Friday, July 15, 2005

Wiring is wiring, right?

Well, that's what I would have thought.

The old, bad, aluminum wires should come out, and be replaced with shiny new copper, which would accommodate all the amps needed to run our American plethora of appliances. But those two Polish electricians, with whom we could not communicate, did not take any old wires out. They left them where they were (wherever that was), and they are still there.

What they did was begin to chisel channels in the plaster. This was part of our early education about the difference between American house construction and Polish. Americans build homes with wooden frames and drywall. The walls are not very thick, and they are hollow, unless they are filled with some kind of insulation.

Polish walls begin with a core of concrete blocks. Bricks may be laid up on one or both sides of the concrete core. Then plaster--real, gooey, thick plaster--has to be smoothed over the bricks to make a smooth wall surface. There is no drywall in sight. So where do the wires go in these solid walls? Well, they string them into place before the plaster goes on, and then just cover them up. Good-bye, wires. They will never be seen again.

If you have to rewire a room (or an entire apartment), you simply dig deep channels into the wall. And up and over to the ceiling light fixtures. And down and over to every outlet. And then you make connections to the junction "boxes" that punctuate the walls. This is a lot of chiseling and plaster dust. It takes many, many feet (meters!) of wire for an apartment, and channels must be prepared for all of them. It is noisy, and dusty. Powdered plaster begins to cover everything within a one-kilometer radius, which certainly includes every corner of the unfortunate apartment. And I do mean every nook and cranny, including those "protected" by closet doors or cabinets.

After the channels are done, new wires are tucked into them, and buckets of fresh plaster are mixed to bury them forever--just like the old wires. Lines of freshly-dried plaster all over the walls and ceilings of every room are a nice complement to the plaster dust which resists every attempt to clean it up. So, after the wiring is done, and the electricians are finally gone, you still have to allow for several days of chaos while you paint. (But only after the plaster is really dry!)

I'm sure we learned some valuable lessons from this experience, which is virtually the first thing I remember about living in Poland. I'm sure it distracted us, at the time, from other culture shocks that might have unsettled us. But by the time the last dust-pan full of plaster dust was carried away, and the ugly plaster lines were concealed by paint, the rest of life in Poland had become sort of normal.


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