Tale of a Spice Rack – Lessons Learned

I’ve mentioned previously my excitement over having direct access to so many craftsmen and tradesmen. You can have all types things modified, made to your specifications, or made directly from a picture (we know of several people who either gave someone a picture from a catalog, or took a picture of a piece of furniture, and had it made, typically at much less cost).

I’ve partaken of this option a few times. First was when I was introduced to the gallibaya-guy at the Kahn. Ron had been saying, before we ever left the states actually, that we’d have to have “jedi outfits” made for two of our friends’ kids, Janey and Jake. Their parents are big “Star Wars” fans and have passed on the obsession and when we all got together for dinner, it often involved Princess Leia and Darth Vader look-alikes. So when I was in the shop in the Khan and saw an adult gallibaya, with a hood and a cloak, I thought it would be perfect. On the off chance he had kid-ones around, I asked. He said no, but he could have them made! What fun! So I placed two orders, approximated the kids’ sizes by guessing their heights with an ever-fluctuating hand and within a week they were delivered to our apartment. Instead of holding on to them for Halloween or Christmas, we just wanted to send them off right away (also ensures they don’t get misplaced). So here are Janey and Jake modeling their new dress-up outfits.

My next custom-made endeavor involved a cushion for a front hall bench seat. I knew that the upholstery team at the embassy would do side jobs, so I arranged for someone to come to Zamalek to give me pricing on the bench cushion (which I also needed the actual cushion for), as well as recovering our comfy chair and ottoman. He made the measurements, calculated how much fabric I’d need for each, and gave me the price for the labor. I’m still hesitating about recovering the chair right now (maybe we’ll do it right before we leave Cairo instead), but I went ahead with the bench seat and found the fabric at the Boulag market. I called him back, he came, picked it up, and about four days later, right at the beginning of Ramadan, he delivered a professionally made bench cushion, zipper and all. I was so impressed! And the whole thing, including the fabric, foam cushion and labor, cost me less than $50.

We have also been mulling over the idea of having some custom-made wood pieces created while we’re here. Nothing too big, we do have weight restrictions. But in addition to wanting a beautiful piece of furniture, we also have a practical need. We need to create a barrier between the front door and the fat felines. Well, maybe want more than need. But when bringing in groceries, or having guests, we either have to lock the cats up, answer the door carrying a large squirmy feline, or one of us runs interference which tends to look like we’re chasing chickens. Chuckles has already dashed out once. We now have our friend Ben trained to enter our house bent over ready to grab a cat. Annoying.

So I have designed a wooden screen type thing, that would act as a door, creating an enclosed entry foyer. In addition, when we’re not in this apartment, we could use it as a room divider. I drew up some plans, made measurements, even took a picture of the pattern I’d like to use (which I found on the U.S. ambassador’s front door – getting that picture took a little casual stealth). It’s essentially a pattern of squares with open areas. Now, since the purpose for this screen is to prevent cats from getting to the door, and while Chuckles may be a monster beast, Clifford is tiny and demure (well, he’s tiny), so the holes in the screen need to be small enough to prevent a determined cat of varying girths from squeezing through.

We had gotten the name of a carpenter recommended by a friend from work so we had called him to come over and “discuss” our needs. Well, other than “hello” and “yes” his English was about as limited as my Arabic. So our meeting involved a lot of wild hand gesturing, pictures, my diagrams, gesticulating on the wall, arms being used to simulate a door opening, me pointing at hinges on other doors, etc. And finally, I wanted to get across the issue that this should prevent the cats from getting through, so pointing to the diagram, then saying “not big cat” and using my hands to create the open square I pretended to push my face through. I may have just lost one of my Dip Wife badges.

He came back to us with a price that we felt was rather high, so we are still in search of a carpenter (and I will continue to perfect my mime impressions of a fat cat squeezing through a hole).

The most recent endeavor has been my spice rack. It started out with the simple idea of using magnetic tins with clear lids to store spices in. Now, they sell them complete as a set online, and while I liked them, they weren’t 100% what I had in mind. So I recruited my dear friend Robin back home into going to World Market and buying 20 tins for me and sending them to Cairo. (I had attempted to buy these online, but they weren’t available, and I even called the store in Rockville, Maryland to a) verify they had them in stock, and b) see if I could buy them over the phone – I couldn’t.) So they arrived and I was delighted. Now I needed a steel board to mount them on. Being that there’s no Home Depo in Cairo, or anything like it, I found myself playing with the idea of approaching various auto-mechanics, or machinery stores. I even had my summer Arabic teacher help me write out a sentence explaining what I needed.

Luckily at this same time, I was arranging with a mechanic to do some work on the Jeep. He’s an American who’s been here for 20 years, so I figured he’d know where I could go. Well, I needn’t go any farther than him. He said he could get me a piece of steel and I could pick it up when we brought the car to him. Yeah! He asked what sized I needed, so I measured and approximated and gave him the dimensions. When we took the car to him, he had it all ready for me. It needed to be painted and sanded a little, but it was a flat piece of steel. I looked at it and it looked a little small and asked if it was 40x45cm. He said, “It’s Egyptian 40x45cm,” and laughed. It was 38x40cm (ha, ha). But when I asked how much I owed him for it, he said it was free, so I guess I can’t complain too much. [However, as a side note, nothing is free in Egypt. I will delve into this more in another post, but suffice it to say, I got an email from the mechanic a week later asking how my spice rack was and then asking me for a favor. It was a favor that Ron and I didn’t feel comfortable performing, so I told him that we couldn’t, but did offer an alternate solution, which he declined.]

At this point in the spice rack saga, I had 20 tins and a steel sheet. I had decided that I needed some extra tins, so I begged Robin to go get me 10 more, which she did. I then thought of taking the steel to the framers to have framed, so I could hang it on the wall, but then remembered the Black Welders in Maadi who I knew also did custom work. I dragged the steel down to Maadi and he said it would be no problem and would be done in two days. I was leaving for Wales in a few days, so I told him it would be at least two weeks before I could come back, so there was no rush (first mistake). I also paid him (second mistake).

Upon returning from Wales, we stopped by that first weekend on our way to the commissary. He told me it wasn’t ready yet, but would be ready tomorrow (meaning he hadn’t done it and needed less than a day to complete it). When I said, “You said it would take two days and it’s been three weeks,” he smiled and said “Yes.” I wasn’t pleased, but said I’d be back in a week. I was. We returned the following Friday at which point he said his factory was closed today but he immediately added that he’d have it delivered to our house. So I gave him our address in Zamalek and on my way out inquired about a book/plate stand. He told me just to take it, so I thanked him and walked out. Now begins the two and a half weeks of me calling, them promising to deliver it “tonight” and then me calling again. I even called on the Eid and Ron berated me for calling on their “Christmas,” to which I don’t think I had anything nice to say. On my last call I actually heard myself saying, “My husband works for the American embassy and he’s furious about this!” Of course, it’s not like there’s a “Spice Rack Complaint” department or “Egyptian Shopping Aide” division. But I was at my wits end.

Finally, we got a call one night from the guard saying we had a delivery. I went down with my signed receipt. The delivery guy was very nice, handed me my painted, welded spice rack, and then said I owed 50LE for the book stand. I gaped at him a little, actually stammered and stumbled my way back upstairs to get some money. Luckily I had the few minutes to think things through so by the time I returned to him (with the money), I told him, sweetly, that it was my understanding that was a gift for all of the inconvenience. He called the owner, had a very quick conversation, and told me that was fine and he left. Good grief.

When I got upstairs I checked out the end result of my spice rack saga. I loved it! It was better than I had imagined. They do great work – just bad business. And I learned that I have to relax, expect things to arrive when they arrive, and no sooner, and to NOT pay ahead of time as that removes any incentive to deliver. So now my labeled, alphabetized, spices are happy displayed on my beautiful spice rack and Ron doesn’t have to hear me whine about it anymore.