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.
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.)
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.
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.
Why Edinburgh? The border guard asked me
that when I arrived in London, papers from the Home Office in hand.
In the four months I’ve lived here now, I get asked that a lot.
The short answer is “life adventure,” but that doesn’t really explain what drew me to Edinburgh specifically.
I worked in London for the 2012 Olympics and was jealous of my colleagues who lived there full-time: “I went to Paris for the weekend.” “I went to Amsterdam for the weekend.”
In Canada, I can’t even go to most parts of
Canada for the weekend.
I discovered I was eligible for an Ancestry Visa which allows me to live and work in the UK, so I’ve had that in mind for the last five years. When the timing felt right, a question remained: where, exactly?
I googled “best places to live in the UK,” and Edinburgh came up. I knew people who had lived here and visited here, and they loved it. I knew about the festivals; I grew up in Edmonton which has the second-biggest Fringe festival in the world. I knew Edinburgh was a city that valued literature, theatre, arts, history. I knew it had a castle on a rock overlooking the city centre. I knew it was beautiful. I knew I could move if I didn’t like it. So why not Edinburgh?
I tried to explain much of that to the friendly border guard, knowing I was rambling, knowing it didn’t sound like much more information than “life adventure.”
“So you closed your eyes, pointed to a map, and Edinburgh was it?” he asked with a laugh.
With all its downsides highlighted lately (cesspool of political division, actual fake news calling real news fake, and violent trolling, anyone?) it can be easy to forget the Internet is magical, allowing the world to shrink in wonderful ways. In the roughly 18 years between my move to Mexico City and my recent move to Edinburgh, times have changed enough that we all have computers in our pockets, connected in sometimes too many ways with people around the world. My relationships with many people are no different here than they were in Vancouver, because of the ease of communicating online. And now I’ve set up my Vancouver phone number so calling me is no different for my fellow Canadians than it was before.
Even though I’ve never been a big fan of phone calls, when I was planning my big move from Canada to Scotland, one of my concerns was giving up my Canadian phone number. I’ve had it so long — since arriving in Vancouver from Mexico City — and it’s out there in ways I don’t always know with freelance clients as well as acquaintances (and spammers). So I explored Voice over Internet Protocol solutions that allow you to port your existing number, and luckily I discovered they do exist. You need a VoIP provider and then either an actual phone that allows for a VoIP connection or, as I’m doing, a “softphone” app.
I landed on using voip.ms as my VoIP provider but don’t remember what led me to them — a simple Google search, I think. The “.ms” is the country code for Montserrat, but they seem to target customers in the United States and Canada, don’t require a contract, allow you to use a wide range of devices and apps, and allow porting of your existing phone number. Not all numbers can be ported, but they have a search function that allows you to check before you sign up.
You can get a new phone number from them, but I was less concerned with having a Canadian number than with continuing to receive calls from my existing number. Today, for example, I have a phone meeting with a Canadian client and I could tell them to keep using my Vancouver number. No fuss over how to dial an international number, no long distance charges for them. (Friends and relatives, this applies to you too.) I always have the do not disturb function on so I don’t get notifications while I’m sleeping, so no one has to worry about forgetting about time zones and waking me up.
Setting it up is relatively easy, though I did have to send proof of my identify (as in scanning and uploading my passport with any private bits blacked out). If you’re not a telephony geek, don’t get bogged down in all the options and terminology in the dashboard; follow the step-by-step instructions provided in the Wiki. They have responsive chat help as well.
I’ve set it up so that calls to my Canadian number are automatically forwarded to my UK cell number, and I set up voicemail in case that number is busy or unreachable — and voicemails are sent to me as sound attachments to an email so I don’t have to sign in to hear them. Because of that, I haven’t missed a single scam voicemail telling me I owe the Canadian Revenue Service money and am going to jail.
I’m currently using the free version of an app called Zoiper to make outgoing calls from my cell phone or computer. The app does allow you to receive incoming calls but keeping it on in the background is a serious drain on battery life and doesn’t always seem to work. There are paid options to apparently make it work better which I’m avoiding given how little I believe I’ll use it. The voip.ms wiki has a list of actual phones you can use plus other apps, but I landed on Zoiper because the free version seems to provide all the features I need.
I can send and receive texts as well through the voip.ms app, and the texts can also arrive via email. They come in chopped up into 160 character segments, which feels archaic, and for my ease of use I would rather use iMessage, Messenger, or other ways of instant messaging instead. But the ability to receive texts I wasn’t expecting has already come in handy.
The cost is minimal. You have the option of a monthly plan that includes unlimited incoming calls, or pay 85 cents per month for each number plus less than one cent a minute for calls. Unless you’re setting this up for a business with multiple lines, or you’re superchatty, I can’t imagine the monthly plan being cheaper. Because I have my Canadian number forwarded to my UK number, I pay for both an incoming and outgoing call (incoming from my caller, outgoing to my UK number) but it’s still a negligible cost for the amount I will use it.
So even now that I’ve moved to Edinburgh, if you have my Vancouver number, you have my number. In the immortal words of Carly Rae Jepsen, call me maybe?