Time: approximately 9 p.m. on Sunday the 14th of September.
Location: third floor hallway leading towards the bathrooms.
I traced the hallway to its end, fully aware that this time of year – in this region of the house – is known for an influx in hostile forces. Time and training – and brutal personal experience – has taught me to look under the bathroom door frame before stepping through it, check the shower drain before climbing in, and shake the towel before using it. There is no telling when or where a spider may stage its attack. Constant vigilance is required to survive here.
This understood, the bathroom tends to be more of a danger zone than the water closet (a water closet is where Europeans keep the toilet because having a John and a sink in the same room makes no sense, whatsoever). It was in the direction of the W.C. that I was headed, so although I was wary, I was not prepared – mentally or emotionally – for what was about to cross my path.
I crossed the hearth of the small room. It feels like a bomb shelter with its low ceiling and narrow walls – except, of course, for the toilet at the end and the lace curtain in the window.
Sleep was already getting the better of me and the house was quiet.
And then. Then it happened.
The green gate, bedazzled with large drops of dew, creaked open and I shuffled into the back entrance of the school lot wrapped loosely in my obnoxiously yellow windbreaker, eating a cold pizza bun from the bakery by the bus stop.
“Ahoj holky!” I called to the teachers standing by the back door – “Hey girls!” Three of them were standing in the misty morning air for their smoke break. It was the week before school started so they don’t have to hide from the children behind the building.
They burst into welcoming ‘hello’s and bright smiles.
“Máš trochu snídani, Mary?” called one of the ladies – “Do you have a little breakfast?”
I giggled bashfully – eating and walking, a very unCzech habit, is something I haven’t been able to quit yet.
Nodding and grinning, I joined their circle and we caught up on each other’s summers briefly before heading inside together.
There. That’s it. That’s how my school year began.
All the stress of late August – all the worries about how hard this year would be, all the anxiety of going through what I went through last year – all washed away entirely, completely and without residue.
It literally took less than a minute to realize this was going to be a new year, a good year; but as the last few weeks have unfolded, I’m understanding more and more how wonderful this year could actually be.
My friend Philip is quite the cook and upon my last visit, the idea was suggested that we make jam. I have never made jam and only know (from that chapter in Little Women where Meg makes a huge mess and then cries) that it seems difficult. Naturally, I was excited by the challenge.
The jam we were making comes from špendlíky which means “pins” in English. I have never seen this fruit in the USA and have no idea what we’d actually call it. But they look like very small apricots or biggish cherries and are either yellow or red.
Let me preface this by reminding everyone that my ability to put things together in any effective capacity in the kitchen is on the limited side. Also, there was a very cute kitten in the kitchen while we were working on this project so… I may have gotten a little distracted.
Below are the steps of the recipe as I recall them:
- Prepare your space – Clear counters and wipe down tables so you have room to cut fruit, etc. Put on an apron, wash hands, etc.
- Cut and pit špendlíky – slice the fruit down the middle and twist the sides to reveal the pit (like twisting an Oreo to get to the cream filling). Drop the pit in one bowl and the meat of the špendlíky in the other. Wash your hands again because you pet the kitten and its hair is sticking to your juicy hands. Also wash the knife and anything that has come within close proximity of said kitten.
- Weigh and measure – place prepared fruit on the measuring thing that probably has a name (a scale? I don’t know, I really don’t). You will need roughly [this part is fuzzy because the kitten was chewing on a string and nothing else mattered at that moment] kilos of fruit to get [now the kitten is pouncing on it like a tiger] of jam.
- Pour ⅔ fruit into sauce pan – make sure to spill fruit everywhere possible to give the jam a nice “this has been on the floor” taste. Pet the kitten again.
- Stir on medium heat, add sugar – [Actually, take back that point about medium heat. Philip was managing the stove and although he probably said what to do…I remember none of it]. Pour SPECIAL, MAGIC, UNEXPLAINABLE SUGAR PACKET into fruit mixture that will help it gel. Heat. Stir. Pretend you’re cooking someone’s brains.
- When mixture has cooked down, add remaining fruit – there was a reason for doing this. I forgot what it was. You will too.
- Blend – With a blender thingy, puree the fruit/sugar mixture until it looks like soup. But it’s not just any soup. It’s got the SPECIAL, MAGIC, UNEXPLAINABLE SUGAR PACKET.
- Let simmer and prepare jars – use clean (or unclean – your call) jam jars, preferably with lids that fit. Test the jam mixture on a plate or an area of the counter that you don’t mind being irreparably stained. If the mixture gels when cool, it is ready to be put in your jars.
- Pour mixture into jars – be careful not to spill on the counter, the floor, the kitten or yourself.
- Squeeze on lids and flip – once the lids are securely fastened (dude, that part is important. SECURELY FASTENED), flip the jars upside down so that they will [something about compression and pressure and suction] as they cool.
11. Finish! – pat yourself on the back, go pet the kitten, drink some tea. Whatever makes you feel like a success in the kitchen. Because you are!