How Strawberries Make Life Difficult

It’s a beautiful day, and although I find it hard to tear myself from the intriguing claws of the internet, I’m always appreciative once I get outside and start riding my bike around. I think it’s the shoes. I often get the urge to take an afternoon constitutional around school grounds, but doing so means a stop at my shoe locker and a flashback to grade school where certain parts of the floor were made of lava.
As is joked about, you really do need to change your shoes in Japan when you go indoors. So there’s a part of the floor designated for walking with your indoor shoes and a part for outside shoes, and in between is a purgatory of sock-walking while you ferry your shoes to and from a locker. For a normal human, this probably isn’t an ordeal, but I’m far from normal.
First off, I’m like 8 feet tall. Okay, 5’7″, but in Japan, no one’s counting. I’m enormous. On days when I wear a suit to school, I just can’t pull off the Jerry Seinfeld look that so many people go with and wear a black suit with sneakers. I just can’t. So I wear my only dress shoes, which unfortunately have 3-inch heels. Luckily for no one, my shoe locker is on the very bottom row, so every time I change my shoes, I look like Godzilla bending over to awkwardly extract tiny footwear from a ground-floor apartment.
That was a long tangent, but I really hate changing my shoes. Anyway, so I talk myself into leaving school grounds for lunch. Yes, an egg-salad sandwich at 7-11 again. They’re cheap and filling. It’s such a nice day that I want to sit outside, but I don’t know where to go. If I were younger, I might just plop down next to 7-11 or on a curb somewhere, but frankly, I get enough awkward stares just by being myself, even if I’m doing 100% the right thing. People don’t eat on curbs in Japan. Not even the homeless.
I decide to explore a few-block radius, which, in Japanese, is pronounced “getting lost.” I keep my bearings pretty well, but I don’t see anything promising. I find one playground with a bench, but there are a half dozen mothers having a picnic with their small children there, and I don’t want to impose. Or, you know, frighten them away. We don’t need to re-enact any scenes from “Little Children,” if anyone but me actually saw that movie.
I pass a little French bakery, and I’m about to keep going until I spot a little table out front. It’s one of those black gardeny tables located in something of a gardeny garden, where you can’t really tell if it’s a table or just decoration. I decide to press my luck. If I buy a dessert there, maybe I won’t feel guilty about eating my whole lunch at the table.
I walk in and order a strawberry cake (not to be confused with Strawberry Pie). When we were in Kansai, Kevin pointed out how weird it was that everyone in the big cities assumes we’re on vacation, and scrambles to find English menus or wrings their hands with shame, looking left and right for someone to help them talk to us. This made us feel bad, for the most part, because we COULD understand a little, and the effort spent looking for a translator was usually wasted. Yeah, we know you’re here at the table to take our order. We know you’re telling us the price of the hotel room. Don’t sweat it. Combine that with the fact that we’re pretty good guessers, especially building on Kevin’s Kanji abilities, Gabe’s Japanese, and Jamie’s…rhythmic grunting.
But here in my countryside town, they must assume I live here, and they just shout rapidfire Japanese at me. I point at a cake and say “strawberry” and “please.” How many questions could there be? A lot. I assume they’re asking about a box. I gesture that it’s for me, and I get the feeling that’s unheard of, as this seems to be a store primarily for getting treats for others. She begins wrapping the cake in a box with a special notch that prevents it from sliding. She asks another question. Lady, I got nothing. I’m gonna eat it 10 feet away from you in about 30 seconds. What do you want from me? Ooh, maybe she’s asking “for here” or “to go”! I answer in Japanese, “Is it okay to eat over there?” pointing to the gardeny table outside. She nods like she understands, but who can be sure?
She tapes a piece of wrapping paper to the top. She ties the box with a fancy cloth ribbon. I really start to feel bad. Maybe I should just pretend that it’s a present for some king somewhere and bike off with it, so they don’t see me ruin their craftsmanship.
I pay the lady and thank her, wishing the shades were drawn, so I could eat out the front window without their prying eyes. Sheesh, all I wanted was a table to eat my damn egg sandwich and some Pringles. Now I have a prized cake wrapped in a work of art.
I take a seat at the maybe-just-decorative table and try to eclipse my lunch from the staff inside. I enjoy the beautiful day, eating, while reading my book. I smile at people as they pass, and they stare back at me, possibly because I’m a foreigner, possibly because no one actually eats here, as it’s a cake gift shop for others, very possibly because I’m sitting at a decorative garden feature, pretending it’s a real table.
I come to dessert, and I carefully unwrap my cake, as if to let the staff inside know what I appreciate their hard work so much, I will save the fancy wrapping for some other date.
Then I see what they must have been asking me over and over. Hidden in the cake-slide-prevention notch, there’s a hard mass of something wrapped in a tissue. I take it out of the box, and it’s frickin’ dry ice! Now I really feel like a moron. I wasted their ice on a cake pilgrimage a whole 10 feet away. That stuff’s valuable in the states. I sheepishly hork down the cake. It’s delicious. And very cold.
Biking off, I’m ultimately happy I had this little adventure. I always am, which I guess is what fuels me to keep getting into moronic situations like this instead of sitting in the corner of my house, shaking, sucking my thumb, and eating reheated pizzas for every meal. But who knew life was such a production?
The story doesn’t end there, though. I stop by the grocery store to pick up ingredients for my new favorite dinner I have named Mini Mexican Sloppy Joes, which is actually just hamburger meat and salsa on dinner rolls. I grab some strawberries for dessert (are we seeing a fruit theme starting to emerge in my food-based demise?), and I head to the front to pay.
The woman says something to me that I don’t understand, and it’s new. I usually just pay, hand them my point card, and get out. I remember having been given dry ice before to keep my popcicles cold, and with the day’s events, I immediately assume she’s trying to protect the integrity of my berries.
I confidently decline, and she looks at me as if I shouldn’t be. I hear her say something to the effect of, “Not even one? It’s only 2 yen.” Even though that’s cheap for free refrigeration, I really live right around the corner. She shrugs and gives me a strange look as she hands me the receipt.
I get to the bagging area and realize…she didn’t give me a bag. In an apparent attempt to save the environment, they’ve begun to charge for plastic bags, and I now have a basket of groceries and nothing to bring them home in. I grab a few complimentary produce bags, and then a few more, and I end up walking to my bike clutching each of my items wrapped individually.
So much for my guessing abilities.

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