First of all, apologies for my tardiness in updating the blog – it’s the last week of March already (where does the time go eh?), and the last post was at the end of February, one whole month ago. Having moved into a new apartment at the beginning of March, I’m now spending most of my free time doing all the stuff that my erstwhile land-lady used to do for me. And it’s taking up much more of my life than I realised. I now have to be a grown-up big boy and do everything for myself again and, despite being looked after in my last place for only three months, I seem to have lost the ability to do anything more complicated than shower for myself. That short time of being waited on hand and foot has left me totally dependent, as helpless as a new-born puppy, and I now have to re-learn all those independent tasks I used to take for granted and do automatically. That’s despite having done all those things for myself for many years, and positively prided myself on my so-called independence.
When I first moved in to the Leiva’s I was adamant I wouldn’t like being waited on by Mrs Leiva – I took it almost as an insult to my abilities that someone would do everything for me, and my politically-correct new-man credentials meant that I actually felt a little uncomfortable with a woman running around after me. But that’s how it is in their house, partly because of their culture and partly because I am paying them to feed and house me. And Mrs Leiva is a difficult person to argue against, especially in matters concerning the kitchen or how it’s run. It’s her domain and that’s that. After many instances of standing up from the table to get something (such as some milk for my tea), then being told to sit down and let her get whatever it was I wanted, I soon stopped tilting at that particular windmill. So I forgot about my independence and let my new ‘Mother’ do it all for me – cooking, serving, washing up, cleaning, clothes washing, ironing, she even made my bed every day while I was out at work. After a couple of weeks I’d got over it, and by Christmas I’d got so completely used to it it was like I’d never known anything else. Independence, what independence? Now pass me another tortilla, serving woman.
The trouble is, it’s so easy to get used to it, you become lazy. Which in itself isn’t that bad, so long as you’re planning on staying there forever and never leaving. But when you do have to leave and start doing it all for yourself, let me tell you it’s a struggle. No longer do I sit at the table every evening and wait for my glass of water to appear magically in front of me, I have to fill the glass myself. And buy the water myself, for that matter. Dinner doesn’t come piping hot and steaming from the saucepan onto my plate, in fact it doesn’t come at all – I have to buy the food first. Then prepare it, cook it, serve it myself and, to add insult to injury, wash up my filthy cutlery and crockery afterwards. And as for my post-victual cuppa, that’s gone completely by the wayside – because I don’t have a kettle, and because the evening meal routine is so wearisome and fatiguing for me that I can’t put a saucepan of water on the stove to boil afterwards, I’ve decided to forgo my post-prandial infusion and settle for a refreshing digestif instead – rum, coke and ice, served in a glass.
My first meal in the apartment doesn’t go well. Having got used to eating chicken every single day (sometimes for lunch and dinner), normally accompanied by the ubiquitous rice and beans (or occasionally beans and rice, which is a completely different dish!), I was looking forward to celebrating my new cooking situation with something exotic, so I do my first proper food shop at Brodies, one of the few western-style supermarkets in the city. Judging from the quality of the cars parked outside and the look of the people shopping inside, this is the preserve of the city’s middle and upper-class professionals. And, judging from the prices, they’re the only ones who would be able to afford to shop here. The only ‘average’ locals are the cashiers, bag-packers and shelf-stackers, for whom working there is about as close as they’re going to get to some of these fancy goods. As a foreigner, I probably fall into the same socio-economic group as the posh locals by default, so I stroll around looking white and rich, affecting the casual nonchalance of someone who knows the difference between sun-dried and sun-blush tomatoes, that rocket is apparently the name of a vegetable, and that salmon should never ever come out of a tin. And hoping no-one notices the sweat stains on my shirt or the several-days-old stubble on my face. Or the fact that I no longer have any idea of how to shop anymore. I spent ten minutes trying to figure out the difference between ketchup and catsup. After spending an eternity wandering aimlessly round the aisles, all I have in the basket is a can of baked beans and a jar of peanut butter. Finally I alight in the freezer section and spy a selection of frozen pizzas – jackpot. Processed meat and cheese, accompanied by a few cold beers, and with no washing up to do afterwards – the perfect ‘guy-living-on-his-own’ meal.
It’s when I get back to the apartment that I find out the oven doesn’t work. I probably should’ve checked it out before I bought the pizza. After turning on the gas, sniffing for the smell, listening for the sound, and finally sticking my whole head in the oven like a suicidal teenage girl who’s read too many Sylvia Plath poems and listened to too many My Chemical Romance songs, I still can’t detect anything. And waving a lighter around until my fingers burn doesn’t do anything either. So I stow the pizza in the fridge and spend my first night of culinary freedom eating Cheez Whiz, peanut butter and pineapple jam sandwiches. And drinking the beer.
The next night the pizza’s de-frosted and I’ve researched my culinary dilemma by typing the search terms ‘cook pizza no oven’ into Google. And bingo, the internet has come to my rescue yet again, and it’s surprisingly simple – heat some oil in the largest frying pan you have (I’ve no oil, so I melt some carcinogenic margarine instead), place pizza inside (I have to trim off the crust to fit it in, but that’s no loss, as the precious meat and cheese is still there), put the lid on (in this case a plate), and cook on the lowest heat. And, after somewhere between fifteen and thirty minutes you have your pizza, with the base cooked from the bottom and the toppings cooked by the trapped steam. The steam has cooked the toppings perfectly, the cheese melted and the pepperoni moist and tender, better than in an oven in fact, where the toppings often get burnt or at least a little dried out. This makes up for the fact that the base is burnt to buggery, is as black as coal, will need a power saw to slice through and could only be eaten by Trap Jaw (from He-Man and the Masters of the Universe). So no more oven-baked goods from now on. But at least I had my pizza. And more beer.
And then there’s the washing. At Mrs Leiva’s, dirty clothes were thrown into a laundry basket during the week. Sometime over the weekend the basket disappeared from my room. Then, at the beginning of the next week, the clothes magically re-appeared, clean, dry and neatly pressed. And I mean neatly pressed, the woman ironed everything, including, I suspect, my socks and boxer shorts. T-shirts lay on the bed box-fresh, shirts were swinging gently on hangers, and every pair of leg-covering clothes I own (including shorts, jeans and linen trousers) were ironed straight down the middle with a crease so precise you could set your watch by it. But not anymore. Now, I not only have to do my washing myself, I have to deal with a washing machine so old I’ve never even used one like it before – it seems to occupy a rung of the technological ladder somewhere between today’s modern washers and a small old native woman beating the clothes against a rock in the nearest stream. It’s a twin-tub, which seems to be popular in Australasia and the Americas, but which I’ve never seen at home, us sophisticated Europeans preferring the more high-tech, economical and environmentally-friendly front-loading machines. After filling the washer section with water (and adding soap and your clothes), the machine does its stuff (it uses a propeller-shaped agitator at the bottom of the drum to basically throw the clothes around in circles). After you think everything’s had enough time to get clean (it would be after the cycle finishes, if the timer actually worked), you transfer your wet soapy clothes to the dryer section to be spun. Then you have to repeat the whole process for the rinse – washing the clothes in clean water and then spinning them again. And then voila! your clothes are clean and dry. Except that they’re not. Every time I transfer the clothes back to the washer for a rinse, the rinsing creates prodigious amounts of soapy foam. Maybe the spinning got rid of the excess water, but it certainly didn’t get rid of the soap. And no matter how many times I do this rinse-spin-rinse, the clothes are still full of soap. I rinsed them under the tap in the sink to the point where there couldn’t be any more soap left in them, yet, as soon as they went back into the washer, the water foamed up again. I rinsed them by hand in the washing machine’s drum till they squeaked and still they were soapy in the rinse cycle. I even took the clothes into the shower with me and rinsed them there, and they still produced a small amount of foam in the washer. Exhausted by it all, I decided to live with it and spun the clothes dry before I rinsed them out of existence. Where’s all this soap coming from? How will I ever get rid of it all? I’ve been at this Sisyphean task ever since I moved in. It’s taken me a week to wash two T-shirts, two boxer shorts and four socks, and in the process I’ve spent a power station’s worth of electricity and used more water than the entire drainage basin of the Ganges. How does Mrs Leiva do all these chores every week? And she does them for her husband and up to four lodgers. I can’t even do it for myself. Independent living is not what it’s cracked up to be…