Sunday, 19 July 2009

Hospitals, comfort food and shame

Often when I'm sick, all I can think about is food. Just after the Delhi move I spent a week holed up in a guesthouse room saddled with food poisoning, I would lie awake at night thinking about chimichurri sauce: how I would make it and how I would eat it, once I was better. My top chimichurri experience was at last year's birthday dinner at London's Gaucho Grill where I had it with an exceptionally fantastic piece of steak. I decided steak might be a bit of an ask in India so I would opt to have it smeared on a great bit of sourdough, dripping in olive oil. I never did make the sauce; I still don't have a mortar and pestle or a food processor so chimichurri remains on the to-do list.

Now I'm sick again, but a different kind of sick, recuperating from emergency surgery two days ago. It was only a minor procedure, but they still opted to put me under a general. Maybe it was to shut me up: I was getting increasingly nervous and shrill; even after they gave me the shot I was still instructing the anaesthetist to "make sure you don't fuck it up, my husband is a journalist!" Then I passed out.

Now I'm back home and fine, but have virtually zero appetite. However I must eat to keep down the copious amounts of antibiotics I'm on, so food is still on my mind. Mostly I'm eating Vegemite on toast. To the uninitiated, Vegemite is like eating a gummy stock cube: salty and yeasty and disgusting. But it's immensely popular in Australia, one of those strange acquired tastes that develop in geographically isolated countries. I only started liking it during a sick spell two years ago, and now it's at the top of my comfort food list.

My other comfort foods are pretty much all carb-based: the obligatory mashed potato, plain pasta, toasted sandwiches with plastic cheese. Even though I've virtually sworn off local food - nine months of chicken tikka will do that to you - I could eat a tub of soft fluffy idlis, thus belying my South Indian roots. Without sambhar but with a healthy dollop of ghee and a scraping of mint chutney, that hint of flavour and fat them from being boring.

Unfortunately making idlis requires technique, patience and equipment, none of which I have. I could always order them in from one of Delhi's smattering of South Indian restaurants, or ask my Tamil maid to make them for me, but I feel slightly shameful for not having ever bothered to learn how to. Perhaps this sick spell is a wake-up call to claim back a bit of Indian-ness I lost when I moved out of home. But for now, I'm off to eat spaghetti laced with extra virgin olive oil and a smattering of parmesan cheese.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Staying at home is hard, you know

To locals in India, Expat Wives are like a species of exotic bird: far from home, colourfully plumed, and something to be gawked at from afar, sometimes furtively through binoculars from a faraway balcony.

Expat Wives represent the pinnacle of achievement in a society where men strive to be keepers and women strive to be kept. They don't appear to work - rather, they lunch and shop, all the while dressed in cool white linens and leather espadrilles. Their lives are structured around the school year at the American School or the French School. Conversations are primarily about how hard it is to get, and keep, good staff.

In Bombay I skated around the edges of the Expat Wife brigade: I occasionally went to their coffee mornings, did a bit of volunteering (I was made painfully aware that I was the only one without a car) and went to the odd business function. I always felt woefully out of place, mainly because I was there out of choice rather than for career enhancement, wasn't "kept" in any sort of style, and pretty much lived like a glorified backpacker.

Nevertheless, I found them, in general, to be friendly and open, if a little smug. Even the MacBank wives and partners of oil prospecteers were quite genial (yes, apparently there is oil in the Bay of Bengal. Who knew?).

Here in Delhi, there's an edge. There are far, far more expats. There are far, far more wives. Their natural habitat is the shops and cafes of Khan Market. They also flock towards any five-star hotel, particularly the Hyatt on a Tuesday.

I can now reasonably count myself among them, as, while J is away at his Connaught Place office job, I am at home dealing with Household Stuff. (I am also working freelance from home, might I add.) Virtually every day there is someone coming round to deliver something, do something or fix something. Last week I dealt with the gas connection people. I also had four separate visits from the curtain installation men. Just when they had finished their third visit and I was heading out the door with friends, there turned up the plumber for a long-awaited yet unannounced visit.

No one is ever on time, No one ever turns up when you expect them to. When they finally turn up, the temptation to tell them where to go is usually pushed aside by the pressing need to get things done.

The great irony being, while the role of Expat Wife is ridiculed and longed for in equal parts, it's actually quite necessary just to keep the household ticking over in a normal kind of way. I never, ever, imagined I would be a stay at home wife. It is so boring. I cannot imagine how I would cope if I didn't have my modicum of freelance work to keep me busy. But I'm slowly realising that perhaps this is my new role, my next stage in life, which is a little frightening, and very different to what I had planned. I had wanted to further my career here, but the GFC has put paid to that. Luckily the freelance work is quite interesting and enjoyable, however I'd really like more of it.

I have tried and failed to join the main expats' group here. I forgot to take my passport proving my Australian citizenship, so they wouldn't let me join. The disinterested German battleaxe manning the desk the day of my visit barely let me in the door of the office. "No, you can't look at the notice board it's for members only and you might be trying to sell something. Lots of locals turn up here claiming to be expats you know." Being Of Native Appearance, I had no comeback to that, and just gawked, agog, at the salwar kameez-clad old white woman.

I did, however, steal a furtive flick through their guide to settling in to Delhi. It was like a high school textbook on local customs and the hiring and firing of staff. I half expected to see a little cartoon showing madam teaching driver how to count his wages using orange quarters.