Wednesday, March 06, 2013

To tea or not to tea. The Downton Abbey syndrome

For the last couple of years and as is the case with many people who indulge in an afternoon beverage break, I find myself thinking more about the proper way to serve tea. Usually, tea for me consist of a large mug with the words, “I heart New York” written across the front in large black letters, the dropping of a tea bag inside followed by the slow pouring (has to be slow to bring out the full flavor) of boiling hot water and allowing it to steep for a few minutes, finishing off with a drop of milk (cold – not hot). I’m giving a lot of thought nowadays to the idea of switching to using a tea cup and teapot.

Having spent the first six years of my childhood in England, tea has always played an important role in my life and now with the emergence of Downton Abbey on the TV screen, I feel a pull back to ye old country customs, be it on a much more limited scale.
For those of us who are devoted and confirmed Downton Abbey-ists, we can blame the BBC and Julian Fellowes for springing Lord and Lady Grantham and the Crawley family experience on to the TV screen. In essence, it’s a soap opera where the characters are members of a privileged upper-class aristocratic family and the internal rivalry of their servants. Viewers like moi, get to share the ups and downs of the various family members as they live out their lives in ignorant bliss and splendor, while being served hand-to-foot in the true sense of the word, by servants who cater to their every need and whim.

It’s not difficult to see why the series has caught the imagination of royal watchers and soap opera followers (like me). How many of us wouldn’t like the experience of owning and wearing splendiferous clothes throughout the day and changing them depending on who rings the bell? Dining would always be a special occasion and take place in the various dining rooms, depending on the time of day and importance of thevisitors. Mornings would call for the silver serving pieces and white linen tablecloths and napkins. Place mats and paper napkins would never do.

“Excuse me, Eleanor,” Lord Tylbor would utter while scanning the financial section of the newspaper. “Could you pass me the butter and the marmelade?”

“Dearest husband, Lord Tylbor...sweetie,” I would or could respond as a servant pours tea from a beautiful bone china designer teacup, adding a touch of milk, two lumps of sugar followed by a quick stir. “As you will recall, we no longer use butter in favor of “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter” due to your cholesterol problem. Besides, we do have a butler to do those menial things like butter passing.”

There are certain rules and regulations to be followed and as mentioned in previous blogs, my favorite source of etiquette is Debretts. When it comes to doing and knowing the right way to conduct oneself, Debretts has it all.

"It is the responsibility of 
the person who has invited you to brief you on what you should expect. If in doubt, always ask before you attend as codes of conduct and etiquette are strictly observed.
You should arrive on time and dress appropriately, following the dress code on your invitation. Look particularly to the top table for cues as to when to sit down, start eating, leave the table etc. Refrain from leaving the table during dinner. Table manners should be faultless; this really is the time to be on your best behaviour," Debretts offers in the way of helpful advice.

Advice is also available on bathroom etiquette. "When nature calls, either slip away quietly or excuse yourself from the group. Leave it clean, always flush and never discuss." This leads one - me - to ponder why one would discuss one's bathroom habits. I mean, it's not a dinner topic. Thinking further, one could share toilet flushing techniques but that's about all.

 Back to Downton Abbey.

All the series characters are interesting in their own right but the one that has stood out as a favorite is Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Her zingers are anticipated as much as the story lines. Here are a few of my favorites accumulated over time.

Cora: "Things are different in America."
Lady Grantham: "I know. They live in wigwams."

(Upon being told the swivel chair was invented by Thomas Jefferson) "Why does every day involve a fight with an American?"

"So that’s Mary’s replacement. Well I suppose looks aren’t everything."Sir Richard: "I'm leaving in the morning. I doubt we'll meet again."
Lady Grantham: "Do you promise?"

Mrs Crawley: “I take that as a compliment.”
Lady Grantham: “I must have said it wrong.”

 "I have plenty of friends I don't like."

 "Last night! He looked so well. Of course it would happen to a foreigner. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else's house."

"One can't go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We'd all be in a constant state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper."

(Struggling with the newly installed telephone) "Is this an instrument of communication, or torture?"

Having watched seasons one through three at least twice I’m looking forward to the next installment. According to “spoiler” reports, Mary, now a widow, will get a new love in her life, and being treated to the Dowager Countess's bons mots is something to look forward to. Meanwhile, there’s always tea in the I heart New York mug with water poured after a full boil – never tepid – accompanied by a scone and jam. The Crawleys would understand.

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