Thursday, August 12, 2010

Anton Chekhov and some great old Russian tea

In some recent travels, I picked my way through a particularly splendid used book store and came away with a slim volume of Anton Chekhov's letters from his 1890 journey east into Siberia. Cheers to the editor or academic who spotted the value of collecting this particular ream of correspondence; together it makes for a revealing travelogue, a piece of reportage about not only the sights and smells of a landscape many of us will never see but also the timbre of the society there at the time ("Out here nobody worries about saying what he thinks. There's no one to arrest you and nowhere to exile people to so you can be as liberal as you please"). I, of course, was struck by often he mentions tea in his travels, which take him down the Amur River, with Russia on his left and China on his right:

I'm drinking excellent tea, after which I feel pleasantly stimulated.

This is a reoccurring note in his letters, taking tea with other riverboat passengers, officers of the ship, folks in various towns. Can you imagine provincial tea north of China in 1890? Strong stuff! (salivate)

This, after all, from a man who lived a short while in a tea shop. Reminds me, too, of this passage from one of Chekhov's many short stories, this one focusing on a tea party and titled simply "The Party":

The tables were already laid under the trees; the samovars were smoking, and Vassily and Grigory, in their swallow-tails and white knitted gloves, were already busy with the tea-things. On the other bank, opposite the "Island of Good Hope," there stood the carriages which had come with the provisions. The baskets and parcels of provisions were carried across to the island in a little boat like the Penderaklia. The footmen, the coachmen, and even the peasant who was sitting in the boat, had the solemn expression befitting a name-day such as one only sees in children and servants.

While Olga Mihalovna was making the tea and pouring out the first glasses , the visitors were busy with the liqueurs and sweet things. Then there was the general commotion usual at picnics over drinking tea, very wearisome and exhausting for the hostess. Grigory and Vassily had hardly had time to take the glasses round before hands were being stretched out to Olga Mihalovna with empty glasses. One asked for no sugar, another wanted it stronger, another weak, a fourth declined another glass. And all this Olga Mihalovna had to remember, and then to call, "Ivan Petrovitch, is it without sugar for you?" or, "Gentlemen, which of you wanted it weak?" But the guest who had asked for weak tea, or no sugar, had by now forgotten it, and, absorbed in agreeable conversation, took the first glass that came. Depressed-looking figures wandered like shadows at a little distance from the table, pretending to look for mushrooms in the grass, or reading the labels on the boxes -- these were those for whom there were not glasses enough. "Have you had tea?" Olga Mihalovna kept asking, and the guest so addressed begged her not to trouble, and said, "I will wait," though it would have suited her better for the visitors not to wait but to make haste.

Some, absorbed in conversation, drank their tea slowly, keeping their glasses for half an hour; others, especially some who had drunk a good deal at dinner, would not leave the table, and kept on drinking glass after glass, so that Olga Mihalovna scarcely had time to fill them. One jocular young man sipped his tea through a lump of sugar, and kept saying, "Sinful man that I am, I love to indulge myself with the Chinese herb." He kept asking with a heavy sigh: "Another tiny dish of tea more, if you please." He drank a great deal, nibbled his sugar, and thought it all very amusing and original, and imagined that he was doing a clever imitation of a Russian merchant.

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