We had our home and we had the heating, but not much else, and Algeria in 2004 was rather limited in its choice of furniture. We decided to start with beds for the children (we had brought our own Ikea one) and found a wonderful carpenter who lived on our road and who actually listened to my husband and made everything according to our explicit instructions. I had this bright idea that it would be nice to have guest beds that slid under the beds and could be pulled out whenever necessary and he made them with a clip to stay attached to the bed underneath when not in use and with castors for easy use. These became the bane of my life as the head of each of the beds was in an alcove, and then as the guest bed became very dusty, I had to pull the bed out of the alcove, then pull the guest bed out, clean it, clean the floor underneath the bed and then push the guest bed back in, and push the bed back in place. What a palava! To add insult to injury, when we had guests they usually preferred to sleep on mattresses directly on the floor - so much cooler in the hot summer months. We now use the guest beds as low divans (we gave two away) in our living room which have become very popular with the family and guests alike. I have had many a guest come and lie down and promptly fall asleep… can’t think why!
Most homes have much the same furniture with much the same arrangement, although 9 years on this has changed a little. Every living room (called a ‘salon’ here, the French may have left but their influence lives on), has at least 2 ‘canopies’. Now, where I come from ‘canopy’ means cover or shelter, but here it means something that resembles a divan, sometimes with two drawers underneath for storage. The mattress is covered in the same material as the three big cushions that form support for the back, and sometimes they put a big round armrest on either side also covered so that it looks like a pseudo sofa. It’s fine until you sit down and decide to lean on one of the arm rests which then slides off the end of the canopy and leaves you unbalanced (in more ways than one) and if you’re holding a cup of coffee then you’re really stuffed.
All salons have a ‘bibliothèque’ which I learnt in my French classes in school as the word for library, but here in Algeria it means display case with not a book in sight, but instead coffee and glass sets and other various ornaments. Of course you have to have the coffee table, and maybe a television in the corner and often you may also have a wardrobe with some large alien shapes on top (usually large saucepans for the huge amounts of food to be cooked during weddings, funerals etc.) draped in embroidered material, maybe a vase or two of dried flowers and…. a suitcase, also draped in embroidered material. If you ever got a glimpse inside one of these wardrobes you could be forgiven for thinking that your host had OCD, because you will ALWAYS find each shelf (and you will find only shelves, never any bars from which to hang clothes) with all the contents immaculately folded in order of size, with the shelf trimmed in frilly lace. I have tried in the past to keep clothes on shelves very neatly folded, but all it takes is one frantic rush to pull something out from underneath all the rest of the clothes, for my efforts to resemble the bargain bin in a department store. And the suitcase? That’s usually something the bride brings with her when she moves in. An Irish friend visited us in 2004 and, after visiting some of my in laws in their homes, she laughed at how every home was exactly as I had said it would be, and all almost identical.
Our next venture was to have fitted wardrobes in the bedrooms made. My husband insisted on having the carpenters come from the town near where we first moved to Algeria… an hour and a half’s journey each way from our home. ‘They are known for their carpentry in this area and they are experts at what they do’ he explained. When I asked him what will happen if they can’t get a lift to our home, he told me that it would be their problem. As I expected… it became our problem with my husband driving there to collect them and then bring them home in the evening. They measured up for the wardrobes and then brought the framework first and then afterwards, the doors. Builders in Algeria seem to have the attitude of why use a spirit level when you can just as easily use a thread and some nails. As a result many houses have a little quirkiness to them, which doesn’t endanger the safety of the house, but can be a challenge when decorating, and, in this case building cupboards. Of course the frames didn’t fit properly because the walls and floors were not all the same level all the way across, so the gaps had to be filled in and disguised. Finally we had our doors and our wardrobes looked great… until we opened the doors. ‘Mum, these wardrobes are really nice’, said my 9 year old son, ‘but where are we supposed to hang up our clothes?’ Good question… considering there was absolutely nothing at all inside the doors… no side partitions, no shelves, no… nothing! ‘Oh but they are extra’ said our carpenter-experts-in-their-field (I kind of wished I could just shove them out in a field and leave them there). So we had to pay them extra, more trips up and down before we finally could use our wardrobes. The mind boggles as to what exactly they thought we could do with an empty frame of a wardrobe. But soon after the exact same thing happened to a friend of mine using completely different carpenters from another area.
Whenever you complain about how long something takes here in Algeria you are usually given the stock reply ‘Shweya, shweya’ which means little by little, or ‘blaucal, blaucal’ which means slowly, slowly.. and they’re not kidding! If Muslims were allowed to have a headstone on their grave with an epitaph, mine would read – ‘she died as she lived… shweya, shweya, blaucal, blaucal’.