Years ago, about 26 or so, we renovated our house. We could never understand why kitchens in old houses were so tiny. Maybe it was a European thing to have large welcoming places to cook, collaborate, test and taste new concoctions emerging hot from the oven, gathering with friends, family, nonnas, children, breathing in fresh smells, dialoguing with the cook, pausing and resting among stacks of ingredients with a warming cup of tea, a cookie, the kitchen a hearth, the centre from which the spokes of all family life originated.
But ours in our North Toronto house resembled a tiny cupboard also fitted with a small green nook so constrained we wondered how the previous families had ever fitted themselves, three full-sized male adolescents, into the cramped leather space.Maybe a forerunner to a galley, configured in the architect’s mind as a spot for a an upstairs- downstairs maid to be signalled by a tingling silver bell, an adjunct to the big living spaces where people did no more than ingest three times a day. And rather than luxuriant wafting melodies of bursting aromas, odours of spam, packaged slices of baloney, cans of Campbell’s soup, or cucumber sandwiches, no crusts, might have emerged on dainty Wedgewood dishes from a room deemed so unimportant as to to be hidden deep in the bowels of the house or relegated to its furthest outreaches.
So we expanded and extended, more than quadrupling a space that we glassed in, positioned to overlook the overgrown garden, framed by the craggy birch tree that harboured blue jays, wood peckers and cardinals in the spring. I had visions of Sissinghurst, a white wonderland of blooms that would frame our kitchen as I drank my morning coffee or contemplated my day.
And with that renovation came, of course, new appliances. Foolishly setting our renovation back to back with a trip to Europe to introduce our children to the galleries, museums and churches of France and Italy, we were finding that the reconstruction of our kitchen was lagging, and with the travel plans quickly approaching, we must act fast to make decisions.
Maybe back then, someone had lauded German ovens as the best, others macabrely resurrecting the agents responsible for gas chambers as truly not appropriate for Jews, with the same friends insisting they would never buy Mercedes, etc. But I, bias aside, arrived at the conclusion that Gaggenau appliances, yes German appliances, although out- pricing other models, really were superior, better engineered , and barely with two days before flying off, we ordered a combo of convention and traditional ovens, stove top, and dishwasher of the same notorious brand.
And with the exception of the dishwasher that has been replaced twice, and stove top recently demised three years ago, Gaggenau has stood the test. Because all were positioned built- ins and the dimensions of each matched to scaled down European- style products, you can imagine my fear of replacement.
When you commence a renovation, you live in the now, not considering that like bodies, machines and products, wear and wear out in the process of living, and will by dint of necessity need to be repaired or replaced at some point, for the kitchen as the heart of a home receives dirty climbing feet, grubby , grabbing hands, grasping fingers that unpry and pull open cupboards and drawers roughly, rudely pulling produce from refrigerators, dropping, spilling spices onto the floor, replacing glasses and plates, unthinkingly, constantly reaching, slamming, touching, opening, closing, rearranging, moving tables, scraping chairs, sweeping, washing crumbs from the floor : in the kitchen’s role as post central for feeding and creating and talking and gathering. And who has not found measuring spoons, fitted bowls and wooden spoons for drooling babies and sticky- handed toddlers so mama could cast a weary eye while preparing a meal? If any room is alive, the kitchen certainly is- feeding the souls and stomachs of the family.
So should a problem arise, you smile brightly at the serviceman, cross your fingers and toes, awaiting the reply: if a replacement part still exists because it is unlikely your model of oven is still available.
So when the stove door persisted in refusing to close on Sunday, anticipating my holiday turkey would not be cooked if the heat continued to blow open the door, I went to the Internet Monday morning. To my joy, there were specialists for stove tops and ovens, even listing the European makes that included the rarely seen Gaggenau. The friendly sweet- voiced person at the end of the line reassured me that someone would be there that very morning. The charge of $80 would be deducted from the labour, or so I thought I heard. I asked about the hourly rate and was informed it depended on the job. I enquired a second time, but the response was vague and truly I had visions of the holiday turkey being uncooked or cooked so unevenly to produce salmonella poisoning in my guests, and as one must usually endure several days of waiting should the service person actually appear as scheduled within a block of four hours, I booked the appointment set between 10-1.
A pleasant young man, maybe 20, arrived. He commented that the old Gaggenaus were great ovens, the new ones not so much. I showed him the problem, even indicating how my son-in-law suggested the latch must have dropped down. When he consulted his clock, I did too, 11:32. Inserting his pinky and gently lifting the small piece that must have dislodged, he added two screws and tightened them. Fussing slightly for a minute or two, he began his paperwork. It was now 11:42. The cost $210.
Incredulous, aghast and overcome with laughter, I asked, “Why?”. He explained that the $80 was not to diagnose the problem, it was the outside cost of a service call, nothing included. At first I said, I’ld pay but definitely intended to badmouth, write, cajole whoever, whatever to protest this outrageous cost. I’m not sure if he suggested or maybe I figured I should call the company. I did and I complained. Then I was asked if I had been given a quote for the work. I said “No,” and later when I viewed the bill, there was a place for the customer to sign TWICE that they had acknowledged the work and the cost.
The lady on the phone disappeared for 10 minutes, returning to tell me they would reduce the cost by $20. By this point, seething with indignation and having replaced my VISA card into my wallet, I told the person on the phone to invoice me, that my husband was a lawyer, we would review the cost, either to pay it or find another venue to argue this ridiculous cost. She asked to speak to the technician.
We hung up the phone and he asked,” How much do you want to pay?” I said, “$80.” He looked at me, aghast, sardonically bitterly inquiring, “ What about the parts?” I responded ,” You could get a pile of a hundred screws for a buck at Canadian Tire.” In the end, I paid $85.
But I’m wondering if the experience had not come on the tails of replacing 40 year old taps that had been inherited with the house the day before that sparked my outrage. Young Alex also chosen from a list on the Internet ( advertised as a 5 star rating) had explained the Groen faucets now defunct needed replacement. After checking at two local outsources, I’m talking within maybe 2 miles both, he told me it would take two weeks for their arrival.
As well, constantly asking for a price at the outset, but again never receiving one, I was finally informed, the entire job would cost close to $500, with labour at $280 . Oh you haven’t discounted the $100 for your first visit?” I reminded him.” Oh yes”, he responds,” Our hourly rate is $360.” Really! How much do teachers and policemen and salespeople and even doctors earn hourly?
Checking on line, I discovered the taps would cost $50. Because of shipping to Canada, an additional $30 was tacked on. Double checking with Alex, I ordered them myself, and hoped they would not be lost in the Christmas rush and previous postal backup. Then I will see if I can find someone to pop them in at less than $280. But because the taps in my bathroom has no local turnoff , hot water continues to drip.Through it all, Alex courteous and helpful. Why not?
So, if you have persevered through my tale, I suggest, should you require assistance by plumber or other technician , make sure, INSIST on clear statements of cost. I know I belong to another time, another generation, perhaps one of trust , so out of date at present, but honestly, $210 for 10 minutes of work or $360 an hour feels unduly extravagant for minor jobs.
Brave new world where dinner arrives by Uber, mail arrives in a flash and companies think nothing of overcharging. Beware.