In my thick cotton shirt dress, I shuffle my slippered feet across the patterned wood slat flooring, crossing over to the slick tile of our dimly-lit kitchen. It’s Saturday morning. C, just moments ago, had rolled over to me; and in a sleepy stupor, asked if I might make us something for breakfast. Challenge accepted.
In the refrigerator, I find a Chinese cabbage, scallions, an egg or two, soy sauce, mirin (a Japanese rice wine used for cooking) and sesame oil. In the freezer, I find a package of thinly sliced bacon, as well as some pre-scored frozen shrimp that have been cleaned, deveined, and sliced in such a way that it makes them straight and easier for frying. In the pantry, there are a few finishing garnishes I bring down and set off to the side.
Methodically, sleepily, I dice the cabbage into small pieces, and with them in a bowl I mix the chopped up shrimp, scallions, a little mirin, a palmful of flour, and some salt and pepper. In the end, it forms a shaggy shrimp and cabbage pancake, which sizzles with fervor as I ease it out of the bowl and into the pan. Before flipping, I lay the thinly sliced bacon across the top, carefully lining up the strips so none of the surface is left uncovered. I grasp one spatula in each hand and slide the edges underneath the pancake at 3 and 9 o’clock, whispering a little breakfast prayer. There are a few rogue drips as it comes back down; but as I flip it, it stays in one piece.
The smell is unbearable as the last few moments eek by, the bacon searing against the pan. I reach for a plate, and ease the finished disc out of the nonstick pan, a cloud of steam visible in the slightly cooler kitchen air. Quickly, while it's still hot, I grab two condiments from the inside of the fridge: one called ‘kewpie’ mayo, a Japanese mayonnaise similar to the American style of mayo, but with a salty, earthy twist; as well as ‘okonomiyaki’ sauce, a sweet brown bottled sauce tasting as if ketchup had been mixed together with teriyaki sauce, as it most likely was. I drizzle on both of the liquids with a heavy hand, and shower down the bright green scallion tops and toasted sesame seeds. The final touch is a bag marked “bonito”; in it I take a large pinch of dried fish shavings, so thin that you can see through them. I sprinkle them onto the top of my creation and they reanimate and dance in the retreating heat waves, resembling undulating kelp on the sea floor. This is a Japanese comfort food called “okonomiyaki”; it’s the first dish I’ve made, of many, that have opened me up to learning how to cook traditional Japanese cuisine at home. For all this I have one person to thank, a very sweet Japanese woman named Shoko, and the store in which she works, Uchitomi.
On a day I felt like getting out and finding something new in Lausanne, out of cabin fever or the desire to seize upon a sunny day, I was walking through the city center sometime around 11am. Crowds of mid-morning shoppers parted and swayed like schools of fish or leaves in the wind, and the pigeons scuttled underneath benches in the hopes of early lunchers dropping small crumbs from their baguette sandwiches. On a steep incline to the left, a less-traveled side road I climbed, I saw a sign posted outside a doorway reading “Bento du Jour”, followed by what I understood to be the name of that day’s special. I went inside, paid fourteen Francs for a hot green tea and a warm bento box, and sat down at a small cafe table.
There were not just one, but four mini-meals contained inside my one box, including a pickled radish salad; stewed mushrooms; a piece of “tamagoyaki”, or Japanese egg omelette; and the main course of juicy, marinated chicken thighs skewered with grilled peppers on a bed of sweet, fluffy rice. Having eaten only the meal replacement shakes of which C ordered WAY too much and now refuses to eat any for my lunches, this was one of the best afternoon meals I’d had in weeks. So floored by the new tastes, textures and flavors, upon finishing every last drop and grain, I left the cafe, rounded the corner, and entered the adjoining supermarket connected by the kitchen: a specialty Japanese store called Uchitomi. I arrived with a few recipes in mind, and combed the aisles wearing a wide grin as I surveyed the mountains of new and strange ingredients with which I would soon learn to play and create.
I was approached by a smiling woman who politely asked in French if I was looking for anything in particular. I asked her, in French, if she spoke English, and to that her face immediately lit up and she exclaimed, “Yes!” Before I left with my first haul of items that day, the same girl rang me up at the register, and we exchanged names. It would be another week before we exchanged numbers, and one more after that until we finally got coffee. In the meantime, our WhatsApp feed was filled with emojis, exclamation points, and pictures of food, both home-cooked and dishes eaten on date nights with our significant others. Shoko told me she was happy to speak English with someone; she only spoke to her husband at the end of the day, and most of the time either spoke only Japanese at work or tried to power through with French, which she was still learning. I told her I related strongly to her situation, and why don’t we four (she, her husband, I, and C) all go out for drinks next week?
C and I met Shoko and her husband at a place called “Le Comptoir” the following weekend. We strode into the bar at the same time, just after 6pm on a Saturday evening. We were the bar’s first patrons of the night, having arrived right as they were unlocking the front door. Seated in the far corner of a speakeasy-style room chock full of dilapidated leather couches, dusty bookshelves, and worn, oversized trunks in the place of tables, we scoured the menu for our opening aperitifs.
Shoko leaned over to me, quizzical. “I am uh, not sure what to get.”
“What do you like?” I replied, casually slipping on my invisible Sommolier’s cap. I heard C’s silent lamentation, “Oh boy, here we go”, from across the wide, lumpy couch.
“Oh, something light, and fruity. Maybe a bit sweet!” She replied.
Relieved at the extremely soft pitch, I scanned over the many drinks I’d seen on the menu that fit this description perfectly.
“I’d say,” I dragged my finger down the list, “the Pimm’s My Ride.” A Pimm’s cup cocktail(made with gin), muddled with strawberries. She loved it.
The conversation began to flow more freely immediately following our first sips. I can honestly only recall one, maybe two couples’ dates in all of mine and C’s four-year relationship in America; but after only 6 months of living in Switzerland, we were on our fifth. Crushing it.
I liked my first drink, a medicinal palate cleanser with a spicy kick of ginger, but as I turned to the final page of the cocktail menu looking for my second, I zeroed in on an old familiar:
TRADITIONAL OLD FASHIONED
Bulleit Bourbon, sugar, Angustora bitters
Bulleit, as well as all of bourbondom, lies just two and a half hours’ drive north from the heart of Nashville. This proximity made me grow to love the old fashioned over years of attending friends’ shows all across the city, and needing something I could buy one of and sip on. Checking my grammar with C, I ordered my drink like this:
“Je voudrais un Old Fashioned, mais moins sucre, s’il vous plaît.”
I would like an Old Fashioned, but less sugar, please.
I was then brought a drink with next to no sugar, just straight bourbon and bitters. No complaints on my end, however. Inside that first sip, just for a split second, I was back inside the deafening High Watt, or the smoky 5 Spot, wearing my painted-on smile and scanning the room for anyone I should be greeting, a drink in my hand, the ice clinking along with the music as I paced along the back perimeter.
We finished our round and decided on Italian food for dinner. We then walked to our favorite pizza joint, only to realize it was everyone else’s favorite pizza joint on a Saturday night as well. Just a few doors down was an Argentinian steakhouse, called Longhorn’s.
Inside the restaurant, for the second time this month, I again realized I was seated at a U.N.-style summit representing four countries: the U.S.A., France, Switzerland, and Japan. And If you count the restaurant, the South American music oom-pah-pahing over our heads during the entirety of our meal, five.
After three hours, we were scraping the bottom of the barrel for conversation topics on a first (double) date, having exhausted the list of “So what do you do?” and “Seen any good movies lately?” I was still having a good time, but tiptoeing dangerously close to hopping across the border over into ramble city. The house wines came out, and in a lull I dove headfirst into a bottomless dissertation on what I believed to be the featured grape of that vintage, and why. Shoko, of course, remained courteous and hung on my every word, even though she politely told me later that she knew nothing about wine, but was very impressed that I did. Talking aloud about all the recipes I had attempted because of Uchitomi, like my donburi rice bowl with black garlic mayo, Shoko turned to C and said, “Wow, you must feel so lucky!” She is very sweet.
It was soon before we got up to leave that the really random topics finally emerged, those that were lying in wait the entire evening. Somehow, we started talking about cockroaches.
I told a short story about finding a lone cockroach hanging out in a pile of clean sheets I had left to put on my bed until 11 o’clock at night a few years ago. C was on a work trip out of town, and I was in that beginning stage of sleepiness that makes you eager to hop into bed and fall asleep as soon as possible. But that all went out the window as soon as I saw it; I hopped around screaming, called my mom (who was obviously powerless), took apart my entire bed, and finally went to my closet to retrieve my steel-toed cowboy boots. In a standoff reminiscent of the dock scene at the end of Dirty Harry, I stood at the other end of a sealed-off hallway, face to face with the creeper. I made a sudden movement and it took off running; with a howl I jumped into the air and came back down with a sickening crunch.
I cleaned off what I could from the bottoms by shaking them over a trash bag, and then set my cowboy boots outside on my doormat for the rest of the night, as a warning to all other cockroaches in the area.
Shoko then felt compelled to chime in with her own story, which was slightly different from mine.
“I was living alone, all by myself, for the first time in my life” she explained, setting the stage. “I was in bed one evening, and then by the window I saw this little cockroach on the carpet!”
We all cringed at the thought. What bothers me most about cockroaches is that you hardly ever just find one of them. One could potentially mean hundreds more.
“So, I thought to myself: I am all alone. I cannot call my father, no one can come and help me. I have no family here to take care of this thing so I must think of a plan.” We sat still, listening intently as she spoke. “I decided then, ‘Well, I have no family here. So the cockroach is my family.’”
I held up my hand for mercy as I reached for my phone, shaking, to type out exactly what Shoko was saying, word for word.
“The cockroach is my family” she repeated. “So one day he would come, and I would see him, and think, ‘Oh, there he is.’, and other days he would not be there. But one day, I was in the bathroom, and I saw him there, but he was very close to me.”
At this point, I don’t think I was blinking.
“He came even closer, off of the carpet and onto the floor close to my feet, and I thought, ‘He crossed the line. I have to kill him.” Her face looked down with such sincerity, truly affected by the experience. “So I had to kill him.”
Then Shoko said something that I feel encapsulates her personality so perfectly, it could only come from an off-the-cuff story such as this. She ended her anecdote: “I killed him, but I was still a bit sad that I killed him, because, you know,—
I leaned in for the hook,
“he was my family.”
The hush in the nearly empty Argentinian steakhouse was instantly shattered by my wild laughter.
At the end of the evening, just before parting on the street, Shoko handed me a bag filled with some Japanese snacks she bought just for me at Uchitomi: strawberry Pocky sticks, rice and seaweed chips, and sweet and sour dried Yuzu strips. From that moment on, if she wanted a friend, she had one in me.
I don two thin plastic gloves and smear a few small drops of sesame oil onto my palms, rubbing it around so that it fully coats the surface of my gloves. I grab a lukewarm handful of freshly cooked sushi rice, creating an egg-shaped mass about one and a half inches long. With a small dab of wasabi on the bottom, I lay a piece of freshly caught salmon carefully onto the surface of the rice ball. I do this ten more times, the warm afternoon sun in the south toasting the back of my neck as it beats through the windows of our kitchen and splashes across the countertop.
I sit in silence, eating my sushi, thankful for yet another new cooking experience, for Uchitomi and my friend who works there, as well as for living in one of the top-floor apartments of my building, where no new family members can get to me.