Sprawled out on the floor, school uniform still on, eyes captivated by the television. Scenes from Rick Steves, Samantha Brown, or nearly any program on The Travel Channel burned in my memory. A typical after-school routine in grade school that laid memories, all nestled up and waiting for the opportune moment to emerge.
Fast forward 15ish years. A small comment left somewhere on the Internet. One of those memories, yawns, stretches out, and stumbles out of its nest, jostling a few other memories in the process. The light bulb goes off in my head, making the connection between the episode I had watched so long ago and my current trip planning, as my little memory stands impatiently tapping its foot, annoyed with the relatively laborious process it took for me to realize this.
“Of course, I have seen this episode before,” I thought, as a vivid picture came into my head. It was shot from the right hand side, the host smiling and handing money through a tiny window with iron bars guarding the top. A few moments later, a very long, steaming hot strudel emerged. The host smiled, showed the strudel to the camera, and took a bite, leaving the viewer eager to see his reaction. Eyes closed, head nodding, the host confirms the deliciousness.
My memory had failed in keeping close the vital information of where that strudel window was located, but the rogue Internet comment filled the last piece of the puzzle. Of course. In Prague.
“Are you sure about this?”
I had dragged my friends through two trams switches, deep into the suburbs of Prague. It was obvious that we were no longer in the touristy section: stern and unsmiling Czechs stood rigidly, waiting for the tram. I noticed they all seemed to be looking with disapproval at my shoes. I looked down at nude-colored flats I was wearing, adorned with a bow, and without hesitation, decided they were fine. The Czechs would just have to deal with it.
We walked up the quiet and sad street, the grey and worn walls reflecting the precipitating sky above. There was no sign of a strudel shop, only many-storied residences with the wash hung out to dry.
I gave a little laugh, nervously. “Of course, guys, it’ll be just up here on the left.” I tried to sound more confident than I felt; my fingers were crossed.
We crossed the street and suddenly, there it was. If there were ever a hole-in-the-wall strudel shop, this was it. The image in front of me matched the image in my brain perfectly, like tracing paper over an image. The bars over the window, the tiny hole for your money, the scent of sweet and yeasty perfume permeating the air.
“So, I’m buying. What kind do you want?” I motioned the others to the menu, handwritten with white chalk on a blackboard. I knew they offered three varieties: poppyseed, quark (cheese), and apple. But the question was, which was which?
“jablečný” “tvarohový” “makový”
I decided “makový” was “poppyseed”, as it bore similarity to “mohne” the German word for poppyseed. As for the other two, I couldn’t deduce anything other than “jablečný” kind of looked like “apple.” And by the process of elimination, “tvarohový” became “quark.” I decided to take a gamble, as I would have enjoyed any of the flavors.
“What are you having?” I turned to the others inquisitively.
“Apple, please, but I don’t know if I can eat the whole thing.” Hastily, we assured her we’d gladly finish her portion for her.
“I guess I’ll take apple as well.”
Having already decided on poppyseed, I stalled a bit on ordering, as I had no idea how to pronounce them. My very limited Czech consisted of prosím (please), děkuji (thank you), promiňte (excuse me), and není zač (you’re welcome), none of which were helpful at the moment.
My knight in shining armor arrived not a moment too soon, to rescue me from certain embarrassment. He was close to my age, and had been waiting behind us, most likely shaking his head at the ensuing production. I gave a little wave of my hand to let him know he could go ahead, secretly smiling on the inside for my good fortune. I watched him order and saw the relatively simple process. I’d just have to bite the bullet.
I walked up to the window and rested my hands on the ledge. “Ahem, um, one makový and two jablečný.” I held up my fingers to indicate the number, burning with embarrassment at the fact that I could not say the numbers in Czech. The man behind the window said nothing, but reached for the strudel resting on sheet pans.
The inside of the shop was barley wide enough for the man to turn around in, between the counters that flanked either side of the shop. It was spotless inside, save for the dusting of flour and powdered sugar.
He pulled one strudel off the tray, and, with a quick flick of the wrist, spattered the top of the strudel like a Jason Pollock painting. A few origami folds and two deft twists of the brown wrapping paper later, he handed it to me with a gruff, “makový.” He repeated the process with the two remaining strudel and grunted what I could only imagine to be the price. I handed him 200 koruna, took the change, and attempted a děkuji (thank you).
Still hot, the wrapped strudel was as long as my forearm. We each took the strudel in our hands, cradling it like a child. My knight in shining armor, with a bite in his strudel, turned to us and said with a wink, “Of course you can eat a whole one!” He smiled and went on his way, leaving us with our own prizes. I laughed a bit in my head. “He knew English,” I thought. “We must have given him a good laugh, then.”
But the strudel was waiting.
We eagerly unwrapped the packages, revealing the crispy yet tender pastry. The first bite revealed an inside plump with poppyseed paste, and a slight taste of sweet almonds. I had guessed right. I looked to the others, hoping that I had struck gold twice. They shifted the ends of their strudels towards me: apple. I smiled, revealing poppyseeds that had wedged their way in between my teeth.
“Was this worth it or what?”