My Dubai

Ejo #108 – The Happiness Project: Part 1

I hope you’re happy. I honestly and sincerely hope that each and every one of you is happy. Because happiness is awesome. And the reason I know this is because… wait for it; I am happy. And let me tell you, it has been an epic journey for me to get to a place where I can, unapologetically, write those words down. So, how did I get here? Do I suddenly like living in Dubai? Have I reached my goal weight? Has my job satisfaction magically improved? Did I win the lottery? The answer to all of those questions is no. And yet still, I’m happy?? How does that compute? The ancient Greek philosopher Socrates, wisely believed that happiness was not attained from physical or external conditions, like wealth or pleasure, but rather stemmed from within. And, modern science backs him up.

There are a shitload of studies showing that “stuff” and “success” are not the be-all and end-all of happiness. For instance imagine you just won $50 million bucks in the lottery. Woohoo!!! I reckon you’d be pretty happy, right? But how long would that happiness last? Forever? Ten years? Three months? Most lottery winners, after the initial thrill, go back to their previous happiness levels in a pretty short time. Sure, their improved “life satisfaction” may last much longer, but their happiness returns to exactly where it was before the windfall. The same thing happens when you go on that holiday of a lifetime, or have that kid you’ve always wanted, or move into that amazing new dream home. All of these things do make people happier. But only temporarily.

And that’s because happiness isn’t a place you ever get to. It’s not a destination. No-one actually lives happily ever after in some enchanted Happyland. Happiness is something you pick up on your way to somewhere else. And, sorry folks, unless you’re lucky enough to be born with a naturally happy disposition (I’m looking at you Svetlana), it is not just going to fall into your lap. Another old Greek guy, Aristotle, said that happiness depends upon ourselves. And what that means is that it’s your job to make yourself happy. And yeah, it is a job. That might seem contradictory, but if you can’t tell me that you are happy right now, with everything in your life exactly the way it is, then maybe it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work.

I recently completed a three month course called The Happiness Project run by my second favourite person in Dubai; my long suffering friend and therapist Zimmy Khan. I’ve known Zimmy for almost nine years. I first met her at a very low point in my life. I was gravely unhappy, bordering on depressed and absolutely desperate for help. It might sound like a cliché but she saved my life. Certainly, I owe her the life that I have today. Over the years she has transformed me into someone who can honestly say that regardless of what is happening around me, or even happening to me – I am happy. So when Zimmy announced that she was conducting a project specifically designed to make people happier I jumped at the chance to do it, even though I was already doing pretty good in that department. And I’m so glad that I did. My growth from misery to happiness occurred incrementally, over nine years. It happened so slowly that I can’t even really put my finger on how it occurred. It was a process. But doing this course gave me the chance to experience a distilled infusion of happiness training.

And before I go on, I just want to clarify that happiness (as I’m talking about it here) is not the same as joy. Or pleasure. Being happy doesn’t mean walking around with a demented smile plastered on your face. And it’s not the same as being chirpy all the time either. Happiness has been defined as living a life that fulfils your needs. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a bad day, or moments of sadness. It just means that those blips slide on by without sticking and without having the huge impact they used to. Yesterday afternoon I had an argument with my tower husband (you might know him better as Dangerous Doug) which made me feel really blue for a couple of hours afterwards. But (and I still haven’t quite figured out how this is possible), I could still say that I was happy. And you know what else? The temporary sadness was OK too. I didn’t try to ignore it, or try to squash it – because it was an appropriate, healthy response to something that had upset me. And this morning I woke up feeling amazing again. True happiness is not fleeting. It’s not fickle, or vulnerable to outside forces. It’s something that protects you from the storms.

So how does a happiness project even work? Essentially, it’s about rewiring your life, by rewiring your thoughts and actions. It’s about creating new habits that are scientifically geared towards increasing happiness. The project was conducted online, which means that you don’t need to live in Dubai to participate. And Zimmy was always available to answer questions or to have a chat via email or WhatsApp. Part of the deal was that she also made herself available in person (or Skype etc.) to do one-on-one sessions at the end of each of the three months of the project. To me, that was the most valuable part of the whole thing. Yes, we were learning how to rewire our lives to become happier, but Zimmy was there to make sure we were on the right track, guiding us the whole way. And for me, that personalised attention alone was worth the price of participating.

The crux of the course was centred around 24 action and thought rewirements, and the project was structured around introducing them, two per week, followed by consolidation in the form of daily homework, research, reading and discussion.  Like I said, you have to put in the work. Very generously, Zimmy has allowed me to share the rewirements here with you (as I have interpreted them), though I haven’t included any of the actual course content. Please feel free to take on board whatever resonates with you. You might already do some of them, or maybe you just need a reminder to get back to doing something that has worked for you in the past. For others this might present entirely new ideas. I just suggest that you give it all a go. Of course you only get the full thrust and benefit of the project by signing up to do it yourself (which is something that I would really highly recommend), but I’m hoping that you do get a little something from the info below. In this ejo we’ll tackle the first five rewirements. And then next month we’ll delve into the rest. I’m also working on Part 3, an exclusive interview with Zimmy herself. Watch this space.

SHIFT NEGATIVE THOUGHTS TO POSITIVE
We all have a voice in our heads, constantly babbling in the background (and if you don’t believe me, try thinking of absolutely nothing for two minutes – it’s impossible). Sadly, research has shown that nearly 60% of the time, the voice is saying negative things. The first rewirement is to become aware of these negative thoughts as they happen, and to then consciously change them from negative to something positive. Like all the rewirements, it was a bit difficult to do in the beginning, but now I find myself doing it automatically. When you make the effort to listen to the crap rolling around your head you’ll be astonished at how often negative thoughts pop up. It’s a relatively simple fix to turn that shit around.

FULLY SAVOUR A MUNDANE DAILY TASK
The premise of this one is to pay attention, to savour something that you do automatically, on auto-pilot. Why? Because when you aren’t actually conscious of what you’re physically doing, the negative voice gets carte blanche to just ramble on. This way, you take control of your mind. One of the mundane tasks I chose to savour was making the bed. Every day now, I focus on the feel and look of the linen, on my physical movements of shaking out the sheet, of getting the angles of the blanket just right and enjoying the end result of a beautifully made bed! It takes me all of about two or three minutes, but I’ve really come to see this time as a luxury, a time be mindful and to savour the present moment.

EVERY DAY SHARE FIVE THINGS WITH A GRATITUDE PARTNER
This is the big one for me. Gratitude has been proven over and over again to be the biggest predictor of happiness. The first part of this rewirement is to find five things to be grateful for, every single damn day. And actually, this is easier than it might sound. If you have all your limbs, you have something to be grateful for. If you have a car that runs, you have something to be grateful for. If you breathe fresh air, you should be grateful. Running water, grateful. Health, grateful. See what I mean? Gratitude is such a powerful tool in learning how to be happy. Anyone reading this ejo already has so much. We just need to train ourselves to see it. And if you focus on what you already do have, on a daily basis (rather than on what you don’t), you’ll find yourself becoming happier. The second part of this rewirement is actually sharing your gratitude with someone else. Yes, it is enough to be grateful. And it’s perfectly fine to just write it in a journal. But when you share your gratitude with someone else, the benefit multiplies exponentially.

This rewirement involved finding a partner, someone willing to exchange daily gratitudes for three months. And I was so lucky (and eternally grateful) that my sister Mari also chose to take part in this course. For three months we sent each other gratitude videos every single day, and I can’t tell you how much I loved that. Sharing my life with my sister, who lives so far away from me, hearing about her day, seeing her face and hearing her voice was extraordinary, and my life was so enriched by the experience. So much so that when the project finished, we both agreed to continue the daily gratitudes, in text form. This rewirement would be my number one recommendation if you were to choose just one. And hey, if you need someone to share your daily gratitudes with, then hit me up. I seriously mean that. I’m pretty confident I could represent Australia at the Gratitude Olympics, because I’ve been doing this for a while. Nearly four years ago my friend Melinda and I started emailing each other daily gratitudes. In that time I’ve seen both of us experience massive improvements in resilience, happiness and fortitude. It’s like a muscle – if you go to the gym regularly, you’ll get stronger. Practice daily gratitude and you will become happier. I promise.

GRATITUDE FOR THE DAY THAT JUST PASSED, AND FOR THE DAY AHEAD
Another gratitude rewirement. Seriously though, this shit works – too much gratitude is literally never enough. So, as well as sharing your five daily gratitudes with a partner, it’s great practice, right before you go to sleep, to review the day that you’ve just lived and take the time to savour every little thing you can think of that made a positive difference. The added bonus of doing this is that it can really help the transition into sleep. Your gratitudes can be as monumental as appreciating your partner, or as trivial as getting a great parking spot at work. As huge as giving birth to a healthy baby or as inconsequential as enjoying popping the cork out of a wine bottle (which, I’m sure you’ll agree is an extremely satisfying sound). When you start noticing all the little things you have to be grateful for, it will change your life. You’ll get into the habit of spending the day actually looking for things to be thankful about. And the shit things that do happen in the normal course of life will have a lot less power to ruin your day. In addition to looking back, it’s an awesome habit to express gratitude in advance. To basically set a positive intention for the day ahead. Be grateful in advance for waking up tomorrow morning feeling rested and refreshed, for a great cup of coffee in the morning, for a seat on a packed train, for the sun shining during your lunch break, for your favourite song playing on the radio, for a stranger’s smile. Expecting good things to happen is such a positive way to live your life and a surefire way to increase your happiness.

DO THINGS FROM YOUR HAPPY LISTS, EVERY DAY
So, what’s a happy list? Actually, it’s three lists. Grab a piece of paper and a pen – go ahead, I’ll wait. OK, so in the first list write down some things you like doing by yourself that make you happy (one of my examples was taking a bath). In the second list, write down a few things you like doing with other people that make you happy (for this one I chose having sex with my husband). And in the third list, write down some stuff that you think might make you happy if you did give them a go (gardening was one of mine). Now start doing things from all three lists. And I mean every day. Coz… why wouldn’t you do the things that you know (or hope could) make you happy? Make the time and create the space you need to do it. Because it won’t happen by itself. You have to make it happen. So go and do it, right now. Then come back and write to me and tell me how you feel.

The answer I’m hoping for? Happy.

Ejo #106 – My Dubai: Frying Pan Adventures’ Bengali Cooking Class

Hey, guess what? It’s been ten years since David and I moved to Dubai. A whole fucking DECADE!!!! Guess what else? After all this time, I still can’t say that I like living here. And yet here I am anyway. Go figure. And (for a bunch of different reasons) we’re actually planning on sticking around – for a while at least. So, even though I can’t say I enjoy life in Dubai, I am making an effort to at least try and actually live in the city I’ve inhabited for ten years. Believe it or not kids, I am trying. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I haven’t written a piece shitting on Dubai for a while. Nearly four years in fact. Sure, I’ll whinge about it every now and again, but that’s normal, right? We all whinge from time to time. Nope, I’ve been making a real, concerted effort to find some kind of peace with the fact that this is where I am now. It makes no sense to keep fighting it.  But that doesn’t mean I need to like it.  I never will.  What it does mean is that, occasionally, I will venture out of the comfort of my home to try something new. Something that might even be a little bit fun.

So when my beautiful friend Zimmy asked me to join her for a Bengali cooking class, of course I said yes! To be honest, I actually had no idea what Bengali food looked like, or even where Bengal was. But hey, I was going to spend some time with my second favourite person in Dubai, cooking up a storm and then eating it. What is not to love about that.

Quick geography and history lesson: Bengal, an area in north-eastern India, was ruled by the Brits until they decided to finally piss off home in 1947. The area was then divided into states belonging to India (the predominantly Hindu, west side) and Pakistan (the Muslim, east side). Fun fact: in 1971 the side belonging to Pakistan gained independence and became Bangladesh (hey, you learn something new in this ejo every damn month!). Our Bengali cooking class featured food from the Indian side of the road. And it was amazing.

Bengal Map

And now you know where Bengal is.

The class, held at Hyatt Place hotel was a collaboration between one of Dubai’s prominent food bloggers, Ishita Saha, author of Ishitaunblogged and co-founder of food and travel portal FoodeMag, and and a local outfit called Frying Pan Adventures. Frying Pan Adventures is actually the reason I was really excited about this event. I’ve been reading about their back-alley, culinary adventures for years. Let me put it this way; if I was visiting Dubai as a tourist today, I would skip the luxury hotels, waterparks and malls and I would hit the streets with Frying Pan Adventures. For me, a city’s heart and soul are hidden away in its unseen alleys, and I really believe that the best way to get to know a place is through those backstreets and through the food you find there. Not the “five star” Michelin pretenders, but real food, eaten by real people, every single day. For me, it’s no contest.

Frying Pan Adventures is the lovechild of several young entrepreneurs, mostly women, who came together over their shared love of food. And can I just say, I am thrilled that they didn’t just take that love and open (yet another) Dubai restaurant! This city already has 20,000 of them. It doesn’t need another one (are you listening Gordon Ramsey)? Here’s the thing though, only half of those restaurants are listed on Tripadvisor or Zomato. The rest are small, backstreet joints with no website, no Facebook page and sometimes not even a menu. And they’re usually doing a roaring trade with those in know. The ladies (and gent) of Frying Pan Adventures have taken their passion, and their knowledge of these backstreet gems, and opened that world up to those of us who would otherwise never get to experience it. Isn’t that just awesome!

I’m yet to actually go on one of their walking tours (the class I attended was a one-off event), but I have booked to do their Middle Eastern Food Pilgrimage next month, featuring food from Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt and Iran. I’m excited. And you know what? I’m excited that I’m excited. This is a new feeling for me. Of course I should have guessed that I would feel more at home amidst the grittiness and realness of Old Dubai, than in the distorted reflections of its skyscrapers.

And so I, and 19 other people, went along to the special Bengali cooking event earlier this month. I ate some yummy Bengali snacks as I watched Ishita prepare and cook a couple of the dishes on the menu, with the help of some volunteers. She made us begun bhaja; seasoned and fried eggplant slices topped with garlic sauce and pomegranate. Yum! We then watched her make shorshe baata maach, which is a fish dish made with incredibly delicious and sassy mustard flavours. Speaking of which, did you know that the single ingredient that is most definitive of Bengali cooking is mustard oil? I don’t think I’d ever tasted it before, but it’s so fragrant and aromatic and flavoursome. I’ll definitely be cooking this easy to make dish myself at home.

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Jhal Muri – street style puffed rice with chilli and spices.  We were served this while watching Ishita work her magic in the kitchen.

 

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Begun Bhaja – such a tasty dish and super duper easy to make.

 

 

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Shorse Baata Maach – usually made with a type of fish called hilsa which was unavailable, so salmon was deliciously substituted. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste, but I loved it.  Photograph compliments of Zimmy’s partner Arafaat who somehow appears to have climbed into the frying pan to take the shot!

But my absolute favourite dish of the whole day was luchi!!! Luchi, for the unenlightened (as I once tragically was) is a deep-fried flatbread that puffs up while it’s cooking, transforming it into a billowy pillow of delicious, hot, flaky goodness. An orgasm in your mouth. I could literally eat these all day long, and Bengalis do. Luchi is served with breakfast, lunch and dinner. How fucking civilised!!! And yes, in case you were wondering, I do have a thing for fried bread. Don’t judge.  When they went around the group asking people what their favourite Indian dish was, I unequivocally said naan. Coz you can eat it with ALL the other dishes!! Duh!!

 

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Looks like a pappadum, tastes like the freshest, flakiest savoury cronut you’ve ever imagined.

 

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Ishita’s recipe for luchi.  Will try at home.

After the instructional part of the event was over, we were all taken upstairs to a hotel suite that had been transformed into a typical Bengali home with the help of some soft furnishings, knick-knacks and old photos. It was a really lovely setting and we all sat down to enjoy the rest of the food, which had been prepared by the hotel cooking team and served, family-style, by our hosts from Frying Pan Adventures.

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Assorted fritters and an incredibly moreish relish to dip them in.

 

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Khichudi – a porridge made with rice and lentils.  This is comfort food right here.

 

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Cholar daal.  Someone came around and poured ghee on everyone’s serve.  YES PLEASE!

 

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Kosha Mangsho – slow cooked, tender mutton in it’s own thick onion gravy.

 

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Shukto – vegetable stew.

 

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Baked yoghurt.  This was an updated version of a traditional Bengali dessert, and if I hadn’t already stuffed my face full of everything else I might have been able to manage more than a couple of teaspoons of it.  I really let myself down, and I regret it.

 

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The feast!

 

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The team behind the scenes.  Great work, guys and girls!!  Thank you!

 

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The Frying Pan Adventures chicks rocking their traditional outfits, and some beautiful smiles.

It was such a treat to be part of this culinary adventure and to experience something new in Dubai and on my taste-buds. Nothing will ever change the way I feel about this city. But I can easily admit that there are many things here that are good. Pockets of culture and authenticity and realness, and even joy. If I can find more of those things, then perhaps I can also find a better way to live here.  Perhaps I can find my place. For fuck’s sake, if fried bread can’t do it, nothing can.

Ejo #96 – My Dubai: Settling In

Even though I still don’t (and probably never will) call Dubai home, David and I have actually lived here for a really, really, really long time. And when you live somewhere for that long, whether you like it or not, you kinda get to know the place.  We’ve been around over the years, but because of the constant, massive construction, everything changes from one day to the next, which makes it lack stability.  So the city always feels in flux, foreign, and weird to me. To tell you the truth, I’m still not 100% sure which exit to take off the freeway to get to the organic grocery store we’ve been going to for the last seven years. It’s madness. But still, there are some parts of town we do know really well, mostly because we’ve lived in them.

We started off in temporary housing in Garhoud, in a very small studio apartment, provided by the company we work for, while we looked for our own place. Even though Garhoud is not really an area that expats tend to live in long term, we actually really enjoyed the four weeks we spent there. It was a really fun and interesting way to be introduced to this crazy city, and in fact, I kind of miss it. Because the streets were real. They would come alive in the evenings, and not with loud, obnoxious, sunburnt British tourists downing pints (though there is a raucous pub called The Irish Village just across the street from where we were staying), but with the Indians, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis that make up the majority of the population of Dubai. The community that they knit together, in this small part of town, had a really special feeling to it, comingling the amazing smells of regional street food, the cacophony of sounds (including the call to prayer) at all hours of the day and night, the hustle and the bustle of working-class daily life. It was gritty and maybe a little bit grotty, but it was real in a way that “new” Dubai never will be.

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Our temporary digs in Garhoud.

 

 

 

What is this new Dubai, I speak of? Well, I’m talking about the mushrooming clusters of skyrise apartments built in the last decade or so. Old Dubai refers to the original Dubai neighbourhoods of Satwa, Deira, Bur Dubai and Karama (also known as Dolce & Karama because of the roaring trade in knock-offs that goes on there). These were the commercial hubs that flourished when the UAE was formed in 1971 (excellent year, I might add), but which have recently started feeling a bit worn around the edges. So yeah, in this case, “old” means about 46 years. Which isn’t really that old (I mean, really!!!), but it’s definitely older than new Dubai.

When we first got here, in the gold rush days of 2008, Downtown Dubai was where it was at. Or rather, where it was going to be. It was essentially still an engineering blueprint, and the first apartment we signed a lease on was on the 32nd floor of a brand new, solitary tower called 8 Boulevard Walk right across the street from the Burj Khalifa and walking distance to the Dubai Mall. As far as I know, they never did build a 6 Boulevard Walk, or a 10 Boulevard Walk, or in fact any other number Boulevard Walk. Which is kinda weird, but you get used that kind of thing around here. It was a nice enough building and we stayed there for five whole years, enjoying the hell out of the view which really was extremely remarkable. Downtown Dubai, however, was a 24/7 construction zone when we moved in and it stayed that way the entire time we lived there. It’s definitely more developed now, but it’s still several years away from completion. When we moved on to the next place, it was weird not hearing the constant sounds of jackhammers and cement trucks backing up at 3am in the morning.

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The view from our living room.  The not quite yet completed Burj Khalifa, circa 2009.

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8 Boulevard Walk – weird, residential tower in the middle of nowhere, with a fucking amazing view of the world’s tallest building.

 

 

After five years in Downtown, including a couple of years of quarreling with our landlord over rent, we were ready to try something new and took over a friend’s lease on a 4th floor apartment in Dubai Marina. There’s just something special about living on the water, and after five years of cranes and sand and dust, it was fantastic having a great view of a beautiful body of water from our home. In the cooler months we would go for walks along the promenade and we were within walking distance of the beach, a mall, several five star hotels, restaurants and bars. It was also down the street from an amazing döner kebab place, which (in hindsight) probably wasn’t such a great thing. It was a lovely apartment, but again we had a problem with a greedy landlord and decided enough was enough. It was time to start looking for our own place.

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Dubai Marina Promenade

 

I’m going to leave out all the crap that we had to wade through in order to buy our own apartment, and focus on how awesome it is to now finally have our own place and be our own asshole landlords! Actually, we’re not that bad. We get things fixed pretty quickly, we always answer the phone and we don’t hassle each other about the rent. We’ve actually settled into a really nice part of town. You might have heard of it? It’s called the Palm Jumeirah. Whaaaaat? I know, right? Who would have thought? Not me. But here we are, in a lovely F-type Shoreline apartment with access to a gym and a private beach, yo!! Livin’ large!

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So, our apartment is on the trunk of the Palm, at the top of the picture.

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This lovely 2.7km walking track is literally at our doorstep.  I can’t tell you how nice it is to hear the sounds of birds chirping and children playing instead of dump trucks and jackhammers.

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Our beach.  Yep, it’s ours.

 

I honestly don’t have any idea how much longer we will stay in this city, but I’m pretty sure the next time we move, it’ll be internationally. Our apartment is my oasis in a city that causes me turmoil. It is my haven, my refuge, my safe place. And I love it. It helps me tolerate…. stuff. Life. Perhaps I’m a little too attached to it, because honestly I don’t often venture far. I do my grocery shopping and I go to work at Al Maktoum International Airport, which is fine.

My Office

My office.  Not too shabby.

 

Every once in a blue moon I’ll check out a new restaurant or café that I hear about on the grapevine. Very recently I saw an ad on Instagram for a new café called Amongst Few at Palm Strip Mall in Jumeirah. This small group of shops along Beach Road has particular sentimental value to me because it was where we used to go to connect with people back home after we first arrived here, before we got internet hooked up at our place. It’s no longer there, but back in 2008 one of the shops used to be an internet café. I can’t even remember the name of it, but the place is etched in my memory. After all, it’s where I typed up my very first ejo a week after we got here – and now I’m going to cry.

So anyway, when I heard about Amongst Few, I wanted to check it out. As you know, I’ve not been very impressed with the quality of coffee in Dubai, or with the café scene in general. It’s actually been a couple of years since we’ve ventured out in search of coffee. But lately, I’ve been inspired to treat Dubai like I treat the places we visit when we travel. Do some research, and look at it through new, fresh eyes. So, we have been out and about the last couple of months looking for good coffee. Sadly, nothing has inspired a return visit – until Amongst Few. Can you believe it?? I’m not going to get my hopes up, but we have been there three times and we’ve had consistently good coffee every time. That, to me, is a fucking miracle. The meals are a bit hit and miss, but the hits are pretty damn good. I highly recommend the fish and chips. The fish is extremely fresh, and the batter super light and crispy, almost like tempura. The chips? Triple cooked, baby!!! Yum!

So, just as we used to do all those years ago, we make the trek to Jumeirah (though these days the trek is 26km, as opposed to just 10km) in the hope that the wonderful people of Amongst Few continue to make good coffee. Is it too much to ask??? I hope not.

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Amongst Few.  The internet cafe used to be just to the right of this place.

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A view of Jumeirah Mosque across the street.

 

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The menu.

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Matcha latte and flat white.

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Smashed avo on toast with poached eggs, roast tomatoes and feta cheese.

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Fish n’ chips.  The batter is super light and crispy – almost like tempura.  Even the coleslaw was tasty.

The name of this ejo was inspired by a popular hashtag on Instagram (23.5 million posts makes #mydubai popular, right?). I do sometimes hijack this hashtag when I post pictures because… hey, who can say how a person “owns” a place.  This ejo, I suppose, is as close to describing what “my Dubai” means to me as we’re going to get.  I’ll never love this place, but over the years we have inexorably tangled into each other.  And as long as I can get good coffee, I can live with it.