But while jackhammers and heavy machinery get the most attention because of the cacophony they create, there is another plague much closer to home that affects anyone who has tried to rent a peaceful place on the island.
I’m referring to Uncle Charlie’s Home Repair School.
Semi-professional builders in Malta take a Battle of the Somme approach: long periods of silence followed by a burst of violent excavations that have always begun at dawn. They invariably insist that they show up at 6 or 7am and work for half an hour before packing up and going home.
Buildings made of stone do not creak. Drop a euro coin in the parking garage and listen to it in the penthouse and find yourself cutting a checkbook for holes. The clack of two-story high-heeled shoes below at six in the morning pierced the stone with a clarity whose carrying power could only be surpassed by another instrument: the early morning drill.
Expatriates hoping to rent a house on the island should know that a new building is the worst. A general rule to keep in mind is: The grander the name, the more shabby the dwelling – which doesn’t say too much about my decision to live in a building called “LUXE Mansions”.
It was being built all the years I lived there. There has always been an apartment being repaired, or plumbing being installed, or holes being drilled in the walls for electrical wiring. And it always happened at 6am.
It was as if he was waking up inside a huge tooth as soon as a determined dentist had a chance. Drills vibrated through the walls like a tuning fork, until my head began to feel, and finally my bones.
Every time we went out, we had to catch on jellyfish hair of extension cords that the contractors had taken from the apartment they were working on to the electrical plug in the electrical room. They were picking up free electricity from the common area of the building, so not only did we suffer from the noise, but we had the privilege of sharing the bill for it as well.
Packaging materials, broken plaster, cardboard and dirt were strewn across the lobby and stairs. They simply threw her to the ground and left as if they had not seen her once they had thrown her away.
These campaigns lasted about a week, and then fell into uncertain silence for a month. It took me years to arrange a small enough shell apartment to fit in.
Of course, nothing is ever really “fixed”; it was only temporarily not broken.
We didn’t have hot water in our kitchen because the heater had been improperly installed and the wires burned in the rain. The water pressure pump on the roof also broke, leaving us without hot water for a week in the winter.
The front door lock caught and fell to pieces, and a sliding door to the terrace lacked a lock that worked all the time we lived there. But the shoddy workmanship was not limited to safety issues: the baseboards under our dishwasher had been improperly installed as well, and regularly fell off with a clang that rattled spoons two blocks away.
The elevator was usually out of commission; it seemed to break down every month and it took at least three weeks for someone to repair it. Once I was trapped inside when the thing broke between the floors; I had to open the door and get out because the emergency button was never connected and no one was answering my call.
Plumbing was particularly problematic. The sink in our ensuite bathroom leaked because the drains were connected to a cheap plastic accordion hose. And a stovetop metal kettle was damaged by the harsh tap water and began to leak to the stove. We went through a kettle life: eight in six years.
In order not to miss the supposed water, the precipitation soaked through the walls into large patches that were eventually filled with black mold.
The cheap Chinese fuses blew every time it rained, both in the apartment and in the main breaker box in the lobby, which meant one of us had to rush down to the utility room while the other was next to the box in our flat, flipping. switches and try to isolate which plug was causing the problem.
I suspect this unstable electrical system was responsible for the trouble we had with appliances.
The air conditioning and microwave broke down, and the big-screen Italian television let out a loud shout whenever we were watching it. The fridge cracked as well, and we were without one for almost three weeks, but it was winter and no of our food was spoiled even after five days because it was so cold inside.
The shoddy construction frenzy is responsible for this; that and a complete lack of standards, enforcement and inspections. It is much safer to rent an old house, with all their typical old house issues. If it has been standing for a few hundred years, it is a reasonably safe bet not to fall around you during your lease.
The relentless construction became a reality in every village when Joseph Muscat sold to Sandro Chetcuti and the Concrete Kings, and cheap apartment blocks like LUXE Mansions spread over terraced fields like crusty limestone impetigo.
As long as those cut-rate chicken coops remain standing, you see roof-mounted excavators that can’t possibly support their weight, and the plasterer hanging from the windows with one hand while covering a wall. with the other. And you wake up at 6am by digging hard enough to shake the filling from your teeth as Uncle Charlie takes care of it.
It’s the building that counts, not the finishing touches, and I don’t expect it to end anytime soon.