"Tea! Thou soft, thou sober, sage, and venerable liquid ... to whose glorious insipidity I owe the happiest moments of my life, let me fall prostrate." -- Colley Cibber, "The Lady's Last Stake," 1708
This particular lady isn't quite at her last stake, but she can sing the praises of tea. I am thinking of two very different teas, one served in India, the other in London about a year later. Both were rich in ceremony and human connection, though vastly different in circumstance and location.
Have tea at the Ritz, recommended an Anglophile friend when I mentioned my trip to London. It was good advice. I'd savored the idea for years, and my foray into the heart of the ultimate English ritual more than satisfied my expectations.
My tea in India was not so grand. The rickshaw man who had been gallantly pedaling me around Agra invited me to share a cup with him. Though his invitation was heart-rending in its simplicity, our tea together was anything but: The familiar ritual helped to put me at ease and showed me a slice of real life in Agra.
Both ceremonies were embroidered with politeness. My tea-drinking companions came from vastly different social classes, yet the timeless and enduring ritual of taking tea provided an elementary leveling link -- sober refreshment and a break in the day's activity. The fact that in India my tea cost pennies and that in London I paid a tariff of nearly $25 was irrelevant: Cost has little to do with hospitality or the role of a guest. In both settings, I was served with attention and grace and was honored by the experience.
Tea at the Ritz Hotel does have class. Under the high ceilings that simulate celestial heavens, the Palm Court conveys the illusion of spaciousness and wealth. The ballet of the tea service begins with waiters adjusting their cuffs and jackets and polishing the silver-plate trays while guests settle themselves and eye one another with airs of expectation. To stately Britishers and tourists alike, this is life as it should be.
Michael Twomey, manager of the Palm Court, is a master at making guests feel pampered and thoroughly at ease. He's been in charge of afternoon tea at the Ritz for more than 40 years, and is so deft that even people who have been turned away because they have no reservation or have neglected to dress properly are made to feel welcome anyway.
While a harpist plucks the passing minutes, notes falling like pearls on a marble floor, a discreet parade of formally dressed waiters approaches the tables. "I'd have the Lapsang souchong tea, Madam, with lemon," my waiter advises in confidential tones. "China tea is best not taken with milk," he adds, placing on my table a double-tiered tray of crustless sandwiches: salmon, ham and butter, pressed egg, and cream cheese with cucumber.
The art of serving and drinking tea is more than plunging Asian plant leaves into hot water and bringing the mixture to table. Accompanying the process is a discreet pecking at sweets or tiny sandwiches. Conversation is also part of the ritual. There is romance to taking tea in these elegant surroundings, and the repetitive nibbling, tasting and sipping that teases the appetite has a flirtatious undertone. I was just a bit sorry I had a table for one, but satisfied myself speculating on the backgrounds of people at other tables.
This most English of meals is entirely unnecessary in today's sedentary world, but the pause for tea and sweets is eminently refreshing. There are some who build their day around the event.
As the waiters cruise by, they offer tactful jesting encouragement. "Just another sandwich, Madam?" "Still managing with your scone, Milady?"
Said scones are served with butter, clotted cream and strawberry preserves. Their taste transports the taste buds across the decades to an era when fresh baked pastry was the rule rather than an expensive exception.
"Another cake, Madam?" a waiter gently queries. Oh no, not dessert! Yes, cakes and tarts follow the sandwiches and scones. With a bit of discreet fingertip licking, I collect the last traces of butter and jam from my scones before a strawberry custard tart and minuscule dessert fork arrive.
After three-quarters of an hour sipping tea, watching the activity and sampling the delicate sandwiches, a feeling of perfect well-being overtakes me. You belong here, an inner voice whispers. The Ritz is your private domain, and the service offered so correctly is nothing less than you deserve.
I felt as if I belonged when I had tea in Agra, too. I met my host, Mr. Dani Ram, at the Agra train station. Shaking my head "no" to the clamoring hordes of rickshaw and taxi men begging to transport me, I turned to start walking the two miles to the Taj Mahal rather than engage one of the rudely persistent drivers. But when Mr. Ram, thin to the bone, pedaled toward me slowly and steadily, something about his certainty and quiet manner compelled me to engage him. Anyway, I really didn't want to walk the two miles in the heat.
I climbed on board and stared at the back of Mr. Ram's head as he bobbed straight up and down, up and down, using leverage to propel the loaded rickshaw. Other rickshaws followed us and taunted my driver, saying he didn't know where he was going or couldn't do the job. He ignored them and persisted on.
After we visited the Taj Mahal, Mr. Ram suggested that I engage him by the day for a sum of around $2. This assured him work and me regular transport. We spent nearly three days together, chatting as he pedaled me around. He told me he was grateful to have such a lightweight client, the flatterer.
One afternoon, plunging into the street life of Agra, I sketched the merchants in their doorways and bought bananas, which I shared with Mr. Ram. A wedding party started a procession through the neighborhood, with a ragtag brass band, a donkey with a gold braid bridle and general mayhem provided by shrieking young boys darting through the crowd.
Heavy-duty motorcycles converted to three-wheeled taxis roared by and passengers hanging out the backs waved to friends in the marketplace.
Mr. Ram invited me to have tea at an open-air tea shop, and I accepted with a grateful smile. Going around from shop to shop, inspecting carpets I couldn't possibly carry and examining jewelry I would never wear, had tired me out.
At the tea shop, other customers slid away from the only bench to make space for us. A man who looked like a young Marlon Brando chatted with the proprietor, then left in a hurry. Children smiled and chirped, "Hello, lady." Young men nudged each other and stared at me.
As I sat on the makeshift wooden bench, arranging my belongings, Mr. Ram served our tea. Quietly, he said, "Allow me, Madam," and held my cup. Sitting side by side, we alternated glances at the street and the activity inside the tea hut. Small boys hung about, leaning on the rickety wooden poles that supported the fragile roof. Other rickshaw drivers stopped and gulped a quick cup, throwing coins in the tea man's curled hand as he crouched on the tamped dirt floor.
The proprietor had boiling water in one kettle on a charcoal brazier beside another battered aluminum kettle with a curved spout in which the tea brewed. If the tea got too strong, he cut it with hot water. The tea was served in metal cups, like those used for camping. I watched the proprietor rinse them hastily after each customer. Generations of germs were probably still breeding on the rims, but I drank and was grateful for the refreshment. The aromatic Indian tea with sweetened condensed milk filled an empty hole inside me, drilled by the endless poverty and human struggle obvious on all sides.
In Agra, tea breaks seem to substitute for meals that workers skip to save time or cash. Teatime for working people is a chance to rest, or have a smoke and talk.
Dani Ram was composed, his legs tightly crossed. He appeared to have no meat on his bones -- his skeleton nearly broke through his skin. He sipped his tea in a quiet way between comments about the bazaar and the people around us.
Mr. Ram explained that the crowd gathering in the market was part of the wedding party we'd seen earlier, and that the bride would ride the white donkey with the decorated bridle. Both families would congregate and dominate activity in the old quarter for a day or two.
With a quick command to one of the lads, Mr. Ram ordered a small packet of English-style tea cookies. He opened the cellophane and offered me a shortbread biscuit. I knew this was an extravagance and thanked him warmly.
I also thanked him for taking me around to the shops and explained that I hadn't bought much because I couldn't carry extra goods. In fact, I was providing an excuse, saving face for him. The textile vendors had shown me cloth that was of poor quality, dirty with age. The jewelers had dangled vastly overpriced lapis necklaces, exclaiming over their beauty -- but the beads were badly drilled, with latches that didn't quite open. At the carpet merchant's, I had been shown machine-woven rugs that the salesmen swore were identical to the hand-knotted wool rug being woven out front. Ultimately, I had only bought four cotton scarves for a dollar each -- clearly overpriced, but perhaps Mr. Ram received a commission.
We continued our tea drinking. When I finished, I made a joke about the tea leaves, saying that my mother always made a point of pouring a few leaves in each cup for the amusement of fortune telling after the tea was done. Mr. Ram and I peered into each other's cups, but we could not make much of the leaves bunched at the bottom.
I didn't need tea leaves to tell me the fortunes of an Agra rickshaw driver are bleak. Mr. Ram told me his day began at 6:30 a.m. and continued to 7 p.m. He said he paid 15 rupees to the rickshaw company daily for the use of the cab, adding that he was lucky if he got 40 rupees in a day.
I doubled the amount we'd agreed upon for the day's fare. He accepted it with a reticent nod and whispered, "Thank you, Ma'am."
He asked if I would write and send shirts. Gesturing to his wardrobe -- a dress shirt and V-neck pullover -- he said they were wearing out; indeed, his cuffs were frayed and dusty.
Then Mr. Ram wound his long scarf around his neck, I climbed in the back of the rickshaw and we continued sightseeing and shopping.
The next time I visit India, I decided, I will bring Mr. Ram new shirts and invite him to tea.
I quite agree with Michael Twomey of the Ritz, who told me, "Tea is an occasion, like theater. People look forward to tea here all their lives." Of course I'd like to have tea at the Ritz again. But I also look forward to my next tea in India with Dani Ram. Tea is served daily in the Palm Court of the Ritz Hotel (Piccadilly, London W1V 9DG, telephone 011-44-71-493-8181) at 3 and 4:30 p.m. The cost is 12 pounds per person (about $24). Reservations must be secured two weeks in advance. L. Peat O'Neil is a Washington writer.