Monday, November 27, 2006

Back and forth

Had a hectic day ,what a change, in Fes as i tried to finalise the last work with the architect and buiding firm as per estimate while almost simultaneously setting up work list for Ben for while i am away. I cannot pretend all of this was at all easy but its all part of the fun and games. Conversely my friend Micheals property which is now in the start process of renovation seems to be going relatively smoothly, mind you they all do at the start, but he has a very good chantier so should be OK.

The local ex pat community met up for Sandys last night at the fantastic LaRoussa next door almost to Mernissi and we shared stories, wine and anecdotes as well as future projects till quite late. What an interesting bunch we are with Kiwis, English, Capetowners and French and Americans all represented around Freds kitchen table sharing a common view about Fes, we love it now how can we in our small way make it better?

I hit the high road or more exactly the motorway west of Fes to get to Asilah unfortunately in the dark and driving rain but i needed to get going. It was strange to leave Fes for Europe as its become my new reality but needs must, I have a house selling transaction to finish in Spain to release renovation cash so its a priority.

Will probably not be hitting the blog for a couple of weeks as I then leave for England but fear not i will return with more tales of intrepid adventures, cock ups and candour when I return.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Phase two

Its been busy here what a surprise as people come and go at a rate of knots, theres no rest for the wicked. For instance as I dropped Jenny at the airport I hung around to pick up Tony my co conspirator in the Mernissi project. He has a part share but as he is working full time as a chef for Roger Taylor from Queen in Surrey his input at this stage is limited. Tony is an ideas man and walking round the house could visualise the top terraces as a restaurant well we will see on that front but also was trying in his head to maximise the space we have here with an apartment, basement and main salon to be utilised fully.

Its a transitional period at the house as I have very gratefully taken Mouaniss the chantier from Sandys house Riad Zany on board. He has brought with him the the plastering team a zellige expert and a carpenter. Between them while I am away next week for two weeks they can crack on with finishing all the plasterwork in the rooms and stairwell while zellige man repairs throughout the house. The carpenter is making the outside shutters in cedarwood for the octagonal skylight as well as stripping the huge front door and renvating the canopy over it. So little by little we are putting the old girl back together, as the plumber is finishing and the electricians put in junction boxes and actual light fittings we could soon have light and a working toilet!!

Also this week with Driss and Ben took some of the old tiles from a bedroom and apartment and went to a ceramics factory to get the requisite amount made up so Driss can start repairing and replacing all damaged tiles or laying new ones. Hopefully i have left a busy work list for Mouaniss to oversee and i must admit it will be good to take a little break from proceedings, step back from it and then come back recharged for the next phase.

The other good news this week is my house in Spain has sold with a handsome profit so I now have the funds or will have soon to inject some capital into the house, it was getting tight at one phase so my creative accounting skills had to come into play.

At the rented house its like the Three Stooges as Dominic and Tony are there at the moment sprawled out wherever and the conversation as ever with Dom is the various projects he has his eyes on, at least four at the last count. Hes a lively character as are most of the people I have met here and if we all put our brains and knowledge into a big melting pot we would be truly dangerous in a good way regarding getting things on the move.

I can feel myself getting excited and frustrated at the same time as we come into the finishing phase as in my head I can see the finished house, but realistically it could take 3 months to gently and accurately finish it so i must remember patience is a virtue.

Friday, November 17, 2006

When you are smiling the whole world smiles with u

After several semi unflattering pictures of me on a certain website, Hello Sandy, where I seem to be gorging on chocolates, carousing or generally looking a bit too serious I thought it time to post one of myself in smiling mode. After a slightly stressful week of builders, bombshells and bombastic behaviour things have settled down nicely and I can see the wood from the trees. My friend Michael from Norwich mentioned I looked a bit serious in the photo in Sandys piece in the View from Fes so hopefully this will correct the stony faced bugger impression; I am normally a happy chappy especially when estimates are accurate!!!

Lots of friends around at the moment all on their various missions seeking advice, solace or just a quick vodka tonic, just the one of course, and trying my best to help. I definitely have not got all the answers you need David Amster for that one but a lot of personal experience, contacts and general feel for how things work here. I am still learning daily and its all part of the wonderful process of living in Fes, you have to be a full time Fassi to appreciate it fully.

At the house we are at the finishing stage for electics and plumbing with quotes to come in to finish the Berber Basement, plastering and zellige restoration while the gorgeous octagon skylight is being sympathetically restored to a good standard. The plastic sheeting and protective covering for the zellige floors is being removed as we speak revealing the detail that i first fell in love with all those many months ago. Its like I have my house back now from building site mode although there is still some way to go of course as finishing can take as long as the construction phase. However you just have to move now at the correct pace as you cannot hurry to finish properly this is where care and attention to fine detail is important. This is when I will bring in friends and artisans to go over all options for the finished product. I never assume I have all the answers there are a lot cleverer people than me out there who have been there and done that, yes Fred that means you for one.

Hopefully see most of them at the terrace soiree this evening then we will all pop off to see a bit off Jazz in Riads later on.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

All Change

Its in with the new and out with the old here as I reschedule the renovation process. The contract with the building firm has been brought to a halt at the halfway stage with just some plumbing and electricity and some plastering to finish off as well as a glass brick floor. After that I will be overseeing the finishing process myself with local artisans with a proven track record. Ben rushed out this morning to get hired scaffolding for the plasterer who will be working on the octagonal sylight to repair the detailed but damaged plasterwork. At the same time the workers are removing all the plaster and plastic covering the zellige floors so I am now seeing my beautiful floors for the first time in 14 weeks.

The kitchen units brickbuilt are being rendered ready for marble tops and zellige and finally the fireplace chimney has been demolished and carted away; it was a radically wrong build as the builder admitted he had never built one before. Well they could have told me that before they started but of course it was the oh well we will have a go approach. Now i will employ a fireplace expert to do a proper job.

The influx of people in the Medina continues to astound with today involved in seeing houses in the area with Dominic; meeting Andy newly arrived from Essaouria with ready riad cash; Jenny from England still on a furtive house hunt; bumping into Helen Ranger of Fez Riads talking about the Sacred Music Festival; meeting Mike and Amanda from East Anglia on a quick scouting mission of Fes; Michael from London setting up a restaurant in the Medina and then Andrew from up north still getting his guest house together after needing to replace his roof halfway through laying the zellige oh dear. Just realised that has been the longest sentence on record maybe I am going through my Kerouac phase without the copious amounts of benzedrine and jazz cigarettes.

its just a small taster of the frenetic air here at the moment and the whole place is buzzing with entrepreneurs entrepreneuring all over the place. Could be a messy business but the ideas floating around all make sense to me and the people seem to have the gumption and spirit as well as the savvy and financial backing to make their individual dream come true. Its similar to a frontier town Wild West atmosphere where you grab your chance with both hands and run with it Yeehay!!

Looks like with so many hard working ex pats in the area at this moment I should organise a little terrace party to welcome old and new friends to our neck of the woods in the medina. I will round them up, as Rowdy Yates would say for all those very old Rawhide fans, and we can talk about decappage, zellige and other obscure renovation terms till our heads fall off. I am sure we can compare notes, swap tradesman and generally work together to ensure each of our projects proceeds as smoothly ha ha as possible. Maybe a renovation site where members could offer advice and tips online would be an idea, how about it Sandy, as a technophobe myself to some extent I could not set it up properly!!

Monday, November 13, 2006

Lets be honest

Lets be honest now I have made a few mistakes in my decision making over the last few months so hopefully others can learn from it. As regards the house well it is still as beautiful as ever but at what cost. The cost has been a certain amount of stress as the estimate crept up unknowingly; this was never fully explained till late in the process so consequently some of the works are still to be done. However as lots of renovators know here costs do go up for a multitude of reasons eg rotten hidden wood so you have to be prepared mentally and financially to deal with it.

In the early stages of the restoration I had sat down with the architect and gone over everything floor by floor and the estimate seemed to be in keeping with what we had discussed. Its the things that are not in the estimate that I should have been aware of eg tarmaccing the terrace; but to tell the truth if you are not aware that it is necessary how can you tell if an item is missing on the estimate. Just something to bear in mind when these add ons occur.

On a lighter note as we dont want to get bogged down in these details too long, after long discussions with all concerned plus friends I have decided to finish the project using handpicked artisans and therefore have better control of the schedule of works, payments and standards. So thats the good news folks and I feel very enervated and excited at taking on the next stage armed with the knowledge I have gained and mistakes I have made. How can I put this, you WILL MAKE MISTAKES its how you deal or circumvent them that will determine whether your project makes or breaks you. After everything I am loving the process and I measure myself by the depths of the challenges I face and the mental picture of the house finished with the sunlight streaming through the Monet style windows onto the intricate patterns of the zellige floor.

There is no need to feel daunted here as there is always someone close at hand either ex pats like Sandy to the local carpet seller to offer sage advice or recommend artisans for any part of your project. Talking of Sandy from Fes website, which is incidentally the finest English based site about Fes and Morocco, I spent a very enjoyable morning with him and Suzannah a few days ago. We did an interview about my life in general and the renovation with a few photos taken and I was pleased to read it later on the same day with a good review of my blog and a link to it so Thanks again Sandy and Suzannah for that and the sage advice.

Am planning a trip back to Spain in a few weeks and then England for a quick visit which I know will be strange after the Medina lifestyle all those books, movies to see and all those alcoholic teenagers to avoid. I think I have an offer on my place in Spain which would be good as it has made enough to buy the Mernissi House outright so now it can help pay for the next half of the renovation. I must say it is nice to be mortgage free at last as millions in Britain struggle to pay bills, credit cards, mortgages and the evil council tax to keep their head above water. Here the main large bill is electricity but to live daily is so cheap its ridiculous and long may it continue.

Saturday, November 11, 2006


It has been a frustrating week this week as the builders gave an update on work so far to announce the estimate or guesstimate had gone up. This was due in no small part to the extensive work on the terrace or terraces and as they are rather large 160 sqm, it soaked up a lot of money. The factor to be aware of when renovating is generally work from the terrace down especially if you have a leaking roof. My house had been sadly neglected for 10 years, not lived in, and water had been seeping in for a while. Therefore from the underside all the ceilings were stripped and re rendered and plastered, whilst on the terrace there was total decappage.

Now this is the important bit as it was recommended that a double layer of tar or bitumen was laid over the whole terrace one layer at right angles to the next layer for double protection. This made perfect sense to totally seal the terrace. However I was then told this was not in the estimate and I questioned why if they knew they were going to do it this way. We went ahead and laid the tar and the zellige and the terrace looked fantastic it was only when I saw the bill that I got the shock as the cost for the bitumen was exhorbitant to say the least!! So beware, as I was told the amount verbally would maybe be half the actual cost, which as it is a dirty and difficult job and seals the terrace I could have dealt with. Therefore the verbal quote was not worth a jot; I should have got it in writing of course.

When using a building firm their prices of course will not be the keenest as they have more overheads than an individual but as they oversee the project there is a measure of safety in the finished product. This is because the work is checked for standards by outside inspectors as well as the architect. It is up to the individual buyer to choose the route they go down. May I suggest that for the making it strong phase which involves structural and building work and also plumbing and electricity a reputable firm could be used and then for detailed finishing you could use individual recommended artisans.

As with any renovations there will be deviations from the original specifications sometimes in your favour and some in the builders favour but it is an area that can be very grey and not in glorious technocolour. Generally as I go along I ask if everything is within the estimate as even with an English translation of the very detailed French estimate it is not always easy to be totally au fait with the minute details. When things are costed by the sq m or cubic m it can be difficult to cost exactly at the beginning for instance the cubic m of rubble to be carted away. If you just had a fixed cost for say carting away the rubble then the price would be exact whether it turned out to be less or more than anticipated. These are things to be aware of when using a building firm using these methods as opposed to a local contractor.

The plus side of using a reputable firm is they use very good artisans I have found the plumber, electricians; builders and plastering team to be top notch plus you are not having to pay out daily or weekly for the work. Also as David Amster points out you may try to go for the cheapest option and you will get a cheap job. Itis worth weighing up paying the bit extra as you will be living with that finished product or someone will for many years to come. With these beautiful houses that we all fall in love with it is like restoring an antique. For instance you would not finish a restored antique table with cheap modern varnish it is not in keeping with the style.

Consequently when approaching a renovation decide on your preferred method but be assured as the work progresses you will learn very fast about standards, patience, estimates, attention to detail or not, shortcuts and the unique scaffolding methods of Moroccan builders. Also if a worker has done a particularly good job it is not unheard of to reward him with a bonus of a few Dirhams then you are guaranteed a good job and they will go that extra yard for you. On a six month or one year renovation you will probably see more of the workers than your family so they will become an alternative family so treat them as such. For instance when the Radeef workers were fixing the drains through an arduous night shift my neighbours and I kept them fed and watered trough the whole project. You can be assured if there are any future problems with drainage they will remember who we are and make sure any problem is sorted promptly.

If when walking through the medina you see an example of great workmanship then inquire who did it; get a cost per sq m; take a photo for reference and you will soon have a roster of artisans to work with.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Budget day

The budget airlines are bringing in vast amounts of Engish and French visitors this week and its really noticeable around the Medina; hearing Mancunian accents for instance. Quite a few of them are back to try and snap up that elusive Riad at a bargain price and quite a few are getting frustrated and restless. There is a real buzz in the air and you see the same faces scurrying back and forth in the Medina with a local simsaar or agent in tow.

Have had an official terrace and spiral staircase soiree with soft drinks,goat cheese and black olives with a host of old and new friends. As it was a full moon it was quite magical and though a tight squeeze on the staircase going up and down; a few refinements are necessary, the view makes it worth it. Everyone impressed which was nice as this week has been slightly stressful on the work front. Trying to hurry things up on the electric and plumbing front as well as clearing the basement has been a drag, then suddenly they all show up and things start to get moving. Also after paying the latest installment to the building firm i was told that the estimate has now gone up and another cheque was required; uh oh. A meeting was scheduled with the architect and head man on Wednesday to discuss this latest developement, could be tricky we will see.

At present I have Chris Chang and his girlfriend here to check out the house and Fes in general, he loved it but on taking him to Freds place at Laroussa he was totally blown away as I knew he would be. Tomorrow Michael arrives from Norwich to get things moving on his renovation and then some friends from Cambridge are coming followed by Tony my old mate of 40years standing. Tony has got a 25 percent stake in house so important he can see the progress at this stage now its 50 percent done and talk through our plans for next year.

It really is all go at the mo and the French budget airline and Ryanair between them are going to have an enormous impact on day to day life here. I cansee already on a daily basis that something is in the air it could be enchantment and fascination on one hand but the flipside on the business front eg property is escalating prices, greed and some frustration. I am so glad I bought and got sorted last year.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Pots, Plants and Goat Dung

Big clear up time at the Mernissi House as we work from the terrace down clearing excess rubbish, while the builders work around us doing a fine job of touch up throughout the house, you know those little bits that niggle you for ages are suddenly put right. Been out and about as usual meeting, greeting old and new compadres. Trying to get Steven, a near neighbour, to meet Thierry, Fred and Isobelle also near neighbours has been trying, as through unforeseen circumstances i can never get them all in one place at the same time. I think we will leave that one for the time being and let fate and nature decide when we should all meet.

Having lots of visitors over this month so priority the last few days has been pots and plants to tart up the terrace. What a performance to get the pots filled, went to a garden centre with Ben and a local barrow boy who had commandered a Honda van. They insisted i needed 10 sacks of the premium goat dung black soil for plants at 25 dirhams a bag mixed with 7 sacks of low grade waste at 10 dirhams a bag. I ended up with tons of soil and a few plants to get started which all got stacked onto the van and ferried to the medina, transferred onto barrows and wheeled to the house and finally humped up 5 flights of stairs to the terrace. After all that couldn,t face filling the pots for two days.

Finally spent an afternoon with Ben doing all the pots after we had taken a trip out on the Ifrane road to a highly recommended pepiniere or garden centre where I picked up a palm, 3 bougainvillias, lavender, rosemary, jasmine and some other variagated leafy bush type thingies, cuddly toy, no scratch the last one . Finally we potted everything and looked great so went up to top terrace to look down on them and had a very tranquil hour watching the sun go down in an amazing pillowed cloud sky, before the call to prayer and the terrace lights twinkled on. It really is so special and at one point I stood stock still and looked up and I could almost feel and definitely see with the clouds so prominent the earth slowly moving on its axis around me.

I was brought back to earth with a bump as Ben had brought up a visitor to the terrace another new neighbour, Dominic who had bought a Riad just off Derb el Horra, my street. Turns out he was a Suffolk lad so just down road from Norwich and he is looking to do renovation, get into property etc so we had a few things in common. I must say all my neighbours to date have been fascinating as it does take a certain spirit to base yourself here i believe.

The other day spent a very good half day with Sandy of view from fes website met him in Recif and went to see Riad Zany, his lovely house in the medina still undergoing renovation a looking great, a real character place, loads of charm. We chatted for ages about my various plans for the house and Sandys suggestion of real Sahara sand in my Berber Basement could be a winner. Also chatted about the new rules and regulations that are coming into effect now for house owners wanting to rent out their places its something to seriously look into and get local specialist knowledge without baksheeshing your backside off. Also talked of Sandys fine new novel and the one he is now working on of which he gave me a brief synopsis that sounded absolutely brilliant being based in Fes, I will say no more.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I was just settling down to a lovely tagine with Jenny the happy Riad hunter up at the Boujloud gate when a strangulated cry emanated from the nearby bar. The cry sounded strangely familiar but I could not place it in my memory.

Heading over to said bar it was instantly familiar as the baying of the lesser spotted football supporter. I had forgotten it was the Champions League grudge match between Chelsea (hurrah) and Barcelona (booooo) and immediately abandoned my dinner to sit amidst Barcelona supporting Moroccans who taunted me mercilessly until Chelsea scored. Then the bar went slightly ballistic as a couple of Moroccan Chelsea fans knocked into the 50 or so Moroccan Barcelona fans and off it went into the usual nose to nose screeching; shouting and gesticulating stand off. Although trying not to laugh in case it incited more riotous behaviour it was so reminiscent of an English boozer at that point but of course minus the copious amounts of alcohol and foul language and headbutts.

Took Jenny round to see Steven at the cool Riad 9 and we sat on the terrace for a few hours discussing what else but houses; riads and dars. Its almost like the mantra from the Wizard of Oz " Lions and Tigers and Bears; oh my" as Dorothy sets off into the forest; whereas here the mantra would be "Houses and riads and dars" as you venture into the Medina. Either way its a jungle out there; so beware.

Just a few workers at the house at the moment as Baccali gets his act together after Ramadan; but at least the ceiling is nearly done and the builder Driss is patching up bits and bobs and bricking in exposed pipework in the bathrooms. Told Baccali I would appreciate all rubbish especially in basemant to be cleared out by Saturday as its the start of a steady stream of visitors from England over the next few weeks. Also to demolish the chimney that is half built as it is not in keeping with the salon;it was one of my wackier ideas that looked good on paper till I saw it in the flesh or brick so to speak and then it resembled a space shuttle nose cone; demolish now and start again.

Spent a good morning with Aloumi today at the Centre for Regional Investment a non governmental advice centre for investors which was very informative. I need to register the house name Dar Mernissi or something similar if that is not available also checking on various options for the house; guest house; restaurant or training kitchen which would give it a governmental status although lots of places no names mentioned do not bother at all. Also need a carte sejour or semi residency so i am here in some official capacity. Called John and Jenny to pick their brains on all this and also Sandy at View from Fes and will meet them all tomorrow as I need advice on all of it before making a wrong move. Alouimi has been designated as the man to do all the chasing and paperwork for me being an eloquent; multi lingual respected local.

Its all a case of you scratch my back and I will scratch yours here; favours for favours here helps lifes merry go round go round; just how it should be in the real world out there; so welcome aboard Aloumi.