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.
I chose early on not to mark the anniversary of my brother’s death. I instead wanted to have my private little ritual on a day celebrating his life: his birthday on April 8. It’s a ritual that involves cake and not much else.
I’m not big on ritual. I am big on cake.
I want to remember how lucky I was to have him in my life more than how hard it was to lose the person who knew me longest and understood me best. But I guess it’s time to admit that in my efforts to not mark the anniversary of his death, I have accidentally created a ritual around not marking it.
The impending dread seeps into my subconscious weeks before I realize it’s coming up, and the eventual connection between feelings and calendar makes me want to look purposefully, positively at the future. I want to make myself dwell on the opportunity to shape my life instead of on difficult memories. So today marks three years of post-Steve me, and the third anniversary of me posting about my not-a-bucket list.
The list exists only in my head and is subject to change on a whim. This new habit of regular re-examination helped me realize that what was important to me when I bought my last condo – a Vancouver address, a second bedroom – was no longer important to me. And what is important – a connection to nature, a room with a view, a sense of community – could be a couple of painful real estate transactions away. Now I’m happily exploring my new home of Port Moody and sampling the trails, arts classes, theatre, kayaking and ice cream in the neighbourhood.
I thought it would be harder to give up Vancouver, but living in a smaller community has been a good way to focus and spur myself to get more involved in finding activities to join and places to explore. Living so close to the trails around Burrard Inlet gives me that instant connection to nature I crave, and living in Suter Brook Village gives me that instant access to urban life to escape from nature. Living across the street from a great grocery store has been a good way to be motivated to bring lunch to work regularly (let’s not talk about the Cobbs Bread, Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt and liquor store next to it). Living in a building with access to a well-appointed gym is a good way to avoid the gym … but to have good intentions of making it more of a habit. Oh and I really like my condo too.
When I wanted to paint the new place, I didn’t have faith in my ability to pick shades that wouldn’t look like a colour-blind monkey helped me, so I got a colour consultation from a paint company. I knew I wanted blue for the long unbroken wall in the living room, but what shade? What neutral would complement it? I showed the interior designer the 539 blue paint samples I’d collected, a blue rug, and a painting with blues in it. I told her I wanted the bedroom to be a green that would complement the blue. She wandered off to do her colour whispering with her swatch book and came back with the pronouncement: “I tried to find a way to bring a blue into the colour scheme but it wouldn’t work.”
She also advised me not to paint the bedroom green but to leave it white so it wouldn’t look smaller. But … it’s tiny. The condo sells itself as loft-style, so the bedroom is a small room carved off from the one giant room of the living room/kitchen. The bedroom couldn’t possibly look smaller because of paint. It could only look smaller if it entered a black hole.
The illusion of spaciousness wasn’t my goal. My goal was a shade of green to complement the frigging blue I asked her to help me select. My goal was to feel cozy in my bedroom, to feel good in my home, to feel it was mine, to feel the colours reflect my taste.
And of course there was only one way to do that. I took the sheet she gave me with the colours she’d selected – lovely shades of grey and greenish-white – and threw them out. I promptly selected my own blue and green, and I love the new paint job.
It’s my home. My life. And the lesson of death is that life is short. So I’ll keep trying to be more the person I want to be, and less the person who cares if others think I’m a colour-blind monkey.
I think of my recent move from Vancouver to a smaller but — in my eyes — better condo in Port Moody as an upgrade. Space conscious people would not agree. The me of six years ago, determined to have a Vancouver address and extra bedroom, would not agree. But the move has been invigorating for a few reasons, including the dramatic purge required in the downsizing.
It was difficult intellectually, emotionally, physically. I had to consider my criteria for chucking, donating, or keeping. I had to part with sentimental items — after taking a picture — and then sometimes snatch them back from the donation pile when I realized I couldn’t give them up. And I had to cart carload after carload to recycling or Value Village.
The purge was also hugely liberating. Getting rid of stuff I hadn’t used or seen in years felt good. The physical weight of all this stuff turned into a feeling of lightness when it was gone. I am the sum of my experiences, not of my belongings.
So when my friend Lisa sent me a link to a woman who resolved to buy nothing after the death of her father and resulting disposal of his estate, we started talking about doing a no buy challenge of our own. Our motivations and situations are slightly different, so our personal rules for the challenge are slightly different. Here’s mine:
As of September 1, for 100 days I resolve not to accumulate more stuff or contribute to the accumulation of stuff in the world. If I absolutely need or want something I will buy it second hand.
Before you worry I’ll come over to borrow a cup of sugar … and flour … and eggs … and maybe steak and milk and fruit … daily … there are exceptions. Food, toiletries, other consumables, gifts and experiences are on my exception list.
I’m never going to be a true minimalist. No one who owns a Sodastream and an entire cupboard of tea can claim to be making that attempt. But the older I get the more dismayed I am at rampant materialism, and the more I value experience over things.
Given that perspective, and given that I don’t like shopping anyway, my initial naive thought was that this 100 days would be easy for me. But a day in, I think I’m going to be surprised by how much of a challenge this challenge is. I’m used to buying what I want, and quickly, painlessly. Now I vow to consider those wants very carefully and take the time to sift through second hand sites and stores if I intend to buy.
Or wait for 100 days. But I’m hoping the challenge will open my eyes to the possibility of living a lighter life without feeling a heavy sacrifice. Bring it on.
Two years. I still struggle with whether I want to mark the anniversary of Steve’s death because the date itself — the first day of fall, the changing of a season — is not something I want to have power over me. I don’t like ritual for the sake of ritual. As Steve might have said, a year is only a year through the accident of our culture choosing the solar Gregorian calendar.
His birthday, the start of summer aka the anniversary of his diagnosis, the release of a movie he would have liked, the ridiculousness of certain people that would have made us laugh together in frustration, the launch of a rocket or the news of a scientific discovery that isn’t news or a discovery at all — it all makes me think of him as much as the anniversary of his death.
And yet it’s here and it’s been on my mind, and I think about how I dealt with it last year: to look forward to what I want to make of life in the next year. Maybe by default that becomes how I mark the occasion, updating my not-a-bucket list.
Looking back at last year, I did nothing about improving my Spanish but I did take some drawing and painting classes. I did find a yoga studio I like, and even go there sporadically. I am going to the Galapagos and mainland Ecuador in November — which should help as a crash course in Spanish — and have a possibility to go to Haida Gwaii next year. I write every day, though I can only count it as for pleasure every day if I consider the pleasure I get from being paid so I can go on exotic vacations. I have not taken a helicopter ride but I’ll carry that one forward as a “some day but I’m in no rush to pursue” item.
I also continued to nourish the parts of me that remind me of him, attending a NASA rocket launch, visiting a space shuttle at the California Science Center, rewatching movies or TV shows we saw together. Getting a tattoo he would have thought was nuts but maybe would have found touching, too. I got rid of people and things that sucked the life out of me, like my TV, eh? website, and brought it back when it got meaningful and fun again.
And for the coming year? More of the same, I guess – make sure I keep trying to move forward, be the person I want to be, never filling the hole he’s left but filling the well inside me so the hole doesn’t take over. Being able to laugh at myself for making horrible mixed metaphors like that.
So what’s next: more travel, more learning, more connecting with people who get me to counteract what feels like shrinking world, more looking into whether I can make some of my “some day I’d like to…” dreams be more than just dreams, because of course there’s no guarantee there are many “some days” left.
And on that happy note, I’ll go mark this anniversary day by living the life I’ve built for myself. Today that means hanging out with my Little Sister and working on a freelance article whose deadline is coming up. And maybe tonight I’ll rewatch The Fifth Element and think of my big brother who first made me watch it, while knowing I don’t need that kind of ritual for him to be a part of my life.