October 17, 2005

Moving In

If you want to find an apartment in Beirut, choose the neighborhood you want to live in, find a coffee shop or bar, and pull up a seat. Then announce to the bartender that you’re looking for a place to live. Someone within earshot is bound to know someone who knows someone who has an apartment for rent. Fellow patrons will hand you phone numbers and names.

Every time I used this method to find landlords it worked, even though I always worried the bartender would say “why are you telling me this?” Few apartments are advertised for rent in the Daily Star or anywhere else. For the most part, real estate “listings” travel by word of mouth.

This system wore me out after a couple of days. One of two things would happen. Either the landlord was out of town and couldn’t show me the apartment until several days later. Or I did see an apartment and I thought it was grim or too far from downtown. It is possible to find a decent apartment on my modest budget. But I quickly learned that furnished apartments almost uniformly have depressing furniture. Why should the landlords care if the furniture looks good or not? They don’t have to live with it themselves.

So I decided to use a real estate agent. He was a bit expensive, but time was money. If he could find me a place to live faster I would save money on my hotel bill.

His name was Michel. He drove me around Beirut in his red sports car. He said he was 79 years old, which I refused to believe. (He couldn’t have been a day over 60.) He served me coffee, whiskey, and cigarettes in his salon every day before we started our hunt. “You must come to my house and eat dinner sometime,” he said. “If you have a problem, day or night, just come on over. We never close.”

We looked at 20 or so apartments all over Gemmayze and Achrafieh. The routine was the same as before: the landlord was nowhere to be found, or the furniture was gruesome even to look at.

There was an exception, though. An old man was turning a 1980s office building in Gemmayze into apartments. It sounds like it wouldn’t work. Who wants to live in an office building? But the man was doing a fantastic job of it. It didn’t look anything like an office building inside. He did what he could to make each unit look like a home that had never been used as anything else. The floors were made of polished gray and white marble. He promised to provide brand-new furniture in every apartment. He hadn’t even bought the furniture yet, that’s how new it was going to be.

He showed me several apartments and I found the one I wanted. We settled on five hundred dollars a month for a spacious two-bedroom, three-bathroom place.

“When will the apartment be ready?” I asked the old man through one his younger employees, Jad, who translated for us.

“It depends on how much work you want us to do. Do you want us to buff the floors?”

The floors looked great, and I didn’t want to wait. “Please just paint the walls and put some furniture in. I won’t need anything else.”

“We can do that in three days,” he said.

My agent Michel said he would go over the contract with me and the old man. He wanted to make sure I wouldn’t be overcharged for utilities. (Electricity should cost around 10 dollars per month, but foreigners sometimes get screwed out of 100 dollars per month.) Michel also said he would lobby the old man to change anything about the apartment I was not happy with before he would permit any money to change hands.

It sounded fantastic to me. Michel was earning his money.

But then I learned what “tomorrow” means in Lebanese.

Three days later, as I was crossing my fingers and hoping I could really move in, Michel called me.

“Michael” he said. “The apartment is not ready. He said it will be ready tomorrow.”

Sigh. I had a feeling that’s what he would say. Something was bound to go wrong. Perhaps the painter didn’t turn up. Maybe the furniture delivery guys were delayed for whatever reason. I didn’t know and I didn’t care. It was not a big deal. I was just a bit disappointed.

The next day Michel called again. “Michael,” he said. “The apartment is not ready. He said it will be ready tomorrow.”

Now I was getting annoyed. My hotel cost three times as much as the apartment and I do not have unlimited funds.

The next day it was the same. “Michael,” Michel said on the phone. “The apartment is not ready. He said it will be ready tomorrow. But this man…this man, I know him. He is not correct. He speaks just to speak.”

I asked Michel to show me some more apartments in Achrafieh and Gemmayze. Obviously the old man couldn’t be trusted. When he says “tomorrow” he clearly does not mean tomorrow.

So the next day Michel took me to see some more apartments. I found a place I considered taking all the way at the far end of Achrafieh for 500 dollars. The furniture was gruesome as usual, but perhaps I could replace it with some of my own. The apartment was ready to move into immediately, and the landlord was a genuine pleasure to meet.

“Let me think about it for a day,” I said to the landlord and to Michel. “I really like the other place. Maybe it really will be ready tomorrow. It has to be ready at some point.”

The next day Michel called again. “The apartment still is not ready, Michael. But it will be ready tomorrow at 6:00.”

“I don’t believe it,” I said. “That’s what he always says.”

“He called me twice today to tell me it will be ready tomorrow. He never did that before. He swears it will be ready tomorrow. I never believed him before. He speaks just to speak. But I do believe him this time. The apartment is completely finished and painted. He bought all the furniture. He is only waiting for it to be delivered.”

Okay, I thought. Maybe I believed it a little bit too. I needed to believe it. I had spent so many hours looking for a place that I could have been spent traveling around, researching, writing, and blogging.

The next day at 3:00 in the afternoon, three hours before the place was supposed to be ready, I went to the apartment building myself. I wanted to check on the progress. I wanted to see for myself what was happening instead of hearing about it through other people.

I went up the stairs to the third floor where my flat-to-be was. The door was open. I heard a huge ruckus inside that sounded like a saw cutting through wood.

I knocked. “Hello,” I said. Jad, the old man’s employee who had translated for us before, was shocked to see my face.

“Hello,” he said. “We are buffing the floors.”

I asked them not to buff the floors. The floors did not need to be buffed. I only wanted to wait for them to paint. No one had painted the walls yet. I was dealing with liars.

“Why is there no paint on the walls?” I said. “The landlord said he already painted.”

Jad did not answer my question.

“How much did you say you would pay for this apartment?” he said.

“Five hundred dollars a month.”

His eyes turned to saucers. “Five hundred dollars a month! No way. Who quoted you five hundred dollars a month?”

“You did,” I said.

“No, I did not,” he said. “We would never rent this apartment for only five hundred dollars a month.”

“We agreed to five hundred dollars per month. We shook hands on the deal. You were there. You said five hundred dollars, not me. All I did was agree to the price. I tried to haggle you down to four hundred. Remember?”

“I don’t remember that.”

“But I agreed to five hundred.”

I took another look around. Obviously there was no furniture inside the place yet.

“When will this place be ready?” I asked.

“Four days,” he said.

“Four days!” I said.

“Maybe five,” he said and shrugged.

“Good bye,” I said. “I’m not waiting five days.”

“As you wish,” he said.

I turned to go, then turned around to face him again.

“Why was I told the apartment would be ready ‘tomorrow’ for four days in a row when it clearly would not be ready tomorrow?”

“You never paid us any money,” he said. “How did we know you really wanted it?”

“I told you I wanted it,” I said. “Michel and I called every day. I held up my end of the bargain. You didn’t. So now you lose five hundred dollars a month.”

He shrugged. The old man probably paid him an exploitive wage anyway. It looked like that kind of place.

I was 350 dollars poorer in hotel bills because I trusted him and because I trusted that “tomorrow” actually meant tomorrow rather than later.

I finally found an apartment. It is in the center of Achrafieh, not at all a long walk to downtown.

I bought an entire set of furniture from someone who left the country for a new job. The furniture isn’t exciting. But it isn’t grim, either. The person who first bought it two years ago is the same person who had to live with it. My landlord is terrific. I spoke to one of his Western tenants who has known him for years and counts the man as a dear friend.

So I’m finally settled into Beirut. I can finally relax, finally cook my own meals, finally sleep in my own bed, and finally focus on work.

I haven’t felt this good since I got here.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 17, 2005 11:17 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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