I think I’m in love. His name is Earl, and we’ve been together for about eight months now. He’s always there for me. He takes me as I am even when I’m strung out on another man. In fact, he’s sitting alongside me as I write this. Sometimes we meet in cafes just far enough off campus that we don’t run into any unwanted familiar faces. In the warmer months, we savor long afternoons together in the courtyard of museums on the Parkway. But these days, our rendezvous tend to occur around midnight on the first floor of the Van Pelt Library, at those long tables by the big open windows. Appearing to me through a metallic purple vessel, Earl brings me a romantic solace, gently keeping me awake through the most distressing of lab reports with a soft and mild dose of caffeine. Yes, I’m talking about Earl Grey tea.
I can’t remember when it was that we first met, but I remember the others that came before him. Oh yes, there were many. True love, after all, is so hard to find. The journey to that sweet happiness is long and arduous. In fact, I can hardly remember when I first made the switch from abhorring tea to letting it bring the power to my life that it now does. I think it may have been in the midst of a particularly bad cold somewhere around my middle school years, when my mother and doctors advised a diet of tea and soup. The latter was no problem—who doesn’t love that parching salty tang of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle? But tea? No, thank you! Keep that bitter–ass, dirty water away from me!
But alas, the cold turned feverish and, briefly bedridden, I grew desperate for a cure. My sister somehow managed to look past my devilish appearance (bless her), and offered up some of her prized loose–leaf, grapefruit–infused hibiscus green tea to enliven my immune system. Simultaneously tart and floral, I could taste every last ingredient listed on the canister this amalgamation of dried leaves, flower petals, and citrus slices lived in before blossoming into the steaming magenta drink before me.
I digress. The point is that since despising the idea of tea, my taste buds meandered their way to a complete infatuation. For a long time, I alternated between green or chamomile tea, sometimes experimenting with minty or fruity blends, but never straying from the base of those two categories.
But then I went to Dobrá Tea cafe. And it changed my relationship to tea forever. Nestled in a small neighborhood of my hometown, this cafe feels as otherworldly as its tea list. With hanging beads, low lighting, mosaic–topped tables, colorful floor pillows, and the warm incense–like smell that emanated from every freshly brewed blend, each moment spent inside felt like pure magic.
Dobrá became a hub of mine, and each time I visited, I selected a new tea to try. After months of avoiding the black tea section because of its notably higher caffeine levels, I gave in to a cup of Darjeeling Himalaya, which may or may not have also been influenced by some superior hipster feelings associated with the watching of a Wes Anderson movie. From there, it was only a matter of time before I stumbled upon Earl Grey.
We were just friends at first, the kind you would actually stop and say hello to on the street for a few minutes, maybe run into at a party here and there, but really only a level or two up from casual acquaintance. The shift began last August. My family and I spent a week at a quaint hotel on a beach in Maryland at the close of each summer, and at 3:00 p.m. daily, they served high tea to guests. My two sisters and I would run up early from the beach to beat the line, and then retreat to a group of rocking chairs armed with blueberry scones and lightly sugared cups of iced black tea. But last time, despite the 80–degree weather, we all chose the hot tea instead, garnished with only a small wedge of lemon. The slight zest of citrus gave those cups a whole new life of flavor, one that was much harder to taste in the sweetened iced version.
This same citrus is what brought me to the loving arms of Earl Grey, a black tea infused with the oil of bergamot, a fruit that's a blend between a sweet lime and a bitter orange and grows in the winter in Calabria, Italy. Gorgeous, I know. Since fully discovering its beauty, I’ve tended infrequently towards variations like the London Fog, an Earl Grey tea latte with a hint of vanilla, and loose–leaf blends like Lady Grey, which mixes the usual blend with vibrantly blue cornflower petals. Most days though, I prefer to hang out with the classic Earl—easy, simple, no surprises.
It’s cute to talk about tea like this, to personify it, and speak of its comfort and reliability as if it were actually another human being. But I really do believe there is a bit of truth to that notion. There is a patience and a purpose in tea. It comes not just from drinking it, but the entire process of brewing it—of crafting a blend from groups of different leaves, of spooning out just the right amount into a loose–leaf infuser, of selecting an appropriate mug for the occasion (my current favorite is a shade of sunset orange), of watching the rich colors of orange or pink or green or yellow bleed out from the infuser into the rest of the mug—it’s poetic and everlasting.
Like nearly everyone I know, I struggle with the social pressure of wondering whether I’m doing enough—and I don’t mean professionally. I’m talking about that twinge in the back of your brain that comes from the constant voyeurism of our media–centric world, one that always leaves me wondering if I should be more adventurous, take more risks, live more freely.
But tea takes this away. Tea calms me down, steaming away these anxieties as I realize that not every day can be an exciting whirlwind of energy, that it’s okay to feel a little bored sometimes in what are supposed to be the most exhilarating years of my life. Adding time for tea has given me the power to see the mysterious enchantments of a quiet golden evening in my backyard or morning hours passed with Woolf and a grapefruit in my pinstriped bed sheets or even a sunny mid–morning walk to class. This still–developing patience teaches me to crave those clichéd moments of youthful catharsis without wanting to skip over the sadness or boredom that will sometimes come in between—to instead welcome those moments as an equally beautiful facet of life. Joni Mitchell put it better when she sang, “There’ll be icicles and birthday clothes and sometimes / There’ll be sorrow.” And through it all, I know that Earl will be there.