An Ode To Tea, Love and Winter

It feels hard to do anything in mid January. The allure of a ‘charming’ winter walk wears off when you long for trees that aren’t barren, a sky that isn’t alarmingly white with a daily invasion of clouds, when the cold wind has the same effect on me that the sun has on European people – icy wind burns my face, turning it red and peeling my skin. I need the rejuvenation of the sun, I crave it, I won’t be my best self until I feel it on my face again. I sip my first tea of the day and check the clock – 5.59am – over two hours left until sunrise. I put the kettle on in preparation of my second cup. 

In the current zero degree temperatures my toes curl within their trainers trying to find warmth from one another and my shoulders start to endure chronic pain from being hunched all the time, my body curling inwards to preserve heat as a survival tactic. I could say I wasn’t supposed to endure this type of cold as a South Asian person, but Pakistani winters are just as brutal than a British one, if not more – it’s a land that holds a portion of the Himalayas in its hands, after all. So maybe it’s something to do with the fact that I was born a week after the summer solstice. 

I met the man I am going to marry on the last summer solstice. We arranged to meet on June 21st after our friends introduced us via Instagram (yes, it’s a 21st century love story). I had been worried I wouldn’t recognise him from his pictures, but as I walked out of my local train station entrance where we were set to meet I saw a guy perched on a wall outside, curls flopping over his forehead and grazing his eyebrows, feet wearing Vans that swung off the ledge, and I knew. He was holding a hardback book about the Windrush generation with the cover off and he wore a baggy black hoodie that I thought looked pretty goth over his grey skinny jeans and matching tee. That’s okay, I thought, I can appreciate a gothic soul. 

The day was radiating with a soft heat as we walked to a nearby park, so when we got there we laid down on the grass and spoke about our lives with a candor that threw me and felt completely normal all at once. At first I lay on my side, elbow digging into the dry mud beneath the strands of grass as my hand propped up my face, but by the end I was on my back, watching wisps of white clouds dance their way through an endless blue sky as I listened to his voice. It was the first date I had been on for eight years and I’d forgotten how to be human with someone new, I didn’t know what to speak about. I rambled about my desire to write a book and mental illnesses and poets I liked that had stuck their heads in ovens and Palestine and hallucinogens and how empty it feels to be so disconnected from my motherland of Pakistan and none of it felt out of place; it just was.  

As we walked around the vast greenscape he told me Indian fairy tales he’d read about talking animals and child princes and kingdoms that are now nothing but legends. We passed a water tower that I’d always thought was an abandoned castle before stopping in the herb garden where we debated whether cilantro and coriander were the same thing or not and when we were about to agree to disagree, he googled it and proved me wrong.

Our summer was spent in lavender fields watching the bees hunt in the air while the ladybirds crawled up the flower stalks; I was a little intoxicated by the smell, but I think mainly by him. We walked through fields of wild sunflowers, we climbed through hills until we were so high we could see the city skyline. My nose devoured the pungent scent of the roses and lilies he gave to me the first time he ever visited my house; everything was coming up roses. We spent nights in my garden listening to Disney soundtracks and dancing in my kitchen to music nobody but us could hear, and I never felt so light. If he knew how much darkness I carried, he’d run a mile, I thought. But a month after that we spent our days waltzing outside a church in Athens in 35°C and looking out at the Acropolis at night through an apartment that was stunning but so blazing hot it made my head spin and so we had to call the host and ask her to help us (turns out, we didn’t know how to operate the AC). 

We spent September nights saying farewell to the last of the summer air dining alfresco at a remote Greek restaurant that we’d travelled to in an attempt to find something real – when we arrived, the owners asked us how we had found the place, so unaccustomed to tourists they were. Stray cats swarmed as we ate octopus and red mullet and so we fed them but then suddenly we were surrounded by 10 cats, and so we named them all – Olive, Aladdin, Garfield… I’ve forgotten their names now, and it fills me with regret that I didn’t journal every detail – I don’t want to let go of a crumb of summer.

Summer brought a bloom of life after a winter of real emotional darkness (the start of 2020 was particularly heavy for me, for many reasons) – it brought an abundance of love, energy, long days, sunshine bursting at the seams and maybe most importantly, the optimism that anything is possible.

Winter is barren, and now nature is dead. Or at least, asleep. Outside of his window in south London I watch squirrels climb upwards into the cloud-filled white sky, scavenging for food on trees that are without leaves and I want to feel a beam of heat on me, oh so badly, just one. A robin clings onto a branch that is swaying in the wind and a train to Whitechapel zooms by on the train track that the trees failed in their attempt to hide. The evidence of an effort to snow is apparent every morning now – ice gathers on rooftops, my skin has turned yellow and my cheeks are dry and my energy is low, so he and I stay indoors and I start to imagine bears in hibernation sleeping in their coats of insulated fur, waiting for the first flower to grow from the earth again. 

I drink copious amounts of tea to get my day started – at least two or three, very strong, a little sugar, a generous splash of milk – and they wake me up and warm me up better than anything else can. It made me think about where my tea has come from and what the hell makes it feel so healing. Tea was first consumed medicinally thousands of years ago in China – stories of agricultural Gods chewing tea leaves as a remedy to accidently ingested poisonous berries and the like have circulated the south east of Asia for hundreds of years. I read a story about the buddhist monk Bodhidharma recently – he was meditating by a wall for nine years and one day, he fell asleep. When he awoke he was so angry at himself for falling asleep and losing his focus that he cut off his eyelids, and they were buried in the ground. From here, tea leaves grew. Yummy. Btw, Bodhidharma originated the concept of Zen. 

I could go on, but long story short – China ran the tea game and so of course, the UK wanted to get in on it (can anyone have anything to themselves, Britain?) so they started producing tea in the northeastern state of Assam, India and in Sri Lanka (Ceylon tea, named after what the Portugese called Sri Lanka when they colonised the land). Tea derived from south Asia took off in the UK in a way Chinese tea didn’t and today this tea remains the drink of the nation, which is interesting, given it cannot be cultivated here.

I think of the similarities between tea and British South Asian children of immigrants (sorry, I can’t help it, it’s my corny diasporic identity, ok?). I think of what it means to feel quintessentially British while knowing someone who looks like me could never have originated from this land. I think of how it feels to be needed in terms of our social, economical and cultural contributions to Britain, but at the same time, to not belong.

The day is drifting away and before I know it, darkness will fall and ice will gather on the rooftops, threatening snow but not quite being able to deliver. So before that happens I am going to go, but will leave you with a sleepy ramble I jotted down about me and tea. Happy 2021, kiddos. 

Winter morning, crack of dawn, dawn of the year

My tea mug is white, simple, classic – I don’t like mugs too narrow, the tea gets cold too quickly – but if they’re too wide, the taste changes. Like most things, the balance has to be right

Tea is said to be a quintessentially British thing, right?

But the leaves come from Ceylon 

Grown in lands nurtured by indigenous brown people for thousands of years

So tea is the perfect diaspora drink, right?

The English say “nothing beats a cuppa”

The answer to any upset is to “put the kettle on”

But what if this drink is just for us?

To heal our woes? 

The woe of being in a land so foreign, my body still wonders why I was displaced – it knows as the cold shivers through my bones that I’m not meant to be here

But when I take a sip of tea, brown, creamy, so hot I have to blow on it

Somehow it all melts away 

And inside 

I am warm again

At least, until the next cup

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