror of having to deal with an ‘artisan’ who promised my English friend the world, and the minute the friend had returned to England did exactly what he pleased and took not a blind bit of notice when I pointed out that wasn’t what his client wanted. He just continued doing it his way. The client was horrified, I was mortified, the artisan retired and disclaimed any responsibility for the 2,100 euro a shot custom-made exterior doors with shutters – three of each – which were made of plywood and the shutters were merely some planks stuck together that had to be manually slid on and slid off and rapidly warped becoming completely useless. The doors split open, the insurance weren’t interested, the artisan was nowhere to be found.

    The tongue and groove flooring upstairs was laid upside down.

    I could go on, but I can feel my blood pressure getting out of control, even 15 years after the event.

    And then there was the English ‘plasterer’ and his ladder-climbing dog …..

    1. Ah yes, how familiar!….Including the blood pressure problems.
      No wonder French pharmacies are full of remedies for same…

      The English builder was another phenomenon….with a P| and O diploma gained while crossing the Channel – and have you noticed how many of them were claiming U.K. invalidity benefit while working in France?

      At least the dog seems to have been mobile, though…

  8. I must say, renting my house does mean that any issues are not my problem. I hand them over to the renting agency and owner. Luckily there haven’t been many.
    However, I remember when we built our house, it was a nightmare and I never want to repeat the experience.

    1. At one stage i did wonder whether this one would ever be finished: Danilo having time off to care for his mother was fine…but the shenanigans of our unpleasant North American neighbour were quite another.

  9. I’m very lucky here – I rarely have to wait more than a few hours for a trusted plumber, electrician or builder to turn up when called. The plumber excelled himself the other day, arriving in less than an hour and adding that he was also saying weekly prayers for my husbands soul. He didn’t charge extra for that either.

  10. I only worked in the south of France for a summer during college, but this did bring back many memories and I fear it is much funnier when it is no longer happening to you!

    Thank you for the Flanders & Swann, my parents were big fans and we had several records as children. People who know me have learned not to mention french horns for fear of hearing how my horn is gorn! 😀

  11. Goodness, and I think I’ve had problems with unsatisfactory tradespeople. Clearly I haven’t seen the half of it. But that’s very true about the client wanting one thing and the tradesperson setting about something entirely different and having to be halted and reminded of what you actually wanted. Fortunately our tradespeople do tend to stay on site until the work’s done and not circulate between a dozen different jobs. They even turn up when they said they would. And they present reasonable bills.

    1. Rural France was an eye opener…I was used to proper tradesmen…these were bodgers – and no higher standard seemed to be expected. I saw some of the work done at listed buildings in the area too – and was far from impressed.

  12. It sounds a lot like trying to get a tradesman to do a job in Spain. They won’t give an appointment. They turn up when they feel like it – if ever!

    The bipeds were always really worried about the young man the electrician would send. He never turned off the power before sticking his screwdriver in things and if the bipeds offered he said it wasn’t necessary. The bipeds were sure that was how electricians got the nickname ‘sparky’ because he really made sparks!

    1. Too right! I am waiting for a plumber to return to finish a job before i can rent out the house…he is like the Scarlet ruddy Pimpernel! My last throw is my bank manager…if she can;t get him to finish the job no one can.

  13. A splendid reminder of ‘French Leave’ which was, with ‘Ayak’s Turkish Delight’, my introduction to the wonderful world of blogging. 🙂 Given that the renovation of our little cottage was done while we were in the UK, we were fortunate with the mixture of French and British (fully registered) tradesmen our builder used. By and large decent work at reasonable prices and it all seems to be holding up quite well 12 years on. Thankfully we have no boiler or radiators to worry about. Thanks for the Flanders and Swann – one of my favourites.

  14. Ayak started off quite a group of us, didn’t she…and we’re all still going strong.

    I’m glad that you were so fortunate with your builders: had we not been introduced to the Turks our first renovation would have been our last!

    Ir is such a relief not to have to bother about heating – or air conditioning. No hours of chopping and stacking wood…no venturing out in full Arctic convoy gear to get the wood in for the day….no dust and ash…and no French boilerman!

  15. I have to say the only time I claimed from our insurance company here I had no problems. We had a massive hail storm, with 25 roof tiles broken we had massive damage inside as well. I did have an invoice from the roofer who did our roof who is a professional, but I also claimed for the paint for repairs inside and the hours it would take me to do all the work. I took it into the office and the guy said you will hear from them in due course. I mentioned a couple of weeks later to my neighbour that I had heard nothing and he said check your bank account. This I did and found almost immediately the payment, in full for what I had claimed, had been paid in. Perhaps I was just lucky!!! Hope you are both well. Happy Easter Diane

    1. Sorry for the delay in replying…no internet at mother’s place! Home again now, recovering from the journey and just hoping I never need to call on the insurance given the volcanoes blasting off at the moment.

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