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.
Love it! What an experience you had! I’m sure you will always remember that vividly. I too remember when I was taught how to properly make a pot of tea, with all the fixin’s!
It was an amazing experience, Helen, and introduced me to many things, including two of my favorite people. And I’m up for tea any day you are!
Thanks for taking me back to London, Liz…although I didn’t get the education in tea that you had, as I am still drinking my Irish Breakfast milky and a little sweet, and most every morning, too, regardless of the weather! 🙂 But now you’ve made me curious– what is the brand of greet tea you drink? And can you still snack on Hob Nobs with it?
Hey, my favorite supplier of Walker’s Shortbread! I think you received just as good an education, if I recall correctly. : ) I’m addicted to Jasmine Pearl Dragon, which sadly does not go with Hob Nobs. I suppose that’s just as well, since I can’t seem to find them around here.
Ahhh…now you’ve got me thinking shortbread and hot chocolate!
There’s nothing quite like tea in a teapot. I was most amused by the tea-making attempt in your story and can well imagine the abject horror on the face of the MP.
I’m not sure horror is strong enough, tearoom delights. He forgave me lots of things, but the tea in the microwave was a deal breaker. : )
Love this post – you paint a picture so well. I have seen your fabulous tea-making in person and can tell you Mr. X would be so proud that you carried his lesson across the pond and through time. 🙂
Thanks, Karen. I wish you were here to have some with me!
Liz..What a great reminder to take the time to enjoy a nice cup of tea! I lived in London for a while and the best part of my dreadful job in Harrod’s perfume hall was the mandatory 2 tea breaks a day! As you said, the English do take their tea seriously- something we should all do !
I loved the food hall at Harrod’s, although I can imagine the perfume hall would be overwhelming! I raise my cup to you…
Is your favorite green tea anything like the China Tips sold by Starbucks? We don’t have much for tea stores here, so my experience is limited.
My second-cousin taught me a lot about the importance of ritual and beverages when I was young. Without him I wouldn’t ever have made cocoa from scratch, tried Lapsang Soochung.
I don’t know about the China Tips, Jan — I’ll try them the next time I’m at Starbucks. (I do like Lapsang, although my husband thinks it tastes like smoke.) And any cousin who helps you make cocoa is a keeper.