“Tea is not just a beverage; it is a way of leaving your life.”
This was written by a friend of mine during a tea drinking project we both participated in, and it stayed with me. I found it to be so profound, and yet so simple because tea is many things, not just to me but to many, many people.
The entire British culture revolves around tea. I’ve even heard that there is a power surge at tea time as everyone fires up their electric kettles.
Two years ago, I was visiting a friend who comes from Wales, and every time he asked me if I wanted a cup of tea I always said yes. Not because I was thirsty, mind you, but because tea is life. Sometimes, he didn’t ask. I’d roll over in the bed and find a steaming cup, perfectly brewed with just the right amount of milk and sugar already added, waiting for me on the bedside table.
I didn’t know I wanted it until it was right there in front of me.
As it is known to tea drinkers around the world: tea cures all ills, and if it doesn’t, drink more tea.
While on this visit, two things happened that cemented the idea that tea and tea preparation and tea drinking is innate in the British soul. Both occurred while my friend was sleeping. Ed, my friend went to bed before several of the rest of us. It was a long day and he was tired. We stayed up talking. After a few minutes of quiet discussion, we heard a familiar sound coming from the kitchen. Before retiring, Ed had put the kettle on. We called out to him, asking him about it and he came bounding out of the bedroom, pajama clad and began setting out the cups and the milk and asking who wanted a cuppa.
Of course, we said yes. I mean he’d gotten out of bed from a dead sleep for this.
The second time Ed had again gone to bed. Three of us were still sitting in the living room talking when one friend offered to make us tea. He put the kettle on and we went back to talking. The whistle blew and as we were in the middle of a thought we ignored it, just for a moment. Ed came out of his room, went straight into the kitchen without saying a word and began to prepare the tea. We asked what he was doing, and he told us – preparing the tea. We asked if he realized that he hadn’t actually put the kettle on, that we had, and his reply was, “well, I’m here now, who wants a cuppa?”
He is the quintessential Brit, but not proper, not stuffy, long haired and bearded, hard drinking and foul mouthed but it somehow sounds like poetry with the accent and of course, he is also Tea Connoisseur Extraordinaire.
His tea of choice is PG Tips. Proper British tea to make a proper cup of tea. Milk on the bottom. It didn’t even matter what kind of milk. At this time, the household was on a Vegan diet, so it was soy milk, but I’ve had almond milk, low-fat milk, full fat milk, real cream, but milk on the bottom.
For me, tea is many things. It is utilitarian. I don’t drink coffee, so for many mornings it is my get up and go ritual. Black, green, white, oolong sometimes with citrus or ginger or nothing at all except always the milk and sugar. My rituals for morning tea are always the same and I have no idea where they came from. Tea bag (or strainer) in the cup, boiled water poured over it, let it sit while I make the rest of my breakfast, then milk to the top and two small spoons of sugar. I take a sip, take two steps to leave the kitchen, but don’t actually leave, then two more sips, and then I am free to go as if the bindings holding me in place have been magically released. I don’t know why I do this, but I have always done it since we moved into the house.
Cold hands wrapped around a paper cup with a paper sleeve and tea is warmth filling every sense as it travels from my fingertips up along my arms filling the rest of my body with comfort. The Tazo Awake at Starbucks, a black caffeinated variety with a pump of cinnamon and a pump of toffee nut added usually fits this to a tee. (Pun absolutely intended.)
Often, teas are soothing. Chamomile and green tea with jasmine are two that I find very soothing. When all else fails, have a cup of tea, and I really believe it is the slowing down to sip the heat, the steam roiling into your face that has an almost hypnotic effect on a person. The pause in the moment of stress or tension as each sip lets you see more clearly the problem. It doesn’t always solve the problem or relieve the anxiety, but it does give you a moment or two to breathe and line things up into perspective. Once that happens, I can take another sip and plan out what the possibilities are.
And with tea, there are so many possibilities. Even taking the tea leaves out, you are left with other drinks – tisanes. I still call them teas, as many people do, but I’m learning the intricacies of tea history and tea lore. These tisanes are herbals and blended fruits with spices or simply just the spices steeped.
My best friend always sends me tea. He finds teas and he shares them with me, and I do the same with him. He has hundreds of varieties of teas and he knows me so well, there is none that he’s sent that I do not at least tolerate, but often I enjoy them immensely and list my favorites and requests for More, Please.
When I try these teas, I read their names that he’s so carefully written on the Ziploc bag. I imagine the culture, the different geography, the different way of taking tea, and I enjoy it all the more for the new knowledge that comes simply from a name on a bag. Lady Londonderry and French blend; Moroccan Mint and Russian Carravan; Mexican Chocolate, literally the only one I’ve found for him that got an ooh, likey very much reaction.
Last year, he sent me five teas. This is the project I mentioned earlier. In 2011, our friend was murdered (and he was injured, but that’s a different part of a different story). She was washing the kettle out for tea. In recent months they had attended a tea tasting in San Francisco’s Chinatown and they had placed a large order for different varieties from a tea shop. After her murder, there was that horrible period of shock and denial and sadness and now what and how do we go on and should we ignore the fact that we had a friend or do we think of her every day and cry every day for the rest of ever.
About a year later, around the time of the first anniversary of her murder, he ordered the teas she never got and, he asked people if they wanted to share some of her favorite teas. He would send us the tea, just enough for one cup of five varieties and the only request he had was that we sit and drink, think and journal. Nothing else. No television, no homework, no kids running around; just drink the tea and then to please write about it. Whether it was about our friend or the taste of the tea or whatever came to mind as we sipped Brittany’s favorite teas. Drink tea and write.
This is what I do.
Each cup of her tea brought me closer to Brittany in a way that was missing in our lives together. She and I had our differences in life and we had just come out of that to find a new place, to start on a new path together and then in the blink of an eye our second chance was over. How can life work that way?
Some teas were bagged and simply steeped (PG Tips, Mango Black tea). Some were loose (Real Chai and Imperial Dragon Pearls). One was her special blend, a tisane of chamomile, grapefruit and licorice root. The Real Chai was one you had to cook in a saucepan with half and half and jaggery, a spicy sugar from India, and the swirls it made looked like her unruly hair. And I wrote. I wrote about the tea and about my feelings for the tea and I wrote about Brittany and my own life and regrets, and it brought me to places that I never thought were available to me.
It is a train ride through a strange place. However, most strange places are only strange for a short while. Eventually it becomes familiar or it reminds us of other places in our lives. We begin to incorporate the new with the memory and it becomes something new, and that is tea.
Tea is old, older almost than time or at least it seems that way, and yet tea is new as new feelings emerge, new essences and aromas are tried and experienced, and new techniques for brewing are undertaken while new flavors are sampled.
That first sip is an introduction and as the tea cools to a wonderful tepid that you can drink a bit faster, taking larger gulps, and when you get near the end of the cup you slow down again, and that last sip leaves you wanting more. Just one more sip.
I don’t want to make another whole cup; I won’t drink the whole thing, but one more sip, that’s all I want.
Tea is a familiar friend who travels with you and lets you explore new things, and in the end, it brings you home.