Kitchen Renovation - Part I

September 08, 2011

Peeling tile, broken dishwasher, moldy countertops... 
how'd we put up with this for so long?!

After the whirlwind renovations our first year here - painting every room, adding window coverings and wardrobes, investing in our first major appliances - apartment projects have settled down. One thing that has since stayed on my mind is the shoddy kitchen (ok, ok, also the avocado green toilet, but we'll get there), which funnily enough, was described as 'installed' in the rental ad, required payment to the previous tenant for the ancient (and as we now know, not entirely functioning) appliances and ended up listed as 'tenant owned' on our paperwork. With no other apartment projects on our list - and holidays temporarily taking a back seat - we were ready to dive in.

Being the overly-ambitious renovator that I am, I of course wanted to gut it down to the circa 1992 cabinets, tile walls and floors included. Naturally, I had to concede that our visas being only a few years at a time and the element of never knowing what will happen, it was too much of an investment. Not to mention the fact that if we did ever move, it would likely be out of Germany, so there would be no way we would take our kitchen with us. For readers new to this German concept of paying for and toting around your own kitchen - from cabinets to sinks to appliances - from apartment to apartment, with the small likelihood that your last kitchen will even fit into the space of your new kitchen, its ridiculousness is unmatched. It is the most wasteful, expensive and just plain makes-no-sense thing the Germans indulge in. They might as well say to renters "here's the bathroom, but by the way, you have to supply your own tub and toilet." In the land known for streamlining and efficiency, this is one area in which the Germans are sorely lacking. 

What I hope our kitchen will look like, given time

Having accepted our limitations, I started planning. If we couldn't gut the whole thing, perhaps we could just get new cabinet doors to freshen it up. What bothers me most about the cabinets (besides the chipped finish, the horribly dated handles, and the '90s-inspired grid glass) was awkward upper middle cabinet. With it's smaller size, rotted-out corners and animal-shaped knobs, it brought out deep frustration every time I looked at it.

I don't know why it took me so long to come to the conclusion, but taking it out altogether was really the best thing from both an aesthetic and functional point of view. Not only did it really open up the space, but it let me get at the 20+ years of grime behind it and include it in the tile repainting portion of the project.

Uh, yuck!

I was apprehensive about just painting over the tiles because some preliminary research told me it won't adhere well and will likely chip and scratch easily. Since tearing the tiles out of the 100-year-old wall beneath wasn't really an option, we forged ahead with the only option we found at OBI (the German Home Depot, right down to the warehouse interior and same shade of orange in the logo). I did a few extra rounds of sanding and scrubbing with the special cleaner to ensure the best possible surface for the paint to adhere to, and all in all, I'm pretty happy with the result. The surface is not entirely immune to indentations and paint scratching off, but it's more durable than I would have expected and the shiny, clean surface makes the tile look almost new again.   


The next big thing was the appliances (the reason this whole project got underway, really). As with everything else, budget was a factor. While we thought Ikea would be the place to go for cheap appliances, they were actually more expensive and much more limiting than options at the big electronics stores. We were lucky enough to score to pieces that were the last ones left and/or floor models, so we were able to spring for a more efficient dishwasher, a name-brand stove and an induction cooktop (which came very highly recommended from the lovely Frau Dietz and her husband) for not too much from Media Markt. Less than a week later, they were delivered.

And so, out with the old (although I do regret not hanging onto Tweety as a memento)... 

... and in with the new!

I wish I could say that just having better-looking appliances from this decade makes everything better, but some basic functionality is also key. Our installation was yet another test in putting up with the complete lack of customer service in Germany. Between the deals we got on the appliances, the comparably-small delivery window (which they showed up exactly in the middle of) and how quickly they got the old appliances out and the new ones in, I should have known there would be a catch. And the catch was - the cooktop doesn't work.

Basically the workers threw up their hands and left our oven/stovetop half installed, taking our old (but working!) oven and stovetop with them. A prompt call from the manufacturer told us they could send a technician out to fix the problem - in a week. So I went ahead and scheduled that appointment (for my birthday, no less) and my husband called Media Markt to raise some hell about the lack of concern with leaving us unable to cook for eight whole days. Not surprisingly, they didn't really care. Were they willing to scramble to get us another cooktop from another store? No. Were they willing to cover the expense of us having to eat out for a week? At this, they scoffed. What they would do is try to talk to the manufacturer about speeding up the shipment of the part they miraculously knew we needed. Nice. Thanks for nothing.

I had a brief conversation with Frau Dietz about this on the train the other day, during which she shared an interesting theory behind this lack of 'customer service' that exists (and since her husband is German, I pretty much trust her insights into the German people more than my own). Quite simply, Germans are box-checkers. Did we show up on time? Check. Did we take away their old appliances? Check. Did we install the new appliances? Check (well, sort of). Anything other than checking these boxes is perhaps considered extraneous and only takes away from the task at hand - checking the next boxes on the list. This practicality and efficiency is one of the things I love about Germany, but as a people, it often makes them seem cold and unfeeling. As a customer who just dropped a bunch of money in their store, it makes for an incredibly frustrating experience. 

On the flip side, Frau Dietz brought up a good point that if this were the UK (or in the US, as you Americans know), they would've provided a customer service number that, once you finally made it through maze of numerical choices and endless renditions of easy-listening covers, connected you to someone in India who would ultimately be not in the department you needed, only to be transferred multiple times before the line finally disconnects you and you have to start all over again. I suppose there's no easy solution to this one, no matter where you are.    

On a positive note, other small fixes in the kitchen have proved invaluable in terms of making the most of the usability of our space. For example, other than two little racks that held barely as much as we drank in a week, we finally invested in a proper wine rack so we can keep all our treasured bottles from local wineries close at hand. A simple hanging rack meant getting rid of the counter fruit bowl and clearing up even more work space. Spices were also buried in our pantry on a tiny shelf that required ducking in and twisting around in a near contortionist position. Now, all my most-used spices are within reach of the stove (that albeit, doesn't work yet). I've also spent the last year and a half cursing every time I reached for a paper towel - the roll free-standing on the shelf - and dropped the entire thing into a sink full of soapy dishes. Why I didn't prioritize a paper towel holder until now, I'll never know.  It's all about the little things. Well, and the big things - like a working cooktop.

Aside from getting our cooktop sorted out and two shelves installed where the old cabinet used to be, the next big step will be deciding on which cheap countertop we will put in (since the ubiquitous butcher block tops are five times the price of laminate, the landlord basically said it's our problem - regardless that we rented an apartment with an 'installed kitchen' - and WE don't own the place) to replace the moldy, uneven, poorly cut wood top that exists now. A new sink that doesn't eat into my countertop work space will also be key, and I'm hoping I can squeeze a new faucet out of that budget as well. So our biggest decision for the month of October will likely be... faux wood or faux granite?

Even with everything still left unfinished, the kitchen is leaps and bounds ahead of where we started. So all in all, I'm pleased. I'm envisioning a few months down the line a beautiful, finished kitchen... (and it can't come soon enough!)

*Luke Lucas for Daily Drop Cap via Jessica Hische