I told a friend that I was going to paint my guest room. She asked, “What color?” I said that I would go to the paint store with my landlord and he would tell me which company and type of paint to use and I would pick among the options. She thought that was ridiculous; I was paying rent, I should be able to choose whatever kind of paint I wanted. Sigh. No. Not here. Having a good landlord is like living under a good monarch – monarch makes decisions on what is best for the people, people acquiesce. This type of thinking drives trolls crazy as they insist IT HAS TO BE DONE MY WAY, which is fine for living on desert islands but when one lives with civil order, one makes adjustments.
In the Middle East, you can’t simply call or go to an electrical store to get an electrician to come to your house. Many electricians, plumbers, carpenters, painters etc. don’t speak English and, although they sit outside DIY and household goods stores waiting to be hired by the hour, it’s hard to know who is good, much less if the work will be done well. I am quite accomplished at financial spread-sheets and can tell if a wall is well painted but am hopeless at knowing if the washing machine repair will last five minutes or five months.
You need a local man to go get the worker and sit in the house to supervise. This is one of the main reasons expats live in complexes. A complex will have a manager who will be used to expat weirdness (screen doors, jogging, compost heaps, dogs, etc.) and will hire one or two men to run interference on all repairs. But complexes are also fishbowls – everyone knows everyone’s business, whose car is parked where when and you have to be achingly pleasant to everyone or you aren’t invited to Christmas parties. Lots of stress and strained muscles from grinning. A person could develop forehead wrinkles.
But if you live in a villa, you need a good landlord. In my case it was the wonderful Yasser. He would find a plumber, bring him to my house, explain what was needed. Then, Yasser would settle in front of the TV with a cold Dew. After ten minutes or so, the plumber would tell me what I wanted (working toilet) was impossible. I would explain that it was possible. Plumber would work for another ten minutes or so, come out and announce it was absolutely impossible. I would go get Yasser, who would hoist himself up, get stuck in and, an hour later, the toilet was working.
The root of the problem is that workers like plumbers and electricians are in-country on a work visa so they all have a regular job in a shop and get a basic salary. There is no yummy capitalistic incentive to take on free-lance work unless they feel like it. If they don’t want to fix something, they will simply say, “it can’t be fixed,” meaning “it can’t be fixed,” or “I want you to pay me more to fix it,” or “I just got a phone call from my sponsor and he has a job for me” or “I don’t feel like doing this job.”
So I tried to be good with Yasser by keeping the villa and garden in nice shape but the truth was he always gave more than I could repay him for. One of the nights just after I moved, I called him in a panic: two sinks were leaking and there was no hot water in the shower. He showed up with a plumber about fifteen minutes later. When I brought him tea as he sat in front of the TV, I realized it was the night of an important sports event, like asking a football fan to baby-sit your sick corgi when his team is in the playoffs.
A few months later, when a whole other round of problems came up, I was trying to deal with the plumber, when I realized that Yasser and the electrician had disappeared. I went looking for them but couldn’t find them, so I decided they must have driven to a store to buy something when I looked out the window – and they were, Yasser balancing on top of the 6-foot wall that surrounded the house, trying to fix the lanterns on top of the wall. I hadn’t asked him to fix them but there he was, pulling at wires as the electrician holding the flashlight, wind whipping around both of them. A picture of an amazing kindness. Ten minutes I looked out again and they were gone, I stepped outside and heard them; they were now on the roof, fixing the lanterns up there. And when he finished and came in, he never mentioned what he had been doing, no “come see what I did,” he just checked on the plumber, When I hired a man to repaint the door frames, he didn’t like the painter’s work so he stood three feet away and gave instructions on proper painting.
Never rent a villa, no matter how beautiful or inexpensive, unless you and the owner form a Mutual Appreciation Society.