Away-from Home Improvement: Confessions of an expat do-it-yourselfer

So if a papeleria is a paper store, and a fruteria is a fruit store, then a ferreteria would be… a ferret store?  Nope.  It’s actually something much more essential for the adventurous, expat, do it yourselfer – a hardware store.  In my constant quest for home improvement, I’ve become a regular at the many ferreterias in my neighborhood.

Home Improvement at Home…

In my own country, I would outline the steps of a do-it-yourself home improvement projects as follows:

  • Get the Information: Use internet, books, and friendly advise to find out how to do your project.
  • Get the Supplies: Go to the Big Box home-improvement store to buy everything you need (and probably a few things you don’t).
  • Do it: Make first attempt at said project.  Screw up, swear, cry and return to the store for more supplies.
  • Celebrate: Achieve success and bask in glory for a few minutes before you notice the next thing in your house that needs to be fixed.

And Home Improvement in Mexico…

Here’s how those steps play out  for me in Guanajuato:

Get the Information:  Different places deal with things in different ways.  I remember some friends who had moved to New Zealand lamenting the flies. “And they don’t put screens in the windows.  If you ask them why, they say, ‘we just leave the windows open and then the bugs can fly back out again.’ ” Culture dictates what a home should be and therefore what home improvement projects can be done.  Information gathering takes a lot more conversation.  Dealing with muriatic acid, a water tank on my roof and a gas tank outside my door were new to me.  Even familiar processes took research. My handy little dictionaries did not tell me the word for grout.  And where do you get it? And what quantities can you buy it in?

Get the Supplies:  Storefronts in Guanajuato are tiny, but if you ask the proprietor, they usually have what you need hidden somewhere in back. This means that the first step in getting an item is knowing what it’s called.  Most home improvement projects start out with a session perusing my Spanish/English dictionary, often in vain.  I write down the new word and strut on down the hardware store.  The interaction typically goes something like this:

ME: I need a (insert the new Spanish word)

CLERK: (stares at me with a puzzled look)

ME: A (repeat the Spanish word)

CLERK: (shrugs)

ME: This (showing the clerk the piece of scrap paper on which I have written the new word)

CLERK: (Looks at the paper, shakes his head, has a side conversation with someone else in the store and they try to guess what I’m looking for.)

ME: (Now I employ that most useful of language skills, talking around the word you don’t know.)  Okay, so, I don’t know the word in Spanish, but it’s for putting a shelf on and it’s shaped like the letter L. (I’m trying to get a shelf bracket).

CLERK: (Face lights up as he pulls a bracket out from under the counter.) What size?

ME: (In my overzealousness to learn a new word I forgot to measure.  So I gesture with my hands).

CLERK: How many?

ME: One. (At home they would only come in prepackaged pairs.  Here I can buy exactly the amount I want.)

Casa Verde Then and Now…

 Bedroom before     Jefa suite
Bathroom before IMG_0721
Azotea before IMG_1870

Out of thinner, I head down the alley to the nearest paint store with an empty plastic coke bottle in my hand.  The woman at the store fills the bottle and writes “THINNER” on it in large letters with a permanent marker.  I love this.  I can buy exactly the amount I want.  No need for a three-car garage to store leftover materials (not to mention the benefit of being able to put an empty bottle to good use).  I know this wouldn’t pass muster in my country.  There is no label telling me not to drink the thinner.  No Material Safety Data Sheet.  Here they expect me to use common sense.

Then there’s the issue of getting those supplies up to the house.  I live in a “callejon,” an alley which cannot be traversed by car.  That same, wonderful North Face Daypack (that I use to carry dirty clothes and travel guides also serves for getting the 20 kilo bag of grout up the hill. I’m my own burro.

Do it:  Just like home, new challenges emerge when you actually do the project.  Home improvement is also self-improvement- a chance to practice learning patience.

Even little things- sticking a nail in the wall to hang a picture, turn into an adventure.  I’ve learned about pilot holes, cement nails, cement tips for my drill bits.  When the hole I’ve made comes out to big I stuff it full of wooden pegs or toothpicks, giving me a wooden surface to nail into.

Those beautiful handmade tiles are also hand cut- a little irregular.  Not going to fit together like the machine made ones at Home Depot.

Celebrate: Even bragging over a successfully completed home improvement project has its cultural spin.  Mexico’s machismo attitude has come out whenever I’ve told people that I’ve done some tiling.  “You?” they say. “You?”  Clearly, they are completely befuddled by the idea that such a project could be taken on by someone of my gender.  I find their reaction confusing as well. I’ve done quite a lot of tiling and for the life of me, I cannot figure out where in the process it would be useful to have a penis.

Fun with tile and my first mural…

IMG_0152 IMG_0147

 Lessons Learned:

  • Adjust your expectations.  You might not be able to have things exactly the way you would home.
  • I’ve learned two important things about painting in Mexico.  First, the color  of your house may be democratically decided by your neighbors rather than unilaterally by you.  Second, there is no (nada, none, zero, zilch) relationship between the color of the sample paint chips and the color of the paint.  Refer to lesson number one.
  • If two things were ever meant to go together it’s audiobooks and home improvement. Imagine my joy when I learned that through libraries to go I could use my Washington County, Oregon library card to download books in Mexico.
  • Hiring a job out has it’s own challenges.  Get a recommendation from someone you know.  Agree on a price before hand.  The hardest part for a gringo in Mexico is scheduling.  Try to pin down a time, but don’t make any plans to do anything else that day.  Waiting for the workers can be a full time job
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Avatar of Jennifer Choban

Jennifer Choban

Editor & Author at Gear Up & Play
Seasoned traveler, avid reader, over-eater, clumsy but determined hiker, nascent piano player and wannabe Spanish-speaker.

9 thoughts on “Away-from Home Improvement: Confessions of an expat do-it-yourselfer

  1. Just One Boomer (Suzanne)

    I lived in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico for a year as a child (1963-1964). I haven’t thought back for a while, but it’s true, I remember that you could buy what you needed of something. It’s interesting to read that at least in Guanajuato (and probably also the other small towns (cities) in the Bajio, that’s still possible. (I can remember being sent to the store for one stick of butter or exactly how many eggs my mother needed). I revisited San Miguel last year and in the colonial center, it seemed as if time had pretty much stood still.
    If you have the time (and inclination) to read it, I’d be interested in knowing if my 1963 experience, described in the following blog post, resonates at all for you as a current expat.
    http://www.boomeresque.com/mexico-1963/
    Just One Boomer (Suzanne) recently posted..WHAT THE !?!? Hawaii EditionMy Profile

  2. Avatar of Jennifer ChobanJennifer Choban Post author

    I was inclined and yes, things do resonate. Beautiful homes and gardens still hide behind humble walls. Anything at all serves as an excuse for a fiesta, with lots of fireworks and castillos. (I often marvel at the fact that any Mexican reaches adulthood with ten fingers and their hearing intact.) Last year I inherited a wash machine, but for the first five years I was here I did my laundry in one of those washboard sinks on the roof. I’m a vegetarian so I haven’t tasted it, but I’m told that “biria” (goat meat) is delicious. Kudos to your parents giving you a sense of adventure. How refreshing to find out that little has changed.

  3. Louisa

    Great post! I laughed with familiarity. Just read you have a washing machine? I forgot that you had gone gentrified:-)
    Didn’t quite follow this sentence: ‘First, the color of your house may be democratically decided by your neighbors rather than unilaterally by you.’

  4. barry

    ” I cannot figure out where in the process it would be useful to have a penis.”

    I’ll be happy to show you next time I’m down there.

  5. Avatar of Jennifer ChobanJennifer Choban Post author

    When the worker showed up to paint Judy’s house, she showed them the color she wanted. They said, “Oh yeah, agave,” and came back with something…close. Then they asked her what color she wanted the trim. She said white, but some neighbors said that white was “muy triste” and that it should be off-white. And presto- off-white trim.

  6. Andrea Weaver

    Jenny: What a wonderful job you are doing and what a great adventure you are having. I have missed seeing you and all your talents. Keep up the good work.

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