Sunday, January 13, 2008

The (tin) roof over my head...

The weather and plant life of the San Francisco Bay Area are remarkably similar to that of the Cape Town region. Knowing this, when I moved from the former to the latter, I had this kind of subconscious expectation of finding the housing to be roughly similar as well.

I was wrong.

In America, wood is relatively cheap and easily obtainable. In South Africa, however, wood is too costly to choose over cheap and readily available clay and cement bricks, so the houses here are mostly made of brick. Besides, the Bay Area is plagued with earthquakes, something virtually unknown in South Africa, and that fact alone affects Bay Area architecture. Houses that are stick-built rather than brick-built are more likely to flex in a quake: rigid brick buildings tend to come apart when the earth beneath them begins to rhumba, raining bricks and mortar onto any unfortunate occupants and the streets outside.

But the differences don’t stop there. We’ve never heard of shingle roofs in this place! You can drive from one end of the country to the other and you won’t find one! Cement tile roofs, thatched roofs, even the occasional slate roof…but not one cedar shake or asphalt shingle will greet your eye. Mostly what you will see, however, are roofs made of corrugated tin, and those, mostly, will be painted green.

Americans tend to think of corrugated tin roofs as being very down market, the kind thing that you find on tumble-down shacks in rural poverty pockets. South Africans, on the other hand, find corrugated tin sheets to be perfectly acceptable roofing for dwellings of any calibre, up to and including luxury homes in exclusive areas and five star boutique hotels. But, since South Africa does very little in the way of insulation, the roofs tend to be rather ineffective for anything other than keeping the rain…and uninvited guests…out. They certainly do very little to keep a house the desired temperature inside!

Bay Area residents who don’t have air conditioning in their homes (by far the majority) depend on open windows and fans for cooling. Despite intensive vector control efforts on the part of the county, however, pests such as mosquitoes and flies (not to mention larger four-legged mammalian pests…and even some two-legged ones) are a regular problem. The solution is simple: window screens, something seen on virtually every house in America. In fact, when I was selling my house in California, it was missing two window screens and the agent informed me that I had to replace them or she couldn’t list the house!

By contrast, after four years in South Africa, I have yet to see a window or door screen! There are no vector control programs by the municipality and mosquitoes are a fact of life to the degree that bug spray companies like Raid (yes, we have Raid here) make products that plug into the wall and give off a mosquito-killing vapour throughout the night so you can sleep without being chewed alive. Mosquito nets aren’t the romantic d├ęcor items they are in the States, here they are functional additions to the bedroom…we sleep under them or risk being sucked dry in the night.

And its not just mosquitoes that fuel small industries…you know those net “food umbrellas” that are so commonplace on picnic tables in the summer? Well, they are an everyday part of the South African kitchen. The flies here are aggressive, fearless and persistent, and are not easily waved away. They fly right for your nose or eyes…I’ve had them fly up under my glasses! One would think that people would screen their doors and windows to keep the cheeky buggers outside where they belong, but the styles of windows built into the majority of houses here just aren’t screenable…and that’s assuming you could even find window or door screens at all!

Drains…yes, drains…are different here. In the US, when the water goes down the sink drain, it goes directly to the sewer without ever being seen again. While that is true of toilet drains here…they are entirely enclosed…sink drains are different. And not better. We live near a “vlei”…a wetland…and insect life is rife in such a place. Not only do mosquitoes regularly grace us with the dubious honour of their bloodsucking presence, those drains are an “open house” sign to every manner of creepy crawly creature in the environment…most especially cockroaches. They emerge from the underground drains at night and clamour up the household pipes that lead to the open drains and crawl right up the drainpipes into sinks, tubs, and showers! In America, of course, the house drains merge into a single drain to the sewers without ever seeing daylight. Here, there is an open drain outside the kitchens and/or bathrooms that multiple pipes from the house flow into, and that drain merges with the toilet drains underground and flow to the sewer. I haven’t yet hit upon a surefire solution for keeping the roaches outside, but spraying around the drain openings helps, assuming you are ok with indiscriminate pesticide spraying. I used to not like pesticides, but after four years of finding these nasty little unwelcome visitors using my drainpipes like a freeway to the inside of my house, my qualms have been laid to rest!

Another major difference between homes here and in the Bay Area is in the area of heating. We don’t have any.

Well, that’s not strictly true…we do have fireplaces and space heaters, but furnaces for winter heating? Those we do not have. And I’m not just talking about older homes or low cost housing, either. From newly built tract developments to luxury homes in exclusive areas, South African houses are built without heat.

Now I find this to be truly peculiar. With weather similar to the Bay Area, which gets damned cold in the winter time, I cannot imagine why built-in heat is absent in houses here, particularly in newly built ones. In Silicon Valley I had an older home (built in 1960) and when I remodelled in 2003 I not only replaced the original gas furnace, I replaced the thermostat as well. I was thrilled with the ability to program the furnace to come on just before I arose each morning and warm the house before I had to hop out of bed, and to automatically shut down as scheduled, only to come on again just before I get home. My heating bill plummeted as I obtained better control of my furnace and was able to heat just the rooms I needed for the limited time I needed them to be warm.

My first South African winter was a huge surprise! You have to understand that Cape Town is a thoroughly modern city, complete with freeways, smart shopping malls, and such contemporary culture icons as McDonalds, KFC, and Coca Cola. We have glass-fronted highrises, five star hotels and restaurants, and a yacht club. And mile after mile of neat suburbs full of snug modern homes ranging from condos to mansions…none of which have built-in heating systems! With winter temperatures as low as 40F…same as the Bay Area (and the optimal temperature for the inside of your refrigerator!)…but in a house with uninsulated brick walls, an uninsulated tin roof, and no furnace, I froze my buns off that first winter!

Another great surprise for me occurred the first time I wanted to use my curling iron. I have that awful baby hair…a head full of thin, silky, stick-straight tresses that cannot be coaxed or coerced into curls…or even waves…without the diligent application of heat and those heat-activated sprays. Imagine my astonishment when I first went into the bathroom, arms laden with brushes, sprays, clips, pins and curling irons (I have two…a big one and a little one) and could find no wall outlets! (We call them “plug points” here.) Well, I assumed this was some kind of oversight in the little cottage we were living in until we moved into our second home. This house had been recently remodelled and a sumptuous new master bath had been installed, and there were no plug points in the bathrooms in this house, either! It seems that you aren’t allowed to put plug points into a bathroom here, which I find bizarre.

Now this is this massively inconvenient if you want to do something like…oh, say…blow dry your hair…or use a curling iron…or an electric shaver…or plug in a charger for said shaver or perhaps your electric toothbrush. But aside from inconvenience, just think about stepping out of the shower on a 40˚F winter day…you are dripping wet in a bathroom that doesn’t have any heat, the walls and ceilings are not insulated, the floor is ceramic tile laid over cement, and there is no place to plug in a small space heater, either. Winter bathing here is for the brave…or the resourceful: I have a long extension cord and a small heater under my dressing table in the bedroom and when I go into the shower, it sneaks around the corner into the bathroom and contentedly hums its merry…and warm!...little self as an accompaniment to my shower!

While living in the Bay Area and married to my now-late husband, Chuck, I came across something I found quite curious. His brother’s new wife, a slavish trend follower (although very much old enough to know better!), decided to remodel the kitchen and in doing so, had an entire wall of beautiful oak cabinets scrapped. Now, these people had the kind of money that people like you and I only wish for, so cost was not a factor in her remodel. And yet, for some reason I simply could not fathom at the time, she choose to replace those gorgeous oak cabinets with cheap white melamine! When I questioned her choice, she informed me that these were “Euro-style” cabinets, her tone clearly implying that made them superior to the natural oak she had so cavalierly discarded. I didn’t get it.

It took moving to South Africa for me to finally figure it out. Despite its location at the southern most tip of the continent of Africa, this country is more European than not. Europeans flock here for their winter holidays because it is mid-summer here, and the place abounds with great hotels, eateries, and shopping at a fraction of what they pay for the same in Europe. The dominant culture here is Western and white, even though the majority of the population is black. This country is more European than African, and it was that fact that finally unlocked the puzzle of a rich American woman putting tacky melamine cupboards into the kitchen of her luxury home.

Wood, as mentioned before, is scarce here, and so South Africans have warmly embraced melamine as a substitute. And where did they learn that? From the Europeans, who have been faced with dwindling timber resources for some time. In a classic example of acute shallowness, my unquestioningly unoriginal sister-in-law completely overlooked the fact that melamine kitchen furnishings exist as a cheap (read that inexpensive and tacky) substitute for wood cabinets that had priced themselves out of the market for the European middle-class. Struck only by the fact that they were the latest rage in Europe, regardless of reason, she junked thousands of dollars worth of perfectly functional oak cabinets and replaced them with tacky, cheap, and tasteless white melamine. It would be like trading in her giant diamond for a cubic zirconium of the same size for no more reason that CZs had become the newest “must have” Euro-trend.

You cannot find wood cabinetry here. At least not the kind of wood cabinetry that Americans are familiar with seeing hanging on their kitchen walls. Wood furniture is amazingly expensive (no wonder my husband wanted me to bring my wood furniture here from the States!), and the average middle class South African cannot afford to have wood cabinets built for their kitchen. But South Africa takes its design and fashion cues from Europe and it shares Europe’s paucity of wood, so it’s no surprise that Europe’s answer to escalating wood prices…cheap melamine cabinets…is the kitchen furniture of choice here. But the fact that they are economical and ubiquitous doesn’t make them anything more than a cheap substitute for the real thing, despite marketing spin designed to make us think we are buying the silk purse of “Euro design” instead of the sow’s ear of cheap melamine: fibreboard covered with plastic-impregnated paper.

But for all that, South Africa really does have some lovely homes and with a little practice, some of the differences in design can be worked around. We had our handyman build us screens for an outside drain so that water can go down it, but nothing can come up. We still don’t have window or door screens, but the sumptuous gauze canopy over our bed pretty much makes up for it. And heat? Well, my husband had our bedroom suite air conditioned last year and lo and behold! It has a programmable remote and one of its settings is “heat.”

I was toasty warm last winter!

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