Thursday, June 16, 2005

Cold showers in a do-it-yourself country

Just a few of the bells and whistles that keep our apartment running smoothly...usually.

We ran out of mazzot on Saturday, so it’s cold showers from here on out. Mazzot is the fuel used to heat up water in your house. If you have a radiator heating system, it’s also used to heat the water that runs through the radiators. Rather than being an integral part of your apartment’s utility system, mazzot is usually stored in a separate tank on your roof, and you have to fill it up manually. That is to say, you call a guy and he fills it up manually. Tanks vary in size and the length of time the fuel lasts depends on how much you use it – you turn on the system by flipping a switch in your apartment. The more often you have that switch on, the faster the fuel will run out.

So we’re back to cold showers again. When we got here last summer, the mazzot tank in our apartment was empty. We didn’t bother filling it up yet since it was so hot. To give you an idea of how hot it was, let me explain that I am by no means a “cold shower” person. In fact, I am one of the most “hot shower” people I know. So for cold showers to be acceptable to me, of all people, should tell you how hot it gets here. When autumn finally came, we broke down and filled up the mazzot tank. I can still remember experiencing the miracle of hot water coming from a tap for the first time last September.

All of this has reminded me of something I quickly learned about Syria. The first thing I learned about Syria is that everything is a surprise. But the second thing I learned is that this is very much a do-it-yourself country: some assembly may be required. For example, in Syria

…elevators are rare. If a building has less than four or five floors, there is usually not an elevator. Do it yourself and walk up the stairs! Take our building, for example: we live on the fourth floor (it’s the top floor). Thus, there is no elevator. Believe me, I’m having more and more fun heaving my pregnant self up four flights of stairs in the increasing summer heat. It’s enough to not want to leave the house :).

…automatic clothes dryers are nonexistent. Do it yourself and hang up the laundry on a clothesline. In the summer, the clothes on one end of the line will probably be dry by the time you get to the other end. I don’t think the electrical system in this country could handle automatic dryers, anyway.

…door-to-door trash collection does not happen. Take your trash out yourself to the nearest dumpster. Sometimes the dumpster is located conveniently on a nearby street corner. Other times, it disappears for weeks and you’re stuck hauling your garbage half a mile down the street. And you can forget about recycling. If you cringe every time you throw a water bottle away, the best you can do is take it yourself to a local street salesman – you know, the one who took you aside one day and told you he’d like you to bring him all your used bottles (they can turn them in for money).

…there is no door-to-door mail service. Granted, letters sometimes manage to make it to a residential destination, having been wedged in the crack of your door during your absence, but this is a rare exception. If you want to receive mail, you get a post office box, and go there yourself to pick it up. The same routine applies for sending out mail. (I wouldn’t mention this except that our friends in America never quite believe us when we tell them we don’t have an address. Really, we don’t.)

…a hot shower or hot water to do your dishes has to be a premeditated act. As I mentioned already, hot water has to be heated in advance by flipping a switch in your apartment. If you think you might want a shower in an hour or so, you had better turn on the switch now or you’ll be left in the cold. Also, don’t forget to turn it off, or you’ll have wasted precious mazzot fuel (or find yourself doing miscellaneous chores that require hot water just to use what you’ve inadvertently heated up).

…central heating is a forgotten luxury. Your apartment probably has a radiator heating system. First, turn the lever that opens the pipes that lead to the radiator system. Then, open up each individual radiator in every room by turning the dial on the side. Finally, turn on the hot water. Repeat the process in reverse when you’re finished, or you’ll find that the unused spare bedroom is toasty warm while you’re freezing in the living room.

…you light the stove and oven by yourself. There’s no handy mechanism to do it for you automatically. Light a match, turn on the gas, gather up the courage to bring the lighted match close to where the gas is coming out, and a flame should jump up.

…pistachios don’t come salty and green. Rather, you buy them fresh and peel off their fleshy outer layer first. Then you come close to breaking your fingernails trying to open up the hard inner shell. The soft nut inside, although it tastes completely different from its sanitized American version, is still quite delicious. You can also get roasted pistachios from nut sellers, but they’re still not green.

…you manage your cell phone plan by yourself. There’s no automatic renewal of your month’s minutes – you do it yourself and recharge your plan before you run out of time. If you forget, you’ve lost any remaining minutes and maybe even your phone number.

…if you have a job, you can forget about mindless, automatic direct deposit every month. Instead, you fill out your own time sheet, turn it in by yourself, and then insist, if necessary, on getting paid.

…there is no medical insurance system here. In my personal opinion, this is one do-it-yourself that I really appreciate. Rather than deal with bureaucratic insurance companies and inflated prices, medical care in Syria is simply affordable. If you need to go to the doctor, you just go – there’s no waiting for approval or referral or authorization. Sure, you pay your own costs yourself, in cash, at the time of service, but it usually works out to be far cheaper than paying a hefty monthly premium.

…you monitor the status of your passport and visa by yourself. There are no helpful letters or reminders to tell you when you’re running out of time – you keep track of it by yourself. In fact, since every country in the Middle East insists on taking up a page-and-a-half in your passport for each entry and exit, you might run out of room. And when you do, or even when the passport official has to flip more than two or three pages to find a space, you can expect a scolding.

…it’s up to you to figure out which light switch does what. I firmly believe that there are at least three times as many light switches in existence in this country than there are uses for them. A couple of the rooms in our apartment have four or six light switches in them. Invariably, only one or two of them actually do anything. It’s always fun to watch guests come over and fumble through row after row of light switches, just trying to find the one that turns on the light in the bathroom.

…refrigerators often don’t regulate their own temperature very well. We are constantly having to manually adjust the temperature setting on our refrigerator and freezer, and it’s still never quite right. One night, everything in the fridge will freeze, so we have to throw out any ruined food and turn the temperature up. The next morning, we wake up and everything in the freezer is soggy and defrosted. Sigh.

…there are no garbage disposals. Surprisingly, this is one of the things that I miss the most. Scooping soggy handfuls of icky potato peelings or pan scrapings from the kitchen sink drain every day can become more of an annoyance than you think. I miss being able to just shove everything down the drain, flip a switch, and not worry about it.

The good thing about living in a do-it-yourself country is that it builds character. It also builds an appreciation for the many modern conveniences we do have.


Anonymous said...

Most of the stuff you mentioned is not true actually. It's not a do-it-yourself country and you have no right to judge the entire country with your short experience. You seem to be living in a small bubble and then expecting everything to be the way you want and expecting yourself to be an expert on Syria.
You remind me of someone who bought a simple cellphone and then complianed because it doesn't have internet browsing and bluetooth!!!!!
Better stay in America where real "civilization" exists, where you can dry your clothes,eat greet pistachios, get offical reminders, and also where you can easily get shot on the street by a maniac for no reason.
So fed up with such smart-asses like you who come to us just to criticize and show how backwarded we are!
WHAT historyn do you have to come and teach us civilization.
Yankees always see the world through their "stripes and stars" eyes.

Bridget said...

I'm sorry you feel that way. After reading your comment, I can't help but feel that either:

1. You entirely misunderstood the tone of this blog entry, in which case I apologize for not making it more clear. I wrote this in a spirit of friendly chiding (we kid because we love).

2. Or possibly, you haven't read any other part of my blog. If you did, you'd realize that I love Syria and thoroughly enjoy my time in Damascus.

Best regards,


Mazen said...

I've not been for a few days on this awesome site - too busy lately.
I wrote you before admiring your Blog- that was when I found out about it while doing a search.
I wrote that I'm a Syrian living abroad. My name is Mazen.
It so much pissed me off today when I saw that comment from our anonymous "patriot"!!
Really so funny, some of our people can't stop playing the Ostrich man - hiding your HEAD IN SAND IS DOESN'T MEAN EVERYTHING AROUND LOOKS GOOD.
I do think, Mr. Anonymous, you are the pathetic one because you totally KNOW that everything she wrote was RIGHT, and you had not the vision to sense that she wrote in such Humorous and gentle way that only a person with too many internal complexes wouldn't notice that. What I liked most in your comment Mr. Anonymous is
""So fed up with such smart-asses like you who come to us just to criticize and show how back warded we are"", really hilarious! How many of those "smart-asses" (as you called them, whatever that means) you know? In another way, what types of foreigners do you socialize with exactly? What type of conversations do you have with them? You can't hear critic because you want only to hear "What an awesome, flawless country?" Such countries don't exist, if you know.
The civilization you are criticizing in the USA is the same in which you dream to live (do have enough honesty to admit that? I doubt it).
Their civilization that you attacked teaches people like Bridget to react the way she reacted to your insulting and empty words. She reacted in such a polite, objective way that we still need some decades to learn. That's what I call civilization.
Her answer was short, though awesome. As she asked you, "Have you read the entire blog?" I dare to swear that you did NOT! If you had read it, you would have felt the beauty and objectivity she used to describe Syria. I've told dozens already about this blog, because it has nicer and more useful stuff than the site of our Ministry of Tourism :)
Such people like Bridget and her husband deserve nothing but total respect, because they DO NOT see the world THROUGH STARS AND STRIPES. Though I see nothing wrong in that because every one of us will have his own pre-installed lenses through which he sees the world. Civilization and humanity comes when your lenses are distorted but you never admit it. That has to do with the place where you grew up, and with the way you define the world around you- judging by you Mr. Anonymous, I don't give it a second thought that you have never crossed the borders of your "Hara" (quarter or town for those who don't know Arabic). However, if you did leave Syria somewhere to Europe or the USA, and you still talk this way; I can imagine what a cultural shock you have where you live\had lived. If you didn’t, then I recommend you never leave your bubble because you’ll be criticizing the hell out of everything that comes into your way.
I hope you have enough courage to answer me, but please politely; I have no intention of ruining the calm atmosphere of this wonderful, Jasmine-smelling blog. Yes, I guess you are laughing, but I can feel it, and many do, sometimes a blog just makes you feel that it is as valuable as a piece of art, it’s so personal and non-commercial. It’s almost the only breathing space for those who seek a place to express their thoughts away from the Big Brother in countries like ours. There’re blogs with pleasant, quite "atmospheres" and ones that just smell bad. This one smell just like the famous Jasmine of Damascus.
Anyway, I'm really too pissed off and I wanted to write less politely answering Mr. Patriot (anonymous) but that would ruin the atmosphere I mentioned.
One more advice Mr. Anonymous, just do a search on using keywords like "Hate" "Arabs"...etc and see how hate sites look like, and see that there’re many versions like you, but with different names and nationalities.
You are so pathetic and Bridget really did a good job by showing that “YES, we are back warded” AND NOT BECAUSE we don't have drying machines or official notifications, but because we always fail to see where the fault is. Because it always has to be somebody's mistake, because foreigners only come to us to criticize or spy (I'm surprised you didn’t mention that Anonymous!!!!)
By the way Bridget, how many times have you been asked in Syria if you are CIA?:) lol
Bridget, please don't stop or change your style (though I'm so sure you don't need my advice :)
Your blog is so balanced, so colorful, and SO TRUE.
I've just finished printing out the "You know you've been in Syria too long if" because I decided to show it to my Girlfriend who is planning to visit Syria this summer with me (copyrights are preserved, I know that and I made sure it showed the URL and the blogger's name :)

Have a great time in Syria. What our little, colorful country needs is just more people like you coming to us to tell the rest of the world the good sides and bad sides about Syria, since only bad ones are being often mentioned.
Should I add that "we don't hate the American people, we just don't like the US government??":)? I know you are smiling now :) I'm as Syrian as those you described in your "You know you've been in Syria too long if" blog :)
God bless you, bless your family. By the way, was Miriam born in Damascus? If so, that is so romantic and touching: A little American baby –girl that will grow up and become a beautiful smart lady, and in her mind she’ll always remember that she had her first breath in Damascus, the oldest inhibited city in history.(and I hope she never regrets that
Alah Ykhlilik Yaha (God Keeps - or protects- her for you)
P.S. Waiting for your answer Mr. Anonymous, this is if you bother to check what people said to you in replay to your poisonous comment.
Sorry for the long comment Bridget, it's our habbit: We talk a lot:)

Anonymous said...

This is an aweful replay and a very silly blog, i thus have no desire of wasting my time in answering you Mazen. You arew maybe one of those who get just impressed by any foreigners and you think that what they say is cool because they are foreigners.
I didn't read the whole blog and don't want to waste more time. i dropped by to see if Bridget answered, anyway thank you for answering eventhough i don't agree with you at all.The tone in your article is so negative and is trying to show how bad we are, I felt this tone so much.
About u mazen: I feel sorry for you that you took all this time to write and discuss the topic, trying to defend her. either you know her or you are someone who is dying to show what a smart Syrian he is!
I won't waste anymore time on this site, and won't even check if you both answered or not.
sick people!

Mazen said...

Anonymous: I'm so glad you decided to let it go! It's such a discussion strategy - bomb everyone with your toxic words, accuse the whole earth of conspiracy, and then when you lose the lead, you just say "sick people"...
That's the easiest way to avoid defending yourself. It just shows how shallow you are -something I didn't doubt at all.
So glad, though, that you consider this blog "lower" than your mental and intellectual level, so we won't be hearing your smart accusations anymore.
Bridget was right by not wasting too much time on answering you, and she was right that you hadn't read the entire blog.
Thanks God! Again, it'll be quite and interesting without someone quaking around about never-will-be-understood patriotism.
Hope we see more posts from you, Bridget. Don't shut down this blog please, it's so interesting and well-written.
Best wishes to you and to your family!

Bridget said...

Thank you, Mazen, for your kind words. And Anonymous, I promise I won't ever force you to read my blog. :) I sincerely hope you find something that fits your tastes elsewhere.



Marge said...

I live in Croatia (southern Europe right next to Italy, soon part of EU). Even very wealthy people live without those things you are writing about. No garbage disposal in sink, no reminders about passport expiration date, elevators only in buildings with 5 and more stores. Ok, things that are introduced recently (last 5 years) reminders from cell company, gas stoves with electric ignition, dryers are still rare to see in homes (available, but considered luxury), things like waiting to have warm water depends on what type of heating tank you have, also many people still use wood for heating their homes, even in big town. Monthly salary, postman, garbage trucks every morning these things are "normal" since I know, so at least 25 years.

wizart said...

Thanks Bridget for sharing your real life observations. I find your blog which I just discovered very engaging and quite light hearted.

All the best to you and to your family and welcome back anytime.

Warmest Regards,

Anonymous #2 said...

To Anonymous: you're a douchebag, I don't know what's wrong with you, the woman said nothing wrong and if you disagree, then this is not a way of making conversation.

To Bridget: Your blog is very interesting, I like it a lot. Though I believe with some work and money you could've overcome some of the do-it-yourself stuff. However, this way you've experienced the daily life annoyances of an average Syrian family.
Next time ask some local Syrians for help they will be happy to do it. (not your landlord or anyone who may expect to get paid for his efforts... ask a friend)

Majd said...

as a Syrian living in Canada I would love to thank you for all of those lovely little snippets that bring back to me memories of my early childhood summers in the Syria of the early 90's.

Can't wait to go there this summer.