I was standing in the kitchen by myself when I found that self, me, in the process of making cup of tea. Why in the world had it occurred to me to do that? Yes, in part it was true that I seriously needed to use up some of what was in the house.
By 'what was in the house' I am referring to my tea collection. I had a lot of tea that needed drinking.
As I was engaged in getting cup and contents ready, I thought to myself, me:
Tea is a lonely drink.
Lonely. It was a word that surprised me. My mother always drank tea, and she didn't always drink it alone. She was, however, slightly snooty about it. At least she seemed snooty to me. Probably because she tipped her pretty nose just a smidge higher when she talked about those 'others' who drank a 'foreign brew' as opposed to a good English one. So for me tea was, yes, something snooty people drank while looking freshly removed from their plaster moulds. They looked lonely in all that stiffness.
Tea was always everywhere in British novels and mysteries, engorging their pages, feeding on the characters like mosquitoes, those pests. Tea, always hovering. I read a lot. I ran into a lot of tea.
Did the British not drink coffee, ever? Not like to breathe in the fragrance of fresh-roasted, freshly-ground coffee beans at eight A.M.? Or were all caffeine addicts closeted? I had always hated that last expression as it ran through my mind. In my own addictive state, I was by no means closeted. It was just meant to be funny, but I take it back now. I just don't like the idea of people discriminating against coffee drinkers, smirking ever so slightly over their puritanical tea cups.
Anyway, I really didn't like this topic of coffee obfuscation and might have lost my temper, even smashed a mug, if I hadn't distracted myself from it to what was behind part of my ire. That was, to be blunt, British colonialism. This, I am convinced, is the Real Reason Why I can never love tea. However, I can love coffee, yes I can. I’ll try to explain that at the end of this story, if it's of an interest.
In part, it was not the fault of the beverage in question that I didn't care for it. Tea just had too many memories, not the least important of which was the one when I was in a Vietnamese (maybe?) restaurant somewhere in France. On the way to Paris to go to bookstores, not Nôtre Dame. It was the first time I had ever seen gunshot tea.
This is what happened. Before they had placed the dark balls in the hot water, they had told me to watch carefully. I thought they meant I should notice how the tea was all curled shut in little balls, like grapeshot, the lead globes used to kill or maim. I also thought how sad it had been to be thinking about guns and war while sipping the aromatic, savory tea with friends.
Then I remembered how I had figured out the reason for watching: the gray balls of plant matter just expanded, bursting into filaments of leaves that clustered toward the bottoms of our cups. That had been the surprise and I had felt like a little girl; not embarrassed, no, just tickled by the tea’s transformation. Even though I was not at all a girl anymore.
I didn’t know why I still remembered only the tea in my cup and France. And the laughing. It had been a moment of sure bliss, apparently. Things were happening that have disappeared. Tea reminds me that joy can be fleeting sometimes. Not always, just once in a while, so we'll learn to appreciate it. But some joys hurt.
Like I said, I’m not all that big on tea. The only other strong tea memory that had come to mind as I stood in the kitchen was associated with another unusual place and tea. In my mind, then and now, I start to sway the minute I recall being in Puno, Peru, on the shore of Lake Titicaca. At a zillion feet high and every foot crushing on my chest. My heart said it couldn’t breathe, and I agreed. We turned very waxen, and the little hotel gave me oxygen as well as brewed coca leaves. Coca tea, not related to the one that’s a drug. I don’t do that stuff.
Anyway, my nauseous face had stared over the greenish bracken liquid in my cup in Puno and was hoping for a miracle. I was down for the count and it was the traditional drink, the only remedy. I prayed it would save me like it had saved others suffering from acute sorojchi. Altitude sickness. Worst hangover ever, plus a horrible pain in the neck.
It didn’t. I drank so much of it that if it had any psychotropic substance in it, I would have known. Masochist that I am, I brought a box of tea bags home. Better safe than sorry. I might have to climb a mountain back on the east coast, after all.
So I didn't like tea for this good reason too. It reminds me of an all-enveloping sick stomach. The coca tea box has never been opened. Wrapped in cellophane plastic, it merely forms part of my tea wall.
(I will be telling you about the wall shortly.)
The unopened coca tea is a daily reminder of how little I need to go back to Peru. I might know a lot about its literature and respect its Quechua and Aymara cultures because they have fascinated me since I was a little girl, but I really can’t bear the thought of drinking any more coca leaves. Another case of sorojchi would kill me. I heard the lack of oxygen in the Andes can make your heart beat so hard it bursts. That's why the box I brought back is merely a memento, and a reminder that parting was not sweet sorrow...
I was still in my kitchen, alone with myself, questioning the thinking behind the pressure I have felt over the years to drink tea. Who did what and why to make tea such a popular, drinkable beverage? There are several theories, as I recall, and it would be nice if for once the beverage's historians would all get in the same page.
One source says that a Portuguese religious man, early sixteenth century. (A fact which appears somewhere as 1565, not quite early in the century. Or that might refer to a Portuguese account of tea from Japan, which seems to have been a later arrival on the international market.) The Portuguese monk or priest brought tea back to Europe from China, but to which part of Europe? Everybody knows sailors and traders signed on with different monarchs. Any crown that would fund the voyages was fine. Like sports franchises today, you might say.
Another source credits an Italian, mid-sixteenth century. To be exact, 1555, in his Voyages and Travels. Beat the Portuguese by about a decade, give or take a few years. Yet Portugal was in Macau in 1557, so that's pretty close. Brought tea back from the Gulf of Aden? I don't exactly recall. I'm bad with history. Again, to what part of Europe? Who was his employer? There are too many pieces in this chess game for me to keep them straight. I think tea came from China hundreds of years before the C.E., but might have gotten some of the facts twisted.
Recent history just has us thinking that Britain is a tea-drinking nation. That we need look no further to understand how that addiction to a really fine beverage could have developed. Not talked about a whole lot these days. Most people know less history than I do.
The truth is indisputable. Behind it all, all the tea in China (and in Japan and in India) is linked - chained - to the British and their penchant for maintaining an Empire. Behind the Opium Wars, the British. Behind the spread of tea to India, still a British colony, the British.
The Boston Tea Party in 1774? The one kids used to study in school but probably don't much now because they don't study history? The British were there and levying taxes.
Before that had been the Great Bengal Famine of 1769-1770, a few years before it lost the ability to produce opium that East India Co bought up to sell to China for the tea the British adored. War caused by disease and then the greed of the East India Company. Here, the only history we know about is the one in Boston. Yet prices and availability of the tea that was tossed overboard had much to to with Bengal. Poor, poor country. At least the American Colonies got mad and fought for and won their independence.
My mother was happy to know she had roots in Britain. Well, in England. Just one family thread was Dutch, and to be sure there was nobody Welsh, Scottish, or Irish in the family line. All the family names she knew and told me about were English and quite properly so. She didn’t know much about the history of anything, but she was proud of her heritage and would not have admitted words like Empire and Opium Wars. She would not have admitted those words in the sense that she would never say them, even if she had heard them. England was the best! Nobody had ever told her anything about the UK's dirty underwear.
There you have it: tea has bad history and wars were fought over it. Opium Wars that were really about the beverage, ironically. Or about selling something that had been produced by slavery. Now we might mention yerba mate here as well, since we've already discussed coca tea from Latin America.
Yerba mate... where do I start?
There was so much yerba mate produced in places like Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, that the industry attracted CEOs whose German or English didn't jibe well with Tupí-Guaraní and the like. Nor did human lives fit in very well, or so I read. I read a bunch of novels called the novelas de los yerbales and they described horrible labor conditions. Tea from a roasting vat that had a worker fall into it and bake? Many workers? I won't drink mate for all the tea in China after reading the Latin American novels.
This should make it clear why I surprised myself by making tea, a beverage with - for me, at least - a past. Coffee might have a bad past too, probably. But maybe it doesn't. I hope not and am thinking it would be a good thing to avoid looking into the production of coffee. I mean, I know the plantation bosses in Honduras did their rounds on horseback and always were armed with pistols. My knowledge of conditions in Guatemala is meager, but they must be similar to those in Honduras. I can say that I don't especially like the coffee from those countries. It doesn't taste healthy. You can't even drink the water there, so how could you drink their coffee here?
Sorry. I do get upset sometimes. And there are days when I have lots of tangents. Be thankful that right now I'm not doing an internet search on coffee wars. Don't need that. I'm pretty sure that term, coffee wars, just refers to the competition among the companies that produce and serve coffee, not companies against the countries and the people who produce it. No need to feel guilty about my beverage of choice, in other words.
Despite all this, despite my clear and convincing preference for caffeine, you will find that there are many boxes of tea in my kitchen. This situation is even more confusing if we take into account that a lot of flavors have been condensed by somebody in the house into boxes that represents only one of the flavors inside them. Jasmine next to framboise next to matcha. Puer something-or-other, roiboos, Aztec spice, schizandra berry and milk thistle. The complete list - I'm embarrassed to say - could top a hundred or more flavors. Some are in bags, some loose, some curled up tight (like the gunshot green tea that sits front and center on the shelf above the microwave).
Coca is sitting next to a slimming tea from France, with other neighbors from the Czech Republic, Portugal (probably from a former African colony, though), Morocco, and Galicia with its seaweed tea. Here and there turmeric appears, and there's a CBD option as well. People seem to take me for a tea drinker, and what I don't purchase myself, they give me as gifts. It doesn't matter what the occasion is.
IT'S A WHOLE WALL OF TEA! GET ME OUT OF HERE!
Just joking, of course, but it's simply that the boxes I'm looking at right now never seem to go down in number. I'm feeling walled in by weightless little bricks with flowers and fruit on them. I don't know how they got here, either. I just don't know. All those wars and all that slavery, drug trade - I couldn't possibly enjoy a cup of tea except under rare conditions.
Tea makes my stomach feel empty, now that I think about it. I forgot to mention that up above. It makes me feel as somebody promised to give me food, then just served me flavored hot water. Which tea is, in fact. Water that has nothing solid to it, doesn’t sate my hunger, and barely quenches my thirst. I only get a sense of a tea’s flavor when I reach the last, cold swallow. Then it's gone.
I don’t like emptiness.
Are there any words left?
If so, pass the sugar.
NB: My mother always turned her nose up a little at people who put sugar in their tea, as if that meant they were weaklings.