The long intermission

Jean-Louis_Forain_-_Un_bal_à_l'Opera

Houses are great places to live if you’re lucky enough to have one. Even if your house is technically someone else’s – and you pay them enough rent every week that you’ll never be able to afford your own – they’re still a good deal. Except, of course, for the times that they’re not. Times like when you find your air conditioner has given you legionnaires disease, you’ve been breathing in asbestos, or your slum-lord’s property manager has conducted an inspection and left a really snarky note. I imagine that most people have at least one story about how their ‘castle’ has turned on them, and I am no exception. I have more than one, actually, but I have in mind a particular instance that happened in more recent memory. I even have a name for that time: The long intermission.

As I’ve given that time a name, one could be forgiven for thinking that it was an overly dramatic period in my life. It wasn’t, probably. Nor was it in reality particularly long; although it did feel like it. In truth, it was within the normal range of inconvenient experiences the average house dweller goes through. Yet, as far as I can tell, most lives are a collection of fairly unremarkable experiences made more interesting in the ways that they are told later, and I don’t see why my own life should be any different. Or perhaps that’s just my life, and everybody else really is as interesting as they seem in their stories? Whatever the case may be, it was significant for its inconvenience and already has a title, so I thought I’d take a run at telling at least one version of it. Houses being a rich source for metaphorical thinking, if I’m really lucky the tale will contain layers that point beyond the substance of the story to deeper ‘truths’. Just so you know, if that does happen, I totally did it on purpose. Unless it turns out that I disagree with the ‘truths’ metaphorically gleaned, in which case that was a complete accident, and I am in no way responsible. But, permit me to start with some context.

I live in the tropics. I wasn’t born here, nor did I grow to adulthood in this place, it’s just where I live now. How I got here is another unremarkable story for another time; a version of which has already been written and ‘published’ in an earlier post. What is important, is that I love it here. If you were to ask me what my favorite season is, I would tell you that it’s tropical. Of course, you would quite rightly suggest that tropical is not a season, but a climatic zone, and ask which tropical season I liked best. In that case, I would tell you that I like both seasons the best, which is why tropical is a season for me, and not a climatic zone. We would probably argue about that for hours. Oh the fun we would have. Naturally, you’d end up winning, and I’d have to concede that there are two seasons – more or less – and my subjective judgements don’t count as evidence.

The two tropical seasons break down roughly as a ‘dry’ season and a ‘wet’ one. There are also what I like to call ‘micro-seasons’ within each, but I’d never be able to convince you that those are real things, so I won’t go into those here. Calling the seasons dry and wet is very convenient, since the names suggest what happens during each period. Unlike your temperate seasons, where the names don’t really tell you anything useful (except for that one season in the U.S.), dry indicates that things will be dry, and wet tells you that you will need an umbrella much of the time. The best part is that there really is no winter. Not even a little one. Seriously, I can rock around in shorts and a T-shirt all year and it will never be considered weird. Imagine that you lived in a place where you had summer all year round, only you get all the sunny days over six months, followed by all the warm rainy days for the next six. I am a fan of hot clear sunny days, and also of warm heavy rains, so this works for me. I can see that it might not be to everybody’s taste, though.

There is a slight drawback to this otherwise spectacular weather: the environment is very hard on anything engineered by human beings. (It’s also quite hard on human beings, and no amount of top-of-the-line moisturizer can help with that.) It is a constant battle out here; nature is always trying to reassert itself by washing away roads or baking buildings beyond tolerances. I get the sense that nature is really pissed off; this might have something to do with the fact that thirty-odd years ago where I live used to be tropical rain forest. You can’t leave so much as a blade of grass standing if you don’t want the trees to grow back and find yourself surrounded by snakes, monkeys, and big cats keen to eat you. I myself like trees, so I never cut the lawn, and would be be quite happy to have the jungle rejuvenate around me. Still, given the extreme environment, and the constant war being waged by Mother Earth on the human population, houses are very important. They are protection.

Given the weather, a roof is especially important. It will stop your average person being either cooked or drowned, depending on which part of the long summer they are experiencing. It’s also handy for keeping the man-eating snakes out. But because humans make roofs, they break. And when they break out here, you’re in trouble. Also, the roof will definitely try to take the rest of your house with it. This is what precipitated my ‘long intermission’: a broken and deteriorating roof.

My house is not a big house. Big enough for myself, the cats that are in charge of me, and the dogs that are the boss of no one. It is not big enough to hold a dinner party, but it still serves my very modest needs, and I’ve never liked dinner parties anyway. Being a small house, it is remarkable that I didn’t notice that the roof had started leaking until quite late in the game. In fact, I seem to recall that when I first began to notice puddles on the floor I blamed the cats. The cat’s just turned around and blamed the dogs, and the dogs showed enough indifference that I believed what the cats had told me. It was a tense time at the homestead until I caught the roof in the act of leaking, and had to apologize to all of my animal house mates.

Not being very handy, my solution to deal with the leaky roof was to catch all the leaks in plastic buckets. This worked well at first, and I only needed to worry about it for half the the year anyway, so I was comfortable that my apathy had produced a reasonable work around to the problem. Yet, slowly more buckets became necessary, and were required over much more of the house. By its worst point, I’d lost all of the spare room and half the kitchen to the wet season. It became clear that unless I wanted to end up like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, I was going to have to make the obvious decision: get someone to fix the roof.

Finding someone to fix a roof where I live is not so easy as you might think. First, you actually have to find someone that will turn up to give you a quote. This took months in my case. But the quote is not the important part – it’s not necessarily the cheapest price that wins the Job, it’s the contractor whom lies the best. This is sort of the same way that politicians get their jobs, I think. With any kind of work out here, it is hardly ever the case that you can find person that actually knows how to do the job they’re trying to get. Even then, you’ll most likely end up with someone that spends most of his working day trying to find ways not to do the job, and other people to blame for why that job has not been done. (Now that I see this written down, I find the parallels between contractors and politicians quite remarkable.) For things roof related, you can just forget about anyone having trained as a builder. If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with MacGyver – MacGyver types do well here. I am in no way like MacGyver.

Just as I am in no way like MacGyver, I’m also not at all like Noam Chomsky. That’s a problem because English is not the language spoken here, and as a native English speaker I’ve had some trouble trying to acquire the lingua franca. I know enough to get by, especially as regards ordering a beer, but not enough that I could win any accolades as a linguist. Nor, it seems, enough to make myself intelligible to roofing contractors. (I assume that bar owners are better at understanding my accent because they are just more used to drunk people speaking in ways that are hard to make sense of.) The difficulty here, was that I could in no way convince the contractor that I wanted to get the roof replaced once the dry season had started. He wanted to start right away, and I wanted to wait until the sunny weather kicked in. “Besides,” I think he said, “it’ll only take two weeks.”

At that point, the length of time it would take was not really the issue, more that most of the roof would be missing, and ‘indoors’ would be ‘outdoors’ for that two weeks. I tried to make him understand through sign language – I believe I could have won an award for my ‘interpretation’ of heavy tropical rain – all to no avail. So, I phoned a friend to help me translate my concerns. Which, she did.

You’d think that would clear it up and be enough to postpone a re-roof for a few weeks, wouldn’t you? And perhaps it would have, if I hadn’t been ‘foreign’. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced this, but to be foreign – even if you are a highly educated man – is pretty much equivalent to being stupid once you leave your own country. This remains true even if that country does speak the same language as your own. Even, if like me, you are a permanent resident of the place you are being foreign in – and thus ‘legal’ – you are still basically an idiot for choosing to be born somewhere else. In fact, it has been my experience that the only opinion that you are allowed to express whilst being foreign in your new home, is that the new home is really awesome, and so much better than the place you came from. To say anything else is likely to get you lynched. I know this, because I have been foreign in more than one country for extended periods. The upshot was, that because I was clearly stupid, the roof would go up according to the contractor’s timeline. After all, it’s not like he would be rained on, and stupid people are obviously waterproof.

And so the roof came down, and the rains came with it. The roof stayed down, for more than two weeks, because not being waterproof, the contractor couldn’t work in the rain. For more than a month I had to pack my whole life, and myself, into my bedroom. It was like being a teenager again, only with more cooking, and less band posters. I tried to find out what was taking so long, only to discover it was not anybody’s fault, except maybe for that fat guy on the roofing crew whom was unable to climb a ladder. More likely, it was my fault for organizing to get a roof fixed during the wet season, which is just the sort of thing you expect from a stupid foreigner, and why that fat guy is allowed to strip all the fruit off my fruit trees instead of climbing ladders.

On it went, my long intermission – my life shut down because I work from a home that now only existed as a bedroom. It did end eventually, although the roof still leaked afterwards, but it left me slightly traumatized and a bit depressed. I seriously thought about, somehow, finding the money to return to my home country. But then I realized, I’d been away from my country for so long, that I counted as being foreign there too. I don’t even get to vote there any more, which is a serious bummer, as I don’t get to vote anywhere, but still have to live in a world made from the votes of other people. Such can be the consequences of any ‘long intermission’.

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