A Hot Drop

The All-Important Cup of TeaI hate coffee and only sporadically drank tea while I lived in the US so I admittedly knew nothing about coffee-making & drinking rituals when I moved to Ireland.  I still can barely make a pot of coffee but I am most definitely a tea-making expert now.  I am not talking about fancy tea leaves and strainers kind of tea just the “quick put the kettle on I am gasping for a cup of tea” kind of tea-making.

Irish people are OBSESSED with drinking tea.  It is a crucial element to every life event and non-event.  According to some sources, Irish people are the biggest tea drinkers in the world, second to Turkey. I believe it.

I had never seen an electric kettle before I lived in Ireland the first time at age 20 and now I could not imagine living without one.  My parent’s both bought them for their respective houses after it became obvious how handy they are (and that my husband would not survive two weeks waiting for our ancient kettle to boil so he could make weak Lipton Tea).

The entire country stops between 10 and 11:30 to drink tea.  I have given up trying to reach anyone in an office around 11 because the phone will just ring or else you’ll get someone who is being forced to take a later tea break to cover the phones and will just take a message for the person you want who is drinking tea and then just run off to drink their own tea before giving the phone message so you are just wasting your time.   Direct quote from a co-worker when her supervisor asked her to come into her office and work through the plans for an upcoming event, “Ok, but I can only come for a few minutes because I have to have my tea at 11.”  The same woman regularly states “Your entitled to your breaks, they can’t make you miss your tea.” Never mind that I don’t think there is a legal requirement to let everyone down tools to boil the kettle and sit for half an hour and gossip around half ten, god help the boss who tries to stop public servants from drinking tea or even suggest they make  cup and keep working!

Some tea-drinking & making practices that I have found intriguing over the years:

  • People drink tea with their lunch or dinner and actually order tea with their meals in restaurants.
  • They drink tea when its hot and when they’re really thirsty and sweaty.
  • For some reason the kettle has to be boiled about 10 times before the tea is made in my office and immediately after the pot of tea is poured, the kettle has to be refilled and boiled again!  There is no reason that the water has to be boiled again but its a major faux pas NOT to fill the kettle straight away and boil the water again.
  • By the way, it also rude to make 1 cup of tea for yourself even if you’re the only person in the kitchen – you should still make a pot of tea just in case someone else comes in and needs tea immediately!!
  •  It is suspicious behavior  not to accept tea or coffee at meetings.   I have left work some days and actually felt dehydrated and sick from the amount of tea I’ve had to drink during the day. Day long meetings or conferences include at least 4 cups of tea:1 cup upon entering; tea break between 10:30 and 11:30; tea after lunch; afternoon tea break.
  • It is kind of stressful making tea for people because everyone has different methods and ways of drinking their tea and if someone changes their tea drinking habits it throws a major spanner in the works.  My colleague randomly announced one day, that she didn’t drink tea…after drinking three cups of milky tea in the office canteen for twenty years!!

In case you are American and wondering “how the hell can one cup of tea differ from the next?” here is a sample of a few tea requirements:

My husband drinks his tea very strong, must leave tea to brew in a HUGE cup for five minutes and stir around.  Splash of milk.  If I don’t put enough water in the cup, he will ask why I made him half a cup of tea and if I add too much milk he’ll thank me for his old lady tea. NO SUGAR – will gag and spit it out if there’s sugar in the cup.

Father-in-law – sometimes 2 tea bags in one cup depending on the type of tea.  Little milk. No sugar.

Mother-in-law – Strongish but with medium amount of milk (more than above two) and half a teaspoon of sugar.

Brothers-in-law – All no sugar, strong and a little milk.

Husband’s brother’s wife – weak and lots of milk – usually need to dump out lots of water to make enough room for the milk. All of the above have to be full fat milk.

A & M at work – decaffeinated tea now; one black and one with lots of skim milk

S – coffee

V, D and J – has to be a pot of tea no matter what – find single cups rude and wasteful I think.  Lots of milk, medium strength, no sugar and regular milk.

I haven’t even touched on the brands of tea or the tea accompaniments and implements – pots, sugar bowls, tea trays, milk jug, saucers, biscuits, cake, bread – all required at different stages depending on the relationship between the tea-drinker and maker and the occasion.

The Civil Service Girls

When do you stop being a ‘girl’? It seems to me that if you work in the public sector in Ireland, than you will be a ‘girl in the office’ until retirement. Is this sexist or just a another cultural difference that I don’t quite understand? While it doesn’t seem to bother anyone particularly but me to hear grown working women referred solely to ‘the girls’ or ‘the girl, I can’t help feeling it represents a systemic disrespect in the Council that I worked in that goes beyond language.  Now this would certainly not the first time that I would be accused of taking things too seriously and making too big a deal out of equality stuff so I am open to the possibility that I am simply missing the intent.

So who is a girl and who is a non-girl? I would hope as a non-girl, that I’ve reached woman status but I suspect there could be other less endearing ways to refer to us non-girls!

Do you have to be young, sweet and single to be a girl? No, doesn’t appear to be any correlation to age, temperament nor marital status.

You can be a bitter, frumpy, 45 year old with a man’s haircut and a mustache and still be a girl if you sit at a certain desk usually surrounded by other ‘girls’. In fact, it took me a while not to laugh when I heard some women referred to as girls because they were so far beyond being girls it seemed ludicrous to pretend otherwise.

Is it a sign of affection and endearment used by men for women they’ve worked with for years? Possibly. Is it just common Irish slang, like referring to men of any age in certain contexts as lads? Possibly but I don’t ever hear anyone referring to a meeting of the Senior Management Team or Directors as ‘the lads are meeting in the conference room’ so it seems to have more significance than simply being an expression although that is the preferred explanation when pressed.  Most commonly men and women are referring to ‘the girls in the front office’ or ‘the girl at reception’ who they are offering up to provide some admin or secretarial support or make tea and coffee.  The context is what makes the language sexist.

These positions and employees are always women. It is hard to compare how a man would be treated in a similar role because simply there appear to be no men in clerical roles. They are just so good at administrative and clerical tasks that they fly through the grades and receive promotion after promotion despite that fact that I’ve worked with numerous life long civil servants who couldn’t’[t write a letter or even seem to type and have zero phone skills. Hmm?

A clerical officer once asked me “Don’t you have someone who does all this for you?” referring to sending emails, making phone calls, updating outlook calendars, and reminding her boss to ring or meet people. I couldn’t help laugh and replied “I don’t know any woman who doesn’t do all that stuff herself and come to think about it, I don’t know one man who does.”

I hope this culture is simply just the leftover sexism from an all around out-dated and unfit for purpose Irish public sector.  Is everyone a ‘girl’ in the private sector? Is the American civil service any different? Or am I just an uptight Yank missing the point?

The Local Battleaxe

There is a new unwelcome addition to our local Parent & Toddler group this year.  She is not a new mother and definitely not a toddler.  She is granny age but most certainly not a doting grandmother.  She has the sour face of Nanny McPhee but none of the magic nor even the interesting nose and wart.  She is not a well-intentioned volunteer.  She doesn’t clean, cook or welcome visitors to the community hall and tourist office.  She is the most dreaded type of matriarchal figure in village life – the busy body.

I think Battle-Axe is an American term or maybe even more local to the Boston area or perhaps New England.   While there are battle-axes in the US, I have to say Irish women of all ages are the most impressive battle axes I have ever met. The ‘Sister’s” on the hospital wards are probably the original cross between matron and nun that strikes fear in patients and visitors (probably Doctors as well). I have never been able to just ‘leave her at it’ and get along with this type which I think they can sense the minute they meet me and are therefore even ruder than usual to me.

Battle-Axe – Busy body = stern, brusk, dour face, usually squinty eyes behind thick frames (not designer geometric thick frames) who usually has short tight hair and appears stocky regardless of height and weight.  She is partial to the sound “hmph” and phrases like “I tell it like it is” or “No point beating around the bush.”  Her social graces reach as far as a “Who are you?” or “Who are you married to?” – both said in a voice that leaves no doubt of her real meaning, “What are you doing here and why should I bother with you?”  She acts busy and in charge of everyone and everything around her but do not try to find out what she actually does.

Initially everyone assumed our new busybody  was supervising the three women who have always cooked on Monday mornings in preparation for serving the elderly their lunch on Tuesdays.  As in supervising on behalf of the community group that runs the center or on behalf of Fas, the job agency that provides them work experience and pays them.   I suspected straight away she wasn’t a real supervisor – more the self-appointed matron or warden.

Then as we quietly asked each other “Who is that one in the kitchen?” The women who grew up in the village passed a few discreet comments – “No, she’s not on the community committee, no she’s not supervising the staff either, no she’s not a volunteer.” It takes a while to get to the truth in polite Irish company especially when someone is trying to relay what is a generally accepted but unofficial fact of village life.   Eventually her status was confirmed in hushed tones.

“She has nothing to do with the hall or the kitchen – she just thinks she runs the place.”

This beauty has a group of grown women and mother’s avoiding the kitchen and running to the bathroom sink rather than risk her disapproving demeanor. So far she has told the woman volunteering to run the group that we are not allowed to sit on certain red chairs-apparently our rear ends are more destructive than the elderly people who have dinner there on Tuesday.  She has stuck up a lovely sign – No Children Allowed on the kitchen door to ensure we don’t have the babies making coffee and scones while us moms chat.  She has removed the rubbish bin while we are there in some attempt to make us bring home our orange peels, snotty tissues and Liga wrappers. She pretended to mishear us ask the cooks for a tea towel to dry up the cups we use and wash and then insisted that we have our own somewhere in a bag.  I assured her three times that we do not have a pack of our own towels we bring but she just barked over me repeatedly that we have our own.  No way am I buying tea towels to bring to a community kitchen.  So while one poor mother goes down the hall to the toilet to empty our Aquadoodle pens and another shops for tea towels, I am planning how best to irritate her next Monday. Any ideas how to hassle the local battle axe?

Annabel Karmel eat your heart out.

It is pretty obvious why I don’t read mommy blogs (and frankly don’t believe any of them).  While cooking Annabel Karmel’s sticky salmon recipe this evening my two year-old peed in the kitchen in brand new pants that I had told her not to put on because she’d pee in them but she’d grabbed and put them on anyways.  She peed while having a tantrum for snacks.  I cleaned up the pee, yelled at her against all advice and common sense but I couldn’t help myself, then finally got the salmon in the oven.  When the rice, vegetables and salmon were all needing attention she then grabbed a dish and dropped it on the floor in bare feet with a bare bum.  While I grabbed her off the broken crockery and consoled/scolded (notice a pattern?), I reached for the dustpan and found an inch of water under the sink which then started leaking out.  I cleared everything out that was sitting in water, drained the rice, checked the fish and vegetables.  After sticking a cup under the leaking pipe, I called the kids, burned my finger on the lethal ‘sticky salmon marinade’ and ran it under cold water which I was pretty sure was just pouring straight out into my cup under the sink. I lovingly served (slopped) dinner and then ran to the bathroom.  Just as I made the fatal mistake of peeing, my four-year old yelled “Mom, Meabh just poured milk in her dinner”.  I almost cried but instead came out and took these photos for my food styling business and waited with a smile for my husband to pull in the driveway.  Please tell me this happens in other houses and you are not all mom-trepreneurs or something equally hard to believe.

Mid-cooking leak and broken crockery chaos
Sticky Salmon swimming in milk