An old friend from Canada, newly wed, wrote to tell me about the joys of living in the midst of the hustle and bustle of downtown Toronto with his new wife, as they begin gradually to figure out a rhythm to their life together.
"I don't know how I lived most of my life in the suburbs. Downtown rocks! The culture, the museums, the shows, the street events, the shops, the markets … We are taking cooking classes in a culinary arts college across the street from us, one of the best and most fun courses I've ever taken. The chef that trains us is teaching us basics, like using the knife, cutting different veggies, making different soups, stocks, pastas, meats … this Saturday we'll be making lasagne."
That email had me in an uproar in no time, and I rushed off to confront - who else - Mr T. This is exactly how I feel about living in Abu Dhabi compared with living in Dubai, I ranted and raved. There's maybe one gallery in the capital to every five galleries in Dubai, I informed my husband, who tried to point out that I'm not exactly an art aficionado eager to stroll through galleries. That was most certainly not the point, I retaliated. Dubai has language classes, dance classes and sporting activities I can only dream of in Abu Dhabi. It has those classy restaurants in the financial district, punctuated with more of those chic art galleries. It has Festival City! It has flea markets almost every weekend in Zabeel Park. It has The Walk in the JBR, and when you look out to sea, you can actually see the horizon, instead of the Marina Mall or Lulu Island. Dubai is the bustling, lively downtown, and Abu Dhabi is the suburbs, and how come we never sign up for any cooking classes?
My husband, never one to allow me to wallow in self-pity, chose instead to point out the obvious. "It's not that Dubai has a lot more for us to do than Abu Dhabi, and you know it," he announced. "It's just that we're lazy."
I hate admitting he's right. We've allowed the ease of our marriage, as comfortable as an old sweatshirt frayed at the elbows, to turn us into a complacent couple content with very little. We've settled into our life together, which has become a routine-like existence almost behind our backs. The wonder of a new marriage has worn off and we've figured out what it's like to live together; now, we've sat back and allowed ourselves to fall into the rut of familiarity.
It's not a bad thing: we're not unhappy. We're just content spending time with one another - I'm with my best friend, and he's with his. Since it's so comfortable, there's none of the effort that goes into coming up with fun things to do together or new adventures to plan. On the weekends, we head to the movies, maybe plan a brunch with friends, have lunch with family, and then the week starts all over again. Our evenings are spent making dinner then watching a favourite show, night after night after night, and because we're so comfortable together, it never occurs to us that this might get boring, sooner or later.
It's turned us into a lazy couple, in danger of waking up one day and realising that this may be a bit dull compared to the fun of the early days.
An effort had to be made, and soon. Which is where Jones the Grocer and its plethora of cooking masterclasses come in.
Once a month, Jones offers a masterclass in an elaborate gourmet dish, and I was eager to partake. Mr T, desperately in need of honing his nonexistent culinary skills, was on board.
We called Jones on a Saturday morning to sign up for the class that same day, in the evening. We were told only one spot was available.
"Perfect," I informed my husband. "I'll take the spot, and you can be my assistant. Like a sous chef. You can fetch things for me."
He sniffed in indignation, and asked the kind gentleman on the phone to please let him know if another spot opened up. "Why do I always have to be the assistant?" he snarled at me.
As luck would have it, a second spot did open up, and Mr T was all set to wow me with his culinary prowess. We were at Jones at 6pm on the dot, eager to learn how to make Canadian pan-fried scallops, cauliflower risotto with curry essence and watercress.
"I can never remember which one is cauliflower and which one is cabbage," Mr T whispered to me.
"I wouldn't know what watercress was if it slapped me in the face," I reassured him.
We had an absolutely wonderful time, bedecked in our navy aprons, brandishing spatulas and knives, chopping thyme and setting scallops on fire, which, incidentally, is not the correct way to cook scallops. And Mr T, deep in concentration when measuring stock into his risotto and stirring like a champ, swelled with pride when the chef complimented him a few minutes later.
"Did you hear what the chef said when I was chopping? He said I really know how to handle a knife. Did you hear that? He was JUST SHORT of telling me I'm a ninja, JUST SHORT."
My husband now thinks he can cook. He still has no idea what a cauliflower looks like - it was already puréed for us, so that one will remain a mystery to him. But he's adamant that a scallop only really needs a minute on each side. And that butter, as he's always told me, makes everything taste better.
We made new friends, shopped for Arborio rice to take home and learnt how to flavour olive oil with garlic, onions, curry powder and some turmeric. We didn't miss our couch, or the latest episode of whichever show had sucked us in. Instead, we signed up for an Argentine tango class tomorrow evening at 8, and decided to charge the camera so we can document the memories.
Making the effort, it seemed, was all I really needed to do to turn Abu Dhabi from being a mere suburb into a bustling hub of endless opportunities.
Hala Khalaf is the deputy Arts & Life editor at The National.
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