Next day we meet up with Maya's sister for an afternoon walk in the forest of Charte de Boudry, an hour drive from Yverdon which could've been shorter if Daniel hadn't been kind enough to let me have the experience on the infamous Autobahn. I thought I'd gotten my groove back driving a stick shift in Iceland. THINK AGAIN. Matter of fact, KEEP THINKING. Don't just do things, THINK before you do it. THINK HARD. Especially when driving.
All the beautiful things I saw; like the flowers and the streams and the butterflies and the canyons but I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, but the KIDS - these two adorable creatures that came along with us. One is a talkative rascal that never lets my lens catch him without a smile and a pose. Another is a shy pixie that never leaves her moms side, but did not whimp out on this pretty lengthy walk that worked my ass to sore. I love the sound of French language, especially spoken by children as I mentioned in my earlier post from Paris where I spotted a few Asian kids chatting with each other in French, but that probably is just that I don't understand what they're saying. Once I find out they're throwing fits and being unreasonable - nah they'd still be adorable. They win. Especially the boy, the future-model who was at one point trying to tell me about the video games he plays through Maya as a translator, kept melting my iron-frozen heart every time he goes "YEAH" in American accent. I completely lost my shit when, at the end of our hike, we got to the sign that read "STOP! Cafe du Pont" even the shy princess started yelling "STOP! Cafe du Pont!" which led all of us to scream "STOP! Cafe du Pont!" and the best part of it is that once you start you cant "STOP! Cafe du Pont!" then chuckle like back when you used to goof around yelling something like "STOP! Cafe du Pont!"
Maybe its that my stay was too short. Out of all the places I visited on this trip, I had the least amount of stress in Swizterland. I'd like to think that I have grown tougher, but in truth it was Maya, Daniel, Laura and all the people that I got to meet and guided me through. Especially my Circlesong friend; after 5 years of almost no contact she gives me this gift of knowledge, hospitality and, above all, sincerity. The last night here and the morning that I got on the train back to Germany, we discussed some tough topics that, at the points in our respective lives, are unavoidable. In reality we had barely talked, since during those 6 days in Circlesongs we were just two among a few hundreds trying to take in as much of Bobby McFerrin brilliance while avoiding some awkward new-age beliefs and finding comfort in each other's company. Five years later, neither of us was not as playful and goofy as we were then, but that comfort was still there. Once in a while, very rarely for me, you find someone like that.
Once last view;
As the train heads towards Biel, thinking about the people and the places I just left, I caught a tiny glimpse of the Alps with a man in a lone boat floating on Bielersee. Kind of reminiscent of the infamous Fredo on Lake Tahoe shot from The Godfather II, but not sinister with the same feeling of serenity which I couldn't help but associate with the twilight of a mans life. To be perfectly honest, I saw myself. I have told people when I die, I wish to be cremated then my ash be thrown into the air from Keys View in Joshua Tree, with Bohemian Rhapsody in its entirety blasting from the portable PA, hopefully attendees laughing, singing along and head banging. I realize that it is illegal, so now my wish is my body to be left on a boat floating on whatever lake I will find myself close by at that point, ideally with a view of mountains nearby, with Bohemian Rhapsody in its entirety blasting from the portable PA, hopefully attendees laughing, singing along and headbanging.
I realize that this also is illegal. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Mountain in Alps, or a lakeside of Neuchatel. Or anywhere in Switzerland. Maybe it's that my stay was too short. Or maybe it's that everything that I ate and drank brought flavor city to my piehole. And maybe it's that every walk on streets and paths in places I visited offered something breathtakingly beautiful. Maybe it's that a little bit of history I learned about this country fascinated me. Or maybe that every person that I met was courteous, sincere, smart or all of the above, and maybe there are similarities between the Swiss and my people.
Neuchâtel is somewhat of a tourist destitnation, a city not as modern as Zurich and probably more affordable than Montreux. You see why the minute you arrive; the city is home to hundreds of architectural treasures with magnificent Lac de Neuchâtel and the distant Alps as the background. The city hall where the current parliament holds meetings also offers an a hour-long tour educating visitors the historic significance of the building and their very direct political system. Maya used to work as a tour guide here, and hooked me up with an abbreviated freebie by her old co-worker. The amount of knowledge shared by our two guides was overwhelming, but my main takeaway was that the Swiss citizens are very actively engaged in local politics. None of the members of parliament is a full time politician; they could be a baker, a school teacher, or a performing artist/theatre writer/director like Laura who has done two terms in the Parliament of Zurich. Maya is considering her eventual run for Neuchâtel. This does not guarantee that the system is free of corruption. Every governor gets a portrait after their term; either a photograph or a painting. One had a white dove behind him. The last governor had a black ominous cloud hanging over his head, presumably due to some controversy he was involved in. What balls on the painter, and the governor too for accepting it.
Let's talk food now; the Swiss price and Maya's guidance led me to the series of things that locals eat = MY SPEED. Take Rivella, a national soda; it's made of dairy whey which is a byproduct of cheese-making process. Some dude in the early 50s came up with an idea to make a soda out of something that was deemed a waste and dumped into rivers in the US, now it has the second biggest share in the Swiss soft drink market after Coke, distributed in Netherlands, Germany, France, Austria, Liechtenstein and Luexembourg. A sip on this while sitting at a table riverside of Limmat with a local elderly power trio ripping on Margaritaville and other country-inspired songs remains vivid in my mind. It was cemented when another elderly gentleman from the audience got up and air-guitar-battled a bald guitarist. An epic moment. The cheesecake (sigh) I had at BACKbAR (Maya's college-era favorite), random loaves of bread we picked up at a co-op, the ice cream from a tiny shop behind the gorgeous alley in Neuchâtel were all memorable, but 2 meals stand out; various cheeses that we acquired at a farmers' market in Neuchâtel with the guidance of Daniel, a Sicilian French hiphop producer turned a painter who now resides in Yverdon-Ies-Bains with Maya. As one would expect from a French-speaking region, they have basically everything that Paris has and when consumed on a high-quality bread, sitting on a bench looking out to Lac de Neuchâtel was nothing short of devine. Wish I remembered names.
Another meal was a bit more involved; Maya had told me that I was invited to a barbecue for her best friend Pierres birthday, and as a good ol' American Japanese I had expected some grillin' in a backyard, potluck style. The first half was WAY OFF. We drove up the hill to a lookout above the town of Neuchâtel where we set up a campfire by unloading a hatchback full of logwood up a few dozen steps and a walk on a somewhat-beaten path. That wasn't enough apparently, so Pierre and Daniel went and chopped up more logs to be brought up the hill. Pierre's girlfriend, an Argentinian Swiss with whom I had a conversation regarding the blurring identity of transplants (as we both have spent the same amount in our birthplaces and the current residences) chuckled and said "Welcome to Switzerland, we make you work for food." They even demanded that I play some guitar, so much so that they went back to their place to bring me one. The meal that followed, however, was worth every calory that I had burned.
Both moms of the couple brought in their homemade dishes which you knew was gonna be good, and they always say "oh this is so easy to make" which seldom is the case, except most of these were. Gazpacho in cups, olive-oil-soaked bell peppers, dill-marinated salmon, mushrooms with tuna, quinoa salad and on and on. I had reached my limit by the time the Argentinian steak and fish-on-a-twig went on the grill, but I obviously couldn't resist. The whole time Maya kept telling me "oh this you can definitely make yourself" with both moms nodding with smiles. Then it started to make sense; I mean, when you have access to such a wide range of fresh ingridients, you really don't have to do much "cooking" as one chef I met in Toyama once told me. Don't need to be so creative when you are working with what's already good. Easy does it. Let the good thing be what it is; good.
I wouldn't say that food sucks in the US, but the good stuff comes real expensive. We in LA are privileged to have many talented and creative chefs, but they have high overhead with limited access to quality produce. As a japanese native, I'm sorry to say that the sushi and ramen we get in LA I wouldn't pay what they charge. LA ramen doesn't even contain one ingriedent that defines ramen noodle; Kansui (alkline solution) which USDA doesn't allow to be imported. One insider tells me that almost every LA ramen joint starts out with well-crafted original soup base, but once the hipsters come en masse ready to yelp the shit out of any new place, they resort to adding pre-made soup mix just to maintain consistency. They start with a little bit, but when the yelpers react with an empty bowl and 5 stars bringing even more Top Ramen generation, they gradually up the pre-made/home-made ratio. The integrity comes into question, gets murkier as business is booming and customers are raving, and before long your soup tastes basically about the same as any tonkotsu shoyu in the area. But who's sad?
In Salzburg and Neukllon I spotted a logo for SPAR, a grocery store chain seen in Toyama briefly in the 80s. It was where I was sent to pick up some items that my mother forgot for the nights meal. The place outlasted the franchise and it swapped names a few times, but mom said that some of their produce comes from the gardens by Jinzu river, where we take our dog Madoka for a walk. Literally 30 seconds away from us and within half a mile from the said store. I never liked fish growing up but always like the ones that my grandfather caught in Jinzu when the season opens. Put them on a grill with salt. 3 bowls of rice. A cup of miso. And Dad NOT yelling. A peace in Kawasaki household. We grew up with locally grown and took it for granted. An idea of bottled water sold at stores was hilarious. Brings me back to the chef in Toyama from earlier; we are blessed with good food. I certainly was.
US folks never had a chance; while japanese kids had school meals that group of neighborhood moms cooked for us at the school kitchen everyday, they essentially had Pizza Hut and McDonald's, which by the way is probably better in Japan. My buddy Zach had their bacon potato pie a few years back (imagine their apple pie filled with mashed potato and bacon bits) and was puzzled why they don't offer this in the US. I wouldn't dare touch Yoshinoya in the states because its missing a key ingrideient; a raw egg, something US would never be able to offer. My ex-manager who's a Midwest boy through and through had to concede when visiting Roppongi that Japanese do barbecue better. Vegetables in general are cheaper in the states than Japan, yet you still pay upwards of $10 for a salad which often is too heavy on dressing. Ceasar Salad you get at most places don't have anchovy. I didn't even like olives before I had them at this hillside barbecue, and almost everything they brought this day requires, they said, "a really good olive oil" which are often homemade from their gardens. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
It's not that food sucks in the US. Although after traveling through 10 countries in my 30s, I'd say the only food I miss from Los Angeles is street tacos. And that's probably because I haven't been to Mexico.
Back to the hillside barbecue; there might've been a jam involving me trying to figure out the changes to Hava Nagila while Maya and the ladies sang three part harmony, but at that point there had been all the food that's mentioned above, beers consumed as water, wine and then some goddamn whiskey. What do you know ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ that fucking guy always shows up wherever I go. Peace.
I wouldn't have been so startled had I not forgotten that I'm no longer in EU. Also their guerilla-rebel-squad styling, the MP5s and the main dude who questions me sporting the most maginificent handlebar stache; welcome to Suisse, you watch your ass now.
As with the last 2 countries I have traveled through, my lazy ass had failed to do enough research on this place before entering, partly due to this part of my initirary not solidifying until very last minute. All of that, thankfully, is being filled in by lovely Maya, a Neuchâtel native that I met at Circlesongs workshop back in 2012, a gift that keeps on giving. Not only did she agree to spend her precious days off with my uneducated ass, she had arranged me a performance here in Zurich which made me nervous. I have not talked about my performance at a jam sessin in Amsterdam and there's a reason; without getting into boring details, I basically failed to work with others on stage and instead of leading, I bullied. Having been hosting one of these back in LA for years, I felt that I was not myself. So when Maya asked if I wanted to do a song at a Shakespeare-themed night of music and theatre, I hesitated. Not only did I feel out of shape but also my lack of knowledge - oh what the hell, how can you pass on an opp like this? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Maya takes me to the venue right away and I realize my expectation was way off; this is not an open mic. its a production. With a video screen, a PA and a script. Laura, the writer, the cellist and the mastermind greets me and tells me I'm to do a song right after the intermission, inviting the audience into the second act and this whole time in my head I'm going "How are you letting a total stranger be a part of the show you've been working on for months?" What balls. or the faith she has in Maya, her best friend. The faith Maya has in me, gawd. NERVES. GET ME A BEER, STAT.
Outside I am greeted with some of the crew, all of whom are very welcoming despite that I am possibly destroying their show right in the middle. One young, very upbeat guy joins a conversation and I ask where he's from, he goes "Oh I'm from Syria, "the HELL" and chuckles. What a journey it must've been for him to arrive here after years of being oppressed, and meeting Laura and the co who took him in, and to finally embrace who he really is sexually and artistically; as a human. A hell of a singer, this guy. MORE NERVES.
Having never sung this one myself before, and all the nerves racking up I screw a couple of verses royally but I when did I NOT screw up a few verses? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Finger-snappers really really save the performance who I would thank later for. Just another example of an audience being responsible for at least the half of what makes a great performance. And for that, we as performers should never forget to be grateful for whoever listens to you, regardless of how many. Listening is the highest form of love, at least for musicians.
We head to Laura's place after the wrap-up, which is still in construction by Laura herself. I would end up eating mostly homemade stuff for the Swiss part of my trip, (partly due to cost concern; our pre-sound check meal at a nearby Thai joint was $50 for a plate of larb and beef noodle) to which this night is a merely but a delight introduction. Simple eatz like tortilla wraps with cheese, veggies and olives just jump at your senses because they're fresh, locally grown (which I don't think is rare in this part of the world, even in Japan. Might need a post dedicated to this later) and homemade; the best example is her bottle of Holderblutensirup made of Elderberry which you can mix with anything from liquor of your choice to simply water, making for smooth and refreshing beverages.
The conversation we would have is nothing but 3 creative minds exchanging ideas and knowledge, or rather me taking in what these two powerhouse ladies of theatre and art have to offer, ranging from Laura's fascination for Chinese culture (and her Kyrgyz rag that I would sleep on) to how the concept of "suburb" has and still is destroying America and beyond. The biggest gain, however, for me personally is this is the first day of this trip I felt I was back in my creative self, not the traveling spectator of unfamiliar landscapes and cultures. I have been taking in a lot of information and inspiration up till tonight, and this night I got to process them with the help of others. I decide to stay in Zurich for one more night, thanks to Laura's generosity. Needless to say I slept like a baby.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. Currently travelblogging at #beatvagabond and working on new material.