Thu 7 Oct 2010
Me (left) and my sister in Kamakura, Japan
Walking along the beach here a few months back, I spied hundreds of washed-up jellyfish on the shore and was immediately reminded of my childhood home of Japan. My sister and I spent the first five years of our lives in a beach town called Kamakura, and we used to spend hours scooping up jellyfish with our little plastic buckets. God knows why but we would cut them up with scissors (I know, horrible!) because we were fascinated by their soft texture. I think we just saw them as jelly, not live creatures of the sea. It was innocent, really, just like our life there.
Much like small-town Ireland, Kamakura was a place where you knew your neighbors and where it was perfectly safe to let your kids run around outside without having to check on them every two seconds. So safe was it that my sister and I used to take the train to preschool every day. Though we were all of four years old, we along with a couple of neighborhood school mates would walk down a little stone pathway to the train station. We wore school uniforms, including a hat that bore a colored button indicating which train we were to take. I remember our button was yellow. The station agent would look at the top of our hats, see the button color and put us on the corresponding train. Our teachers awaited us at the other end, and then walked us to our school. If we got lost on the way, various neighbors would put us back on the right path. They all knew our school, they all knew us and we could count on them to help us find our way.
This air of innocence didn’t completely disappear after we moved to Los Angeles, but it certainly lessened as we became aware of the sheer vastness of the city. Suddenly we didn’t know our neighbors anymore, and though we’d see them getting into their cars almost daily, there was never more than an obligatory wave from any of them. In Kamakura, my mom and dad had friends and socialized with our playmates’ parents; in Los Angeles, it was much harder to get to know people.
I recall an incident from when I was about 9 years old, when the parents of my classmate Cecilia invited us over for a barbeque at their house. We’d seen them at a school play and they came over, mentioned they’d love to have us at their house and said to come by “around 2 p.m. on Saturday.” That weekend my sister, parents and I got ready and walked several blocks to their house, homemade potato salad and a six-pack of soda in tow. Cecilia’s mom answered the door and looked utterly puzzled to see us there. She awkwardly explained that they didn’t really mean they were having a barbeque that day; it was just something they said to be nice. Over the years we’d learn that this type of bogus “Let’s do lunch sometime” invitation was very popular in Los Angeles.
Perhaps because of memories like these, I truly appreciate the close-knit communities of small-town Ireland. People here are genuinely friendly and faithfully watch out for one another. Young kids can walk to a playmate’s house and a good number of familiar eyes will be watching the little one along the way. There are few formal invitations to get together because it’s entirely acceptable to drop into someone’s house, and you can be sure they’ll always put the kettle on and bring out plate of biscuits for you. And I can’t imagine anyone using the phrase, let’s do lunch. Around here, an expression like that will get you little more than a roll of the eyes and maybe even a “Feck off!”
For a lot of small towns here in Ireland, time – at least as it pertains to innocence and virtue – has stood relatively still. Qualities like chivalry and respect for the elderly are still valued. Neighbors talk to each other. Pride for one’s community is still important. For this small-town girl turned big city dweller, it’s nice to be back in a place where this stuff still matters.
Coffee Jelly with Cream
In Japan, coffee is an incredibly popular flavor for desserts (even for kids!). My mom often made us coffee jelly (or jello) and served it with a sprinkling of sugar and cream; it was a favorite of me and my sister. You can top it with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream or just a drizzle of thick cream. Of course this jelly is also perfectly safe to play with, unlike jellyfish (what were we thinking?).
1 cup of cold water
3 ½ packets of gelatin powder
2 tablespoons sugar
Whipped cream and granulated for topping
Pour the cup of cold water into a large bowl, and then add the packets of gelatin. Let sit for one minute. Add the hot coffee and stir for about 5 minutes or until all the gelatin is dissolved. Add in the sugar and stir until that has dissolved. Pour into serving glasses or into a shallow plastic container (whichever you prefer) to set in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours. Top with whipped cream and a sprinkle of sugar.