Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Tea in Toronto

There's a sense of exhilaration that I get when I'm at a conference away from home. The novelty of being in a distant city, the fun of catching up with old friends who come from afar as well, and the excitement of meeting people for the first time; all these energize me as I go from lecture to lecture, trying to absorb bits of information, the latest findings and guidelines in medicine.

This year, the annual spring conference was in Toronto. Having been disappointed in the availability of decent tea and stymied in my attempts to brew it in a hotel room in past years, I brought along my own stash of tea from home. Hours before my flight, I assiduously packed spoonfuls of dry tea leaves into disposable tea filters, stashing them in a metal canister, hoping for the best when I pass through customs. There were enough of the Yunnan black for both E and me for the morning as well as an ample supply of Silver Needles for the early afternoon -when I envisioned myself rushing back to the hotel room, between talks, from the adjacent convention center to brew a cup of the much-needed tea, then heading back to slog through several additional hours of lectures.

On the first morning in Toronto, E and I went downstairs to breakfast. I was not expecting much in the way of potable tea and had already pulled out the metal canister from my luggage in anticipation of brewing tea later in our hotel room after breakfast.

But I was pleasantly surprised. A wooden box holding a variety of loose leaf tea stood between the espresso machine and a large stand of bagels. Present were English Breakfast, chai, Lung Ching Dragonwell, White Peony, and some tisanes. I chose the chai blend to go with my carb-laden breakfast, the briskness of the black tea a fitting counterpoint to my generously-buttered raisin toast.

In the afternoons, there was tea at the Red Tea Box, a funky teahouse in an even funkier neighborhood of Queen Street West. The first day, E and I sat at the back and looked out onto a leafy alcove. Inside, we were amidst the fading brocade of rocking chairs and settees. We shared a pot of Jasmine Pearls, picked at Asian-inflected small plates, and shared perfect-looking pieces of confectionery.

There were more pots of tea later: Lung Ching the next day at the Red Tea Box, more jasmine over bowls of rice with friends in Chinatown, a large pot of hot ginger milk tea with E late at night while surrounded by tweens in a bubble tea shop.

Days later, I am at home. The trees are almost in full bloom, the cherry blosssoms more luxuriant than I remember them to be - the contrast emphatic in my mind, seeming further away than a mere week ago.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Water flanks my home on both sides. On the east, there's Lake Michigan; on the west, a river runs through the city. I am lucky to be within walking distance of both lake and river - in the morning when I go for my walk, I turn eastward, heading for the lake. Perhaps, it's the expanse of that body of water that draws me. The prospects of catching glimpses of the waves peaking and foaming as they lap the shore, of hearing the boom of surf as I climb down the hill across dry sand, reaching the water's edge where the sand now squishes under my feet. I would walk on the concrete of the breakwater out to the edge. From there, I see the vastness, the all-emcompassing water. White specks in the distance bob from wave to wave. They sometimes take flight, emit a screech or two, and show themselves as gulls as they rise higher in the air.

The river is nestled in a park a stone's throw from my home. For some reason, I often forget its proximity. It winds unobtrusively through neighborhoods, sheltered under weeping willows by the side of a hill.

More recently in the evening after work, I may long to see the glint of the river as I approach it, ascending a hill, walking first through a culvert in which my footsteps reverberate. The vista opens into a wide field as I emerge from the dankness of the culvert, and I see the riverbed through a line of trees.

My heart quickens as I get that first glimpse of the river, the water touched with crimson at this time of day.

Later at home, I make tea. One evening, it is a Thai oolong, a gift from our friend, I. The dry leaves of the oolong are full of a briny aroma that when brewed, unfurl, dark and oblong, in my gaiwan. The taste reminds me of the Jade Oolong, a lightly oxidized tea, more green in nature than black.

Several infusions later, I sit gazing at the overlapping tea leaves on the bottom of the gaiwan. A little of the amber liquor remains to bathe the leaves.

I take the final sip of tea for the day, with the image of fallen leaves carried along by the river still in my mind.

Monday, April 12, 2010

A Change in Plans

With half-opened eyes, I woke up and saw the cats pressed up against the window. Poised on the narrow sill by adroitly placing their no longer svelte pelvises perpendicular to the panes, they robustly flicked their tails. I got up, peered through the blinds, and saw a skinny sparrow directly on the other side, two sheets of glass away. Each of his chirps was met with answers inside: more tail flicking and frustrated darting from sill to sill by the cats. This roundelay finally ended when the sparrow hopped onto a nearby branch where he continued his melodic taunts. The cats, now fed up, jumped down in unison and turned to me, mewing for their breakfast.

The day was a gorgeous one, sunny and warm by the time I got out for my morning walk. Heaps of broken-up seashells crunched underfoot as I walked at the water's edge. There were pebbles, smooth and striped with a soft pink, on sand recently washed over with waves. The warmth of the sun, the gentle slapping of water at my feet, seemed far removed from the stream of Saturday traffic just up the hill. Soon, it was time for me to head back home for the short drive to Chicago where we planned to catch the Matisse exhibit at the Art Institute.

However, when my companions and I arrived at the museum, it was near closing time. Along the way, we had dawdled, stopping for chai at a cafe, for bagels, cream cheese, and challah at a deli - where curiously enough, French-styled macarons were sold. (Of course, I snapped up a bag of these rather unorthodox macarons, made with jelly fillings instead of buttercream).

Foiled in our attempt to see the art exhibit, we trudged across the street to Millenium Park. With a paper cup of jasmine tea in one hand and the bag of the few remaining macarons in the other, I soon got over my disappointment.

We settled on a park bench and idled away the afternoon. We saw madcap children dashing round and round the Crown Fountain, pushing an empty stroller. Older girls twirled their jump ropes and skillfully did the double dutch. We watched loamy clouds darkened as they settled in between high-rises, creeping behind trees.

The hours passed effortlessly, carried along by the warmth of the tea, the airy macarons, and the company at my side. The museum across the street can surely wait another day.

Friday, April 2, 2010


Clumps of powdery green eddied in my matcha bowl. I watched steaming water engulf the bits of green, lapping the sides of the bowl with each motion of my whisk. The powder settled to the bottom, the liquor thickly green.

I sat down to tea with my bowl of matcha and a slice of sponge cake. The cake was flecked with cut-up blood oranges, squat in form but still spongy in my mouth.

The day was passing quickly, already mid-afternoon by the time I got home from visiting my nursing home patient.

As usual, she was in bed when I came into her room. It was the morning after bingo, and she was tired out. The previous evening, she was surrounded by the Monday night hubbub: the sea of familiar faces of people she's gotten to know throughout her years here, the staff weaving within the thicket of wheelchairs, distributing prizes in candy to the winners. She showed me her own stash, tucked away in a wicker basket. It sat plushly among stuffed teddy bears on her rocking chair. Mini-sized Snickers, licorice sticks, bags of M&Ms were all testament to her ability to manage four bingo cards at a time. Her basket of winnings would await her grandkids when they come to visit.

She talked of the past. Often, it's the remote past, of her life as a young woman, newly married, keeping house, eventually, with three small children. She was an enthusiastic baker, and her children enjoyed fresh batches of cookies or slices of cakes every day when they came home from school.

Today, she remembered her grandmother. My grandmother was born an orphan, she said, her father died a few weeks before her birth, and her mother died giving birth to her.

This grandmother was raised by an aunt who had 10 children of her own. Unable to take care of another child, she sent her niece - now a year old - on a steamer from Poland, bound for the States. The child arrived at her destined city where another aunt took custody of her. Here, in the Midwest, she grew up, got married, and raised her family. When she died, my own patient attended to her at this same nursing home where I have been visiting her.

There was beauty in this symmetry of interconnected lives, preserved over generations. My patient will most likely see her last moments here, surrounded by these walls, by windows overlooking the lake. Perhaps, there will be a granddaughter at her bedside, carefully propping up her many pillows, adjusting the bowed head onto the downy whiteness.

My own grandmothers are long gone. In my old bedroom at my parents', there is a china teapot in its wicker cosy, snug in its velveteen interior. This once belonged to my grandmother, a teapot she used daily. It is now mine to remember her by. I remind myself to bring it back with me the next time I visit my parents.