I have long been a tea drinker. I normally make tea in the morning (loose if I have a little leisure, a bag if I’m running out the door or am just too groggy), and read while I drink it and wake up. One of my great pleasures when traveling alone is to take a cup of tea back to bed and read or write in bed, which I cannot do at home since Sir John and I live in different time zones.* At least, I do this when I’m traveling alone in England, where hotel rooms are always equipped with an electric kettle, or in the U.S., where there is always a coffee maker that can usually be coaxed to produce hot water that doesn’t taste too much like coffee if I take the thing apart and clean it.

However, Barbara Pym’s observations in Excellent Women about tea on the Continent still apply in the present day: “When it comes, it’s a pale straw-colored liquid . . . and the tea’s in a funny little bag . . and they may even bring hot milk with it.” As to the pale liquid, I might add that you’d be lucky; usually you get a pot of slightly-more-than-lukewarm water and the funny little bag still in a paper wrapper, and you have to inflict the making of pale and unsatisfactory fluid on yourself. The same points apply to many restaurants and cafes in the U.S.**

Thus, on my recent trip, after a couple of unfortunate mornings with straw-colored liquid, I resigned myself, with increasing pleasure, to cafe con leche rather than tea. It was of course necessary to get dressed and leave my room for this, because Continental hotel rooms do not provide kettles or coffee makers.**** I never thought of the French and Spanish as a batch of morning people, but apparently they achieve some minimal level of functionality before caffeine input in the morning, at least when they’re not in their own homes. (Getting the cafetière going is a recurrent trope in the modern novels I have been reading lately.)

After a week of cafe con leche in a southern Spanish plaza, tea chez moi just didn’t taste right. And so I thought that perhaps this year, my “something new and different” that “you didn’t do as a normal part of the work routine when you weren’t on leave” could be cafe con leche. It did occur to me that I run the risk of turning into an Angela Thirkell character:

“Eccomi! said Mrs Grant, throwing both arms wide so that her necklaces and her bracelets clanked and clattered in sympathy. “Eccomi!” she said again, stretching her hands towards her friends as a shipwrecked sailor might stretch towards his rescuers. “Sir Edmund! You remember me. Felicia Grant.” Sir Edmund said with great truth that no one could ever forget Mrs Grant. “Ah, we were younger then,” said Mrs Grant. “We meet now nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. But in sunny Calabria age has no terrors. A crust, a clove of garlic, what more is needed? Brother Sun and Brother Sleep.” Noel said under his breath And Brother Mosquito Net, which made Lydia laugh.*****

There are other risks, it turns out. Coffee-making is just too complicated for my early mornings. Tea involves putting on the kettle, scooping leaves into the strainer, and pouring hot water until the cup is full. I can cope with that, and there are bags to avoid the scooping step if I’m really groggy. But coffee requires finding the grinder, beans, filter, and filter-holder, and getting them assembled in the proper order. The beans go in the grinder, not the filter or the holder. Then it’s necessary to grind them menace the cats with Terrible Cat-Eating Machinery, which they flee; with luck they don’t knock anything over during their escape from the kitchen.******  Ground coffee goes in the filter, not into the cup or the filter-holder. The water has to be measured, and the milk heated, but preferably not boiled. After Caffeine, I could probably manage just fine. Pre-Caffeine is another story.

I can tell you that my respect for baristas has increased dramatically over the few days I have been trying to prepare coffee in the morning. No doubt there are shortcuts and gadgets that could change this picture. But the idea was to add pleasure, not to complicate my life. So I’m going back to tea. Coffee will just have to be reserved for Continental breakfasts taken on the Continent, where someone else operates the machinery.*******

 

*Same house. Different time zones. I’m New Brunswick, he’s Vancouver.

**At Peet’s Coffee, they know to put boiling water*** on a tea bag. They even sell loose tea. The place could just be called Peet’s Caffeine.

***I even know that water for tea should ideally be just off the boil, but let’s not get unduly fussy. I’d prefer the water be too hot than too cold.

****The Mercure at CDG had a kettle. No cups, or tea bags, or coffee packets. Perhaps you have to ask for the kettle set-up, as you ask for down-free pillows or a lighter blanket. Vive la France!

*****Angela Thirkell, County Chronicle (1950; rpt. Moyer Bell, 1998), 160. Mrs Grant also appears in The Brandons, but I think I must have purged my copy on account of its being excessively battered, while the library can supply me with a sturdier copy.

******Without luck, there’s more mess to clean up than just spilled coffee grounds.

*******If I’d thought ahead, I might actually be spending my sabbatical abroad, but (as usual) the home situation is just a little too complicated to allow us to pack up and move for a year. Too many cats, too much house. I am not Excellent Woman enough for that; or maybe I am, precisely, Excellently presiding over my own home instead of gallivanting adventurously abroad. Perhaps I should have studied anthropology like Helena Napier, instead of getting involved with English Literature.

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2 thoughts on “Tea/coffee, English/Continental, Pym/Thirkell

  1. You have described the reason why I drink coffee when I travel in the US. You can usually get OK coffee, but the small pot of lukewarm water with the selection of tea bags is truly cruel.

    Meanwhile, I can enjoy the Thirkell references…

  2. Even tea is too complicated for recent mornings. I’ve gone back to Diet Coke for the drive, though I was so proud of giving it up. Keep working on the coffee, though!

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