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Out of place

Out of place

The move to Edinburgh is the most obvious sign of the changes I’ve made in my life over the past few years. I read the book Designing Your Life after I was already well into the process – job quit, bags packed – and it felt like an affirmation.

In retrospect I could see the “prototyping” I’d done before coming to the decision to transition to self-employment and live in the UK. I wasn’t simply looking for a new job and a new home: I was attempting to build the lifestyle I wanted. I’d started the process before my brother died, so the fact that I was ready to pick it up again was a relief.

That lifestyle includes freelance work that often allows me to work where I want when I want, with the flexibility to travel mid-week, take courses or visit a museum during the day, and be more purposeful about where I put my attention.

That lifestyle is possible because of who I am and the resulting choices I’ve made along the way, too. I’m not particularly unconventional by many standards – no punk phases in my past – but I often feel out of place. I don’t have an easy answer to “where are you from?” It depends on the context. Not wanting marriage or children, being an atheist – these things separate me from the mainstream to some degree.

That feeling of being out of place – of knowing my loneliest times occur when I’m surrounded by people – is what propels me to embrace solitude, but also to seek new places.

What do I want, here in Edinburgh, starting over in so many ways but bringing more knowledge of myself than ever? I’m answering that question all the time. I’m nesting in my new home, traveling to new locales, learning new things, indulging in old comforts.

But designing the lifestyle I want is also a matter of immense luck.

This was my second Christmas here, and I’ve been able to rethink what Christmas means to me, too, away from expectation and duty. I’m not going to get all Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus or post-ghost Ebenezer on you. But one of the ways I’ve added meaning to the season has been volunteering with Crisis.

They offer services to homeless people year-round, and work on strategies to end homelessness altogether. Over Christmas and New Year they put on a multi-day event where they take over a community centre and offer food, clothing, showers, personal services like hairdressing and massage, activities, entertainment, and a safe and warm place to hang out. The idea is to provide a festive Christmas season for those who want it, and also to connect those who are receptive with ongoing support.

My role seems insignificant: I was a general volunteer assigned to the recreation area, tasked with sitting at the tables and engaging with the guests in games and conversation. What’s the worst that could happen, I lose at Trivial Pursuit? Almost finish a jigsaw puzzle that turns out is missing a few pieces? (Turns out I’d’ve been lucky to get close to finishing the damn puzzles.)

Of course it’s not that simple. Last year before my first shift I was anxious. What if I was terrible at it? I’m not great at small talk, and not used to working with people experiencing homelessness. We were trained well and told that if we felt we couldn’t manage, we should ask to leave, no hard feelings. The important thing was not just our own mental health, but for the guests to be surrounded by people who weren’t judging them. I didn’t think I’d need that out, and would have been horrified if I had, but knowing it was there was what made it easier to walk through the doors of the community centre that first day.

I wasn’t terrible, but that’s because it wasn’t hard. I observed and hope to emulate people who were much better at small talk than I am, but the experience didn’t feel altruistic. We were just people hanging out, in a place designed for companionship among those who wanted it, and solitude for those who didn’t.

A few guests thanked me, saying it was so nice to have a place where they were welcome. Not just tolerated, but welcome. Imagine having that feeling so rarely? I never feel so out of place that I can’t sit in a coffee shop or wander in a shop or find a park bench without fear of being asked to leave.

Some told me their stories, some wore their stories in their mannerisms, some just wanted to play Trivial Pursuit or good-naturedly mock my attempts to finish a jigsaw puzzle. The stories were about mental illness and addiction, or injury and illness, or precarious employment, or family breakdown, or all or none of the above.  

I thought of my mom’s mental illness and alcoholism and how lucky we were that she and her kids were looked after by others. I thought of coming home from school to be told to pack our things and head to a hotel, and then a friend’s home, and then other temporary accommodation, and how lucky we were that there were places to take us in. I thought of how it’s a luxury to feel out of place when I have a place, and how quickly luck can change.

Home is where the art is

Home is where the art is

It’s been just over a year since I landed in Edinburgh with two bags of clothes and sundries, followed by two cats and five boxes of stuff.

If home is actually where the heart is, the cats were the biggest factor in making even Chateau Mildew feel like home instantly, and I’ll write more about the process of bringing them over soon.

But though I only brought marginally more stuff with me with this move compared to my time in Mexico, this is the first international move I’ve considered indefinite, getting rid of rather than storing the rest of my belongings. So what I brought is what defines my comforts of home.

The stuff was mostly clothes and shoes, some towels and bedding, and, most importantly, arts and crafts I’ve picked up in my travels. I used a service called Send My Bag, which is basically a user-friendly way to ship luggage and boxes via a courier but using their wrap-around service – it was DHL that actually picked up, shipped, and delivered my boxes. For the amount I was bringing over — i.e. not an entire household, but more than I could bring with me on the plane — the Send My Bag service was easy, had great customer service, and wasn’t nearly as expensive as I imagined, or as using a shipping company would have been.

I’d unframed what could be unframed for their travels, and now that I’m settled into my first unfurnished flat in Edinburgh, I’ve finally unpacked, reframed, and displayed the artworks and knick knacks that bring me joy and remind me of various stages in my life.

I brought the large canvas I was given as part of my contract completion bonus with the Vancouver Olympics, a view of the now-convention centre, then-International Broadcast Centre, by an acclaimed New Westminster artist. It was sent in the same special art box as the large abstract painting I created during a press day organized by my friend Sharon for an art-related television show, which I’m absurdly proud of even though it’s just colourful squiggles on a white board.

I carefully packed two mirrors from my time living in Mexico City – one of which made it to Edmonton then Vancouver then Scotland unscathed, the other which has now given up its rectangular shape and opted for more of a parallelogram.

I brought assorted prints from Ecuador, New Orleans, Key West, a Vancouver 2010 poster. There’s a photograph given to me in my first professional job working for the Alberta Playwrights Network, geese flying next to a boat they’d imprinted on, a thanks from the winner of our playwiting competition for prodding the provincial government to finally give him his prize money. (The prodding didn’t actually help, but he appreciated the effort.)

And then there’s the assorted objects and special books I’ve collected that remind me of a time in my life, especially my two years living in Mexico City or my time in each Olympic destination since Vancouver — London, Sochi, Rio, Korea — or that bring fond memories of a trip or a person.

Can I claim the robot that inspired my tattoo is art? Why not. It’s on my desk, along with a picture of my brother and then-baby nephew, alone on display from the shoeboxes of photos I unalbumed to bring with me.

Going through my belongings to narrow them down to two suitcases, two cats, and five boxes wasn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. I’ve been Marie Kondoing since before Marie Kondo was a thing, and stuff is only stuff … unless it’s not, unless it forms part of my memories, my heart, my home.

Chateau Mildew

Chateau Mildew

Toward the end of September I’d just landed in London after more than nine hours in the air, with another short leg to Edinburgh to come after this layover. Years of contemplation and months of preparation brought me here. I’d gone past comfortable to stagnant; I was ready for a change.

I’d turned on wifi as soon as I got a signal after border control, and not long after, an AirBnB message notification popped up.

I’d booked a cheap-ish, cat-friendly flat in Edinburgh for six weeks to give me time to find more permanent accommodation. It’s not easy to find a place that allows pets, either on AirBnB or more permanently, so I felt lucky to get something that wouldn’t require a mortgage.

It read, in part: “Sorry about this but we have just discovered a wee issue in the flat- nothing major, just a fairly mild damp smell in the shower room. We’ve had someone look at it and they’ve said they’ll need to do something about it at some point. We can either wait until you’ve left to deal with it or sort it quicker while you are there to get rid of the smell- you can see what you think when you get there.”

[An aside: In the latest episode of the hilarious Derry Girls, the “wee English fella” James says he hates that “people here use the word ‘wee’ to describe things that aren’t even actually that small!” Here being Ireland in that case, but the same holds true in Scotland.]

I replied to thank him for letting me know and I’d see what I thought after I arrived. I wasn’t thrilled, but I’m adaptable, and I’ve stayed in some very questionable accommodation in my life.

When I arrived at this questionable accommodation, the host’s mother let me in as arranged – though a little late. Her son had given her a different time than the one we’d arranged, so luckily she’d arrived early in order to do a bit of cleaning. Unluckily, my early-to-her arrival meant she didn’t have time to do much of that.

Exhaustion acted as beer goggles and all I felt was relief that the 13 hour journey was over, the flurry of pre-move activity was behind me, and that I could soon collapse into the rickety-looking bed, relief that my new life was about to start in earnest.

“It’s very basic,” she said apologetically as she brought out the vacuum cleaner. Two Ikea couches, a full kitchen, a bed crammed into a small bedroom, a shower. Each room was separate, including a room with a toilet and sink plus a room with a bathtub/shower and sink. It would do for six weeks.

After she finished her rushed clean while I sorted my baggage, she kept asking if I wanted anything else, apologizing again that there was no tea, coffee or milk as advertised in the Airbnb listing. “Please go away” was how I felt, but “no, thank you, I can go for a walk to pick up some things and then I’ll just go to bed” was what I said. She was lovely. I was exhausted.

She left me a container of soup and some buns that were likely for her own dinner, and then I was mercifully on my own. The cats would arrive the next day, but in the meantime I could get settled and sleep. And despite the creaky, uncomfortable bed, I did sleep.

The next morning, the exhaustion goggles were gone. I had a shower. That’s when I realized the smell was coming from inside this room, permeating the flat if I didn’t keep the door closed. I kept the door closed. I could still smell it, but not as strongly.

The carpet was stained outside the bathroom. It was stained in more places than that, but there was a large patch on the other side of the wall from the bathtub. Clearly a leak. I hadn’t noticed at first but the tub didn’t fit the room; its snout had been lopped off in order to cram it into the available space. And in that space, I suppose, water was accumulating and things were growing. If it wasn’t a ground floor suite, the downstairs neighbours would likely have a flood – but on the other hand, the owner would likely have fixed the issue by now.

There were multiple sprays designed to cover the smell of mildew in the closet. This issue was not new. Not a surprise. I wondered how many guests had left positive reviews because they felt too guilty leaving an honest one. “Cheap, allows pets, smells like mildew.” I told him I’d rather they get someone in sooner rather than later to fix it. I could have contacted AirBnB and asked to be relocated, but my options had been very limited when I booked the place months before; I didn’t have faith that they’d arrange something suitable.

You can get used to a lot if you set your mind to it. Sometimes I thought the smell abated, sometimes I thought the sprays worked, sometimes I thought I was just used to the smell.

There were other quirks to get used to. The blinds, it turned out, wouldn’t roll up or stay up, so I got creative with some hair elastics to force some light into the gloom. The ground floor windows were, however, frosted so passers by couldn’t see in. Which meant I couldn’t see out. The already rare winter light was further filtered, meaning I kept all the lights on. The better to see the carpet stains with. I got used to the gloom.

At least the carpeted areas felt solid to stand on. The bathroom and kitchen tile seemed to cover a wooden grid and I felt like one wrong step would have my ankle trapped in the world of the mildew. That felt true more than was true, but I got used to not making wrong steps.

After regular messages from the landlord about how difficult it was proving to find a plumber, I gave up. Finally, a few days before I was to make my escape to my shiny new flat, they set a time. The plumber arrived, identified the problem, and called the owner with the bad news: the attempts to patch up the bathtub had failed, further patches would fail, and the only solution was to rip up the room, remediate the damage, and reinstall the fixtures.

Did the owner give approval for the work to go ahead? HAHAHAHAHA no. Maybe he did after giving it some thought. Maybe he continued to tell people “oh by the way it turns out there’s a wee damp smell”.

As I sit in my cozy new flat, which smells only of my cooking, with unfiltered light coming in, I realize I hadn’t gotten used to the gloom; I let it descend. Sometimes you need the change.

Becoming bulgogi

Becoming bulgogi

It didn’t start with the bulgogi, but I realized what was happening with the bulgogi: I was shedding my self-image of being an indifferent cook. I was — could it be? — enjoying myself. I was now … a different cook. I might even start cooking for other people more now, despite my historic performance anxiety.

For a few days before I moved to Scotland, after I sold my condo, I stayed in a hotel and cooked my meals in a microwave or ate out. For six weeks after I arrived in Scotland, I stayed in an AirBnB with a tiny fridge, no freezer, and few cooking implements, so I ate a lot of very simple or prepared meals (pasta and the Marks and Spencer food hall are lifesavers).

When I moved to my current apartment (I mean, flat) in November, I was giddy at the prospect of a large kitchen complete with a full-sized fridge with freezer compartment — not entirely common in rentals here. Working mostly from home and making my own hours meant I didn’t get home exhausted and hungry at 6 pm. I could plan. I could cook.

Starved (not literally) for all my favourite home-cooked foods, I planned out meals, stocked up on the necessary ingredients – delivered by ASDA or Tesco because I don’t have a car and was starting from zero — and ordered whatever cookware I needed from Argos or Amazon. (My furnished flat came with dishes but not cutlery, a toaster but not pots and pans.)

In the relative paradise that was my new kitchen, I made my favourite one-pot recipes: Moroccan chicken, a vaguely Mexican pork stew called Mancha Manteles, my random chilli that uses up all the produce that would soon go bad, and quasi-Thai chicken lettuce wraps. I made Christmas morning wife saver and a fig and brie pizza similar to one I loved at Vancouver’s Rocky Mountain Flatbread. I made the Chicken Milanese from Chrissy Teigen’s Instagram stories.

Nothing out of the ordinary, really, but I was making more recipes more often than usual for me. The bonus of having no friends in a new country, and of not working in an office where I could forget to bring a packed lunch? I was eating out less.

And then one evening, struck with a craving for bulgogi, I got Korean takeout. I’m not normally a food snob, but the whole point of bulgogi is that sharp, vinegary, sesame oily taste, the crunch of spring onions and toasted sesame seeds on top of thinly sliced beef. Not plain old chunks of beef on rice in a Styrofoam container.

I learned that restaurant food here, especially Asian food, doesn’t taste quite like I’m used to. Not the Korean, not the Chinese, not the Japanese. I’m used to the Canadian version of inauthentic, not the Scottish. And in the case of bulgogi, I’ve had bulgogi in Korea, and whatever I had here was not bulgogi. If I wanted it, I’d have to make it.

I have actually made it before. One of my favourite things to do when traveling is taking a local cooking class. But I can count on one hand, and have about four fingers left over, how many times I’ve continued to make the recipes once I return home. I took a class in Thailand, for example, and am now an expert in adding a protein to Blue Dragon kits. Quick and delicious. It’s enough for me.

In the absence of similar cheats for Korean food, I found a bulgogi recipe online that was similar to what I made in that Seoul cooking class, and that didn’t seem too onerous. Still, I’d normally blow past any recipe that wanted me to gather so many ingredients on my kitchen island and marinade the thinly sliced beef in the vinegar/sesame mixture overnight – with a caveat that I could, if I was willing to risk the bulgogi being less flavourful, keep it to an hour. The blogger was in love with cast iron, too, saying that’s the only way to get the authentic taste.  I wanted flavourful. I wanted authentic. I marinated. I cast ironed.

There was something therapeutic about massaging the thin sheets of beef in the marinade mixture. Something satisfying about searing the bits in a hot frying pan the next day. Something wonderful about eating a meal I put effort into, that tasted exactly how I wanted it to taste. I could get used to this cooking thing.

I’m not a fantastic cook. But I’ve finally realized I have to stop disparaging my cooking and allowing others to do so. I’m not bad. I never was. At least I know it now.

Join the dance

Join the dance

Before I moved to Edinburgh sight unseen, knowing no one, I knew I’d have to make an effort to create a social life from scratch. I had a plan: Meetup groups, volunteering, evening classes, pushing myself to get out as much as possible.

I’ve occasionally overdone it and am still finding the balance between pushing myself and honouring who I am: an introvert who often craves solitude. I’ve gotten down when the difference between the effort I’m making and what I’m getting back feels too vast. But the plan is solid, and I’m starting to feel more connected in my new home.

I make that sound easy, and it’s far from easy. I’ve done this before: I moved to New Brunswick, Calgary, Mexico City, Vancouver with few to no social ties, and it’s always difficult to forge them. It always requires huge reserves of energy to force myself to get out, to meet a group of strangers or near-strangers, or even acquaintances. I always cringe when I walk into a room alone. I do it anyway, because while I have hermit-like tendencies, I don’t want to be an actual hermit. I do it because I don’t think “easy” is the path to a fulfilling life.

In keeping with those hermit-like tendencies, I’m generally not a big New Year’s celebrant. But this was my first in Scotland, known for going all out for what they call Hogmanay, and when in Rome … or Edinburgh. Being so far away from friends and family, my options for the evening were limited if I wanted to join people I knew. Limited to one choice: the Snow Ball Ceilidh at the fancy schmancy Assembly Rooms.

The best description I’ve seen of a ceilidh (pronounce it like caylee and you’ve probably heard of it) comes from comedian Danny Bhoy. It’s like he captured documentary footage of my first foray into Scottish traditional dancing, except I went voluntarily:

Danny Bhoy wasn’t kidding about one thing: there are precise steps for these dances. The caller walks you through them at first, but that assumes my brain can translate directions like “set to your partner” or “reel of three” into actions for my body. 

Dancing in a pair or group is easier when at least one of you knows what you’re doing. At the Snow Ball, I assumed the men in kilts would know how to lead. It was not a reliable assumption. One of my partners claimed Scottish dancing was “fighting set to music” as he pushed me into place. The dance floor was crowded, many toes were stepped on, many mid-dance collisions occurred, many laughs ensued.

One woman in our group sat on the sidelines, stoically watching the dancers, asking “is this an easy one?” when anyone tried to entice her onto the floor. Newbie tip: there is no easy one. I danced anyway. One of us had fun.

It wasn’t the best New Year’s I’ve ever had. I felt acutely how far away I was from friends and familiarity. After we went outside to watch the fireworks, I slipped away to walk home, proud of myself for having made it past midnight. I joined the dance, and that’s enough for now.