One of the first things we encountered when we came to France was the prevalence of DIY shops. Actually, shops would hardly be the right term, as they’re more something of an emporium. On that first visit Yigal thought he had died and gone to heaven. All there was as far as the eye could see was a vast space, something akin to an airplane hangar, containing what seemed like an infinite array of shelves bearing any kind of tool, equipment or building material you could possibly imagine.
For me, this was completely uninteresting. I grew up in a home where my father was not at all handy, except on the typewriter, and it was my mother who mended fuses and changed light-bulbs, using a neat little tool-kit she had brought with her when she fled Germany in 1939. Whenever something more complicated needed to be done, there was our regular handyman, Mr. Quested, who was called upon to accomplish the task. And this, I thought, was the norm amongst the Jewish population of suburban London. That’s as may be, but in Israel (and possibly elsewhere, too, for all I know) things are different.
Yigal was brought up with a father who was an accomplished carpenter and handyman, and therefore many of those skills were passed on to him, as well as additional ones he acquired as a practical person with a scientific mind. Anything further removed from the inept scholar it would be hard to imagine.
So DIY (bricolage in French) is apparently a very popular occupation among the inhabitants of rural France, whether they be local French people or expats from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands or any other country whose population tends to gravitate towards the relatively inexpensive and often neglected houses of the villages and hamlets in the French countryside. This often means that a great deal of work is required in order to get a house into a state that is fit for human habitation (they are sometimes even converted barns or stables, representing a complete rebuilding project, often requiring professional involvement).
One particular task that Yigal undertook recently was to clear the basement of our house in rural France. It involved getting rid of all kinds of junk that had been deposited there over the years by previous owners, as well as insulating the area and making it water-tight. The fact that it contained a well did not make things any easier, and for this he enrolled the help of a local (English-speaking) friend and handyman.
Any mention of a basement (cave in French) in rural France brings to my mind the image of Jews being hidden there during the period of German occupation. In order for anyone to stay there for any period of time they would have had to endure very difficult conditions of cold and damp, not to mention privation, hunger and very uncomfortable accommodation.
That, however, is not the reason for the project of bringing the basement into a more habitable state, but rather to stop the dampness there from rising into the walls of the house. This required purchasing various items of insulating and draining material, and hence the errand that brought us to the biggest, most well-stocked DIY emporium of them all, Brico-Depot, in the nearby town.
On entering its portals one is confronted by an even more enormous array of shelves laden with all the items and equipment mentioned above, as well as many more. It is a haven for professionals and amateurs alike. I personally found it all quite intimidating, but it seemed to me that I was the only one to experience this. All around me I could see serious people, mostly men but also some women, clad in work clothes, wheeling huge trolleys loaded up with planks, sanitary equipment, plywood panels, and anything else that would serve in constructing, repairing or installing any and every part of any building anywhere. Luckily, there was a set of wicker garden furniture on display, so I could sit there and enjoy myself while Yigal roamed the shelves hunting for the items needed.
I presume that such emporia are to be found in Britain and the USA, too, but I have never been in any of them. All I can say is that my encounter with the world of DIY in France has left a deep and lasting impression on my mind, and I think my one visit has been enough to last me for the rest of my life.