How to fall apart in Melbourne: An edible, musical breakdown

Welcome to Formative Jukebox, a column exploring the personal relationships people have with music. Every week, a writer will tackle a song, album, show, or musical artist and their influence on our lives. Tune in every week for a brand new essay.

I found out that 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, tagging along on my boyfriend’s lengthy business trip. Hewas working for a small company in Australia and I was working from home, so I packed up my job and brought it with me, then set off on a fourteen hour flight to our new temporary city.

The set-up was simple: Work all night to synch up with my job in the US. 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. (This last part was a result of a waning company budget, which had us hopping from guest room to guest room, neighborhood to neighborhood, bed to bed.)

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 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.

Isolation, hunger, lack of sunlight, 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’ve traveled a little before, and I always came home with a head full of pictures, conversations, and experiences. In Melbourne, the world got smaller, not larger, and my memories revolve exclusively around meals I cooked and songs I listened to, alone in a kitchen on the other side of the world with only my soundtrack to keep me company.

Pan-fried kangaroo / “Pulled Up” by Talking Heads

Work until 4:00 am. Walk fas, 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.

The electric current of “Pulled Up” pulses through the kitchen as you 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.

Scrape 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 cleanskin 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 a second apartment. Now there are roommates; now there are headphones.

Simultaneously rediscover a love for bummed out singer-songwriters and a penchant for weepiness. 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.

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 smoky salt crystals dissolving on your tongue. Play Aimee Mann so often that her voice starts narrating your thoughts. Standing over the sink with a mouth full of pilfered toast, 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 a pile of lemons. The owners of the house left a sack of found lemons with leaves and stems on, plucked from a neighborhood lemon tree drooping with fruit. Bake lemon bread with bittersweet chocolate chips and a sharp lemon glaze. It’s a Saturday morning; a chorus of Melbourne’s native loud chubby birds perform doo-wop on the patio. Drink a double espresso from the shop down the street and bake and listen to ‘90s music you haven’t heard since elementary school.

“Feed the Tree” is a trippy elf of a song: lead singer Tanya Donelly’s warm, secret-telling voice tells you about “This little squirrel I used to be” and instructs you to “…take your hat off when you’re talking to me / And be there when I feed the tree.”

Warm lemon bread and a 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.

Years ago 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 neo-soul of your high school years, Jill Scott and Musiq Soulchild and Floetry. Eat and drink and be merry, because it’s nearly over.

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