I am not an electrician or anything approximating an electrician, so bear with the technical generalities and please forgive any mistakes, but there is a story I just have to tell. There are technical details regarding electricity that have a bearing on the story, so the previous entry provides those details. This entry tells the story. I divided it like this to make it easier for people who aren’t interested in the technical stuff, or who already know it, to skip to the story.
When we first arrived here, there were four transformers in our apartment for use with any American electrical devices we brought with us. Because most people bring small kitchen appliances from the United States, and also electric toothbrushes or razors, there are 110V outlets available in the kitchen and bathrooms. Throughout the rest of the apartment, there are 220V outlets. That’s where the transformers are to be used. The problem is that the 220V outlets in our apartment are shaped differently from the outlets in the other apartments in the compound (our apartment was recently remodeled) and from the outlets used throughout Egypt. So although the transformers had a grounding mechanism that would work just fine for most outlets, that mechanism couldn’t access the ground in our outlets. So my story begins because we had to have maintenance come and change out our outlets, give us new transformers, or change the plugs on our transformers. We also had two other problems that needed to be fixed: One of our 110V outlets in the kitchen was not wired properly, according to the tester we brought with us, and the faceplate on a light switch in our bedroom had the habit of delivering a mild shock when you touched it (but you could only feel the shock if you were barefoot on the tile in the bathroom reaching around the corner to turn on the bedroom light, because the carpet in the bedroom provided insulation, keeping you from being grounded, which according to my husband basically means it keeps the electricity from trying to go through you).
When maintenance showed up, it was in the form of two Egyptian men, both of whom speak at least some English. Both were friendly and seemed eager to do what was needed. They immediately set about switching out the plugs on our transformers. It didn’t take long. When they finished, I tested all four of them with our little tester. All four now had good grounds: Three were perfectly functional, but one was wired improperly. I told them this. They seemed confused and said that they were all the same. So I showed them the lights on the tester and explained that the pattern that showed up for these three transformers meant “good” and any other pattern, like the one that showed up on this transformer, meant “not good.” They looked slightly awed and asked if I am an electrician. “No, but my husband is. All I know is what he told me—this means good, and anything else means not good.” I tried to explain that the key on the tester indicated that the particular “not good” pattern we saw meant that the hot and neutral were reversed, but this information meant about as much to them as it did to me—nothing. They wanted to argue a little, but then I told them that if I used that transformer, something may catch fire. I quickly realized that I had discovered the magic word. They heard “fire” and decided that that transformer was bad; they would swap it out for a different one. This was fine by me, so we moved on to the other problems.
The 110V outlet in the kitchen was “good” according to them, just like the others in the kitchen. I pulled out my tester, showed them the lights, and again used my new favorite word—“fire.” They thought for a couple of seconds and then asked if another 110V outlet was good. I tested it and said that it was. They promptly pulled both the good and the bad outlets from the wall and examined the wiring in both. One went into the room with the fuse box, presumably to turn off the power to that outlet, and then they reconfigured the wires in the bad outlet to match those in the good outlet. They turned the fuse back on, asked me for the tester, showed me the lights and waited for approval. I was surprised that these embassy-employed electricians had had to look at one of the other outlets to see how to wire it properly, but they fixed it, so that’s okay. I tried telling them that the bad transformer had exactly the same problem as the outlet, so they could fix the transformer in the same way as they had fixed the outlet, but they didn’t like that idea, so I let it go.
Then we went to the bedroom. When I explained the problem, their eyes lit up and they smiled and nodded. “Yes, we can fix this.” They took the faceplate off and poked around in there until they found a random wire, carrying electricity, not attached to anything at all. It was just hanging out in there electrocuting everything. They attached it to something, put the faceplate back on, took off their shoes, stood in the bathroom, reached around the corner, touched the faceplate, and said “Is good.” They looked to me for approval. So I slipped off my shoes, stood in the bathroom, reached around the corner, touched the faceplate, smiled, and said “It’s good.” (Notice that there were no fuses turned off for this process.) They left happily, promising to swap out the transformer the next day, which they did.
But the story goes on. That afternoon, I plugged our laptop into a 110V outlet in the kitchen to charge. I did not plug it into the same outlet they had fixed, but a different one, one that had been used successfully a couple of days before. The laptop did not charge. When Jeff got home, I told him about it. He pulled out some device that measures electrical voltage and pronounced that the outlet was dead—no power to speak of. So he submitted a work request the following day, and on the day after that, the same two guys show up at my door.
I explain the problem to them. I point out the outlet that isn’t working. I assume they will pull out something like the device that Jeff used to measure the voltage, but they don’t. They do something odd. They stick a screwdriver into the outlet. That’s right, a screwdriver—a metal rod—is inserted into the electrical outlet. They must believe me that it’s dead, right? But wait, there’s more: They then go to another outlet on the same wall, one that has not been tested but that is presumed to be working, and they stick the screwdriver into that one too! One of them then goes around the kitchen, sticking the screwdriver into most of my outlets. I have visions of Tom and Jerry, you know, the cartoon, the cat and the mouse—they were always sticking tails, fingers, or forks into outlets, and then they’d freeze spread eagle in the air and you’d see their whole skeleton as they fried.
Oh, and while the one guy is sticking the screwdriver into all my outlets, the other has noticed that the oven wobbles, and he’s fixing that for me, which I appreciate, but really, his partner is about to electrocute himself; why is he messing with the oven? Then he notices that the top of it can be lifted up (I’m not sure whether or not it’s designed that way), so he fiddles with that too. All while the other guy is sticking the screwdriver into electrical outlets.
The next thing I know, all of my outlets have been pulled off the wall—including both the 110V and 220V outlets. The faceplates are hanging by the electrical cords. The connections or something, I’m not sure what, are getting tapped routinely with the screwdriver while the men converse animatedly in Arabic. Then my dishwasher is pulled out from the wall and slid across the floor out of the way—I start mentally cataloging the dishes that are in there in case I hear any “unusual” sounds—and one of the men is under the counter doing who knows what. They continue an animated discussion in Arabic.
After about 20 minutes, I hesitantly interrupt: I have a meeting. I have to leave in 10 minutes. I hesitate to tell them so, because I’m kicking them out before the problem is fixed, and I want it fixed and I hate to kick them out and make them come back later, especially if that means they will again stick screwdrivers into my outlets, but at the same time, they were supposed to call and make an appointment with me, and they didn’t, so it isn’t unreasonable for me to have plans and have to leave. So I tell them that I have to go. They do something under the counter, replace my dishwasher, and re-attach all my outlets to the wall.
Before they leave, they promise to come back the next day. They don’t. The day after they were supposed to come back, they do drop by, apologize, and promise to come on Sunday. They don't. I think Jeff is going to submit another work order today.
In the meantime, we’ve discovered something else: About half the outlets in our kitchen no longer work. We discovered this when I tried to use the toaster on Friday. My husband is convinced that when they fixed the first 110V outlet, they broke the second one, and when they tried (unsuccessfully) to fix the second one, they broke all of the 110V and 220V outlets that currently don’t work. At least they left us a functional outlet for our coffee maker—it would count as an emergency if we didn’t have that.
Eventually all of the outlets in our kitchen will work . . . inshallah.
Updates as events warrant.