The Bread Knife

by Alison Turner

After two months in Switzerland my pants leave red marks around my waist and I can’t wear long underwear beneath them anymore.  So the cold walk to the train each morning is colder and more self-conscious in my unintentionally tight jeans and brown, fuzzy boots, fashionable six months earlier, all that I could afford.  After one right and one left I am the only chunky, discombobulated link in an otherwise efficient chain of commuters, ironed dress pants and rolling briefcases, high-heeled boots and long overcoats, mostly in black, all lean with good posture, all looking ahead of them, all hundreds of miles beyond me.

At the station these Swiss works of art align evenly along the platform, never shivering or yawning, confident to the minute of the train’s arrival: if, due to an extraordinary event, the wagon were more than two minutes late, the inconvenience would be announced in French, Swiss German, Italian, and English, followed by a sincere apology.  If there are seats they are offered quietly to the elderly, the pregnant, the women, and if there are not seats the businessmen stand neatly, a rod of hanging suits at the dry cleaners.  Standing or sitting, they all read Métro, folding and restacking the daily paper on the small tables before departing.  Windows reflect tight pony-tails, crossed legs, shined shoes, and one slouching, disheveled figure, squinting at Métro’s quotidian French vocabulary.

“Bienvenue à Genève, Willkommen in Genf, Benvenuti a Ginevra, Welcome to Geneva.”  The exit is offered to the elderly, the pregnant, the women, and all file out with continued quietness, now only a rustle of low conversation.  Ladies’ heels click precisely, steadily, like metronomes echoing through the underground hallways.  With a will as strong as their stride, Swiss women pass each bakery waiting around each corner, each glassed shelf displaying sugared beauties with foreign names and chocolate accents.  I tell myself to shuffle by also, to follow the clicking heels with my fuzzy boots, but then remember ten reasons to stop at the counter, perhaps just to see, to culturally immerse, to learn.  This breaks the procession, so that the rhythmic clicks stutter, cramp together, so that their makers tssk and het-hem, perhaps “pardon” accusingly, then reform, as I beg my pocket for money that I wasn’t going to allow myself, but money that is, of course, there.

Due to my train station pastry habit and the consequent depletion of each day’s stipend, I decided last month to take solitary walks during lunch in lieu of joining my classmates in cafés and city exploration.  Each morning our fleet of twelve Americans spends a claustrophobic session in one classroom learning about foreign relations, and personal political theories tend to spill over into lunch.  It is fine to discuss personal political theories, except that I am learning that I don’t have any good ones.  Then the pack, in a flush of blue jeans and t-shirts, loud laughter and honking accents, wanders about Geneva.  We wander into watch shops where every wall and countertop pulses precisely with clicks of slender metal needles, through cheese sections of superstores offering eight trays of samples, some smelly, some soft, all with forgettable names, into small chocolate shops where a bite-sized lump costs a tenth of your daily stipend of Swiss Francs and comes in cocoa percentages, 30% to 90%, so that we judge each other by how dark we prefer our chocolate.  I have learned to love my American gang and its curiosity, but I can’t help thinking I’m missing something that waits quietly beneath our noise.

So I’ve begun to make sandwiches, buying groceries on Sundays with scraps of leftover stipend.  Each morning I saw at a thick loaf of bread.  I am unfamiliar with the ins and outs of choosing a bread knife, having grown up on defrosted sliced loaves from a stockpiled freezer, and I always finish with two lop-sided chunks, some places thick and others thin as gauze, and a small sandstorm of crumbs.  Then I use the same knife for the brie, which folds in on itself into a scoop instead of a slice, which I spread, or plop, onto the molting bread.  Finally, I glob a thick mixture of sprouts,  hacked tomato, and hummus on to the bread lid before closing the creation and forcing it into a plastic bag.

And so it really is a sandwich that I’ve pulled from my purse while walking on the boardwalk by the river, not a melted casserole poured into a baggie like it appears to be.  I walk while eating from the bag, squishing it farther up with each bite.  I turn down a cobble-stoned alley in the old city, and I bite and catch a tomato, extracting the whole slice at once.  As a  significant gob of brie dripping with hummus and studded with sprouts follows the tomato unexpectedly, a man turns into the alley, turns almost into me, and we both jump back, he athletically and me like a shoved barrel of stout.

“Ah!” he nods politely, his deep and clean blue eyes exposed to the carnage stuck to my chin, his ironed dark suit contaminated by my bulging blue jeans and rumpled sweater, his shined shoes pitying my dirty, ridiculous boots.

He smiles, holding up a sandwich wrapped tightly in crisp paper, elegant and confined. “Bon appétit!” he says, walking on toward the end of the alley.

I stumble on a curb and a glob of sandwich suctions to my sweater.  I curse loudly, involuntarily, in English, wishing I had an American there to laugh at me.

*

Alison Turner grew up in Nederland, Colorado, a small town in the Rocky Mountains.  She earned a Bachelor’s of Arts in Comparative Literature and French from CU Boulder, a Master of Arts in Comparative Literature from the University of Alberta, and is a current MFA student at Bennington College. She has lived, worked or studied in Senegal, Switzerland, China, and Canada, and continues to travel and explore.  Her future plans include writing, adventuring, and writing about adventuring.

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