Thursday, January 25, 2007

A Pothole on the Road to Recovery

I’ve been waiting for a good time to give an update on how our house is coming along and I thought that, tonight, the eve of firing our first contractor, might be a good time. For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, our home was “essentially destroyed by a fire” back in October. You see, Floyd took a two-year assignment over here in Ireland so we left our home in the Northwest. I think for some folks this would be a no-brainer, but there were two things that we struggled with in deciding whether or not to move over here. 1) was my job/career, which I was really engrossed in, and 2) our home. It’s an 1899 Victorian that we had put a lot of sweat and money into and, frankly, we were just way more attached to it than any sane people should be. I had bought it before I met Floyd and everybody thought I was crazy. It needed loads of work and it was in the “wrong” neighborhood. My first night in the house was marked by some dude running through my yard blazing a handgun and shooting at lord only knows what. Call it the welcome wagon if you will. When the cops came and laughed in my face for buying the place, I dug my heels in pretty good. Ever since then that house and I got pretty attached.

So, fast forward about 10 years and she’s gutted to the studs because some fucking toads that were renting the place couldn’t see fit to use an ashtray. Sometimes I think our home was just so pissed to have these toads living in her that she sacrificed her innards to see them leave. It just seems like something she’d do. She’s that kind of a gal. Uppity I suppose.

We hired two contractors when we were back in the NW. One is a specialist in disasters, fire, floods, wind storms, etc. An ambulance chaser to be sure, but we were in shock and were steered towards these folks because of their experience in dealing with fire (and saying all the right things to people that are in a state of shock). But they knew nothing of working with older homes so we got another company that would do all the finish work. This second company is well-respected in the area and we really liked their portfolio. Not to mention the fact that they’re just really nice people. So we had our team together, everybody agreed to play nice and get along, and we felt good enough to come back to Ireland.

So, if you’ll forgive me for stating the’s really hard trying to rebuild your home when you’re on the other side of the planet. Especially when the ambulance chaser doesn’t see fit to call you back or return e-mails. Yea. That makes it a little bit harder. And then they’re ripping the shit out of the inside of your house, and you don’t know if they’re making the effort to salvage the 100-year old straight grain fir molding that you and your friends busted your asses trying to restore, or if their crew of illegal workers, that are undoubtedly underpaid, are deciding whether to pocket the door hardware that could go pretty far in supplementing their meager income. You think about these things in the middle of the night. Especially when nobody calls you back. Yea. It gets rough.

And then you try to share your frustrations and fears with folks and they just remind you of how fortunate you are that you get a new house at the end of the day (!). Well, let me be the first to tell you that burning your house up is NOT a good way to get a new house...especially if you never wanted a new house and especially if the thought of a new house kind of makes you itch. So, while I realize all of the ways in which Floyd and I are blessed, I think I’ll continue with my story of the blessed re-building of our house. Thankyouverymuch.

Thankfully we have a few friends in the area (like the Fire Chief and family) that are willing to check in on the homestead for us. Based on pictures taken through cracks in the boarded up windows and doors, it looks like things are progressing just fine. The charred and melted material seems to be decreasing and we can see studs. Progress. This is good. But, still, the updates are woefully few and far between from the folks that we’re paying and the ulcer-causing knots are growing.

In the meantime we’re getting excited about a few things. We decided to take the “opportunity” to make some changes. Knock out a wall, tear out an unused chimney, make a bigger kitchen, create more storage space, build a staircase that’s more suitable for little people and....drumroll please....putt in some solar!! Actually, we don’t know if we can afford the solar stuff but Floyd’s a big solar freak and he’s working on a system that would hopefully heat water for space heating (radiant floor heat) and our domestic hot water. Joy. Big joy. But I’m containing my exclamation points because we don’t know if it can happen yet. So if any of you have experience with solar power or radiant floor heat, give us a shout, we’d appreciate the opportunity to pick your brain. I really like the idea of walking the talk (the “sustainability” talk) and taking a 100-year old home and getting her geared-up for the next 100 years. This gives us joy.

But then there’s the ambulance chasers. Ugh. We’ve been waiting on an “engineers report” from them for over a month now and it just came in yesterday. Completely worthless. Like completely. Nothing redeemable at all. I don’t even think the few crayon drawings were of our house. And we waited over a month for this? We postponed all design work as well as delayed submitting the budget to insurance AND pretty much guaranteed that we won’t be able to move into our house when we move back to the NW....for this?! Whew. Now that’s some fine project management right there.

Thankfully our other contractors, the nice people, are willing to step in. Unfortunately, their employees are all paid livable wages (haha) so we don’t know if our insurance can afford them. But we’re going to try and make it work. You know all of those magical incantations and de-smokifications that the ambulance chasers claim that only they can perform? Turns out anybody can do it. The magical mystery ozone chamber (that can suck so much smoke it probably cures lung cancer)? Yea, you can buy one for like $300. The witchy “smoke-sealer” that they paint all remaining surfaces with, the one you thought might be made with the eyes of newts? Yea, it’s called primer.

Firing somebody is not something we take lightly. It’s serious stuff to mess with somebody’s bread and butter. And the guy we’re working with seems like a pretty nice guy. Family man and all that. But we can’t let our old gal get burned again, so it’s gotta be done. Besides, I see sunlight on the horizon...and the soothing of my pre-ulcerous knots...once we get him out of our lives.

So that’s where we’re at. Maybe once we get this icky stuff out of the way I can post about the wet dream/nightmare of getting/having to pick out an entire house worth of appliances, countertops, cupboards, flooring, hardware, sinks, baths, tile and fixtures in one week. Oh...and paint colors...for the whole house (jaysus, I’m starting to sweat-I wrote a post back in July '06 about what a color freak I am but I have no clue as to how to provide the link to it-go to my archives and check it out if you want to get a glimpse into crazy). I think you can see the whole wet dream/nightmare thing going on here.

If any of you have some remodeling stories to share, I’d love to hear ‘em. Or maybe you have a favorite range (we know what wzgirl’s is!-once again, I can't figure out how to provide a link to that one post of hers where she raves about her AGA), or a favorite faucet, or a fridge, or a light fixture, or get the picture. We’re open. Oh, and blessed.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Silly Old Pig...

Floyd and I went to the US Embassy in London last year to complete some adoption paperwork and celebrated by sitting down for some scrumptious dim sum in London’s Chinatown. After devouring our rice noodle rolls, pork dumplings and sweet, sticky black sesame seed thingies, we slowly ambled (so as to not upset the delicate balance in our distended tummies) across the street to a little shop selling paper lanterns, Chinese videos, porcelain figurines and the like. We wanted to buy something to commemorate the trip because, at that time, we thought we were SO CLOSE and every little event felt like something we needed to commemorate. It was right around Chinese New Year and we knew that our daughter would be born in this year, the Year of the Dog. So Floyd picked out this lovely, little rose quartz doggy on a pink thread. Very precious (if you disregard the fact that it’s just about the right size to get lodged in a small child’s windpipe) and very appropriate. I couldn’t find anything that seemed either precious or appropriate so, as we’re headed to the cash register, I find this little plastic, gold pig with a small piece of already stale chocolate inside, and I decided it was precious and appropriate enough (at least it’s large enough that it can’t get lodged in a small child's windpipe). But it was NOTHING compared to the pink dog. We keep them both in a little corner of our dressing table and I sometimes look at them and dog... silly old pig....

But I learned something the other day (I know, wonders never cease). I was on this on-line writers forum that an internetty friend of mine writes for and she wrote this great article that made me feel all kinds of wonderful. It turns out that not only is this next year The Year of the Pig, but it’s also the Year of the Golden Pig! Really?!! Well this is almost as cool as the Year of the Little Plastic Golden Pig that Holds Stale Chocolate. Our purchase of the silly old pig is starting to make sense now but, most importantly, it makes me feel like Thor is a little closer to us.

There's a lot of talk about how children born in the Year of the Golden Pig will be more fortunate and make loads of money. There's also mention of how Asia's birthrate is going to skyrocket this year. I also realize there's a lot of controversy about this so-called Year of the Golden Pig, for example:
According to Chinese astrological calculations, 2007 is really not the year of the Golden Pig but the Fire Pig. The lunar calendar has a 12-year cycle of animals that runs along a cycle of “Five Elements”—metal, wood, fire, water, and earth. Notice there is no gold here. Perhaps since fire is red (related to money in Chinese tradition) and yellow (the color of gold), 2007 has also been heralded as the year of the Golden Pig.

Fire Pig? Golden Pig? What. Ever. This is all background noise to me. I’m stuck on the relevance of the little plastic pig that we bought in the Chinese market. Did I mention that it feels like Thor just got closer?


Friday, January 12, 2007

Morocco - Top Five Fave

This whole “Top Five Fave” thing seems more than silly at this point but I’m sticking with it for now because it helps me to reflect on our travels and to convey an overwhelming, sometimes indescribable (for me), experience. So here goes...

Floyd and I traveled through Morocco for the holidays this year. I’m glad we booked this trip before the fire because it certainly wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and it made for the perfect antidote to our holiday funk. We knew pretty early on that we didn’t really want to do Christmas this year. I sensed that some folks were a little put off by that. Kinda huffy about it actually. But I think everybody deserves to take a year off. The holidays are really overwhelming, at least the way most Americans seems to do them, and taking the year off was refreshing. It makes for great perspective. To listen to people's experiences and not simultaneously reflect on your own holiday rituals. Their tales of the lines at the mall, the exasperated search for the one toy that every child MUST have this year, the live/fake/potted tree debate, to flock or not to flock... All told I think it was an appropriate year to skip it.

 Morocco is an Islamic country. Islam is the official state religion and King Mohammed VI, the country’s secular leader, is also the “commander of the faithful”. From the calls to prayer, to the passing glimpses into mosques and even during our commercial interactions...the Islamic faith was present throughout our travels. During our 12 days there we saw approximately two Christmas trees and one, very very scary Santa Claus. Perfect.

 We flew into Marrakech, where we stayed for a few days, then we rented a car and drove south over the High Atlas Mountains on the torturously windy Tizi n’Test road. From here we headed northeast along the base of the High and Middle Atlas Mountain Ranges. We took a brief foray into the Sahara Desert for a sunrise camel ride (had to do it) then headed northwest, up and over the Middle Atlas, through the beautiful cedar forests, then into Fez for another few days. It was an amazing trip and trying to pick out a Top Five Fave is a bit absurd but...them’s the rules.

  1. It’s really different. I know. Duh. But hear me out. I didn’t really realize how different Morocco is from the experiences/landscapes/people that I’m accustomed to until we were flying back into the UK. We broke through the clouds and my first response was to the color. So green! And as I was surveying the scene I spotted this big, spherical, stone object and I wondered, “what kind of a koubba or mosque is that?” was a water tower. Then working our way through the London/Luton Bus Station Airport we were struck by how sterile everything seemed. Surfaces were gleaming. Right angles prevailed. And the attire?! Put some clothes on girlfriend! Just very different in so many ways. Going to a place that is so different really makes you take another look at your own place. You see things that may have been invisible to you before...and I think this is a good thing.

2. The landscapes. So varied. Fantastic. Unusual. Tales of geology....if I only knew the language. 

 3. Djemaa el Fna. Djemaa el Fna is the most amazing public square I have ever seen and, as our guide book says it “ effortlessly involves you...” After collecting our luggage, we hopped a public bus (this is a very Floyd thing), which spit us out at the entrance to the square. I was completely and utterly overwhelmed. Here we are, in a "very different place", trying to figure out where we are, where our hotel might be, and basically just trying not to lose the plot when suddenly I had a monkey on my back (shall we say). Now, I loves me some monkeys. And I’ve never been fortunate enough to have a monkey on my back (?). But I do not loves monkeys in chains, which this poor guy was. I looked into his sad, freaky eyes and I wanted to change his life...but I knew I couldn’t...and that made us both sad. In the meantime his “handler” was shouting, “PICTURE!!!...PICTURE!!!...YOU TAKE PICTURE!!!?...” Of course it is customary for the tourists to want their picture taken with the monkey and, of course, you will pay for this. Not much by our standards, but enough to validate this guy’s job....and a monkey in chains. So we declined the picture and I bid farewell to the monkey on my back (if only it were that easy for everybody). This same basic interaction can be applied to the snake “charmers” (there’s nothing charming about it these days), the kids that hop into the center of your picture (without asking them to) and the guys that want to take you to “their brother’s carpet shop”. To be honest, if I could, I wouldn’t include these interactions in the “Top Five Fave”, but they’re integral and they can’t be stripped away.

But once you’ve (convinced yourself that you’ve) ditched the touts, the Djemaa el Fna opens up to you. This place is for real. This is where the people who live here actually come for entertainment. The storytellers wave their arms and point sticks at their audience and lure them into their tales. Locals stand three and four deep, watching, listening, absolutely rapt. There’s exotic music everywhere (interestingly, we only heard western music a couple of times-but none in this square). The challenge is to focus your ears on just one group of musicians. Once you allow the background noise to fade away....the music takes your mind elsewheres. The sheep heads lined up on platters and the vendors selling their snake oils and dried lizards. These things are not because of, or intended for, us...the tourist. They are a part of how these people have been living for almost a thousand years. It’s a magical place.

 4. The patterns.
The architecture, the ornamentation, the mosaics, the textiles, the carvings.... The patterns are lush, vivid, intricate, and organic and they are synonymous with luxury and adoration. There was one restored Kasbah that we stayed in (a splurge after spending several nights shivering in a room so cold we had to sleep with every layer of clothing on, plus ski caps) and the ceiling in the dining room was so beautiful, so brilliant, that I just wanted to lay down on the cushions and stare up at it. How long did it take the craftsman to paint that? To carve that? To inscribe that detail into the plaster? But then the tajines came and my mind jumped tracks... 

 5. The people. I realize that Moroccans are as diverse as the people of any other country. There’s the good and bad and the naughty and nice, but you know how you just get a vibe? Most people were so wonderful to us. So kind. So warm. Usually smiling and laughing (and not always laughing AT us, thankyouverymuch). The great memories include drinking tea (..and more tea) and haggling with the carpet vendors (it's hard to haggle when you're comPLETEly wired), or the night of music and dancing with the mountain Berbers, or being dragged down a sand dune by our desert guide, or that guy that rode his bike through the dusty, dark town trying to find us because we couldn’t understand the directions to the hotel, or the sincerity and kindness of the woman that invited us into her humble home in the ancient Kasbah. I’ll even throw the touts back into this category because they were such memorable characters. I know these interactions are through the lens of the tourist, but I think that’s what makes them even more memorable. To recognize such great disparity and to overcome it, for the moment, with a smile.