Tea for two

My first day here was spent in a fug of confusion, doubt and tiredness. Exhilaration had slowly dissipated in the final few days of feverish packing and tearful goodbyes and left in its place worry and regret. It is no wonder therefore that the first thing I wanted was to put the kettle on and have a nice cup of tea. At Palermo’s largest department store I found the kitchen section and wearily circled the shelves of coffee makers. The kettles? There were two, on the bottom shelf. Lesson no. 1: Nobody has a kettle. Whilst kettles are an integral part of an English kitchen, perceived high electricity prices here means that water is still boiled in a saucepan on the hob. Lesson no. 2: Nobody drinks tea. (Well not the brown stuff – herbal tisans are popular). The tea is brought out on the occasion of an English guest with much proud puffing which includes a ceremonial passing of the box tea bags around the party for the approval of the above mentioned English guest (especially true if it had been bought in England) before one bag is unceremoniously dumped in a saucepan of cold water and brought to a rolling boil. Lesson no.3: Tea doesn’t taste the same abroad as it does in England. Every ex-pat will tell you that. I’ve thought about water quality (tap vs bottled), milk, how the tea is kept but to no avail. I could blame my Italian hosts who dig out a box of Twinings English Breakfast they bought in 1987 and as yet unopened, its plastic wrapping sticky with oil and dust and who regale me with advice such as “I never let the water boil as boiled water tastes awful” but I can never get it right either. And so when my guests arrive, travel weary and thirsty and I say “Shall I put the kettle on?”, returning guests never accept. They’ll root around in their suitcases for camomile or mint teabags, they’ll make up an excuse “Oh, it’s far too hot for tea (it is a universally accepted truth that it’s never too hot for tea) or they’ll say bluntly “tea tastes terrible here”. It’s true. I still drink it, whether tepid or stewed, served with hot milk or UHT, however, you can’t get a decent cup of tea in Palermo. But then I’ve become more sensitive to coffee.  On my last trip back to the UK, for the first time in my life I returned a cup of coffee as undrinkable. When in Rome do as the Romans do.  When in England do as the English do.  There are some barriers which are simply insurmountable.

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