A few weeks ago I was watching an episode of Downton Abbey. It was the scene where Lady Mary breaks it to Matthew that he’ll never walk again, and probably never sire children, either. And then, at the conclusion of this cheerful conversation, she asks brightly “Would you like some tea? I would!” and trots off to make a cup. I couldn’t help but laugh.
My junior year of college, I was lucky enough to spend a semester in England (thanks, Mom and Dad!!) taking classes and working for a member of Parliament. My MP was of the party that was in power, which meant he had a gorgeous office in Parliament, and I got to do exciting things like research the effect of wind turbines on livestock and examine why soccer hooliganism was an increasing problem. (As opposed to one of my dear friends who I met on that trip, whose MP was not in power, who had a cubicle of an office and got to spend her time filing.) I was young and American and probably a large pain in the ass, but Mr. X bore it all graciously. He overlooked my inability to distinguish between Manchester United and Liverpool, my mispronunciation of the River Thames (coming from New London, I always said the A) and my constant snacking on Hob Nobs.
And then one day when we were working late he asked me to make him a cup of tea. I of course being a good American girl hopped up, found a clean cup, heated some water in the microwave, and then started rustling through the cabinets, trying to find a bag. I still to this day remember how he stopped what he was doing when I put the cup of hot water on his desk.
“What,” he asked, all British restraint clearly gone, “is this?”
“Well,” I said, “I’m still looking for the tea bag.”
This, as you can imagine, did not go over well. And while I can’t remember what paper he was trying to finish, I do recollect quite clearly that the next morning we had a lesson in Tea. It was a long lesson, and involved ideas that were foreign to me, such as the proper temperature of the pot, the use of a tea cozy, and the benefits of savory versus sweet biscuits.
Tea, thanks to Mr. X, became an ongoing part of my education. I sampled clotted cream in Cornwall, tried English Breakfast at a tea house near Windsor Castle, and had tiny sandwiches and cups of Earl Gray in china cups, brought by pages inside the lunch room for Parliamentary members, overlooking the River Thames. (I pronounce it correctly now.)
When I came back home, I kept in touch with the friend whose MP was not in power. We met a few times a year, and always tried to visit at least one tea house where we tucked into sandwiches, scones, and yes, tea.
One day, she suggested we meet at a restaurant that specialized in Japanese tea for a change. I was reluctant — no clotted cream? no scones with lemon curd? — but my friend, who has been to Japan, persevered, and gradually my tastes evolved. I still love a milky cup of English Breakfast and sugar on morning when it’s cold and raw out, but most days I take my green tea straight.
The stuff my friend got me hooked on is expensive enough to qualify as a present, not a foodstuff, and I’m always grateful that my husband keeps me supplied at Christmas and birthdays. But what I don’t always remember to appreciate is the experience. Whether English or otherwise, the tea isn’t the only point. It’s the ritual, the warming of the pot, the waiting for the water to heat, the leaves to unfold — that creates a space in time, that slows down the day a bit and allows you to gather your thoughts and your strength, if necessary, for what is coming.
Before my kids were born, I collected all kinds of tea paraphernalia — fancy clay teapots, antique English tea strainers, speciality cups. These days I tend to just grab the nearest mug and go. But today, and tomorrow, and for as many days as I can remember, I’m going to take the time to warm the pot, and use the time while I’m waiting just to breathe. I hope you do the same.