Wednesday, May 23, 2012

"Though their life was modest, they believed in eating well." — James Joyce (Dubliners)

My flatmate keeps making fun of me for continuously threatening myself with an instant ramen diet.

The first week of living here in Perth after moving up from Frankland, I wandered past the big chains and overpriced gourmet food stores to find myself in a little mart jammed packed with all sorts of foreign Asian goods with no English descriptions on the packaging. The only thing I could comprehend beyond the savory images were the numbers marking the price. Quite content on finding the so-far cheapest bottle of Sriracha in Perth and picking up two differently flavored packages of 5-packet ramens for $5, I thought I had found myself a bargain that my partime salary could compete with.

As I've mentioned before: Perth is a ridiculously expensive city. As I've implied before: to call Perth a city is relative. Let's rephrase: Perth is a ridiculously expensive place. Since living here for the last month - really living here - I have come to understand why.

I type this as the tab for ANZ's Internet banking is open, but I am hesitant to reveal the truth of it's accounts to make my survival until next week's pay day become a stark and dismal reality.

The main reason Perth is so expensive is that it can be. It's like a spoiled only child. Located in the middle of nowhere, the nearest city, Adelaide, is over 2,000 kilometers away; a flight from Perth in the West to Sydney in the East is about 5 hours - the same length for a flight from the American East coast to it's West coast; and driving 10 hours directly north of Perth only covers about 2 inches on a map. Part of this connection between its isolation and its monopoly over exuberant prices is that it is expensive to import things from around the world, let alone transport goods from other parts of the country. Indonesia is closer to Perth than Sydney is. Maybe because of this, and/or maybe they don't have any other choice, I have found that Australia is very proud in selling their own products: most bars serve a majority of Australian beers, most bottle shops predominately sell Australian wines, many bands are local artists, everyone claims to have known Heath Ledger - just kidding.
Another tie in to the expensiveness and remoteness is that Perth is a booming hub for the resource industry. With all the surrounding nothingness, there are a lot of mining jobs to be had with a lot of work to be done. These unfavorable locations and long hours pay a lot of money for these jobs. Called FIFO - fly in fly out - people fly to remote destinations for jobs that will last maybe 2 weeks at a time working hard with nowhere or no time to spend their money, then they fly home to Perth for a week with pockets filled with money to burn. Apparently, part of the lure to bring people to work in these desolate areas is to have tremendously nice facilities. Perth then has to compete with keeping people in all sectors of the economy in Perth. Why work in retail or hospitality when you could have a cleaning job at the mines earning $100,000 a year? How can the schools compete with teachers salaries in the city and providing quality education when the teachers can get more money up north? People are literally changing career paths to earn more money in the mines. With these incredible incomes and salaries, Perth can get away with charging such high prices that people now have the money to spend. I would say that the standard employment pay is relative to the standard of living in Perth, but it's not necessarily fair to the people who do not have jobs in the mining industry who are still trying to survive. This has caused a huge discrepancy between the population. My hourly rate isn't bad, but that doesn't mean I can afford a $16 sandwich for lunch or can buy a round of $10 beers. Once in the night. For two people. It's tempting, really tempting, to go work for $80/hour at one of the mines to put away a couple grand, but at the same time, I would feel like a tremendous sell out. Money can't be everything, it can't be the driving force in life.....oh! but the prospect of the promises that financial security offers is so so tempting. I haven't necessarily ruled it out yet. The ANZ tab is glaring at me, daring me to face reality. But, what would my friends and family think if I worked in a MINE?!

So if Perth is so expensive and I'm trying to save money to travel, you must wonder: why am I living here, currently in fear of my bank account, and with the packets of ramen still uneaten? You must wonder, if it hasn't already pissed you off, why have I resorted to buying terrible ramen noodles like a poor college student, which I never ate in college, when I KNOW how to eat better than that after a year of apparent studying in Italy?

Which brings me to two points I want to discuss:

Despite feeling quite proud in my bargain shopping of cheap ramen, even doing a comparison shopping of different brands and prices and flavors, there is a reason why they are still sitting in the larder. I thought I was doing the right thing, buying cheap food to save my money and thinking this $5 would feed me for at least 10 meals (10 days actually, I don't think I could even attempt to endeavour eating more than one packet in a day). But the more I thought about it, the more I understood how I was dooped into the negative way people think about food these days. I felt, without thinking about it, that I had to buy crap in order to not spend a lot of money. But didn't I just spend a whole year studying the culture of food, the economy of food, the politics of food, the effects food has on the environment and on our health? Why did I immediately think I had to buy instant processed food in order to save money? Shouldn't I be preaching better purchasing decisions and better eating habits to show people that they can buy quality food without breaking the bank? Isn't that what made me so frustrated about customers and their thoughts towards buying foods at the farmers market last summer - didn't I want to prove them wrong? Isn't this what I want to educate people on: how can a 69 cent bag of instant just-add-hot-water food with dehydrated vegetables and high sodium flavoring from Asia actually cost 69 cents? What is the nutritional content of 69 cents (I don't know, it's all in Chinese). Here I was going into "survival mode" of bulk instant ramen - the spicy kind of course, I might add - and getting angry and frustrated at the way food is treated and marketed and even more so, embarrassed at myself.
Instead, I bought bags of red, green, and black lentils, chickpeas, couscous, whole wheat penne, and flour to make homemade bread to slice and keep in the freezer. I'm not sure where the food comes from, but the Subiaco weekend market has terrific prices and all sorts of produce. If you go at the end of the day on Sunday they are literally trying to give away the food for $1 a bag. The little Asian shop down the street in Maylands sells discounted food that most places would throw out because of a few blemishes or is on it's last day on the shelf. My body craves vegetables, not instant food, and despite every purchase being a comparison shop and being conscious about what I want and what I need and what I can afford, I am more aware of the price of the food and wondering how certain bags of carrots or a head of lettuce can be so cheap. I know I shouldn't be complaining because I'm trying not to spend money either - I expected 10 meals from $5 - but it's ridiculous what people expect out of food. How they will pay $4.50 for a small cup of coffee or $3 for a soda, but then complain about the cost of milk or not have any comprehension surrounding the efforts put into production or the cost of transportation or the wages for the labor. *sigh

6 bottles of cheap wine may seem like a good deal, but 2 bottles of quality good-tasting wine really make a difference. Same goes for olive oil. For local fruits. For vegetables in season. For making homemade bread.
buy less for your budget. buy better for your life. 

I am still tempted to do a full-on ramen diet week - I have the packets already, why let them go to waste (if there even is an expiration date). I've tried already, but once mixed in a jar of kimchi and another time added some sauteed bok choy and cut up tomatoes into it with drizzles of Sriracha. I physically can't bear to empty the packet of powdered flavoring into it, knowing how much sodium is in it, but maybe, just as an experiment, I could see what it's like to really live on a ramen diet.....thoughts?

And so to the second point from that previous discussion:

I like Perth a lot. Despite being one of the most expensive cities in the world, it is also ranked as one of the most livable and one of the highest qualities of living (is there any oxymoron somewhere there?) Just seventeen years short of being 200 years old (!) it reminds me a lot of California. Yes, the sunny weather and beach side proximity do help in this comparison. It's clean, pretty, budding, walkable, manageable.  Sure, there are a lot of ugly buildings, but there's a lot of breath-takingly unique ones. I love the neighborhoods in the suburbs where each house is distinctly different as though each plot of land had its own architect with a freedom to design whatever they wanted and took advantage of that opportunity. I could go on and on about the houses, but I can't find the right descriptive vocabulary right now.
What I like about Perth, and part of the reason why I decided to come to the west coast first, is that despite all the travelers, backpackers, and heavily populated foreigners, there aren't a lot of tourists (differentiation: tourists don't live here). It's kinda its own hidden gem. There aren't a whole lot of touristy sights in Perth in general and maybe that observation has something to do with me making fun of it being called a city. Before I left for Australia, most people I had talked to who had been here had been to the east coast, but said they never made it to Perth or Western Australia as it was too far away. I haven't been to the east coast yet, so I can't say anything about that, but for now, I like Perth. A lot of people rave about Melbourne and say Perth is 10 or even 20 years behind it, but I think Perth has a lot of potential. And for that, I'm rooting for Perth.
For the last couple "moves" I've always had a time frame: a year in Italy, a few months in Ireland, a summer in Portsmouth, a little over a month in Ireland, then a few weeks in Perth before 3 months in Frankland. Now I have no time frame, no future destination or plan, and I kinda like the freedom of it. I applied for a job in a restaurant because I thought it'd be still along the food lines slash hospitality side of things in terms of learning all the in's and out's of the food industry while at the same time being flexible, social, and non-committal so that I could test out the Perth waters to see if I liked it or at least get some cash before deciding where I wanted to go next. But for now, I like it, and think I might look for something a little more serious until something else comes along. I like the paychecks, the routine of work, the rent responsibility, the budgeting of money I've worked for, the "real life" I haven't had in a while. I love my little home with my own room and my flatmate, but living out of a backpack still makes me feel a little "unreal." For now, it's ok. For now, the ramen will be there for cases of starving emergencies in between paychecks and as a reminder that although life can be tough, there's always a lesson to learn from it. Sacrifice may mean learning how to prioritize, but it doesn't have to mean sacrificing the quality of your life or disregarding your standards, no matter where you are.

I have since opened up the ANZ tab. Let's not talk about it. 

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