What Tea (Yes, Tea!) Taught Me About Love
The average Brit drinks 876 cups of tea a year — but not me. Ever. It has made me quite the anomaly at home in England, as I break tea protocol by turning down the offer of a cuppa at people’s houses or by sitting out on tea breaks at work. When friends come to visit they bring their own teabags because they know I’ll never think to make them a brew.
My tea antipathy wasn’t a problem until I moved somewhere I stuck out even more: Turkey. There, people drink almost double the amount of tea as in the U.K. While the English generally offer (or not, in my case) tea when a guest arrives and serve it up quickly, Turks can spin an entire afternoon or evening of it and guests must never see the tea pot run dry.
I would have remained forever just an observer to this cultural link between my old and new homes, except that I found myself going for a tea — a touristy apple tea for me — with the guide who had shown me around Sultanahmet, the historical district of Istanbul. Later, he became my boyfriend and straight away the relationship was serious. He was ready for a wife and family and, unlike most men I had met at home, had no hesitation in saying it.
As a Turkish-wife-in-training, not only was I expected to learn to drink tea, but also to perform the 20-minute hocus pocus that is “cooking” Turkish black tea, and serve it to my beau and our guests. In England, the choice of teabag might be a matter of family tradition, but his family farmed a tea garden in their Black Sea village and sent fat packets of loose-leaf tea to him via visiting relatives. Tea was as much part of his life as it was the opposite in mine. Abstention was not an option.
Every Turkish house has a çaydanlık, a two-story teapot. The water boils in the larger lower pot and the tea stews in the smaller top pot, the demlik. When tea was required at breakfast, after dinner, or whenever visitors came, I would dump an unmeasured amount of dusty tea into the top pot and more or less fill the lower pot with water. Then I’d wait for it to boil while I arranged Marilyn Monroe-shaped tea glasses on top of matching saucers onto a tray, each with their own teaspoon, filled the sugar bowl, and located the tea-strainer.
When the water boiled, I’d slosh in a bit of cold water, pour some over the tea in the top pot, and re-stack the pots over a low heat for the tea to stew. I would always forget to look at my watch to time this alchemy and, not knowing about tea, could never tell when it was ready.
The result of all this guesswork meant that I never had the right amount of water and/or tea in the top pot. Too little water and the tea would be too strong; too much and it was too weak. This would all become clear at pouring time while I was stumbling over another pre-wife challenge: two-handed tea pouring.
My right hand poured the tea first to about the waist of the glass, depending on whether I was aiming for dark (koyu) or light (açık) tea, and my left hand, unused to much being expected of it, would tremble as it followed with the heavier hot water top up. It was easier to save my dilution mistake if I’d brewed the tea too strong in the first place by adding more water to the glass, whereas nothing could make weak tea stronger. But if we had more than one guest, the tea would finish too fast as the demlik ran out of water, sending judgment my way from all directions.
As for me, I would sip my ultra-açık, tea-flavoured water as slowly as possible, holding the rim of the handle-less glass in my fingertips, and tune out of the conversation going on around me. I knew the worst part was still to come.
It was my job, as the woman, to pour off any remaining water down the sink and upend the demlik over the bin to get rid of the mass of cold, soggy tea, before washing the pot out in the sink, leaving black flecks that would get into every kitchen crevice. Just like with all other household chores, I’d be the one cleaning up.
It’s clear in hindsight that my refusal to learn the tea-making process properly was a rebellion against the domesticated role I was lined up for. Brits and Americans have traditionally read their fortunes in tea leaves (Turks actually use coffee grinds). The tea was definitely telling me the future.
That relationship wasn’t meant to be.