Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps


November 13, 2008 Alice’s Tea Party

When Alice sat down to tea with the Dormouse and the Mad Hatter, she had a tea party unlike any she’d had before. My tea party this afternoon was just about as odd.

In my defense, I wasn’t planning to host a tea party. If I had been, I’d have acquired some of the key components. I’ve been planning to buy a small table anyway, but I’d’ve definitely picked up a tea pot and, um, the tea.

But instead I got to wing it.

Lhumdullah, Zahra (the previous volunteer here in Berberville, whose apartment I took over and whose furnishings/kitchenwares I bought/inherited from her) had a teapot and glasses. Moroccans – well, the ones I’ve had tea with, anyway – drink their tea out of small glasses, not teacups or mugs.

But Zahra’s teapot is meant to serve two or three. It’s small, and really very cute, but it’s not up to the task of a tea party.

Well, neither am I…

Here’s how it happened:

Yesterday, Ama asked me to babysit for my baby cousin, who I’ll call Mumu (the Tamazight word for baby). She and Xalti (who’s visiting) and my little sister and cousin were all planning to go to the hammam today, and that would be a lot easier if they didn’t have a two-month old to handle.

I cheerfully agreed, delighted to have a way to give back to the family who has given me so much.

I figured they’d come by around 12:30 or 1, since that’s when the hammam opens, and when you go to the Berberville hammam, the earlier the better. The men get it in the morning, women in the afternoon, and since tomorrow – Friday – is souq day in Berberville, everyone wants to bathe today. But when the wood runs out, the fires die out, and the hot water runs out. So if you get to the hammam late, it’s pretty likely that you’ll end up with a cold bath instead of a hot one.

Anyway, I started looking for them around noon. I’d been up on my roof, doing laundry (see previous entry), but decided to start cooking the rice pudding I’d mixed up last night. I figured the heat from the oven would keep the kitchen warm while I made lunch – macaroni & cheese fresh from America – and by the time it was done, I’d have a little munchkin to entertain.

I started the water for the macaroni, then lit the oven.

That sounds so simple.

In the US, when I’ve lit a gas oven, it requires a little finesse – to make sure the oven ignites before you crank it up to full temperatures – but it’s somewhat more complicated here.

First, I crunch my thumb on the brika (lighter). It usually takes a couple of tries before I get a flame. (Smoker, I am not. Given my lack of practice, it’s not surprising that I find lighters to be tricky little buggers.) Then I light a candle.

I copied this practice from previous Volunteers. It gives you a steady flame to work with, without risk of either (a) burning your thumb or (b) melting key components of the plastic brika – both of which I’ve managed to do when trying to hold a lighter flame alight for more than a few seconds.

Once the candle is aflame, I turn the nozzle on top of the butane tank, aka the butagaz or buta (sounds exactly like Buddha). Once the gas is flowing, I turn on the oven. Then I wave the candle around in the 3” space under the gas nozzles, hopefully lighting all of the dozens of tiny flames. I try to move my hand quickly enough to light everything without creating a fireball, but slowly enough that each little nozzle actually ignites. It usually takes a few broad sweeps across the oven, then a slower trip up and down the 8 lines of flames. All without setting my hand on fire or dripping wax on my fingers.

(Is it any wonder that there’s no hair on the backs of my hands anymore? There used to be – little tiny fine white-blond hairs that were essentially invisible – but they’ve all singed right off.)

Oh, and the oven sits right on the floor, so in order to see that all of the flames are lit, I have to have my head on the floor or half an inch above it, with my neck craned to look into the oven. Someone walking in would probably imagine that I’m a few seconds away from a suicide attempt, but that’s just what lighting my oven looks like.

One more thing – the flames blow out from time to time, so as long as the oven is on, I have to check it every few minutes, and relight any flames that have gone out, lest the gas flow into the house and kill all inhabitants.

Ah, fun with buta.

Where was I?

Ah, yes: I’d just tossed the macaroni into the boiling water, and was lighting the oven to cook up the rice pudding. So there I was, with my hand in the oven and my head on the floor, and I hear a knock at the door.

I’m catsitting again, or else I’d have left the door open so they could just come on in.

But I have no idea which corner of the house Sheba is hiding in, or whether she’s in an exploratory humor, so I leave the doors shut.

…which means that when the knock comes, and my head is on the floor, I need to get up and answer it.

I make sure that all the flames are lit – I don’t want to come back to a big gasball – and then run downstairs.

Ama is there, but no sign of anyone else. I invite her in. I explain that I’m cooking lunch, so she brings a chair into the kitchen and makes herself comfortable.

I put the rice pudding in the oven, stir the macaroni, and then take Mumu from her. (He’d been cleverly camouflaged as a pile of blankets on her back.)

Turns out Ama decided not to go to the hammam after all, so she and Mumu just hang out with me till the rest of the family is done. We spend most of the time on the toasty roof.

At one point, while I was down in the kitchen checking on the rice pudding, Ama invited my 3tti (another auntie, and the sister-in-law of Ama—their husbands are brothers) to come over when the gang comes back from the hammam. But she neglects to tell me that she’s done this.

Around 3, my cousin and sister knock on the door. They’re all scrubbed clean. I ask where Xalti is. Answer: She didn’t come. Which I’d figured out. But whatever. I invite the kiddies in, and bring up the rice pudding and a bunch of forks to the roof.

We all eat out of the common dish (as is perfectly normal here).

Maybe an hour later, there’s another knock on the door. I figure it’s Xalti, come to see why nobody followed her home. (I later discover that I was wrong – Xalti hadn’t gone home, she’d just lingered longer in the hammam than the girls wanted to.) Instead, it’s 3tti.

I’m surprised to see her, but invite her in. She says, “Your mom invited me to come over, so I’ve come for tea. Did you make tea? If not, you can make it now.” She’s trying to be accommodating; I’m actually impressed that it occurred to her that I wouldn’t have a pot of tea on constant simmer, like most Moroccan women. I say, hesitantly, “I’m not sure there is any tea. Well, any Moroccan tea. Would you like some American tea?” She laughs. Hard. She’s fit to bust a gut. She comes in and finds everyone hanging out in the kitchen. She joins the gang, immediately recounting for Ama and the kids what had passed between us. She can barely get the story out, she’s laughing so hard. Apparently, not having tea on hand is the single most ridiculous thing she’s ever encountered. Ah, culture barriers.

Really, it’s my fault; I should have expected women to invite themselves over for tea long ago, and been prepared for it.

Anyway, I dug through the food Zahra left me – mostly condiments, but a few other things, too – before finally saying, “I’m sorry, there isn’t any Moroccan tea. Would you like some American tea?” She just laughed more. I put water on to boil.

[[ Sidenote : I owe Ama a big thank-you for never having made me feel awkward for never offering her tea. She’s come over to my house a few times, never for more than a few minutes, and has never asked for tea. I kinda figured that she both (a) had all the tea she could stand at home and (b) expected her foreign daughter to be eccentric, so I never thought much about it. I now realize that she was waiting for me to offer it, and when I didn’t, she just accepted that with a graciousness which I hadn’t even noticed, let alone appreciated. ]]

I invited everyone into the living room, then returned to the kitchen and the Tea Problem. I could have sent one of the little girls to the hanut (corner shop) for Moroccan tea, but it was too late for that – I’d promised them American tea. So I stood in the kitchen, wondering what I should serve them. I have several varieties of chai that I brought from America, as well as some chamomile, jasmine tea, and citrusy rose hip tea, all inherited from Zahra. I finally decided that the jasmine tea, having a green tea base, would probably taste the most like Moroccan tea, which is mostly green tea.

It’s all bagged tea, so I went ahead and put three tea bags in Zahra’s tiny teapot, then poured in the water from the kettle, then put the teapot on the stove. (I really have learned how to brew tea, despite today’s debacle. I didn’t think I’d be put to the test – and definitely not today – but I’ve paid attention whenever I’ve been in a kitchen during teamaking.) I poured in all the sugar I had – it’s been on my shopping list, but didn’t seem urgent – and hoped it would be sweet enough. Jasmine tea really doesn’t need sugar, so I said a silent apology to all my Asian friends who would be horrified by my actions, but Moroccans expect tea to be incredibly sweet.

Then I considered my next step. When a Berberville woman serves tea, she brings out the teapot and glasses for everyone on a pretty tea tray, which she then places on the small table in the living room. The only variation to this is that she might carry in the small table with the teapot and glasses already on it. Or she might have it waiting on the small table, with a pretty tea towel draped over everything to keep off flies. That’s the extent of the tea-serving variations I’ve ever seen.

…But I don’t have a small table. Or a tea tray. Or even a full-sized teapot.

Apparently, either Zahra didn’t have them or she gave them away when she left. And whenever I’ve had PCV friends over, I’ve just handed them mugs or dishes and we eat off our laps, so I’ve never bothered to buy any of these things in the souq.

So I looked around the kitchen, wondering how I could improvise a tea tray. Digging through my inherited ikshushan (kitchenwares), I found a glass casserole dish that I’d forgotten was in there. It’s good that I’d forgotten about it; had I remembered, I’d’ve used it for the rice pudding. It’s exactly the right size for five glasses plus the tiny teapot.

I washed it off and loaded it up. I wasn’t sure if the tiny teapot could hold enough tea to fill all five little glasses, so I went ahead and poured out two cups. I mixed one back in (it’s part of the teamaking ritual), but then poured another out and refilled the tiny pot from the kettle of water on the stove. Hopefully, it would steep enough before I’d need to pour any more tea.

When I entered the living room, holding the casserole dish, 3tti was gone. (Note on pronounciation, for those who read aloud inside their heads: 3tti sort of rhymes with patty, and sort of rhymes with petty. Imagine the word halfway between patty and petty and that’s the sound you’re going for.)

Ama explained that 3tti had gone to take care of something at home, but that she was planning to return for tea. The little girls were dispatched to let her know that the crazy foreigner had produced something vaguely tea-like.

Before 3tti arrived, Ama gave me some maternal advice: Go to the market and buy some tea. Keep it on hand. Next time something like this happens, you’ll be prepared. In fact, if I’m here, she added, I’ll even make the tea for you. Don’t worry about it. But you’ve got to have the tea. This stuff is OK for being American tea, but we expect tea to be … redder. Ever kind, she didn’t say “tastier” or even just “better”. She also offered to give me a small table; she’s got several, like most Moroccan hostesses. And her tone of voice when saying "You've got to have tea" was pretty much the same tone you'd use if you were saying "You have to breathe in and out all day long." There was no irritation or sarcasm, just the tightly-wound patience I've found myself using with unusually slow students.

3tti came in, holding her daughter, another little cousin of mine. I poured 3tti a cup of tea. She took a sip, nearly spit it out, and handed the cup to Ama, who drank it. (Bless you, Ama!) I took Mumu from Ama so that she’d have more freedom to drink tea without worrying about spilling on the baby.

Ama, gracious as ever, used my holding the baby as a pretext for taking over hostessing responsibilities. (No, don’t get up! I’ll take care of this for you.) She managed to create the impression that of course I was about to do these things for myself, but couldn’t because I was jiggling a two-month-old (swaddled to the size of a Golden Retriever). I don’t know if 3tti was fooled, but I’m still grateful to Ama for trying.

She went into the kitchen and brought back a bowl full of rice pudding. She offered it to 3tti’s daughter, knowing that 3tti would taste it and therefore find *something* that she would probably like. It worked. 3tti made a face and said, “This is American??”, but she kept eating it. It’s sugary and full of ingredients readily available in Morocco, so Ama had guessed correctly that it would appeal to her.

Ama and 3tti kept up a steady stream of conversation. I chimed in occasionally, but was humiliated enough by the catastrophe of a party to mostly keep my head down and bounce Mumu on my knee. Then Ama ducked into the kitchen again and returned with tangerines for all the kids, another big hit. Again, something I should have thought of, but hadn’t. Ama is a gifted hostess. So is my American Mom, for that matter. Hopefully it’ll rub off on me soon…

Somewhere in there, Xalti showed up, and Ama went through it all again, explaining my tealessness and offering my rice pudding as proof that I’m not hopeless, despite appearances. Both 3tti and Xalti asked for the rice pudding recipe, but I’m not sure whether it was curiosity or actual interest. They both ate a lot of it, though – Xalti polished off the baking dish – so I hope it succeeded in proving Ama’s point. Although 3tti got the last laugh: when she said she’d had enough (Baraka, which literally means “I have been blessed”, and is closely related to the name of our President Elect), she looked at me expectantly…and I realized that I didn’t know the response. I’ve always been the one to say, “Baraka, lhumdullah,” after eating someone else’s food, and never heard a murmured reply. Apparently, it’s fsHa. So Ama told me, I said it, 3tti laughed, and the Mad Hatter’s party was done.

It was after 5, the tea was mostly gone (the kids had liked it, and Ama kept hoping it would help her stomach feel better), and the rice pudding had been polished off, so everyone piled out the door. We exchanged bslamas (goodbyes) and I closed my front door with a sizeable feeling of relief. I have a mountain of dishes to do when the water comes on in the morning, plus I’ll need to clean my living room (there are stray bits of orange peel and rice grains around), but I’m still happy. I fed tea and sweets to six people and nobody died or held a grudge, so I’m calling it a passing grade.

Ar mn b3d, inshallah... (Until next time, God willing…)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps