Athens News Article: Confessions of a philhellenic tea drinker
Posted on: 06-03-2011 | Category: Articles & Interviews

THIS summer my husband and I were returning to Athens after a couple of days
away. We had stopped for petrol somewhere on the main Athens-Thessaloniki
highway and the afternoon was heavy with oppressive heat.
As Vassilis filled up the car, I remarked, “I’ll just go and see if I can get
some tea.” I have stopped asking if he’d like some. “Why, am I ill?” is a
regular Greek reply. Only a mad person would want hot tea on a sweltering day,
but we tolerate one another’s quirks.
Ten minutes later, Vassilis came inside the cafe looking for me. It was full
of red-faced families eating greasy snacks and truckers sucking on cigarettes.
I was in the middle of an exchange with the bald barman, who was swinging his
arms above his head and cursing.
“Calm down!” I was saying, in what I hoped was a provocatively cool manner as
I grabbed my paper cup of tea and fled.
“What was all that?” Vassilis was eyeing me interrogatively.
“Nothing,” I insisted, until forced to confess.
I had driven the poor man crazy with my insistence on locating “black” tea, on
leaving the tea bag in long enough and – the straw that broke this particular
camel’s back – with my request for a little fresh milk.
The conversation that followed in the car has also been repeated, throwing the
sharp peaks and dark gorges of my foreign foible into sharper relief. Vassilis
declares me a tea addict, I snort that this is ridiculous, and he states that
a lack of tea alters my behaviour and that I should acknowledge my problem.
Sometimes I suggest that I join the latest celebrity addict for “detox”. But,
this time, we both fell quiet – a little bit older and wiser.
As I sipped my inadequate beverage, I started thinking about my years of tea
drinking in Greece: two decades of battles between my Anglo-Saxon-Russian
background and my Hellenic foreground. And while I see myself as a
cosmopolitan who has lived in various countries, learned different languages,
who likes to “do as the Romans do” … the truth is that I am conservative
when it comes to tea. I am perfectly happy to speak, cook and eat Greek, have
Greek friends and bring up my children in Greece. I dream in Greek, I’ve
acquired Greek nationality, I defend Greece and I am pained by it like a
native. But I have clung to the tradition of English tea.
I have known the rules since early youth. First warm the teapot, bring freshly
drawn water to a rolling boil and pour over the leaves. Leave for a few
minutes, and add milk to taste.
In most countries, you get out the brandy or vodka when there’s bad news; in
Britain you make tea. They view it as a panacea, to be given at all times for
every eventuality. Tea cools you down when it’s hot, warms you up when it’s
cold, kills hunger pangs and is said to be “beneficial”.
As a child, I sipped pale China tea with my English grandmother, while my
Russian grandmother made Earl Grey. As a teenager, I drank tea with school
friends, with my long-gone dandy godfather, around camp fires, in bed, in
love, and at the best and worst of times.
When I first lived in Greece, I was keen to obey the rules of
“participant-observation” befitting an anthropologist. I drank coffee, tried
hard to become a smoker and stayed up too late. But I wasn’t embarrassed to
drink tea at home or even out with friends. I kept my tannin habit as I noted
their equally peculiar caffeine rituals – the almost-exotic frappe and
the desirable kaputsino being the most fashionable.
I was so enamoured with Greece that even now the taste of tea as I received it
then brings back Proustian ripples of pleasure; a small cup of lukewarm water
with a tea bag on the saucer and a cloying, yellow portion of tinned milk. The
result was something like what Asterix was dumfounded by in Asterix in
, where everyone stops what they are doing at 4 o’clock to drink
“warm water with a drop of milk”. I might grimace at this still-extant parody
of tea, but I am transported to the person I was in my 20s.
At home in Athens, I have my own sure-fire methods with teapot or
special wire-meshed balls, which I fill with customised mixtures. Smoky
Lapsang Suchong for reflective moments, proletarian PG Tips for a massive hit,
Earl Grey in the mornings and assertive Assam in the afternoons.
Am I an addict? “Of course not” would be my robust retort. But the truth is
more complex. Try substituting “tea” for booze on the Alcoholics Anonymous
Do you lose time from work due to drinking? YES X, NO –
Is your drinking affecting your reputation? YES X, NO –
etc etc
The truth is, however, that I’m unrepentant. For someone who doesn’t smoke,
drinks modestly and believes in “a little of what you fancy”, I’m not about to
abandon the joys of tea. Many of my friends are clearly addicted to worse –
all of which makes my vice look like a vicar’s tea party. Perhaps it’s time to
begin a campaign extolling the virtues of 5 o’clock tea in Greece… though I
somehow doubt I’ll have many converts.

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