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.

Unattended street kiosk?

A few of our favorite things - Syrian restaurant