The Repairman Cometh (again)

Ma'adi ApartmentI’ve written about repairmen before, but reminiscing with someone about our life in Cairo reminded me of my year–long struggle with air conditioning which, as the summer here in Toronto draws to a close, seems like a fitting topic for a blog post.

We were fortunate to live in a brand new apartment building for the year we spent in Cairo.  It sounded great until we got possession and I realized all the construction debris had been left behind for us to deal with … but that’s another story.

While in Azerbaijan we had the old-style window air conditioners and in Dubai full-on central air, in Cairo we had ‘split’ air conditioners, which means there’s a unit on the wall inside and the compressor sits outside, mounted on brackets.  There was one unit for each room, except the kitchen.  Why no a/c in the kitchen, I wailed?  I was told that the maid didn’t need a/c.  Unfortunately, in our case, the maid was me.  No, we didn’t live on salad for a year, but I was sorely tempted.

We arrived in January when the weather was still cool, but as the thermometer rose we decided it would be a good idea to get the compressors cleaned before firing them up.  Anyone who’s visited Cairo will know that everything, and I mean everything, is covered in dust.  You might think it’s the sand blowing in from the Western Desert, or the mummies’ tombs, but the most likely suspects are the cement factories just to the south of the city.

The Engineer arrived with his young assistant (everyone has an assistant in Egypt, sometimes the assistant has an assistant) equipped with a dustpan and brush.  To my horror he was instructed to climb out the window and perch on top of the compressor outside and brush it clean.  We were on the 8th floor – refer to my photo above to appreciate my full horror.  I felt like someone out of a Dickens novel sending a small boy up the chimney.

Fast-forward a couple of months into full-blown summer and a large puddle developed in my son’s room.  The a/c was deemed to be at fault and the Engineer was summoned again.  This time a condensate drain was needed, which required a hole to be drilled in the wall.  The assistant brought in a fearsome looking drill for this purpose, which for some strange reason had no plug on it, just bare wires sticking out the end of the cord.  The assistant’s job was to stuff the bare wires into the electrical socket while the Engineer drilled the hole (obvious serious work, if the Engineer himself did it).  Every couple of minutes the wires would fall out of the socket, and the assistant would duly stuff them back in again.  Why?  Why?  I asked myself.

All this time we had yet to receive an electricity bill.  Our neighbours, fellow Canadians working for British Gas, assured us that it would take a while because it was a new account, but as the months ticked by we grew increasingly concerned about how large the bill would be when it finally came.  I carefully socked money away in the lockable drawer in our bedroom, crossing my fingers it would be enough.  We exhorted our son to  “Turn that damn a/c down, it’s like the Arctic in here!”

Finally as September rolled around and we were told another move was on the cards, I decided something had to be done.  I kidnapped OH’s assistant from the office one morning and we headed off to the electricity company in search of a bill. We trailed from room to room, from one disinterested clerk to another.  Huge ledgers were consulted (no sign of computers here) and finally we were told that the bill was paid.  How could that be?  Who had paid the bill?  Further consultations revealed that our benefactor was British Gas.  Aha, a lightbulb moment!  There were several British Gas families in our building, including our neighbours, obviously our bill was being paid in error.  Back to the office and OH got on the phone to the accountant at British Gas.  Long and short of it, he completely denied they were paying our bill.  No amount of argument would persuade him otherwise.  But by then we were getting wise to bureaucratic incompetence and denial.  To this day we suspect he just didn’t want to admit a mistake had been made.

As we started to pack up for yet another international move, the bedroom drawer offered up a cash bonus to mitigate our disappointment at leaving Cairo so soon.


13 thoughts on “The Repairman Cometh (again)

  1. Two words: charmed life 😉

    No, I know, it hasn’t always been a bed of paid bills – I guess a more accurate term would be taking the rough with the smooth. Thinking back over the photos and descriptions of your various postings I’ve come across on this blog, you more than deserve the smooth!

    • Aisha, since I returned home I’ve realized so much of my expat life wasn’t unique at all. My house is torn apart at the moment due to plumbing problems and we’re tearing our hair out dealing with various tradespeople who seem to create more problems than they solve. The improvement is that at least we all speak the same language. The negative is that we can’t just ask the landlord to deal with it!

  2. We have the same kind of air conditioners here in our part of North Africa as you describe in Egypt. The multiple assistants thing sounds even more exaggerated in Egypt than it is here. Sometimes people have assistants, but I have yet to see “an assistant to an assistant!” But I, too, did see those in Egypt. We got our first air conditioners here about eight years ago, and we don’t have one in the kitchen either, for two reasons. Since there is no grease fan, it would be ruined quickly, and secondly, we are careful how much we use ours since electricity in our country is VERY expensive (and yes, we would not want the maid wasting it, but the maids would not have that in their own homes, and are acclimated). My friend who lived in Egypt for many years up until two years ago says that electricity is very cheap in Egypt because of the Aswan Dam, so even running a lot of air conditioning is inexpensive there (unlike here). So sorry to hear about your problems in Toronto this summer! We lived here for about 13 years without any kind of heating or air conditioning (we did have one fan). It was tough, but I am glad to have had the experience. I used to wonder how people lived in the American South without air conditioning in past centuries. Now I know that your body will acclimate to it if you are in it constantly, but it might take a few years to do so (it took me about five years to acclimate to the winters here, as I just could not get warm and did not know to wear 4-5 layers of clothes my first two years here).

    • I agree about acclimating. Even though Dubai is hotter than Hades in the summer (and humid too) I found I could tolerate it better as the years went by.

  3. Oh this is funny! 🙂 I am sooo grateful for central AC here in Dubai! I’ve actually considered writing about “repairmen” too. When one of our ACs was not working, they would literally send SIX guys to look it at! And It took them countless trips to actually fix the stupid thing. One benefit of not owning the house though is, as you mentioned, just calling the landlord. Thank goodness for that!

    • And in Dubai the repairman always arrive with a Spinney’s bag for their tools, which contains nothing more than a screwdriver and a tube of caulk 🙂 I remember the guy who came to hang curtain tracks didn’t even have a drill or a stepladder!

  4. Great post, Judy! The comments show we all share our own versions of these issues- they’re the great equalizer among us all.

    I loved getting my “split” unit in Baku! Well, except when our guys in Baku threw out the remote- they thought it was just an extra piece that did nothing (true… until one installs batteries!). Your story makes me glad that at least we didn’t have to climb out and clean anything!

  5. A lovely story, Judy! Really fun to read; thanks for making me smile. We have lived in some hot places – and it’s not exactly cool here in the Caribbean, in the summer – but have never had such adventures with the air-conditioning. Lucky old us.

    (By the way, I found my way here from Karen’s Miss Footloose blog. Hi.)

    • Thanks Gordon, you tell some lovely stories too on your own blog. This is what I love about the blogging world … you’re always bumping into interesting people 🙂

  6. Always fun to read stories like this one because I can really see it happening in my mind. And of course because of having had similar experiences with repairmen abroad. Fortunately not with a small boy climbing out on a 8th story window! In Ghana repairmen also always had a helper, and was called Small Boy.

    And the issue of never admitting failure or mistake, that also is familiar. For you this time it meant a non-existing electricity bill, and you came out the winner!

  7. Hi, arrived here via Karen’s Miss Footloose blog, when the title of your post spiked my curiosity. What a funny story! In Africa there are also a lot of “assistants”, I presume it’s a way to keep people employed. We visited Egypt a few months before we moved to Australia, and was horrified to see a city full of electric wires going from building to building and to street posts, chaotic traffic and a very dirty Nile… The people were friendly though. I suppose when you live there you have different experiences that make you love all that chaos.

    • No I don’t think I ever loved the chaos and the dust, but the people were truly charming and generous (once you got away from the sharks at the tourist sites). 🙂

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