The clouds are low and grey on this Saturday morning, not a single ray of sun can fight its way through the thick blanket of fog hanging over the city. Though a little late, Marie-Louise drives her unpretentious little car calmly towards Zurich West. The car seems to reflect her personality, you notice that it is lived in and that its owner travels a lot. Various clothes are scattered in the backseat and on the passenger seat sit groceries from the night before, when Marie – as her friends call her – was catering for Icelandic singer Emiliana Torrini who had made a stopover in Zurich on her European tour. It was Marie‘s Chinese mother who introduced Marie to the world of cooking and now Marie‘s skills not only charm her friends: Emiliana and her crew assured in an email that they had never tasted nor seen «such a lovely catering» before. Marie had only covered for a friend that night, who now has to double her efforts to reach the high standards Marie has set with her catering. It is important to Marie to satisfy the special requests of her guests and clients, no matter what. Everything is labelled carefully by hand: No tomatoes, no salt, vegan – you name it. Whatever her guests ask for is granted and artfully arranged: «Food should be a feast for the eyes, too.»
Marie works as a dance instructor at «Tanzwerk 101», located in the urban neighbourhood of Zurich West. Before the classes start, she heads to the next supermarket to buy an isotonic drink and then strolls quickly through the outlet department. Sometimes there are real bargains to be found: «If you‘re throwing a big dinner party for friends, it absolutely pays to shop here.» Back at the dance room, her students are already waiting as is a friend of hers, who will help out today. Marie has hurt her back last weekend while taking part in an intense burlesque dance workshop, so she needs a little support.
«Originally, I wanted to be an opera singer,» she grins, «that‘s not a job everyone goes for!» But then she started out her dancing career at a very early age, taking classes of jazz ballet. Soon it was clear to her that one day she would make dancing her profession. Nowadays she mainly teaches Burlesque, Jazz and Hip Hop. The beats are blasting out and her pupils move along. «I‘ve always loved putting together choreographies for groups, it‘s what I thrive on.» You can see that clearly: In spite of her bruised back she is standing in front of her class, giving the beat and counting aloud: «one, two, three, four, five, six, seven eight». One of the dancers keeps confusing her light and her left foot. Marie recommends rolling up one trouser leg, so she remembers which foot to use. And indeed, the next steps are danced flawlessly! «Now there‘s a new technique, the trouser leg technique!», she says, visibly amused by her own success.
Taking advantage of the time slot between two dance lessons, she goes shopping for the dinner party she will host tonight. Her car takes her to the slaughterhouse at the Letzigrund Stadium, where she‘ll get the meat. «I prefer to buy meat directly from the butchery, so I actually know where it comes from.» Now if the meat is bought at the slaughterhouse, it is obvious that the other ingredients are not just purchased at the next supermarket. «My mother taught me where to get the best ingredients and bargains. You always have to strike a balance between price and quality,» she explains and drives on to the Asia Market, located in District number 4. Parking her car she waves at one of the delivery men – people know each other in this neighbourhood. Armed with several shopping bags she enters the shop and dives into a entirely different world, a few thousand miles east of Switzerland. Close your eyes and listen to the buzz of voices and languages and breathe in all the exotic scents – you could be standing in the middle of a street market in Bangkok, for all you can tell.
«My father was a marketer and took part in establishing Asia Markets in Switzerland,» she mentions casually. Here and there she shakes hands, has a short chat and all the while keeps stacking products with Asian characters on them into her shopping cart. It fills up quickly and is full to the brim after she‘s made her way through the vegetable department. The choice of veggies and fruits is overwhelming – some of them have never been seen nor heard of, let alone tasted, by the average Swiss person. On her way to the checkout, she comes across fresh Vietnamese spring rolls and a rice noodle salad she can‘t resist. «That‘s for lunch! Yummy! I love all the fresh stuff you can get here and never walk out of the store without treating myself to one or two titbits.» Lastly, she grabs some imported beers and off she goes to the checkout counter: «They‘re not for me, I don‘t drink, but I know my guests love them.»
Her time frame is not completely spent yet, she doesn‘t have to go back to the classroom until the afternoon, so further housekeeping tasks are on the agenda. «Saturday is my washing day, it‘s the only day I can make time for it,» she says while driving her crammed car back to her home in Uster. «Sometimes I do wonder what would have become of me if I hadn‘t ended up in Switzerland.» Marie is the eldest of eight siblings, her mother is Chinese and her father originally from Cambodia. During the Cambodian Civil War in the 1970s they had to flee the Red Khmer: «You just hoped for a place in a plane, any plane. You didn‘t care where it went, as long as it went away.» The plane her parents had chosen was destined for Switzerland, her mother pregnant with Marie at that time. «If the plane‘s destination had been the US, I might be a pop star over there by now,» she says with a grin. Leaving Switzerland is out of question though, she was born and raised here and it‘s where she belongs. And not only where she ended up living was as luck would have it – also Marie becoming a dance instructor is partly owed to chance.
After training as an IT staff, she didn‘t get a job straight away, when she came across a job ad for a substitution as a dance instructor. She applied on the spur of the moment and without putting too much hope into it. Surprisingly, she was invited for an audition. «There were six of us and each and everyone of them had gone through proper dance education in the States, in London and what have you – except for me!» she recounts. However, with her experience in dancing, her charms and the teaching skills she proved to have she managed to get the job. Pupils were always happy with her teaching and so: «I did a bit of teaching here and a bit of teaching there, until at some point I was offered a permanent position.» Nowadays, she‘s able to make a living of teaching and has successfully turned her passion into a career.
One last stop before she finally gets home: «Let‘s just pass by the Turkish shop, he‘s got the most amazing veggies ever!» she raves. When she comes out of the shop, you can barely spot here between all the vegetables she carries back to the car. They cover every imaginable shade of green and we can‘t wait to see them in the cooking pot. She parks her car just outside the settlement where she lives and has to go back and forth twice until all the shopping is brought to her apartment. The balconies are currently being remodeled and the building resembles a construction site. One of the neighbours comes up to her and inquires whether she‘s already signed the petition for a rent reduction. «If we all stick together the house management will be pressured to take action – and as tenants, we‘re in the right anyway.» After a little chat with the neighbour, Marie retires to her apartment.
As soon as we get in, it becomes clear that the kitchen is the centerpiece of her flat. It‘s not one of these tidied up, spotless kitchens where you get the feeling that no one‘s ever cooked in them. In fact, it‘s the complete opposite: If you‘ve ever entered this kitchen, you‘ll have a hard time leaving it. It‘s cosy and comfortable, little tins filled with goodies stand on the shelves. Marie takes a seat at the living room table, gives herself a little break and indulges in her lunch, previously bought at the Asian Market. Meanwhile she talks about her dedication to Insieme, an association supporting facilities offering educaction, counselling and leisure facilities for people with mental disabilities. Insieme also campaigns for people with mental disabilities. Marie herself has been teaching mentally handicapped persons for more than three years now: «I love to work with them. It proves that anyone can dance, no matter what. Dancing frees you and sparks emotions.»
After lunch, she is off to the kitchen again. She starts unpacking and then preparing the vegetables. It‘s going to be Sukiyaki for dinner. «I‘m not sticking to a classic recipe, it will rather be ‚Sukiyaki à la Marie‘.» Among other pieces of meat, she‘s bought bones at the slaughterhouse, which she is using now to prepare the broth. Vegetables in all colours disappear together with the bones in two huge pots and are then let to simmer for several hours. «One of the pots we‘ll eat tonight, the other one I‘ll be using tomorrow.» After all preparations in the kitchen are made, she goes to see about the washing. When it comes to housekeeping, she tries to complete as many tasks as possible simultaneously. I‘m impressed by her human multitasking. It took her barely an hour to clean her apartment, do her washing and preparing the broth for dinner. And a broth, for that matter, that is so overwhelming in its smell and so intense in taste it reminds you of just how good a homemade broth can be and how awful stock cubes are.
Having prepared everything for her guests and the big dinner night, she packs her bag again and drives back to her dancing classes. Next item on the agenda is Burlesque. The class is well attended, with the ladies wearing high heels and sliding gracefully across the dance floor. When hearing Burlesque, many of us may spontaneously think of Dita von Teese, tight clothing and erotic dancing. Marie knows better than that, she has been part of the Burlesque scene in Switzerland since the early days. «Burlesque is a dancing style that enhances your feminine side and if you‘re short like me, wearing high heels is never wrong.» Marie is a rather small lady and not the skinniest person on earth, but you don‘t have to be a prima ballerina wearing size zero in order to be a professional dancer. «As long as I can dance, I feel good in my skin. That‘s the message and the feeling I want to get across.»
All the while, her students take off coats and gloves with a coquettish look and the music rumbling from the speakers takes us back to the Roaring Twenties. When the class is finished, Marie natters with some of the students and they wish her a speedy recovery, as they know she hurt her back in a Burlesque dance workshop. Marie packs up, turns off the stereo and the lights and walks out of the dance hall onto the street, where night has fallen. Days are short in November.
Marie‘s sister will be joining the dinner party spontaneously, she can‘t resist the temptation of Sukiyaki à la Marie. Sukiyaki is served similar to Fondue: The pot with the broth is placed on a burner that stands in the middle of the table. She has to fetch the whole equipment at her mother‘s place though, thus slightly altering her time management. She starts worrying about arriving after her guests and letting them wait in the cold outside her door. But everything goes well and she arrives just about at the same time as her guests, promptly sets the table and says with a little smile: «My guests always have to sit on the floor, I think it‘s more sociable plus there is the advantage of never lacking any chairs. At the end of the day, you never know how many people will turn up.» By and by the visitors arrive and gather around the richly set table. It is only now that Marie realises that she‘s got the wrong gas can for the burner, so two of her friends set off to buy one at the next petrol station shop. They return empty-handed and Marie starts dreading that the Sukiyaki will fall through. But thanks to another friend, who actually manages to transfer the gas from one container to a fitting one, nothing stands in the way of a delicious dinner. Except for a picture: «Here my Asian side really starts to show. I just love taking food pictures!» But finally everyone can start eating, dipping chunks of vegetables, fish or meat into the broth, letting them boil and relishing them with rice noodles. Homemade chutneys, soya and chili sauces are handed with the food to perfect the Sukiyaki à la Marie. Late into the evening the happy group of friends natters and laughs, stories are shared and old films are watched. It is past midnight when Marie sees off the last of her friends. It‘s bedtime now – for even a bundle of energy like Marie needs to recharge her batteries every once in a while.
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