29 Mar 2013
I am so in love with my favorite tea. It’s sort of a British/Russian type, which is to say it’s made in England and is popular in Russia. Well, sort of popular. Anytime I got to drink anything besides Lipton Yellow Label there, I got really excited (Lipton is the Mercedes of tea in Russia and also the Lada: the hallmark of class and yet also inescapably ubiquitous). I didn’t fall in love with this Earl Grey, though, until I was back from Russia and traipsing through the snow every week to Russian tea with my professors and fellow students at Oberlin. We’d chat, we’d share cookies and chocolates, we’d sip endless cups of tea. I always took mine with milk and sugar, but one night, for some reason, there wasn’t any sugar, and I was amazed to find that I liked this tea just as well without it, and even without milk. And thus the romance began. I’d drive to the Russian store in Cleveland to acquire it, and then I’d deal with all the vagaries of the dorm kitchen to make it for myself, picking loose leaves out of my all-purpose pot, since a kettle was an unattainable luxury at that time.
This tin, the one in the picture above, is special. I bought it for myself as a prize the day I passed my PhD oral exams at Berkeley. After three hours of conversation/grilling and one very nauseous moment in the middle, it was over. I passed! And I even did well. My friend gave me a ride home, and on the way we stopped at the Russian store in Oakland to pick up supplies for a Gogol party we were attending that night. Yes! A Gogol party! I remember so many pickles in so many plastic bags. I remember wandering through the aisles in my heels and shiny silver suit with white top-stitching, feeling like I was in some kind of alternate universe. I picked out this tea and clutched the tin awkwardly all the way home, just needing to hold onto something concrete. I took that elegant picture above the morning of the exams, with my two towers of books behind me.
That Gogol party was so much fun. And it wouldn’t have been a party without tea, of course. We were on, I think, the ninth course of the meal by then. I have cropped this picture to protect the innocent be-costumed ones who may like this evening to live in memory instead of on the internet. Oh, how I miss those Russian-infused evenings.
As I started putting my life back together after my exams, picking up and sorting the perilously tall stacks of papers, notebooks, and thick tomes from the library, there was tea. I drank it for the sheer pleasure of it, and not to stay awake, as I had for months on end. I remembered those nights in Oberlin–in a brick house built at the beginning of the Civil War, surrounded by warmth and laughter and people and a language I loved with my whole heart. I remembered our Gogol party in Berkeley, and all our undying inside jokes about symbolist poetry. I remember them now, hundreds of miles away, from a distance in years that cannot be traversed. And I drink tea.
Here in Pasadena, in my new life as a writer, I crave my tea every afternoon like clockwork. I put the kettle on, measure out the leaves into the strainer, give my cup a splash of milk, and wait for the pleasure to begin. This week, I reached the bottom of that tin I bought after my exams, almost five years ago. I went to an international market the next town over, where I’d seen my tea on the shelves before, not in bags, but loose, the way I like it. When I got there, I discovered that they no longer carry it. And I was filled with sadness. But happily, we live in the digital age, so I’ve got three tins arriving tomorrow, probably just as I scrape the last few leaves out of my box. I love the symmetry of it, and I am so happy that I won’t have to forgo my happy ritual even for a day. This tea is my road map, its routes twisting from the snowy gem of St. Petersburg to the cloudy corn fields of Ohio, over to the sweet ocean air of Northern California and down to the pretty little desert we now call home. Wherever we may land in the future, this tea will land there with us, trailing a new turn in its itinerary behind us.