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.
Soundchaser/two-time Independent Music Awards finalist. Currently travelblogging at #beatvagabond and working on new material.