Cooking Up The Courage To Move Again

The smell of dust hit my nostrils, thick as a wall, invisible, floating, and the first thing to greet me as I turned the unfamiliar key into the deadbolt of my friend’s apartment.

I hauled my bag into the hallway and dropped it unceremoniously on the carpet, disappointed.

“Which one is supposed to be your bedroom?” Farah peered over my shoulder as she lugged a few more of my bags across the threshold.

“I think it’s this one, but don’t worry! Just keep everything here for now.”

Farah had picked me up from my old apartment and together we had loaded her car with one main suitcase, two pieces of hand luggage and a few plastic bags full of extras I still needed to pack before my upcoming flight. I also brought all my sauces, spices and wines with me from my old kitchen, which I didn’t have the heart to leave behind, even if I was only going to be in Melbourne for 2 more weeks.

I was staying at my friend Nikki’s house until I left Melbourne. It was maybe a hasty decision. My old housemate had just gotten a new puppy which she was spoiling badly. As cute as the pup was, she was becoming more unruly as time went on. Her latest trick was howling throughout the night for attention until my housemate would give up and take the puppy into her bed to sleep with her for the rest of the night. I was determined to be well rested so I could enjoy my last few weeks in Australia before my next TCK adventure, so I boxed up my belongings, ready for the removalists, packed my bags for my flight to the Middle East, and headed over to Nikki’s house, which luckily for me, she had vacated while she was away on a long holiday in Europe.

The unit was pretty old, with a dirty coffee carpet.

“At least it’s warmish in here.” Farah had paused in front of a whip hanging up on the wall beside an assortment of uncomfortably mismatched frames. “Is she into horses?”

“I honestly don’t know.” I was starting to wonder if the dusty smell was due to the numerous awkward antiques and odd ornaments she had scattered around the house. A large green, wooden umbrella balanced above the TV. A faded pink paper rose hung down from the corner of the dining room window. For some reason, she had an assortment of old cutlery arranged along a long side table. The living room had an illustration of a large, fat ram in black and white. I hated all of it and I told Farah just that.

Farah nodded sympathetically, even though I was being harsh. “Yeah, I see what you mean. What are with these huge, empty pots and why don’t they have any plants in them?” She gestured to two clay monstrosities that were balancing on individual high stools, framing a window with a dodgy fly screen.

I recognised my discomfort for what it was quickly enough. I love challenging myself by meeting new people and throwing myself into new environments and experiences as often as I can, but that doesn’t mean I find it easy to do. A defence mechanism that often switches on when I’m among the unfamiliar is judgement. My internal dialogue (“Nikki is a graphic designer, isn’t she? Why the hell does she have such terrible taste then?!”) was my mind’s way of telling me I was intimidated about making this space my own for the next two weeks, especially when it was so different to the sparkling new, modern apartment I had just moved out of.

When Farah left, I got into my PJs, and after poking around disconsolately at the ancient thermostat that looked to just be on the wall for decoration, I pulled on another t-shirt and jumper before curling into a ball under cold blankets. At least I had a safe place to stay with a roof over my head, and I was still in Melbourne—a city I have lived in for 11 years now. Once I moved to Dubai in 2 weeks, I was going to be experiencing all of this discomfort all over again, probably to the power of 10. I’d better figure out how to change my mindset quick smart.

I couldn’t help but feel disappointed in myself. I knew I was lucky to have found alternate accomodation so quickly, and for a very affordable price too. I was saving about $400 in rent because I wasn’t staying in my old apartment with my old housemate anymore. I had chosen this and I had moved so many times already in Australia and across the world that I didn’t have a good reason for why this still felt hard. A section from my library book “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck”, which I had returned a day ago, flashed across my mind’s eye. It said something along the lines of, ‘when you’re disappointed about something, don’t be disappointed about being disappointed! That is going to make things worse for you!’

“Fine.” I told myself grudgingly. It was a good point. If I was going to stop judging the apartment, I was going to have to stop judging myself too. How do I find a way to accept the discomfort of something so new and still make sure I am well rested and happy for the next two weeks, though? How do I learn from this experience so I can move to Dubai and really make it work? More pressing at this time of the night, is this apartment so old it might be haunted? I squeezed my eyes shut and refused to open them until I was sure it was morning. I’d deal with my impending life lessons then.

The next day was Anzac Day, a public holiday in Australia. I had planned to spend a few hours grocery shopping and prepping dinner for my family, who were coming over after work the next day. “At least the hot water works”, I thought dryly, as I stood under the shower. I caught myself in that moment of derision and remembered that this negativity just wouldn’t do. Yes, it’s tough being somewhere new. And probably, as an art director, being around so many hideous things might be affecting me on a visual level that I didn’t understand. But even though it was a very fair reaction to have, this way of thinking was really doing me no good.

After I towelled off and pulled on my clothes for the day, I decided to unpack a little so the house could turn more into my space. I spread out all of my toiletries on the counter, making sure I could see my favourite hand creams and perfumes, and kept my bar of Spa Ceylon Frankincense soap in the shower, so the bathroom now smells amazing every time I walk past it. I lined my shoes up against the bedroom wall, and made sure my favourite book and my unicorn eye mask sat on the nightstand beside me. And in the kitchen I stacked my oils, rice and spices on the counter, and slipped my wine bottles into the metal rack inside the empty fridge. Instantly, I felt a little better. The house was no longer completely alien. I also quickly figured out that while I was indoors, if I opened all the windows and the balcony door during the day, the cool air busted the dustiness and left the unit smelling quite normal.

I don’t think I really settled in, though, until I got back home after grocery shopping. I love to cook. It’s one of the few things I truly lose myself in. Sitting at Nikki’s living room table with a beer, with Julie & Julia playing on my iPad as I hand-rolled homemade pork dumplings and wrapped them in cellophane to keep them fresh, I realised what the ultimate trick was to dealing with a brand new place: making time in that space to do the most ‘me’ thing possible! I understood then that anchoring myself back to my identity and my happiness was a powerful way to combat an uncomfortable environment.

I stirred peanut butter, soy sauce, fresh ginger and sesame oil into the beef I had bought and let it marinate. I heated up Jasmine rice with garlic oil, chicken stock and ginger before I put it on the boil. I washed, salted and quartered the bok choy so it was ready to be grilled before it was served the next day. I found a thick wooden chopping board and covered it in oranges, strawberries, grapes and chocolate for dessert. I wrapped everything up before placing it back in the fridge. Admiring how each shelf was now fit to burst, I knew I had learned something very important about what lay ahead—I would have to make sure I made time to cook while I camped out at my parent’s place in Dubai. I also knew that as soon as I got a job and moved into my own apartment, it would have to be equipped with a functional kitchen where I could entertain friends over food. Placing emphasis on the internal (I will always love food) instead of the external (which is very much out of my control) is what’s going to help me feel at peace and balanced here in this odd apartment for the next two weeks, not to mention the months ahead when I’m in a new country trying to find my feet!

I figure I need a few more connections to my identity when I can’t rely on cooking to make me feel better, so I’m going to spend the next two weeks trying to figure out what those are, and when I do, I’m going to hold on to them real tight to help me whenever I move somewhere new! Two more discoveries that have helped ease my mind a bit have been running (I love getting into my gear and heading out while listening to my favourite music) and sharing my uncomfortable experience (writing this article has really helped me put my thoughts in order. So have some angry Whatsapps to friends to vent: “WTF! There is no wifi and the phone signal is SO BAD out here I can’t even hotspot! Who doesn’t TELL someone that before they charge a friend for staying over?!”).

I’m still not 100% happy with the place, but I’m not nearly as uncomfortable as I was a few days ago. I don’t like that Nikki has no sponges in her sink, so I’ve been keeping my dirty dishes in her fridge till I can work up the nerve to use her faulty kitchen tap and weird plastic scrubbing brush to clean up. I still can’t understand why there are no signs of heaters anywhere. But I know where the closest supermarket is and treated myself to a plate of prosciutto and fat red grapes last night for dinner. I’ve got another decent article for TCK TOWN and I’ve made sure my showers have been very hot, long and luxurious to make up for the missing wifi. Not a bad compromise! And more importantly, I feel equipped and much less afraid about my bigger move to Dubai.