‘Why don’t we list the house on Airbnb?” my wife asked. “The house” is our summer pad in the tiny mountain village of Zabbougha, 45 kilometres outside Beirut. “Let’s face it,” she added. “We’re not using it, and I’m sure lots of people from all over the world would love to stay there. Writers for example; you often go up there to write, don’t you?”
I do. And the more we thought about using the global website that hooks up landlords with tenants looking for holiday lodgings in 33,000 cities and 192 countries, the more the idea began to appeal.
A house needs activity. A house left idle doesn’t feel the love. In winter, Zabbougha, which sits at an elevation of 950 metres, can get a metre of snow, while in the summer the temperature can soar to above 40°C. Fluctuations in temperature cause concrete to expand and contract. Pipes crack; window frames warp; tiles fall off and gardens become overgrown. A house needs people and if those people can pay enough to maintain it then that had to be a good thing … right?
We would need a support team, “go to” people whom tenants could call on if there were any problems. The project was becoming quite exciting. We agreed that my distant cousin Hiam would be a most excellent housekeeper, providing and changing linen and towels, and stocking the house with basic foods and maternal fuss.
Hiam’s brother Nagy was the obvious candidate for handy-man. A loveable rogue and a resourceful fixer, his hilarious grasp of English would endear him to the legions of adventurous tourists and earnest novelists that we were by now convinced would be beating a path up the mountain to discover rural Lebanese authenticity.
We even did a bit of impromptu branding. The main house would be called Villa Karam, while the little gardener’s hut we were going to refurbish would become The Annex. I predicted it would be a writer’s dream.
But in our state of bijou excitement we forgot the Lebanon factor. Zabbougha receives a maximum of 12 hours of electricity a day with, literally, one night on one night off, a situation that has existed ever since I returned in February 1992.
Back then, to combat the darkness, I bought a portable petrol-run generator with one of those cumbersome ripcord starters which sat in the old stone cellar. The journey to turn it on and off became something of a drag, especially when some bored wag at Electricité du Liban would turn the power on and off every five minutes for no apparent reason.
I eventually invested in a bigger and definitely less portable Chinese generator. It claimed to be “silent” and could be turned on and off from the kitchen. We soon found out that the Chinese clearly have a different concept of silence and the engine’s throaty throbbing would hardly contribute to the bucolic solitude we hoped to sell. It would have to be moved, but where? And how?
There was also the problem of fuel. Villa Karam was going to be self-contained but the generator would need filling every other day; the nearest diesel station is in the next village and some tenants wouldn’t have a car. Loveable rogue or not, could we really rely on Nagy to keep the generator ticking over?
And then there was the issue of the water. In summer the government supply can dry up for weeks, forcing villagers to ration with a skill honed over decades. Unsuspecting tenants would run out in a matter of days, necessitating a call to the local “private” water supplier, whose water has an alarmingly brownish hue, and while it is harmless enough, at least to our trained stomachs, it may make tenants squeamish.
The easiest chore would be the changing of the gas bottle for the cooker, but even that would need a trip to Georges Maalouf in the village. His wife speaks English, but there was still the small matter of changing the bottle and replacing the washer. Mrs Karam still struggles.
We looked at each other and agreed to think about it. That was a month ago, and the subject hasn’t come up again.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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