Features & Columns

Tea and Synchronicity

A sip of Montreal's tea culture evokes a Proustian memory of San Jose's Satori Tea
tea HER CUP BRIMMETH OVER: The mix of warm liquid and crumbs sends our columnist in search of teatimes past. Photograph by Gary Singh

Tea is the world's most common beverage after water. Throughout the world, 15,000 cups of tea are consumed every second. On a recent trip to Montreal, it felt like every single one of those cups was following me.

Just seconds after confessing to my hosts the muselike nature of tea in my San Jose life, and that I'd like to visit some tea-related places while in Montreal, we walked up the steps, toward the side entrance of Pointe-a-Calliere, in order to dine in the restaurant upstairs. Then, as soon as we crossed the threshold—bang!—a tea poster appeared on the wall in front of us: a shining synchronicity.

Turns out "Les Routes du the," an exhibit at Pointe-a-Calliere, explores the entire history of tea. My hosts did not originally know of my intentions to explore tea in Montreal, and I didn't know the exhibit was even happening. Synchronicities of this nature often occur when I travel (I've written about them in this space quite a few times over the years), and they usually indicate a heightened sense of creative awareness.

The tea muse was with me. I could tell because the first text panel in the exhibit finished with this: "Poetry, sophistication, and an abiding love of tea await you at every step along the way. Welcome!"

What a welcome, I thought, as I read the first panel. I was not expecting this. I saw displays and artifacts, and I read explications of tea routes throughout the Old World, plus histories of various tea methods and prominent events.

Luminous video projections constantly changed across cloth tapestries. In one area, a circular display of 12 different jars of loose-leaf tea, each with a large red button, presented themselves for sampling. All one had to do is push the button, which opened a vent and released the aroma, straight from the jar.

The Chinese character for tea also figured prominently in the exhibit; it was plastered on 10-foot-high tapestries. I read about its history. In the third century B.C.E., it was pronounced "tu," referring to a bitter herb. A later emperor ordered that the character, when referring to tea, should be pronounced "cha."

Other sections of the show documented the role of tea in Buddhism, the Victorian era and the rise of the U.S. colonies. The history of the world is the history of tea itself, it appeared.

Basically, my readers have Satori Tea Company in San Jose to blame for all of this. As a kid, I missed out on my East Indian roots, so that shop has introduced me to the lost Eastern half of myself, in a gloriously imaginative way. Full disclosure: they're friends, but technically, it's a tea bar, so the anti-man-about-town came up with his own monikers for their blends.

Ginger Citrus Guayusa is the "Hallucinogenic Rainforest Blend." I call their Vata Tea the "Elixir for a Destroyed Nervous System." I re-christened Blood Orange Rooibos as the "Alternative Antihistamine," and Ginger Pu'erh is now the "Doctor of Digestion" because it helps me digest the entire universe. Apropos of this column, I call the place, Macaron Alley.

Back in Montreal, another synchronicity unfolded at Birk's Cafe par Europea, located in Square Phillips. My Montreal pals had no idea I was interested in tea, yet Birk's, a place they were already planning on taking me to, was one of the most popular spots for high tea and macarons in the whole city.

Their blend, The sur le Nil, evoked intrigues from the Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. I felt transported to 1940s Egypt, where "in my mind's eye the city rose against the flat mirror of the green lake and the broken loins of sandstone marked the desert's edge."

They served it to me in a heavy cast-iron teapot, austere and ritualistic in its half-Eastern, half-Western presence, so I channeled the Alexandria Quartet's plots and counterplots right there at the table.

It's the tea that seemed to conjure up these visions. The muse was doing things with me that I could not control, but the synchronicities were happy ones. I didn't go looking for the roads of tea. They found me instead. A collective muse of 15,000 interconnected cups of tea watches over me. Every second.