Renovations in the time of Covid lockdowns

Imagine getting trapped by lockdown in the middle of a house reno. That’s exactly what happened to CARRIE STEELE.

Cleaning up the kitchen floor in lockdown

I’m on sabbatical. That’s not quite as impressive as it sounds. Truth is, I haven’t been job hunting yet because my ‘new job’ has been to stay at home and hope that tradies call me back about my renovations.

I’ve made some progress now in that it has moved on from just them talking to me, to actually being here in my apartment, working! In fact, not just my apartment, but also another in my building at the same time. We are in fact heaping a double dose of disruption and inconvenience onto other residents (our neighbours) in the deluded belief that this will make it easier for them to bear.

 

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I’m not sure how this is working out though. Whether my neighbours are in fact quite thrilled with the plan, or whether they are quietly cursing us and spending most of the day wearing earplugs. Last week, I stood on the street by the letterbox to chat on the phone because the noise of the drilling to remove the tiles from the bathroom wall was excruciating. It was fairly audible down on the street, so I’m guessing that quite possibly there are people right now who are making voodoo dolls (of me and my reno pal) and anytime now I’ll be feeling the stabs. Understandably.

The makeshift kitchen

The trouble with a renovation, and I should know this, since hubby and I have tortured ourselves with several, is that it never ends up being quite what you planned at the start. A renovation nearly always (always) turns into an out-of-control beast, hungry for money, and with a thrashing tail if you get too close.

And secrets are well kept – until you bust into a wall. Sometimes the surprises are tame, like the dustpan and shovel and someone’s old singlet that I’m planning to retrieve out of one of the service risers that I now have full access to because the wallboard is off. I’ve waited until there are no tradies here to do this, so as not to cause too much amusement about me needing to clean up inside of wall space. I saw those items (along with a whole heap of loose plaster rubble and goodness knows what else) when I peered into the shaft earlier this week, but couldn’t reach them with my little arms, and was reluctant to ask one of the tradies to hold onto my ankles while I took a dive.

A pipe

In case you are wondering why I was peering into the shaft in the first place (well, I’m that sort of person, if there is a shaft I want to see what’s in it…), I was doing so in the hope that I might just see a shiny metal hatch key lying in the bottom. That being the one and only hatch key I have, the very one that gains access to the three hatch doors in my laundry cupboard. In case you’re wondering what a service riser is, it’s a means of access to an essential service, such as water pipes, or the ventilation system. Not terribly exciting, but essential all the same. Up until recently, I had been keeping the key secretly stashed in a small and carefully labelled plastic bag, ready for the time that I would be asked to provide access and would very efficiently be able to do so. And that is what happened on Monday a couple of weeks back, reno day one when the question was put to me: “Where does the water come into your apartment?”

In all honesty, when asked that, on top of all that was going on at the time (hammering, sawing, the radio belting out), I realised that I had absolutely no idea where the water came in. And at that point, I didn’t even think of the risers. Nor my little hatch key.  Lucky for me, I could make a distress call to a very kind 87-year-old neighbour who lives upstairs and knows everything that is important about the building. He calmly directed me to one of the risers, checking that I had a hatch key. “Oh yes I do,” I proudly answered, a sense of confidence returning. And so, it came to be that the hatch key was retrieved from the plastic bag and handed to the plumber to unlock the hatch. And it’s not been seen since. It’s beyond me what the plumber did with it. Swallowed it perhaps? In hindsight, I should have opened the hatch and taken the key away again, and I know that now. But not before I had to spend time tracking down where I could get another hatch key, and when it arrived in the post, I stashed it under the mattress where nobody can get hold of it. The hatch door can stay unlocked until all this mayhem is over.

Goodbye old kitchen

Initially, the reno plans mainly centred around replacing a 30-year-old kitchen. Yellowy cream melteca cabinets with bull-nosed speckled Formica tops and a colour-coordinated linoleum floor. For its age, it was actually in pretty good nick, with a few less-than-ideal features. Cupboard space was in short supply, yet one cupboard under the bench was completely bare of any shelves and was designated as the place to stash a rubbish bin I presume,  since there were no holes or fixings to indicate that shelves were ever present. The cupboard alongside had shelves, enough to hold quite a few pots and pans, so the plastic bin I had to go buy to put my rubbish in was definitely taking up prime kitchen real estate – a whole cupboard’s worth.

Then there was the matter of the bench width on one side of the kitchen, which was 300mm (barely enough for a large dinner plate), with an upstand and another 200mm up top of that in the form of quite a nice slab of laminated timber. The layout harked back to the times when it wasn’t considered nice for other people to be able to look into the kitchen. Unlike these days, when we are all quite happy to lay our kitchen habits bare, and let others decide whether we are OCD (me) or total slobs, or just somewhere in the middle.

Goodbye old lino

I won’t dwell on the state of the old oven, other than to say that we paid a lovely obliging woman (provided by our rentals agent at the time) $100 to clean it, in order to make it fit for use during the year that we had tenants living here. The oven roasting tray when we finally moved in was certainly better than when we’d first seen it, but there was still room for improvement. Over the past few months, the tray has provided an activity for hubby to get stuck into, in that he took it upon himself that every time I used it (lined with paper) he would spend a little extra time at the sink that evening with a scouring pad, aiming to clean off the layers of accumulated grease one little patch at a time. I did often remind him that we were going to be getting a new tray, but he was clearly finding the scrubbing quite rewarding. I have to give him credit and admit that by the time the kitchen was pulled out last week, the roasting tray was looking pretty good. I asked him if he’d like to keep it as a souvenir, though he would have to take it to his workplace office as I didn’t want to have to allocate any precious cupboard room to a 30-year-old roasting tray. It went in the skip.

This used to be the bathroom

The burners on the hob still worked. Well, sort of. Perhaps I should be clearer and say that they all turned on and heated up, though each at a different pace (think snails) and with little or no relation to the turning of the knob. Bringing rice to the boil was a challenge, in that I had to try and anticipate when it was close to boiling so that I could quickly turn it down as otherwise, it would start erupting, sending splashes of bubbling liquid up into the air. It really was quite an art to control the burners and I freely admit that I never mastered it. It was just fortunate for me that hubby is so proficient with a scouring pad, and that he doesn’t mind his rice a bit crispy (burnt) at the bottom. The rangehood was similarly effective, it made a heck of a lot of noise, sounded like a jet engine, but it never seemed to suck up much steam, nor cooking smells. Fortunately, it was vented, so it may in fact have been sending a little bit of steam outside, but I still resorted to opening the kitchen window a crack, which on a cold and windy night meant our living room was frigid, and I think perhaps whatever little steam the extractor was blowing out, may in fact have been coming back in with the draft.

The doorway to destruction

If you’re starting to think I was more than ready for a new kitchen, you’re not wrong. And in fact, the new kitchen was going to be delivered on Friday, for installation to start Monday. But this is where it all took a somewhat cruel twist. Just as we were struggling through week two of having no kitchen at all (well, a microwave on the dining table, and washing up in the bathroom basin), once again we all found ourselves in Level 4 lockdown. It’s quite ironic really, as at the time of the last lockdown, we had not long got our apartment in Auckland back to ourselves, after farewelling the painters who had been in and painted from top to bottom. We felt very grateful to have been spared the prospect of having to live with the jumble that we had been in for three weeks and be in lockdown at the same time, with furniture piled high in the centre of rooms and moving our bed from room to room to clear space for the painters.

Probably with that in mind, at the start of this current reno, in our new city, Otautahi Christchurch, I did have a little niggling worry as to whether we could be so lucky a second time. I think it was looking at the situation in Australia that rattled me, and wondering how long it might be before a case or two slipped through the net of arrivals, and then we would all be back in the awful situation of having our freedoms and for many, our incomes, suspended for an unknown length of time. So, now we find ourselves, what feels like a very long way away from Auckland, once again hunting out the masks I made and worrying about having to face the shops. And believe me when I say, my apartment is not the most fun place to be locked down in right now.

Deserted neighbourhood

The plasterer and the painter certainly won’t be here this week to continue as planned, nor the kitchen be delivered nor installation commence just yet. There are many less than ideal things about living as if you’re camping in your own apartment, minus kitchen, and with a bathroom (we have two, fortunately) totally pulled apart (it has no walls!) Because we have been leading up to this mayhem, I have of course dwindled my supply of dried goods and toilet paper down to a minimum, firstly because I have no cupboards, and secondly to make room for all the building materials that need to be stored in here with us.

On the subject of keeping us fed, we only have a microwave, and a small ensuite basin to wash the dishes in. Our meal plan at the moment comes down to two-minute rice, with canned beans, oats for breakfast, bread for hubby (I don’t eat bread) and some fruit – apples and bananas because they don’t make too much mess to peel or cut up. It has been a godsend that we kicked off this ‘adventure’ with 12 little frozen parcels in the freezer – ‘toppings’ for rice, to make up a quick and easy meal. I had intended to cook more, but the works started a little earlier than I’d been expecting.

Magnolia tree outside the window

This morning, in the interest of amusing myself, and saving one tedious job needing to be done when the renos kick off again, I spent over three hours scraping the plasterer’s mess off the concrete floor in the kitchen. It was a very satisfying task, probably equally so as hubby’s earlier oven tray project.  This means that when the plasterer finishes his sanding (oh god, I hate the sanding – that dust is everywhere!) that he will only need to vacuum up that mess, as there won’t be blobs of plaster on the floor to contend with. That is my sincere hope, anyway. If I hear that he needs to add more plaster, it may well make me turn to the demon drink. (Actually, that has happened already – we’ve managed to guzzle down a bottle of Bombay Sapphire over the last fortnight, one that had been languishing unopened in the back of the pantry ever since we last had the chance to buy duty-free – which seems a distant memory now).

Because I am searching (desperately) for things to be grateful for today, I must give my builders credit for being so accommodating in having put my laundry appliances back into their rightful place for the time being. So at least I can keep myself happy doing laundry. Though in saying that, and because life is always bittersweet, the auto-sensor on my fancy dryer has decided to go on the blink, beeping to tell me that washing is dry within minutes of me closing the door on it. At least I can still use the 20minute function, and I hope that holds out. Because we live in an apartment, I can’t make use of the breeze nor the sunshine to dry laundry, other than with the use of a laundry rack that I am not allowed to put on the balcony. Without the dryer our apartment would be full of laundry drying racks, pretty much all the time.

In case it all gets too much

I’m not looking forward to having to make a trip to the grocery store in the next couple of days, dreading the thought that once again, the canned chickpeas and beans will have been snapped up by greedy shoppers who will never actually open them, and ruing the thought that the two-minute rice may also fall into the same basket, which would be a monumental issue, as it would probably leave us with nothing but a microwaved potato for dinner. I don’t usually even buy two-minute rice, but it is one thing that you can microwave easily, and I’ve certainly never been able to cook rice from scratch using a microwave – not without spending equal time cleaning up the slimy frothy mess that always bubbles out of even the largest lidded dish! And anyway, at the moment my largest lidded dish would be hard-pressed to fit in my ensuite basin, let alone the glass trivet that would be similarly congealed.

Grocery shopping while I have limited facilities and only the top of a small dining table for all food prep has been an eye-opener. What has it opened my eyes to, though? Something I’ve harped on about many times, that probably 80-90 percent of the food items on the grocery shelves isn’t worth eating. Particularly, pretty much anything that’s quick. Trying to find any of those one-cup soup sachets for hubby to have with his toast at lunch was challenging. Who would have thought they would almost all have milk solids added? For vegans like us, I could find only one brand (a box with two sachets for the same price as the boxes with four sachets I might add) that doesn’t contain milk. The box is labelled ‘Soup Sensations’. Well, they don’t smell very appetising to me when hubby is stirring up a cup. Certainly, a far cry from the mega-pot of homemade soup I would usually make once a week. Admittedly it is more often than not a pumpkin soup, because it cooks up into a lovely big pot, but hubby does not complain, hopefully because he is comforted by the fact that I do this each week in the aim that feeding him healthily will go some way to making sure that he will stick around with me for a long while yet, and not bugger off to an early grave leaving me alone and wondering how to spend the proceeds of his life insurance.

Microwaved instant meals and canned chickpeas

I’ve just received the news that my new kitchen will now be delivered next Wednesday, leaving two days prior for the plasterer and painter to visit and work their magic on the walls – most of which will be covered up by kitchen cabinets, which puzzles me somewhat. (That plan, of course, was scuttled by the infernal continuation of the Covid lockdown). In the meantime, we will continue to pick our way around boxes, and our squashed-up furniture placement, and new doors and metal framework leaning up in the entrance hall, and a bathroom with no walls that looks like a disaster zone.

Soon this afternoon I plan to head out for a stroll, masked up of course, and with hubby in tow once he has finished his work for the day. Due to the lockdown, this madhouse we call home has all of a sudden become his office as well. Our current plight may not be too much fun, but as hubby keeps reminding me, we have so much to be grateful for. We have a roof over our head, and walls to keep the cold out. In comparison to the turmoil so many people are experiencing in different parts of the world right now, what is going on inside our four walls is just a trivial inconvenience. It is not life-threatening, not newsworthy. Just an example of the twists and turns of life playing out.  And, given time this little mess of ours will become a cosy haven, with a kitchen to make soup in, and a sink big enough to scrub clean all the pans I burn stuff in.

Oh, and the magnolia tree outside my window has burst into bloom, how splendid!

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