Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Big Cheese

I thought I had pictures of this vacation,
but the only ones I could find were of my
tussle with a wasp, which happened
shortly before our vacation. It's a good
thing I have Facebook to unearth
these treasures. Also, I'm allergic
to wasps.
I've often thought it would be cool to travel back in time and see if past events are as I remembered them. I know that interesting storytelling often requires elisions and exaggerations, and at least at the beginning, the mind's record can bear the truth in spite of these colorful tweaks. But over time, memory itself can morph, and the resulting picture of an event may not be the true one, but the legendary one that has been reinforced by years and years of using the same formulas to tell the story. How many of my family (and especially college) memories are merely legends?

One such moment I would love to revisit comes from the trip Abby and I took for our one-year anniversary to Frankenmuth, Michigan. It involves a trip to the Cheese Haus and the entitled patron we found therein...

I don't know if it's my German heritage or the fond memories I have of my family's annual visits when I was younger, but I love Frankenmuth, even though I fully recognize it is a tourist trap. The town is designed to filter travelers into one shop after another, and the warm, Germanic faces thinly mask the mercenary impulses below. Abby had never been to Frankenmuth, so for our anniversary, I planned all the usual, and some special, Frankenmuth stuff: a trip to the Bavarian Inn, a riverboat cruise around the town, an all-afternoon Bronner's fest, and of course visiting the local shops.

Let it be known: Abby and I love cheese. When we saw that there was a Cheese Haus, we knew where we were getting lunch.

The Cheese Haus is just what it sounds like: a storefront stocked with all manner of cheeses that you can imagine, and some you may not imagine. They had the more well-known cheeses like gouda and colby (both of which found their way into our souvenir sacks and stomachs) as well as cheeses for the more adventurous palate. (The chocolate cheese comes to mind.) We browsed through the store, exhausting the store's other merchandise before tackling the real reason we were there.

The Cheese Haus has a "try-before-you-buy" policy, and the employees let us know that they would open any cheese we wanted to sample. Our minds scanned the cheese varieties, greedily imagining the tasty morsels that would soon be ours--greedily imagining, that is, until our plans were derailed by the cheese lady. Please note that what I'm about to relate is probably greatly exaggerated through the years of my rehearsals with my wife. But this is how I remember what happened.

The woman whom we call "the cheese lady" was in her mid-forties and had a noticeably sour disposition, evidenced by her frowny face: imagine the Grinch, and then curl her frown south another few degrees; you'll get the picture. I imagine her with arms crossed, impatiently waiting to pass judgment on a product she already knows she hates. And then she said the line that Abby and I remember verbatim: "Chicken soup and pizza cheese. I wanna try 'em."

Abby and I just stood there, watching, stunned. We wanted to interject, "What's the magic word?" We wanted to tell her, "It's just cheese, lady." In short, we wanted to stop this rudeness train wreck from happening. But we could only gawk.

The dutiful Cheese Haus employee handed the cheese lady the requested samples, and we watched as she devoured them with no intent toward enjoyment. "Blech!" she said. What followed that is lost from the annals of the Schindler family vacation. We've filled in her next line for her, but I can't in good conscience relay these suggestions as anything other than apocryphal:

"Blech! That was awful!"

"Blech! Do people actually like this stuff?"

"Blech! I don't even like cheese!"

Whatever she said, it was rude, and even after she moved along--no doubt, to ruin other people's shopping experiences--the Cheese Haus employees were visibly shaken, and the damage was done. Thus, our plans of testing the merit of manifold cheeses were foiled. We meekly asked for two blocks of cheese, and after purchasing them, we left.

Of course, the Cheese Haus experience didn't end in the Cheese Haus. We talked about it over lunch. We talked about it over dinner. We talked about it when we were sitting down and when we were on the road. We inscribed it onto the doorposts of our hearts, and we still talk about it today. We add lines--"They'll let you try anything here!" We ape her sour faces. Whenever one of us says something that might receive the #firstworldproblems hashtag if it were said on Twitter, the other one might say, "I want to try 'em!" or another line relayed above. Which results in a fresh rehash of the story and is always concluded by, "She ruined our Cheese Haus experience!"

I don't relate this story because it's true--it's certainly not true in particulars (at least I hope not). I don't relate this story for catharsis. I relate this story because I think about it often, and not just about how our one shopping experience was less than we had hoped. I think about this story because it makes me consider how others perceive me. To whom am I "the cheese lady"? Whose life have I walked into, however briefly, and made such a negative impression that it's persisted for years? Or worse, who has known me better than a first meeting allows and still has that negative impression? I can think of numerous people to whom I am likely the cheese lady, and ruminating on this is not a pleasant experience.

The thing that is so striking about the cheese lady is that I know next to nothing about her. Is she normally a pleasant woman? Were there extenuating circumstances that day that turned her into the Entitled Patron? Does she have children? Was she buying the cheese for a special occasion? Had something else happened within the Cheese Haus to cause her to act this way? I simply don't know...and yet I have used this woman as a caricature for years.

Granted, I don't really think she's as terrible as I've made her out to be, and there really is no bitterness in the remembrance; the whole story has shifted into an exaggerated wrong that is intentionally silly. This is obviously a case of things being blown out of proportion, and the result is more of a parable or a sketch than even a memory. But it still makes me think differently about the "idiot" who cuts me off in traffic, or the kids who dart in front of my car, or the associate who turns in work late, or the waitress who keeps forgetting to refill my drink, or the friend who always cancels, or...the list goes on.

I don't remember where, but in one of his books, C.S. Lewis talks about judging, and essentially says that Christians are not to do it because we don't (and can never) have all the facts of the case. This is true in those who are close, like my wife or my close friends, and it is especially true in the cheese lady.


  1. I knew I was in a tourist trap, but I didn't care! Zehnder's was great fun, and how did you mention Frankenmuth with out Bronner's Chritmas Wonderland? I stopped in for the Snow Fest last year, freezing between hot chocolate sips as I toured each ice sculpture.

  2. Qtip, I did mention Bronner's. I had originally written the post and left Bronner's out, but I realized that I hadn't given a full picture of what Frankenmuth has to offer.