…For I have known them all already, known them all:
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
– T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
In Britain, there’s a phrase that accompanies almost every cup of tea: ‘Putting the world to rights.’
The September I arrived in England, I was the very first student to move into the college’s dorm. The professors who met me at the airport (it was a very friendly college!) thought I might like some company, so they asked a local student to come and hang out for a while in the common room. On our meeting she asked me if I’d like a coffee, which I thought was an odd request given that it was very late at night. To me, coffee meant going to a coffee shop for something frothy, highly-caffeinated and expensive. Or the kind you have at work or while studying- from a never-ending coffee pot where you help yourself and add coffeemate to your heart’s content when you need a refuel.
I found that what she was referring to was a humble cup of coffee- made right there in the kitchen, probably instant- and a good chat. Over the years it’s never ceased to amaze me how often Brits will stop for a cup of tea- or coffee- in a day. You are offered one after every meal. If you go to anyone’s house, you have one before you get on with whatever you are there to do. If you’re making yourself a cup in your house, you make one for everyone. Whatever business you have to get on with, tasks you need to accomplish, work to do- it all waits until you’ve finished your cup of tea. It doesn’t take long to discern that it’s not about the drink at all; It’s about spending time together.
In a British office, the person who makes the coffee isn’t the bottom of the totem pole, they’re the person who remembers who has coffee and who has tea. Who takes two sugars, and who likes theirs milky, and who’s lactose intolerant. In short, it’s someone with the extraordinary gift of hospitality. I’ve observed in almost every workplace I’ve been in a sense of unspoken reverence for the person who makes the tea, day in and day out.
A big fan of coffee and of long chats, I’ve grown a deep respect for this ritual and it’s found a special place in our home. So many friends. So many conversations. So many times we’ve put the world to rights over a cup of tea. And because of this, each mug has a story, a memory, a life of its own.
I think we’ll take them with us.