“The only relationship that can make both partners happy is one in which sentimentality has no place and neither partner makes any claim on the life and freedom of the other.”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being
There’s a rule I vaguely remember from Tomas in Mila Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, something about sleeping with a woman once and then not contacting her for three weeks, or sleeping with her for three nights in a row and then never speaking to her again. I think the same kind of limits should apply to patronizing Taiwanese breakfast shops.
The first morning we woke up in our new apartment, J and I were eager to explore our new neighborhood. We walked down the main road and found that it was already bustling with people selling breakfast from tiny food trucks (much smaller and more basic operations than the ones that come to mind if you’re from the US) and breakfast shops. We stopped inside the first one that looked friendly and ordered J his first Taiwanese breakfast–a white-bread sandwich with some fried, uncured bacon and limp vegetables, and a cup of coffee. I had warned him that the coffee would be terrible because Taiwanese breakfast shop coffee is usually almost poisonous, it’s so bad, but this place had a nice espresso machine and the owner brewed us a cup, then added cream and sugar just how we like it.
J liked it so much he wanted to go back the next day and try some of the other items on the menu. We met the husband of the couple who owned the shop and found out he could not only speak amazing English, but also loved American basketball and baseball. J quickly made a new friend and wanted to go back every day to have a sandwich and talk sports with him.
I warned J–and so did my friends who have been here for a long time–that frequenting the same breakfast shop/coffee shop/fruit vendor/dumpling stall every day can build up a lot of expectations that he might not be ready to meet. I told him about my old Hess co-worker who went to one breakfast shop every day for a year before she finally was bold enough to walk a little further down the street and try out a new place. “It was just like when you break up with someone and then you see them out in public,” she said. “At first, it’s really awkward, and you ignore each other, but eventually you get used to it, and maybe you even say hi when you walk past. It takes a long time, though.”
Our friend Chuck told us that he returned to a favorite spot after six months of going somewhere else for breakfast, and felt so guilty when the owners asked him where he had been that he lied and said his grandmother had died and he had to go back to Canada for a while.
J didn’t believe us (or he is more cold and heartless than I realized, and I don’t believe that), so he wanted to go back to the shop every day for weeks. We tried every kind of sandwich on the menu, always with a cup of coffee. J told the owner, Richard, about our excursions around the island and Richard gave us a brand-new map. We played peek-a-boo with the little nephew who ran all over the place, made ourselves familiar to Michael, the little Schipperke-type who ferociously guarded his favorite seat, and helped the college-bound daughter with some of her English homework. Richard made up platters with hotdogs, bits of iceberg lettuce, cucumbers sliced at beguiling angles, and little whorls drawn in ketchup.
But slowly, as we settled into our routines, our schedules changed. No longer feeling the effects of jetlag, we started sleeping in past breakfast. At the same time, I wanted healthier options, preferably meatless, but Richard’s shop only offered limp lettuce on white bread under the guise of a “fresh vegetable sandwich.” I found a vegetarian breakfast shop after that and for a few weeks, that was my favorite spot. J went back to skipping breakfast like he’d always done back home. I insisted we still go when we could to keep up our relationship with the friendly family. The last time we went, Richard gave us his phone number and told us to call him if we wanted to join him and his wife on a trip to see the temple in Sanxia.
The last time we ate at Richard’s shop was just before Christmas, but we still pass it every day. Sometimes I see his wife at the grill, frying up meats and eggs. I want to go back and thank them for all the kindness they showed us, and order some coffee and even eat a soggy fried-egg sandwich, but I feel like walking back into their lives would just stir up some kind of resentment and they’d never be able to like and trust us again. And that is why you don’t go to the same fucking breakfast shop every day.