Monday, January 27, 2014

Burning Questions: Adventures in Apartment Renting in Cape Town

When did watching TV become so complicated? Now simply turning it on requires more concentration than rocket science -- and nearly as much training! Sometimes I miss the days when couch potatoes had to get off their asses to change the channel. At least you didn't need an instruction manual to figure out how to do that. In my new apartment, the landlord actually had to leave written instructions for using the TV:

DSTV: When switching the TV on, it defaults to a DVD setting because of the HDMI cabling. Simply press AUX button on the DVD remote & set to AUX 2. Then the [sic] set the SOURCE button on the TV remote to AUX 2 as well & the DSTV will be up and running. The upstairs TV is linked to the same DSTV Box and has it's own remotes upstairs.

Got that? Well forget it. It's hogwash. After nearly one week, I finally have a handle on working the upstairs television, but turning the one downstairs on and off still requires several rounds of trial and error. There are three black remotes -- one for the TV, a near-lookalike one for the DVD player (both are Samsung models), and a smaller one of the digital TV box -- and every time I look at them sitting on the coffee table, I could swear they've sprouted appendages, and they're pointing at me, mockingly. What's that sound? I can't get the volume to work, so it must be coming from them. Are they laughing at me again?

If the joke's on me, I'm certainly giving them a lot of material. When I turn off the TV with the TV remote, it turns back on when I turn off the DVD player with the DVD remote (which only works sporadically, forcing me to manually shut it on/off), then turns off again when I turn off the digital box with the DSTV. Good night? Not necessarily. When I head upstairs and turn on the upstairs TV using the larger of the two remotes on the nightstand, then turn on the digital system using the other one, I suddenly have both televisions going at the same time. If Cheaters is on, that's a lot of loud carrying on at 11pm.

The plus side of all this: The process is so frustrating that I end up watching less TV than I would if all I had to do was point and press one remote control.

Does any bachelor pad really need more than four pillows? Two pairs for the king-size bed -- one to sleep on (though my delicate neck/upper back area demands just one pillow under it), the other for decorative purposes and sleepovers, though I haven't had one of those since last July in Berlin, where my rental bed had four pillows. In my new apartment, there are six pillows on the bed upstairs, two on the three-person sofa and 10 on the day bed. Ten! Why does a daybed need 10 pillows? Where am I supposed to take an afternoon nap when the pillows are covering practically the entire daybed?

I once watched an episode of The Marriage Ref in which a frustrated husband complained about his wife's out-of-control pillow fetish, and I was completely on his side. After six on the bed (that appears to be the magic number in Cape Town luxury rentals), pillows stop being decorative and become merely clutter, no matter how pretty each individual one looks. It just supported my theory that the happiest couples are good neighbors, not annoyed roommates.

I know a lot of people are into pillows and cushions on couches, but I've never been one of them. They just create a lot of extra work because I always find myself rearranging them and re-fluffing them so that the couch has that showroom look whenever I'm not sitting on it. On the plus side, I spend more time standing and less sitting because I don't want to mess up the perfect pillow arrangement. Though it probably would be disrespectful to the owner of the apartment, who designed the pillows himself, I'm thinking about shoving them all into one of the many closets or drawers: out of sight, out of mind!

Is crime really so bad in Cape Town that you need four locks to separate you from the outside world: one on the front door to the apartment, one on the metal gate in front of the front door to the apartment, one on the front door to the apartment building, and one on the gate leading to the sidewalk? I recently had lunch with a friend who lives in a literal glass house in Johannesburg, and as he showed me photos of his pad, I wondered, Well, what about security? Then I wondered how he cools the damn thing during the summer.

That's so unlike me, putting security before surviving summer heat. I suppose that I now feel ridiculously safe when I go to sleep at night, tucked away behind two security gates and two closed and locked doors, but if I were the praying type, I'd pray that I'm never being chased home by anyone. By the time I figure out which key goes to the gate at the sidewalk, I'd probably have a gun, or a knife, shoved into my back.

Why do I never care about balconies and terraces until I don't have one? My new apartment has what is more like a ledge masquerading as a balcony, complete with green railing. If I go out to the edge, which extends less than a meter outdoors, and turn my head to the right, I have a view of the trees that line the block and Table Mountain in the near distance. Push back the trees that line the block several meters and extend the "balcony" farther out, and it would be the perfect spot to spend an afternoon writing.

Only I'd probably never do that. I can count on one hand the number of times I used my balcony in Buenos Aires, and one of them was to scream for help below after my apartment was robbed and the burglars locked me inside. (If only I'd had four locks separating me from the outside world there!) In Bangkok, I had two, and I never used them unless I was trying to impress a date with my view or doing laundry (the washing machine was located on the living room balcony). In my recent rentals in Rome and Tel Aviv, I used the balconies sporadically, usually out of guilt because I knew some people would kill for my views to a thrill.

Now I'd kill for that little bit of extra outdoor space, though I'm pretty sure someone would lose their life for naught because I'd probably never use it.

What is the difference between turning on and off the switch that powers the hot water and just leaving it on full-time? To be honest, I'd never seen this kind of set-up before I arrived in my rental in Rome, where I never actually used it, energy-saving instructions be damned, though in Tel Aviv I tried to change my negligent ways. I haven't been able to escape it since.

I don't really understand how turning the switch off saves energy. Is energy being used to heat the water when no water is being used? And since it takes a good 15 minutes for the water to heat up after turning on the switch, if I were the type to remember to turn it off after every shower and leave that as its default mode, it would put a cramp in my spontaneity. No more hopping into the shower on the spur of the moment and being ready to go in 15 minutes flat -- not that I've ever actually done that.

Am I going to spend the next year obsessing over how much electricity I'm using? According to Etienne, the real estate agent who arranged my one-year rental agreement, it's customary in Cape Town for energy to be rationed using the same pre-paid pay-as-you-go system employed by Internet and mobile-phone service providers. There's a meter that tells you how much energy your account has (in rands), and when you start running dangerously low, you top up at various shops and outlets around town, just as you would with your smart phone and modem. Etienne recommended keeping a reserve voucher on hand, just in case I run out in the middle of the night and don't feel like going to the 24-hour convenience store down the road.

Being the neurotic and obsessive person that I am, this means checking the meter that's tucked away in a top shelf in the kitchen multiple times a day to see how wasteful or frugal I'm being. So far, I'm averaging less than 20 rand (which is just under $2) a day. That's pretty damn good, considering that I have an AC, and I'm not afraid to use it. But I'd probably be willing to pay twice that amount for the luxury of receiving a monthly bill in the mail and never having to think about it again.

Would it be terrible of me to hire a housekeeper to drop by and clean up after me once a week? Unless housekeeping service is included in the rental deal (which was the case in Bangkok, in Melbourne, in Buenos Aires last year, and in Cape Town Quarters, the guest house where I stayed during my first five weeks in Cape Town), I've always felt uncomfortable with the idea of hiring help. But then, I haven't lived in an apartment quite this large since I spent October of 1991 to October of 1992 calling Jersey City, New Jersey, home and three other people my roommates. (I've been living on my own ever since.) That place, which included two bathrooms and four bedrooms over two storeys, could have used a professional cleaning touch!

I'm thinking of calling up Trish, the young lady who cleaned my apartment in Cape Town Quarters every Monday. She did give me her number on the day that I moved out and told me to call her anytime. And she has a baby daughter in Johannesburg, so she could use the extra cash. But then I'd have to start planning my weeks so that I'm not at home during the same hours every week, and frankly, I could live without the hassle. With this whole energy meter thing keeping me up at night (well, not really, but it's the first thing I check when I wake up), I already have enough on my mind.
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