Saturday, September 11, 2010

Gettin' had, gettin' took, I tell you folks it's harder than it looks

I am going to give you one of the best pieces of advice any expat can give another:

Never, ever, by all that is good and holy, try to hold a garage sale in the Middle East.

No, really, I mean it. We would spare you that pain.

Now, a garage sale should be simple enough, right? Sort through all our stuff (see above) and sell or give away, oh, 3/4 of it.

Yeah, simple. Right.

The initial result was several piles and then sub piles and then more sub-piles and also the opportunity to re-raise the question that Mike had been asking nearly the entire 2 years of our expat experience: Natalie, how (and why) did you manage to acquire all this crap while living abroad?

Sometimes you have to roll your eyes and change the subject. I was getting pretty good at it, too. Knowing full well we have an entire storage unit of stuff back in the States, I had hoped to have become the very epitome of streamlined living, sensible, organised, and ready to pick up and move at any moment.

Yeah, right.

It was hard work but, sniping aside, rather freeing to sort out all our stuff. The kids were great about narrowing their possessions to one box of toys apiece. We had decided long ago to bring home our Persian carpets, of course, and the beautiful carved antique wood furniture. We'd bought those as investments, and because they made us happy, but most of the rest of it was slated for the chopping block.

Two Indian schoolgirls knocked on the door asking if they could clean the carport, despite the midday heat, for some spending money. I thought this fortuitous and was impressed by their enterprising spirit. For less than the price of a latte and cupcake I had a nice clean carport. They even put the swept sand into the bin instead of out on the street.

As soon as I listed the sale online I began to get phone calls. Did I have this? Did I have that?

One woman really took the cake. She wanted a Little Tikes kitchen set. This I had, and described it to her. She got pushy, then pushier. I was to give her a hefty discount, (why I'm not sure,) and then hold it for her until after the garage sale, when she could send her driver to come get it, then, when I had agreed to all of this, would I send her a photograph of it to make sure it was what she wanted, and by the way did I have any Gucci purses or high-end designer clothing?

Oh, for crying out loud...

The photo I sent, stipulating that the kid was not for sale, at any price.

This should have been a portent of things to come, but we marched optimistically on.

Beginning to set out things in the carport at 6:15 in the morning, it was already hot and humid, and getting hotter every minute. I made nice little piles of stuff, with room to wander through, and had advertised a "special deal" online for potential shoppers: fill a bag for all they could stuff into it for 30 dirhams. (About 8 bucks.) I thought this was clever. Make some money, reduce haggling, get rid of stuff, good for everyone, right?

My first customer came wheeling by within minutes, a Filipina nanny, pushing a pram. She began to take things from the carport floor, until I finally got through to her that I was going to sell the stuff.

Ah, so sorry madam, so sorry!

Immediately she started helping me to set things out, even taking things from me she deemed too heavy. I'm not sure what her motivation was. The working class here are often uncomfortable watching us delicate white ladies doing any sort of manual, oh, pushing a grocery cart or wiping a child's nose. It just isn't done.

Except of course by stubborn and strange individuals like myself.

I'm not terribly teachable on certain points, even with patience, though many have tried.

I wasn't sure what to do about this Fillipina maid helping. I tried to stop her, which proved impossible. The maids have an impressive survival skill, deliberate or not, that causes them to suddenly lose their hearing and/or ability to understand English.

Once I recognised what was happening, I knew it would be useless to protest. (OK, so I'm not completely unteachable.) Should I pay her, and if so, how much? What if her employers came along and saw their little boy parked alongside the sidewalk while she neglected him?

I decided to thank her profusely and told her to take anything she wanted. The smile I got in return and the lessening of discomfort was worth whatever she took, which ended up being a pretty good pile.

It was coming up on 7 AM. I was hoping to go inside and have a quick bowl of cereal. We'd decided that 8 AM was a good start time, figuring people might come a little early, but not that much earlier than that.

Then it happened.

I had mentally prepared for an onslaught of maids, the occasional wily housewife who liked a bargain, and little kids. I figured I could deal with the first two, and give the kids really great deals and throw in lots of free stuff to make their money go far.

What I was not prepared for was six or seven cars pulling up all at once, way before opening time, jostling for sidewalk parking spaces.

Out of each of these cars came 3 or 4 men. What the...?

In a brilliantly conceived formation attack, they swarmed. I have never seen anything like this. Suddenly the carport was utterly inundated with swarthy Middle Eastern men, perhaps of Iranian origin, though we never did find out. Mike thought they might have been Pakistani merchants.

It didn't matter where they were from, these guys were pros, and we, well, we were not.

All is fair in love, war, and apparently also in garage sales held by wussy white folk. Thickly accented and clever eyed, they circled and pounced like hyenas. In the herd of yardsellers, we were a sickly weak member, and as is the way of things, we needed to be weeded out to keep the rest strong.

Within moments I knew we were outgunned in every way. Had I priced things instead of trying for the 30 dirham stuff-a-bag deal, perhaps it might have gone better, but without prices marked, it was open season. The men swirled around me like a bad music video gone awry. I was getting thoroughly confused as to who was asking what about which, and it didn't help when they would come back with the same item three or four times, and if they didn't get the price they wanted, they passed it to a friend and sent him in for a go. Stating prices I knew to be reasonable received a scoff or hurt look. The game seemed to be pay a tenth of the asked price.

Sometime early in the melee one asked about small kitchen appliances. Now, here I had really tried to be on top of things. I had each appliance sparkly clean, displayed inside the house along the kitchen counter with the box and manual behind each.

The idea was that Mike would take interested people in one at a time to look the items over. This also might have worked except that the man asked if his friend could come along. Mike made the colossal mistake of agreeing, which opened the floodgates and several men tromped into the house. Well, that didn't go to plan.

I managed not to blubber or beg Mike not to go, leaving me to the rest of the sharks. You know how sometimes a shark will swim up to something like, say, a surfer, and not sure if that thing is food or not, take a test bite? Well, we were past that. There was blood in the water and the feeding frenzy was gearing up.

They rotated in tag teams, playing good cop bad cop, being pleasant, intimidating, scathing, gentle, as rapid fire as a machine gun, with some pawing through everything, and others lining up behind me, leaning against the wall and watching the white woman fumble and sweat, struggling to have any sort of control over what was happening with our stuff.

Their being behind me was incredibly uncomfortable in an area of the world where sexism is quite normal, unquestioned, alive and well. Being in a soaked shirt, in the heat, surrounded by men speaking another language which I couldn't understand (which made me think it must have been Farsi), well, talk about being in a poor position for negotiation.

45 minutes of total agony later it was all over. At one point I had whimpered to Mike (begging your forgiveness for the phrase) "I'm getting raped out here." "I'm getting raped in here" he moaned back, "what do you want me to do?"

The horde left as suddenly as they had appeared, arms full of loot, off to prayer. Oh, thank God. Literally.

Looking over the destruction left behind, Mike and I ascertained we still had two kids, tried to gather up the shredded remnants of our egos, and realised it was just about time for the garage sale to start.

I can't speak for Mike, but I no longer cared very much. Halfheartedly, I tried to organise the sad remains into some sort of order while we started to compare notes.

Outside, I had sold the ironing board and iron for the equivalent of $2.72. Again and again I would settle on a price even lower than I ever thought I would accepted for things and then the men would press even less money into my hand and try to walk away with the items.

There was a lot of bait and switch, and even one man who asked me how much some linens were, and then didn't even look embarrassed when I pointed out that he also had 8 other items in the bag beneath the linens. I had two or three of these men asking me how much something was at once, circling, feinting, then rotating out and letting the next team hit me up. I don't think anything walked away without being paid for; obviously there were some rules. A Pirate Code, if I'm not mistaken.

Inside my head there was some loud self-talk hollering: ACK! NO! STOP! All of you GET OUT!!!

But I'm too well brought up for such a tantrum, and I'm pretty sure they would have been surprised had I actually hauled off and let them have it. They were having the times of their lives, and, we figured out later, restocking their resale stores for practically nothing. Playing the game as they had their entire lives, it was not their fault I was the rawest of raw rookies trying to play with the big boys.

Not only that, but what if I'd thrown a fit, ordered them out, and they hadn't left?

Inside the house, Mike had also tried to corral the men with no success whatsoever. They were opening drawers and cupboards, going through all our things in the rooms, asking repeatedly if this that or the other thing was for sale, undeterred in the least by his no, no NO replies.

One man bought the microwave and then ate the package of cookies that was sitting on top of it. He at least had the grace to look a little embarrassed when Mike saw him and gestured to the few remaining crumbs for permission from Mike to finish them off. Like Mike would have said no at that point.

I would have to say that the cookie muncher was the best behaved of all of them, and he paid an OK price for the microwave, at least in comparison. Mike was harried and harassed down to his last nerve. He sold all of the carefully cleaned and displayed kitchen gear for about what one of them was worth. I deserve some sort of Wife Award for not giving him grief about the espresso machine. He, of course, deserves a husband award for the entire situation. You know, the one where he puts up with my nutty self, ideas, and all the crap I bring home.

At some point Mike had realised, and nearly panicked, that he had left the stack of cash we'd gotten for selling two of our cars, dirhams worth nearly $20,000, on his desk in his office with the door slightly open. I had noticed it and put it under a pile of paperwork, on the off chance that someone could see it through the window, but he didn't know that. The pile remained unscathed, fortunately, which was a huge relief.

We agreed that our favorite fellow was one who came outside and told me, "your husband says he will let me buy the air purifier (which cost us 1300 new and was in perfect working condition, with the box) for 30 dirhams." I looked aghast at him. "Good gracious," I said, "will you at least give us 50?"

The fellow went back inside. "Your wife says the price for this thing is 50." Fortunately Mike wasn't taken in, having bought the air purifier himself. The fellow argued back and forth (keep in mind that this is while others are still going through our house and Mike was trying to keep an eye on all the men in the different rooms and fend off other negotiators,) but Mike refused to be taken in, even when the man tried to put a 50 AED bill in his hand, the purifier beneath his arm and ready to leave. One point for Mike.

a great sign at the Eat and Drink in Dubai

I was drenched and felt used and tired and lousy about the whole thing. The Filipina maid had stood by mutely for much of the proceedings, with the expression one might have observing an unsavable flood victim being swept downstream. She, pleasingly, at least did not look gratified. I gave her all she asked for and bid her and her small and very patient charge good bye.

There were other things that happened that morning. The heat continued, 110, 115, I think the hottest was 118 while we were out there, which was plenty, especially with the high humidity.

I was terribly apologetic to the folks who showed up on time for the sale to start...and I didn't have all that much to offer them. At that point I was beaten down and conditioned to accept pretty much any amount offered to me, so those folks at least got really good deals. More than one person was rather taken aback. Really? Are you sure? they would ask. "Yes, yes, do enjoy," I would say, "sorry it's so hot, sorry there isn't so much left."

And then the bus showed up. Literally. These nice folks were from the Phillipines, were polite, if very frugal. The range of people who showed up was interesting, from nice to incredibly demanding. (I was giving out cold bottled water, still or sparkling and one woman complained I didn't do so quickly enough in her case. Considering that I wasn't charging for them and she didn't buy anything, I thought her a bit rude.) There was a steady trickle of folks for the next while, and then I pushed it all to the side and put a "FREE" sign on the remnants of a once-proud garage sale, and went inside.

I have run for the same amount of time under the blazing desert sun and not been half as tired as I was when I called it a day that morning.

There is a positive post script to this lesson, however.

When I first posted the sale online, I also got an email from a Filipina named Galilee (isn't that a lovely name?) saying that she was quite poor, had no furniture, and could she come get anything left over after the sale? I had a sofa bed that I was going to give away, actually, and told her she was quite welcome to it, and anything else for that matter.

While I was waiting for Galilee and her friends to arrive I heard rustling out in the garage and peeked out in time to see some Sri Lankan maids rooting through the leftovers, one having secured one of my fancy hats that I'd decided not to keep. She put it on immediately, this Ascot looking creation, and beamed, quite pleased with herself.

Galilee arrived soon thereafter, with a moving van and three friends. Round faced and pleasant, they worked fast and hard and not only moved the sofa bed and cushions, with some linens thrown in, but also completely cleaned out the garage area, sweeping it tidy and empty afterwards.

Then we went inside and slept like rocks in the blessed air conditioning.


*Paula* said...

Ack! That would be my idea of a nightmare! I hate bargaining, and in that heat no less! I would have been a basket case :) How much longer do you have left over there?

Joanna said...

Wow, that's quite a story. Sounds like the guys are practiced in their techniques. Glad you survived and at least more didn't disappear! :(

AKBrady said...

You made me tired just reading that. Galillee, maybe it was worth it then?

Mumsey said...

This is one of my favorite stories. It gives a new meaning to flea market. And here I thought pushy people with lots of money bargaining at charity rummage sales were bad.

Friendly Neighborhood Librarian said...

This yard sale would make a great movie!
I'm so glad your money was safe!

Anonymous said...

I have learned a great lesson through your torture. I will buy very little here with the intention of giving anything I do get away. I will be missing your wonderful posts!

paris parfait said...

What an ordeal! Such a great story (even if an awful experience).