Enjoying the pleasures of international company

From the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Thanks to a CIVIC program, my wife Mary and I recently hosted two female students from Japan for a weekend “home stay” during their university’s educational exchange visit at the University of Iowa. Mina and Mayu arrived at our house each with a suitcase nearly bigger than herself, along with smiles, curiosity, laughter and wonderment that filled our home like birdsong throughout their stay.

Mary put her “I live to cook” ethic on display. Friday evening was an homage to American tradition with a welcome dinner of turkey, stuffing, garlic mashed potatoes and all the fixings. Saturday dinner featured a fusion menu: whole mackerels baked in one of Mary’s spicy secret sauce mixes; an overflowing platter of tempura shrimp garnished with an assortment of sauces and a home-made wasabi dip; sweet ripe plantains fried in onions, ginger, hot pepper, garlic and clove; lightly steamed cauliflower and broccoli; a simple, light and fluffy jasmine rice; and a large green salad. (Do I need to mention the avocados in the salad, since they were also green?)

Saturday breakfast was my responsibility: British milk tea, toast, a Spanish omelette, fresh strawberries and bananas. Then we took them on a few hours’ tour of American life (as experienced in the Brody household). We started at Aldi’s, where our guests were struck by the remarkable speed and efficiency of the checkers, and took photographs of Aldi’s prices that were so low that their friends back in Japan would have to either laugh or cry over them.

Next stop was the Great Wall Chinese Grocery. I have no idea what half the products there contain. Mina and Mayu enjoyed being able to translate the Chinese characters on product labels into Japanese, and then to consult the Japan-English lexicon in their telephones to translate those names into English for us. Mary’s mission at the Great Wall was to buy canned mango (which would become part of the secret sauce for the mackerel that night), and two pounds of jumbo shrimp.

At the nearby Waterfront Hy-Vee, we picked up some whole-wheat artisan bread, bunches of cilantro and parsley and mango chutney (another secret). We introduced our guests to the manager and secured his permission to take pictures. The girls photographed things like a green pepper in the produce department. “Everything in America is big!” Mina said. And she’s right!

A young Japanese-American man was on assignment in the store demonstrating a newly-installed machine that produced (with a resounding popping sound) some kind of corn-based crackers. Our guests had their pictures taken with him before we wandered on to admire cakes decorated with superheroes, Disney themes and even “Hello Kitty.”

Saturday afternoon while Mary cooked, I hiked with the girls to the nearby Iowa River, north along its banks to the Coralville Dam, and then to the nearby fossil gorge.

After dinner, while I washed dishes, I listened to Mary sharing with the girls her picture albums (and her homespun philosophy) gathered from sojourns around the world.

Sunday morning we drove over farm roads to Muscatine to admire the mighty Mississippi that every schoolchild everywhere in the world reads about (and loves to try to pronounce). Coming back we detoured to West Liberty to see the turkey factory, then came home to serve up a “last chance” mid-afternoon dinner made up of all the selections from the Friday and Saturday evening meals.

Those “Mary meals” whisper seductively, It will be a long time before you taste something this good again, if ever.

Mina and Mayu each went away from their week-end with us carrying an extra couple of pounds, and I don’t mean in their suitcases.

They left behind lovely thank-you notes, and the warm afterglow of all the wonder and happiness they brought into our home during the 48 hours they spent with us.

Writers Group member Alan Brody recently joined the Board of the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities (CIVIC).

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