The man behind tea aficionados' website nicecupofteaandasitdown.com recalls a cha-free visit to the United States.
San José, California, May 1999. My worst cup of tea, ever.
This was my first visit to the USA, and my first experience of jet lag. It was also my first time filling in one of those bizarre green cards, required by American Immigration, on which you must declare whether or not you have ever been a member of the Nazi Party or have committed acts of genocide. Now, obviously, these are very important and serious questions, but how often do they actually catch people out this way? If I were a genocidal sort of character, then not ticking a box asking me to own up to it would probably be something I was capable of, too. Nevertheless, I couldn't help but glance at the green cards of other passengers near to me.
On the way to America we passed over Greenland, Baffin Island (named after an old Geography teacher of mine, or it may have been the other way round) and northern Canada. None of these places seemed like anywhere where we should have tried to make a quick stop for a cuppa and a little stretch of the legs.
After 11 hours' flying, we touched down in San Francisco, three hours after taking off, or something like that. It quickly became apparent that, having dealt with the Nazis, fruit and snails were the next most pressing issues for the authorities. I immediately started to feel guilty and shifty, having freely associated with both. Indeed, a couple of days earlier while digging over the vegetable patch, I had filled the bottom of a bucket with snails that had been overwintering in the garden. Had any of these hidden themselves in the seams of my clothing? When asked by the official why I was visiting the United States, it was as much as I could do to remember, given that it was way past midnight at teatime.
"For business," I replied.
"What sort of business?" he asked.
Being a Dallas fan, I wanted to reply, "Da oil business", but thought it best to say I was off to a computer development convention. This did the trick and they let me in. It was a good job I didn't mention the 50 bags of PG Tips I had stashed in my luggage.
We stayed up until what must have half past five in the morning. After a tea of melted cheese chilli sticks, washed down with carbonated brown stuff and what might have been chips we retired to our beds. I awoke the next day at about 6.30 in the morning, local time.
After showering, there really was only one thing on my mind: tea. Whether it was ignorance, blind optimism or a misplaced faith in the kindness of myfellow man, I left my tea bags in my hotel room and headed down for breakfast. I met my colleagues in the dining room, all seasoned visitors to the US. They were seated around a table with starched white tablecloths, napkins, silver cutlery and a large bowl of freshly prepared Californian fruit. When the waiter appeared, everyone else ordered coffee. I asked for tea; "a nice one, please". I should have picked up on his slightly confused expression.
Coffee soon arrived. In my case, however, the waiter approached carrying a wooden box, much like the sort one keeps one's duelling pistols in. He opened the lid to show me the contents but, rather than guns, it contained an array of very dud-looking tea bags.
Trying to take control over my general state of disorientation, I scanned the contents, which had names like blackcurrant leaf and sticks, and rosehip and herring. I continued to scour the box for anything related to conventional tea. English Breakfast seemed to be the best fit for my predicament, even if the tea bag looked to be filled with the soot scraped from the top of burnt toast.
A short while later the waiter returned with a small metal pot of warm water and half a lemon in a netting bag. Close to tears, I asked if they had any milk. Again, I was met by confused looks: perhaps the waiter thought I had completely changed my mind about which beverage I wanted. I explained it was for the tea. The waiter took my word for it and said that they didn't have any milk. I tried not to imagine what they were using in the kitchens to make all the batter needed for the huge mounds of pancakes being devoured around me. I also did a mental recap of how dairy farming works, to see if there was something I had forgotten. They did, the waiter ventured, have something called half and half. I decided to take my chances, as perhaps half of it would be milk.
The warm water did its best to leach some of the dark colouring from the ash-like substance in the tea bag. The tea bag, though, failed to swell up in that jolly, steam-filled way and float to the top of the cup. It dropped forlornly to the bottom instead, as if wounded. Driven on by an almost pathological tea craving, I removed it and added a dash of the half and half, creating a dark brown and greasy mixture, similar to that obtained when washing out a roasting tin after a piece of beef has become stuck to the bottom.
The 'tea' was wet.
The next morning I brought down my own tea bags, and asked for "very hot water" and some half and half.
The next morning I settled for coffee.
Stuart's book, 'Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down' (written under his nom de plume, Nicey, along with his co-author, Wifey), is published by Little, Brown & Co, priced £9.99.