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An English expat carries a little bit of home with her wherever she goes

Lauren Cocking
February 15, 2018

We Brits are a nation of tea drinkers, with tea bags tucked away in 96 percent of British households. Tea bags are the epitome of ease. You plop them in your mug, wait for the kettle to boil, add water and top with a splash of milk. Nothing could be easier, stirring is optional and I even leave the tea bag in the mug as I’m drinking, like the filthy rebel I am. They’re sachets of disposable tea leaf bliss for those with no room for a cute-but-bulky teapot, and a mess-free solution for drinking the infusion left behind.

For loose-leaf purists, tea bags are a bit of a cop-out, a household must-have for the casual tea drinker only, rather than the upmarket tea connoisseur. But for the Brit abroad, a.k.a. me, tea bags are more than just a staple of national identity; they were a taste of home and a lifeline to my old self after I moved far from home and was trying to re-establish a new identity.

They’re ideal for times of crisis, times of joy and prompt the perfect filler for those awkward and typically British silences—a quiet "ahh, lovely" whispered to nobody in particular.

The first thing I fashioned in my Mexico City apartment was a tea brewing station of sorts, proudly displaying a coveted box of Yorkshire tea bags, a ragtag collection of mugs, and a too-expensive kettle. (I happily ignored the fact that when used in combination with the microwave it tripped the electrics.) Tea bags made me feel at home, when the place I lived wasn’t yet that.

But it was adios tea station when I went traveling, until I found a tiny cafe in Bolivia that served my favorite brew. I even endured the overwhelming rudeness of the British owner to return for a second pot the next day. We are generally a weird breed when it comes to tea, intensely judging the rituals of others. It took us until the 50s to get there, when we finally eschewed our old tea drinking ways and embraced the convenience boom that popularized the tea bag.

However, the tea bags we (more or less) know and love today have existed since the turn of the century, thanks to two American women, Roberta C. Lawson and Mary Molaren. They, of course, were written out of the history books after an American man created a botched and accidental tea bag a few years later. Tea salesman Thomas Sullivan sent out samples of his product in shoddily glued silk sachets which the recipients sort of smartly, but also very incorrectly, dunked right into the mug. The tea bag was born. Again.

Sadly though, stumbling across decent black tea bags abroad is anything but easy. The average tea drinker spends half their time sourcing willing volunteers who’ll lug boxes of the stuff across international waters, sacrificing the packing space for the third going-out top that they might need (you never know).

Coffee is no replacement either, with its jittery-legged, heart-pounding side effects. No, you need a good brew, tea bag bobbing around at the surface and all, to ease yourself into the day. And you avoid cleaning up sludgy coffee grounds or adding to the literal trash fire of global warming with your Nespresso pods and to go coffee cups. (Although, say it quietly, tea bags aren’t super great for the environment either.)

Tea bags might be a bit problematic, but they’re a valuable commodity for the Brit abroad, and sometimes just a bloody good bargain in Bolivia. However, the day I see one bobbing in an avocado husk at the latest hipster cafe is the day I wish to be wiped from the planet.

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