I found out I wasn’t a superhero in Melbourne, Australia. It only took me 20 odd years, and one terrible trip.
I was in Melbourne for six weeks. The set up was simple: Work all night. Sleep all day. Flip the schedule on the weekends. Go out and have fun and live off espresso. Move to a different apartment every two weeks.
The plan was to run on empty; this was always my plan, in all situations. I treated plants and pets with more care and attention than my body. I lived off of all-nighters, I drank gallons of coffee, I didn’t care about myself much. It usually worked until it didn’t, and when it didn’t, I was on the other side of the world.
I hadn’t factored in how overwhelming it would be to spend 95% of my time alone. My body had no interest in flipping back and forth between a variety of sleeping schedules. It never wanted to sleep during the day, until it was exhausted by weeks of hunger and sleeplessness. Then I wanted to sleep all day, every day. I hadn’t considered the effect of never being awake or outside during daylight hours. Our budget was tight, food was scarce. I barely saw my boyfriend.
Stress, isolation, hunger, and intense sleep deprivation: That’s a recipe. Combine swiftly and you will fall apart. You will wonder if you’re having a heart attack. You will become forgetful and blurry. You will wake up afraid and go to bed depressed and waver between the two for the several hours in between.
I came home. I got better. I got busy. I never thought about Melbourne. Until now, a few weeks away from another long trip abroad, the first since my last harrowing adventure. I’ve traveled a little before, and I always came home with a head full of pictures, conversations, experiences. In Melbourne, the world got smaller, not larger, and my memories revolve exclusively around meals I cooked, songs I listened to. So here it is, a year later: a soundtrack and tasting menu for a breakdown in Melbourne, Australia.
Pan Fried Kangaroo/ “Uh-Oh Love Comes to Town” by Talking Heads
Butcher the celeriac with bare bones directions from a supermarket magazine. Peel and hack until the crisp flesh emerges. Open a package of cling-wrapped raw kangaroo meat dripping with blood and red wine marinade, smashed garlic smeared across the burgundy steak.
Pan fry everything. Fry it in rich yellow butter and handfuls of cumin, in jagged flakes of salt and faded paprika.
Work until 4:00 am. Walk fast fast, everywhere. Miss cigarettes. Miss them like you quit yesterday, not five years ago. Be alone all day. Talk to yourself, and when that gets old, talk to David Byrne. Play Talking Heads 77 two ways: Loudly, constantly. Scrape and butcher and scavenge in your rented kitchen, light stoves with a match and fry meats and drink ten shots of espresso before you eat. Make it to dinner exhausted, drink clear skin wine while David Byrne sings, and kangaroo is okay, really. Better than they said it would be.
Truffle Butter Toast/ “Calling It Quits” by Aimee Mann
Move into the second apartment. Start crying all the time. This is what happens when you sleep a handful of hours in a handful of weeks, when you eat all of your meals with your Kindle, when your boyfriend works all hours and your roommates don’t want you there and you’ve run out of money. Stop leaving the house. Figure out how to create lunch out of two dollars and some instant coffee left over from your flight. Find a stale hunk of bread in the kitchen and slather it in truffle butter the owner stashed in the fridge. Eat it slowly, the smokey salt crystals dissolving on your tongue. Play Aimee Mann (so often that her voice starts narrating your thoughts) on the kitchen island, play “Calling It Quits” because it’s dark so early and you never got outside today and what day is it anyway? When you don’t have a friend or a lunch, you have Aimee Mann.
Lemon Bread/ “Feed the Tree” by Belly
Grate and juice the found lemons. The owners of the house, the final one, left a map scribbled on a napkin of where to scavenge. The yard two houses down for herbs, half a mile down the road, past the pub with the Tuesday chicken parma night (a slab of pounded and deep fried chicken as big as a door, topped with parma ham, tomato sauce, and cheese. The only not outrageously expensive meal in town, unless you want to brave the lamb wrap at McD’s), there’s a lemon tree drooping with fruit. The owners of the house left a sack of their found lemons with leaves on and stems. Bake lemon bread with bittersweet chocolate chips and a sharp lemon glaze. It’s a Saturday morning, ten or so of Melbourne’s native loud chubby birds perform doo-wop on the patio. Drink a long black from the espresso shop down the street and bake and listen to 90’s music you haven’t heard since elementary school. This is a recipe, not the ingredients in the bowl, but Belly and warm lemon bread and quiet morning. This is a recipe to feel better, and for an hour or two, it works.
Pretend Canned Spaghetti/ “Faron Young (Acoustic)” by PreFab Sprout
There’s a two pound jar of arugula pesto in the fridge when you get there. “Eat anything, everything!” the owner says in his good natured way, before disappearing on his own trek to Asia. Bone-weary and flat broke, a fridge full of food is a blessing, the energy to cook it feels like a lost cause.
When you moved to San Francisco, you barely knew a soul, and sometimes for a week would only chat with your boyfriend and barista. When the coffee shop closed, when he had to work late, you would make a dish called Pretend Canned Spaghetti because the noodles were soft and the sauce was thin. It tasted like forbidden childhood junk food, scaled up. Cook penne in a giant pot and rest your head on the counter, the cold marble untangling a headache lodged between your eyes. PreFab Sprout sings gently about paper plates and bubblegum and other grains. The song is like bundling up in the biggest, warmest blanket while someone strokes your forehead. Stir a scoop of pesto and half a can of tomatoes into the pasta. Cover it in a grated heel of hard cheese. Eat it at the counter, wearing two sweaters and two pairs of socks, never sure where the heater is or how to work it. Eat slowly and fall asleep with The Simpsons on and feel warm and full and so homesick you could die.
Yakitori/ “Long Walk” by Jill Scott
You eat every kind of Tim Tam—plain and double dipped and mint and Rum Raisin and caramel, dipped in coffee and tea and eaten raw, five at a time. You eat every kind of dip, at which this city excels—yogurt dips dotted with cubed beets and chunky pumpkin dips and oily, minced lemongrass chili cashew dips that will make your eyes glaze over. You go to brunch and puncture poached eggs poised dangerously on top of avocado toasts. You chop up asparagus and onions, marinate torn up raw chicken in soy sauce and hoisin, grill it all on bamboo sticks in a cheap yakitori grill pan in the kitchen. Repeat this every night for the last week, because every hour you are closer to home and you’re allowed to enjoy what you’ve enjoyed here. Not people or trips or restaurants or any of the things you usually love abroad. But meals at home and rambling nostalgic playlists, intertwined and prepared nightly. Play the neosoul of your high school years, Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild and Floetry. Eat and drink and be merry, because it’s nearly over.