Rain and Night (Grit and Ghetto-rigging)

It is always night here. When by some miracle confluence of the heavens it is not night, it is raining. Sometimes it’s both night and raining.

Initially, I handled this quite well. I composed long journal entries (which I appear never to have posted) about making friends with the night, about decorating my hair with the orange glow of the streetlights in the mist, about the way the darkness swallows my footsteps as I walked. Very noir.

Lately, however, it is wearing on me. Perhaps more so the last few days because I have come to realize precisely how little day there is. When I was in school constantly, I was too busy trying not to die to notice the lack of day. Then, while recovering from school and misadventures in Europe, I was staying up late and sleeping until two or three pm. When I slept that late I could convince myself that I was just sleeping away all the precious hours of daylight. They existed, I just wasn’t experiencing them.

For the last three days, however, I have been going to bed early (I have a new strict bedtime of 10 pm) and bounding out of bed at 8 am. Though perhaps “bounding” isn’t the correct word. Mostly the waking process involves staring at the window in disbelief–how can it still be so dark at 8 am? Only now, at 9:30, has the sky become reasonably light. I can even pretend there is sun up there somewhere, completely obscured by the sheet of cygnet-down cloud. The cloud destroys all directionality of light–I can’t navigate by the sun here. I think the sun might no longer exist. Someone ought to do something about that.

In spite of the constant darkness and damp, I have been a whirlwind of productivity the last few days. As Ilya says, I have “mastered the 7 Habits of Highly Effective Zen Ninjas”. I have been attempting to whittle down my to-do list before school begins again; besides, the productivity itself prepares me for the semester’s work.

Thursday I set about remedying the door squeaks in our apartment. Normally they do not bother me much–however, when I am attempting to go to bed early, Aaron and Alicia’s comings and goings jolt me from my sleep. I can hear every handle turned in the apartment, every door opened and closed. The living room door was particularly loathsome, having not only the worst squeak, but being closest to my room as well. I had not tackled it up until this point because I lacked appropriate lubricants–WD-40 would have been my first choice. However, living with Alicia has been good for me in a number of ways, among them being that I am becoming very good at improvising solutions from what is available.

MacGyvered solution 1: Sunflower oil

So I oiled the hinges with sunflower oil. Now, I’m sure there’s some reason one doesn’t typically use food grade oils for lubricating hinges and other mechanical bits. I suspect it has something to do with the oil going rancid. However, since I intend neither to lick the hinges, nor to live here for very much longer, I am hoping it will not be my problem.

After oiling the hinges it became apparent that the handle was squeaking too, so it came apart and got a good oiling as well. It had previously been lubricated with graphite, which poured out of the screw holes and handle like crushed black diamonds. Which, I suppose, it kind of is.

Also on Thursday I had planned another trip to Lidl to pick up potting soil to repot the herbs and a cabbage for Alicia to steam and wrap around her neck. We had just been to Lidl on Wednesday, but these things were forgotten. In order to make the excursion, however, I needed a dry bra and socks–something difficult to come across as I had just washed all of them.

MacGyvered solution 2: R2D2 the Dehumidifier

Alicia suggested that instead of laying the clothes on the radiator to dry that I hang them on R2D2 (our dehumidifier), as that would presumably go faster. And perhaps it did, but not fast enough. After an hour of waiting, I

MacGyvered solution 3: Hair dryer

So I ended up sticking the socks on the business end of a hair dryer and going to town. It worked spectacularly well, leaving me with dry, toasty socks that let me fantasize briefly that we had a dryer from which I had pulled fresh, deliciously warm, soft and lightly scented clothing.

Which brings us to Lidl. I had brought with me my own backpack and Alicia’s wheelie backpack, in hopes of augmenting my sparkling water supply while I was making the trip. However, upon arriving at Lidl I learned that they didn’t have handy little bags of potting soil. No, that would have been too easy. Instead, they were selling potting soil only in 40 liter quantities. These 40 liter bags of potting soil were not handily backpack shaped, either. Instead, they were flat sheets of soil roughly 2 ft by 3 ft, a few inches deep. I contemplated my predicament–I felt confident that the wheelie backpack had a volume of less than 40 liters–but I was also unwilling to fail in my mission and give Dundee the point on this one. So I heaved a bag of soil into my cart, grabbed the largest cabbage I could find, and checked out. I bought four plastic carrier bags (that’s grocery bag to you folks stateside), in an act that demonstrated significant foresight (maybe even premonition) on my part.

In a move that showed remarkable consideration for the Lidl employees and other customers, I did not attempt to fit 40 liters of soil into a wheelie backpack of a volume less than 40 liters while still in the store. I did not even do it immediately outside of the store. Instead, I wheeled my cart over to a flower bed (still mostly covered in ice, and notably lacking plantings except for one Charlie-Brown-Christmas tree-esque bush).

What no one tells you about trying to survive as a student in a foreign country is that you are going to spend at least some of your time (maybe even a large part of your time) looking like a crazy person. Standing in an icy flowerbed in the Lidl parking lot at night with a cart, a cabbage, two backpacks and 40 liters of soil while trying to cram the 40 liters of soil into a backpack with a volume of less than 40 liters was definitely one of those times for me. After it became apparent that I was not going to fit all of the soil into the wheelie backpack, I arrived at this solution.

MacGyvered solution 4: Scoop soil out of the enormous bag of soil into plastic carrier bags until the volume of the enormous bag of soil is slightly less than the volume of the wheelie backpack. Then attach the carrier bags of soil to the handle of the wheelie backpack. (And they say that that engineering degree isn’t useful. Hah!)

Because attempting to smash the enormous bag of soil into a smaller backpack didn’t make me look crazy enough, I felt it necessary to transfer the excess soil from the enormous bag into carrier bags with the only implements I had available–my hands. But gosh darn it, I paid for that soil and was not going to leave any of it behind if I could help it at all.

I finally managed to remove about 1/3 of the soil from the enormous bag of soil, at which point it fit into the wheelie backpack with only a little bit of persuasion. The remaining soil I quadruple bagged in the carrier bags, put that bundle in a reusable Marks and Spencer carrier bag, and hung the whole shebang from the handle of the wheelie backpack. At which point I was ready to roll. Mostly, anyway–the pavements (sidewalks) have finally been gritted, which was nice while it was still icy. It is not so nice now that the rain has done away with the ice, as in addition to getting tracked into the house, the grit jams the wheels of the wheelie backpack so that I have to stop every few minutes and free the wheels.

The whole fiasco makes me wonder–Dundee is a small enough place, and I wear distinct enough bright colors, how long will it be before I develop a reputation? I can hear the children now…”Mum, isn’t that the lady who was filling bags with dirt outside of Lidl last week?”

When I got home and relayed the tale of my fias
co, Alicia looked at me between fits of laughter and asked, “Why didn’t you just steal the cart?”


Friday was filled with a different variety of fiasco. Oh, sure, it started off innocuously enough, with tea and a to-do list, but I should know better. Sometimes it seems that everything here takes three times as long as it should, and involves so many sub-quests that by the time you finish all the sub-quests you’ve completely forgotten what the original goal was. Often, action-adventure style video games feel that way. However, in such video games there is almost always a task manager of some variety, keeping track of all of the open quests. Someone should write a walkthrough for Scotland.

The problems, as the problems always seem to go here, were a result of the cold and damp. We have been hemorrhaging money on gas and electricity lately, trying to keep this place (with its stupidly cold walls and stupidly high ceilings) some semblance of warm. I needed to buy gas and electricity again, but had been putting it off all morning because I didn’t want to put on real outdoor clothes to venture to Spar. (Why can’t I top up my meter online? Seriously, guys. The system is stupid.) In the afternoon, however, we ran out of gas, making it impossible to complete the other items on my to-do list (dishes, washing bricks) until there was more gas. So up the street I trudged. I bought gas and electricity and returned by a different route, where, for the third time in as many days, I noticed the smell of gas. I wonder if this country is just full of leaky water heaters or something–I smelled it in a couple of places on my way to Lidl.

I get home, turn over the gas and electricity key cards to Alicia, and turn off the water heater while she resets the meter. Only, on inserting the gas card, all the meter will say is, “CALL HELP.” Nothing more useful than that. Not who to call, or why, not even an error code. Just, “CALL HELP.” The only number on the meter is the number to call if you smell gas. Which I had, but that was a block away. So we go to call–but Alicia’s cell phone is low on credit. No big deal, we’ll get my cell phone. We call the number on the meter and explain what happened. They seem somewhat confused as to why we are calling them, and say that we ought to have called our gas and electricity provider. They give us that number, and we call them (at which point my phone credit begins rapidly approaching low). Alicia impresses upon our gas company that we have almost no credit left on our phones and that whatever they need from us they had best get it done quickly. They agree to send out an engineer to check things out. He would be there, they said, within the next four hours.

So we twiddle our thumbs while we wait for the engineer and our apartment grows rapidly colder.

The engineer arrives, fiddles with the meter, and determines that we need a new one. Fortunately (thank heaven) he had one with him, so he popped out to get it. He replaces it and finally, three or four hours after I went up the street to get gas, we have heat again.

In general, I feel like living here is like having a memory leak in a computer program, where here the memory is time. Little things end up costing so much more time than they reasonably should.

Take, for instance, cleaning out and organizing the cabinets under my window. I was so delighted to have some built-in storage space when I moved into my room. I was initially somewhat alarmed by the mold stains, but I figured that it would all be all right and stored things in there anyway.

Four months later, I realize this was a mistake. I pulled my things out of the cabinet to find water on the unfinished wood of the back of the cabinet. Beads of condensation running down the wood, feeding the huge colony of black mold which is growing up from behind the cabinet.

This is clearly not an acceptable place to store things. Arguably, it’s not an acceptable place to live, either, but we do what we must. While I was staring at the biohazard that my cabinets had become, I mentioned to Alicia (who was sitting on my bed reading Neuromancer by William Gibson) that we should probably inform our landlord Stella of the issue of the water and the mold. Then I contemplated what would have to be done about it. As near as I can tell, the water is coming up from the ground–the unfinished wood at the back of the cabinet is wicking it up from somewhere underneath. That means that underneath the built-ins is not sealed properly, which means that in order to fix the problem, they would have to tear out the floor, tear out the built ins, and reseal the entire underfloor. And that’s just the part that prevents the water from getting into the room–likely the problem is caused by water pooling at the base of the building, which is a drainage issue. So fixing all of that is an extremely expensive proposition. In addition to being expensive, it is would also require me vacating this room, which I am not interested in doing since the semester is starting in a few days and I would like as little upset as possible.

MacGyvered solution 5: Baking soda, plastic, and packing tape

Fortunately, I had known that damp was going to be a problem from the day I pulled laundry out of my closet and found it to be ever so slightly moist. Because I knew this, I have been on the lookout for baking soda. As soon as I found it, I bought a good bit (though not as much as I would have liked… they don’t seem to sell it in five pound boxes over here. Oh, Arm and Hammer, what would I do without you?). Also in my favor was Alicia’s insistence that we keep the enormous plastic bags that our new mattresses had come in. The bags were thick and heavy, almost like tarp. She had a feeling that we would need them. And so we did. I opened the jar of baking soda, put it in the cabinet, and then sealed off the cabinet with the thick plastic and packing tape. I recognize that the lack of air flow will undoubtedly make the problem worse. However, I am unwilling to sacrifice my health to prevent a bad problem from becoming worse.

Unfortunately, while I was taping up, I realized that the baseboard under the built-in is also molding. That further supports my “the moisture is wicking up from underneath” theory.

I concluded my MacGyvering spree by making bookends. I located two broken bricks from the rubbish heap in the courtyard, scrubbed them clean, wrapped them in cleaning cloths, wrapped them in plastic, and tied the plastic off with twist-ties. Booyakasha–instant bookends that won’t scratch my shelf.

I missed my bedtime by an hour and a half last night, while trying to finish up the imperative bits of my to-do list, most of which involved chicken stock. I poured the chicken stock into shallow metal containers and shoved them into the freezer in hopes that they would cool fast enough not to become primordial soups of poison. This involved emptying out most of the freezer, as well as spilling chicken stock all over the kitchen. I was able to sort out some bits of chicken from the rapidly disintegrating chicken bones, though–enough to make tasty chicken noodle soup today.

Now if only I can get 1/10 of my writing to-do list done.

Rain and Night (Grit and Ghetto-rigging)

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