The Matter Of Words

BookShelf

The street was cobbled. Perhaps it was raining. It’s not always wet, but it is usually cold in London in early January. It was barely afternoon and it might have been dark already. I’m sure I didn’t mind the cold pinching my skin that was more used to the hot African sun at that time of year than the chilliness that stroked my bare neck with its icy fingers. South Africans in London are not always prepared for true degrees of freezing.

I didn’t mind. It wasn’t the cold that had my attention right then.

It was at least 20 years ago. The highlights of those weeks backpacking through Europe and London have faded. What I remember with vivid clarity are the details: the snow I saw for the first time in Lucerne, the brave Italian bikers who didn’t care about the side mirrors they snapped off the cars as they whizzed down narrow Roman alleys, and the pillow cases at the inn under the train tracks in Avignon that smelled strongly of vinegar. I knew they were clean.

London was our last stop. My backpack felt heavy after lugging it for weeks on my back, and the cobbled streets were dangerously slick in the rain.

I stepped into the bookstore to move away from the wintry, poking fingers of imminent nightfall and found myself in a world of wonder.

This bookstore was no different to any other I’d ever been in: shelves and stacks and displays of novels and recipe books and travel guides, biographies and plays and the latest bestsellers. An entire carousel of Mr Men. It was all there as expected.

What was unexpected was my reaction. As if I had never been in a bookstore before, the frenzied desire to own them all wrapped itself around my heart like the scarf I had forgotten to bring: Dickens and Austen and George Eliot and every Brontë I could find, including Anne. Poems by Milton and Yeats and Seamus Heaney and a big fat anthology of the works of John Keats. Plays by Moliere and Strindberg and I’m sure a Shakespeare or two.

Somewhere between Robinson Crusoe and Lady Chatterley’s Lover I misplaced my jacket and all my wits. How I would transport my newly acquired, gargantuan stash of classics from London to Johannesburg in a backpack that was already weighing me down was of no consequence. Or even of consideration.

Today, my greatest challenge in that situation would be finding a wifi connection to download all those masterpieces of literature. I would log on to Amazon, maybe read a sample but probably not, click Buy and be done. I could do it while standing on the cobbled street in the cold twilight, possibly using the bookstore’s wifi. Swipe. Click. Adjust the collar of my jacket against the chill.

The books are heavy, weighted with the words, the truths of their authors. Journals of imagination and dreams, pages of exploration and fantasy. Their colorful covers, bright canvases of promise and adventure, guard the path along which we can’t wait to wander or race, meander or gallop.

I love my Kindle, I do. It’s light and nimble, easy to carry, and would occupy little more space than a pair of socks in a heavy backpack. It is a portal to a world of words and anticipation, a world that is truly at my fingertips. And that is nothing less than astounding.

But its shelves are flat and gray. There are no wrinkled spines standing upright or leaning a little to the right, urgently but quietly beckoning to the eager reader. There is no inscription waiting for me on the title page, the date of my sixth birthday underlined in blue pen at the top:

To our own darling Nicky,

Wishing you many happy returns of the day.

All our love and kisses

from your loving

Gran & Sonny

There is no favorite bookstore with every book I’ve been wanting to read beautifully displayed, and no bookstore owner to chat with or to tell me about a little-known gem. She has known all my children since they were born and every recommendation is a winner.

My backpack was heavier than I could have ever imagined, carrying those books home. I even bought a large duffel bag for the overflow. But the sight of them, 20 years later, in my bookshelf and the feel of them in my two hands is worth every last, heavy step.

This is a Finish the Sentence Friday post, inspired by the prompt, “Something I used to love but now hate is…” or “Something I used to hate but now love is…” Hosted by Kristi from Finding Ninee, Allison (this week’s sentence thinker-upper) from The Latchkey Mom, and Kelly from Just TypiKel. Words matter.

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Tea for Two and Two for Tea

There is no better place in the world to enjoy a cup of real English tea than in England.

The thing about tea is that when it’s good, it’s very very good – heavenly actually – and when it’s bad, it’s horrid. And we don’t get very good tea in America. We get Lipton. And Lipton is horrid.

I’m not talking about herbal tea. The U.S. has fabulous herbal teas, many even locally produced like Oakland’s very own Numi Tea, and I love me a cup of organic mint or chamomile tea after a meal as much as the next guy.

But that’s not the tea I adore. My tea is real English breakfast tea, milk two sugars (although now I’m trying to eliminate sugar because I live in California where everyone is eliminating something from her diet and I had FOMO). So real English breakfast tea for me, with milk. And by real I mean not a U.S. brand. This is the Starbucks nation after all. I mean a brand from England. Or anywhere in the U.K. Or South Africa. Australia. I guess a brand from anywhere they play cricket. Because tea and cricket go together like Laverne and Shirley, Danny and Sandy, E.T. and Elliott (all of whom are American and would probably never drink tea, but rather double espressos. Sandy is Australian though – she definitely drinks tea).

Tea makes my day. It starts my day. Often ends my day. Calms the chaos (all that caffeine) and enhances the calm (more caffeine). It has moved me through moments of terrible sadness and despair, and held me happier in the happy. Weekend afternoons are always about tea, whether rain or shine, soccer or swimming (no cricket in my very American family) because that’s how our parents do it in South Africa, and that’s how their parents did it too. One of my favorite memories is slurping tea from my grandmother’s saucer, like a cat.

And last week I did get to enjoy tea in England. And it was delicious. It wasn’t even a special brand – just regular PG Tips, but the English kind. And it tasted so much better. I didn’t pay attention to it while I was drinking copious cuppas in England. Rather, I noticed it when I came home. Because when I made a cup of tea on Saturday morning – real English tea – in my own kitchen, it tasted different.

And it could’ve been because it was rainy and damp in London all week, or because the water tastes different over there (the big story last week was that traces of cocaine have been found in Britain’s drinking water), or that I was using brown sugar instead of white sugar (or no sugar).

It could have been because of all those, or none of those or some of those. But it was definitely because of who I was drinking those cups of tea with in London.

A friend so dear and special. A friend who has known me 35 of my 40 years. Who wanted to clear the slate on a little dispute we had in high school. Who loves “Mad Men” as much as I do and for all the same reasons, Don Draper being only one of them. Who remembers things I have forgotten and who can’t believe the things I have remembered. Who took me to see the fantastical cut-outs of Henri Matisse and then schlepped the banks of the Thames with me in search of tea and scones. We came up empty-handed – can you imagine? No traditional tea and scones on the south banks of the Thames?!

We made tea for each other every single day, many times a day, during my week-long stay in London. We sat together at the beautifully distressed wooden table in her kitchen, while her slightly unruly English garden steps away on the other side of the glass door soaked up the gentle rain. She thought I made the best cup of tea, and I thought she did.

Because a lot of love and decades of friendship, book reviews, gossip and chitchat, fashion do’s and don’ts and movie synopses, big decisions, hard conversations, silly stories, and so many tears and hysterical laughter and comfortable silences were poured into every cup of tea, made each one stronger, taste better, last longer.

I missed her on Saturday morning when I drank my suddenly strange-tasting tea without her. And it may well be there is no better place than England to drink real English tea – or it may just be that I miss my forever friend.

Because the thing about finally being together after a long time apart, about spending wonderful time with that special someone I haven’t seen for a while, is that I miss them more than ever after.

And the tea tastes a little less satisfying… but only until next time.