Everyone warned us away from the adventure. Building a house in Israel, they told us, is a nightmarish experience. “You’ve got to live here for at least ten years and learn how to be nasty and a cutthroat before getting into the house-building mess”, friends admonished us.
Well, it’s been exactly a year since we ignored this well-intended advice, signed on the dotted line, drew up our plans and began building. We’re more or less finished and now living in the new home.
Along the way I contracted an acute case of ‘kablanitis’, which is a disease one contracts when there’s too many ‘kablanim’ (contractors) around. But we survived! Without being mean or thuggish.
All ye Anglo-Saxons out there who dream of your own home but fear the plunge – take heart! You can insist on your standards – in quality, time, service and menchlechkeit – and win! At least most of the time. Here’s a couple of pointers:
1. Learn Languages: it helps if you speak Bulgarian (bricklayers), Romanian (electricians) and Turkish (tiling), not to mention Arabic (everything else). Then you’ll stand half a chance of finishing up with electrical sockets placed within five meters of where they were supposed to be, and ceramics on the floor, not the ceiling. It’s a veritable Tower of Babel out there.
2. Don’t Accept Favors: Go for the young and hungry. Stay away from contractors who think they’re G-d, and act as if they’d be doing you a favor to take your money. A wonderful pair of Kurdish brothers did our kitchen and other carpentry. They went out of their way to please because they needed the work and wanted an “in” to the new neighborhood. Tip: let them hang their advertising shingle outside your house.
3. Insist on Civility: The banister painter walked in at 6:30 am one morning with a sour disposition and foul mouth. He began cursing me out because he didn’t like the condition of the railing – “you don’t deserve my expertise” — all the while expecting me to thank him for his nobility in coming and to pay him more. So I threw him out and found someone else. Don’t let craftsmen yell at you – it’s standard operating procedure for them. Usually it means that they made a mistake and don’t want to admit it.
4. Try, Try Again: One day medical science will discover the gene which causes the “rip-it-all-up-as-soon-as-you-hit-a-problem” reflex that is characteristic of the contractor race. Like the Pazgaz man who decided after 60 seconds in the house that we had to rip up the kitchen floor because he discerned a blockage in the gas pipe. (I suggested using pressurized gas to force the blockage clear, which worked). Assert yourself; contractors adjust themselves to your standards. Most of the time, the contractor’s ‘destruct-in-order-to-fix’ instinct is wrong.
5. Get a Scheduling Program: We had an air conditioning gas pipe leak under the flooring. ‘Dig it all up’ said Mr. Know-It-All Air Conditioning, who of course blamed every other contractor who worked in the house, except himself. As a result, your painstakingly-planned schedule for wall painting, flooring, carpeting, carpentry and furniture will be thrown off by several days, infuriating all the other contractors down the line. Go and try to line them up again in correct sequence. It’s one big jig-saw puzzle that is constantly being rearranged on the go. Get used to it.
6. Make Friends: Contractors like people who relate to them on a human, personal level, and treat them well. This means plenty of Turkish coffee and ice water, but also taking the time to get to know your kablan and listening to his opinions on national security, nuclear physics and Princess Diana. Besides the fact that such an approach pays in terms of better service returned, I’ve discovered a salt-of-the-earth sincerity and straight-thinking wisdom out there. A lot of respect for tradition too. Ehud Barak should build a house sometime if he really wants to get a handle on public opinion ‘in the street’ and win the next election.
7. Rejoice: Building a home in the land of Israel is a holy venture, that in the end, provides enormous personal satisfaction and a sense of achievement. Don’t let the leaky toilets and crooked door frames make you lose sight of that. We aren’t the pioneers of 70 years ago who dried the swamps and reclaimed the Galilee, but I nevertheless feel privileged to have added one more stake in the homeland. May the Lord bless our little home on the range with all good fortune.
* Originally published in The Jerusalem Post on October 19, 1997.