• Tuesday, February 20, 2007

    Those People and Their Tea

    The English love of tea is legendary. This week I focus on the delightful afternoon ritual of “high tea” on Suite 101.

    A proper cup of tea
    My introduction to the English love of tea came on a day at the beach in Greece. At 25, it was my first trip to Europe. Remember my olive grove adventure? Same trip. When I wasn’t paying a lot of attention, two rather large, rather pale women decided that of the whole empty beach, sitting next to me was the prime real estate. Before they arrived, I had been completely blissed-out. I had two weeks to make it from Greece to Frankfurt, no one but myself to answer to, a camera and lots of tips and phone numbers from well-traveled friends. A sunny day, a gorgeous beach, water that was a color of blue I’d never seen. Heaven.

    My beach-y bliss gets disturbed.
    The girls' large hats alone made them hard to ignore. Then suddenly, much loud squawking and complaining made their presence and displeasure absolutely obvious to anyone in earshot. That would be me.

    I heard fierce complaints about “the impossibility of getting a proper cup of tea.” “What is wrong with these people – no PG Tips?!” The phrase "these people" generally signals that one is in the company of someone fairly ignorant and possibly offensive. 2 for 2 in this case.

    No PG Tips. You’d have thought someone had just informed them that indoor plumbing had not yet been discovered in this land of savages... Greece. As if PG Tips is the high water mark of civilization. And, keep in mind – we were at the BEACH.

    Now, at that point in my life, I had no idea what PG Tips was (Americans – think Lipton’s). What was clear to me was that these women were the types of tourists who went on holiday and expected their pre-holiday life to be exactly replicated, preferably with a nicer climate.

    Why leave home? The thrill of travel for me is waking up somewhere new, unable to predict what I will hear, see, taste, smell…and discover. The ability to experience new and different things is precisely the lure of travel for me. And of food. I think this is the power of Ferran Adria's food and philosophy.

    Going Native
    Later in Frankfurt, I kept meeting Americans who spoke with disdain about their colleagues who “went native.” Those people (remember what I said about that phrase?)- those people had moved their families from the US to West Germany and then refused to live with other Americans. Those people who went native ate at local places instead of the Pizza Hut they’d found. Of course, the most horrifying thing those people did was to actually send their kids to local schools.

    I would often respond to these twits by detailing how I offered to run the weekend errands for my American host family in the all-German Sachsenhausen neighborhood. I wanted to practice a new German phrase or two. “I'm sorry my German is so poor, but we’d like new half-soles and shine on these shoes, please.” “I’ll have a kilo of broccoli please.” “I’ll have the breakfast number one, please.” Blink. Blink. Utter incomprehension. Yeah, that usually killed the conversation. Thankfully.

    Okay, so you know which end of the travel spectrum I’m on. The thing is, I was on such a tiny budget during my three months in Europe, I never once enjoyed a proper high tea. Nor all the great food in Venice - too rich for my budget, unlike the street food in Rome or the tavernas in Greece.

    Making up for lost time
    Now that I’ve been initiated, I am hooked. I often find my thoughts wandering to Devon cream, scones and savory sandwiches. Tea in bone china teacups. Gracious service. Real silver. Even if the experience sometimes feels like it’s veering dangerously close to Disney-esque, for me, the old world ritual of afternoon tea might be forgiven for that. It can be nearly transporting. In a good way; the way that a new food, or a new experience in an unfamiliar country is.

    After all, no one’s going to mistake me for British royalty or for a complaining tourist looking for PG Tips. On a beach. In Greece.

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