Tea Rooms

What impressed me were the details, those little touches that created an ambience and put me at ease. Here was a calm spot away from the crowded fast-food places, where one is not an anonymous person dashing down a meal.

“Take your time,” my waitress said as she removed my plate, leaving just the elegant teacup in place. I calmly finished sipping my tea and continued pondering the scene around me. No, it wasn’t England or even close to it, I’ll grant you. But it did take a little adjusting to realize that here I was, having afternoon tea in a tearoom-in rural Pennsylvania.

The place was called “The Black Rose,” not without a little touch of Victorian splendor. I must admit that the sight of it piqued my interest as I passed through the semi-industrial town of Hanover. It was a pleasant surprise-an oasis amid the noisy and frantic rhythm of daily life.

I was even more surprised to hear that I would not be alone in enjoying my afternoon tea. Tearooms like the Black Rose are becoming very popular all across the United States. Hundreds are sprouting up in the most unlikely places.

Tearooms in the land of fast-food! Such an incongruity! Only in America, I thought.

It is not as if tea is not popular here. After all, aside from plain water, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world and is found in almost eighty percent of American households. According to the Tea Council of the U.S.A., on any given day nearly 127 million people-half of all Americans-drink tea. But in these tranquil tearoom retreats, one finds much more than just a beverage competing with water. One finds a way of life.

I decided to investigate the Black Rose to see if I could find out more. When I called to arrange for tea I was told that the waiting list for Saturday tea is four weeks. A quick sigh of relief was my response, since I was considering a weekday. “It would still be good to call a day ahead to make sure there is an opening,” was the friendly response on the other end of the line.

In our industrialized world, accustomed to eating on the run, where time is money, it would appear that people want a little more out of life. That is exactly what owner Helen Widdowson seeks to give them with her establishment.

Having spent eight years in Germany, she is impressed by the difference of life in Europe. She liked those “third” kind of places outside the home and the workplace where people can get together for leisurely conversation. Apparently she wasn’t the only one looking for such retreats. After just eighteen months of operation, she is already considering expanding her tearoom, and with good reason, for business is booming.

Who goes to the tearoom? Nearly everyone, it seems. Mrs. Widdowson’s clients are not mere eccentric Anglophiles but pretty much a cross section of the local population-businessmen, housewives, even teenagers. It is a trend mirrored in other tearooms across the country.

“Why do they come and what motivated you to open a tearoom?” I asked Mrs. Widdowson.

“Our country is uncivil today. People don’t talk because we live in a fast-paced world where everything is packaged and instant. People are searching for civility in their lives,” she replied.

Indeed, there is something about the atmosphere that imparts that exact impression. Observing a couple of ladies nearby, I sensed a refreshing cordiality.

“They’re under a lot of stress,” she continued, “working too many hours. A tea break works because it’s deliberate. It causes you to slow down and focus on some other person or on yourself. The experience of tea is about relationships.”

“Yes, whom will I take next time I go?

In nearby Gettysburg, the Thistlefields English Tearoom goes even further. Authenticity reaches the point that you will occasionally see modern Victorians wearing period clothing, complete with hats and gloves. Afternoon tea there is a serious affair.

Amateur theatrics, one might think, yet it appears to be something more. Tea speaks to the soul. It calls to mind principles that seem so distant.

The Bigham House Bed and Breakfast in Holmes, Ohio, for example, invites prospective guests to “an authentic English Tea Room in Grand Victorian Style,” where they can “step back in time to a bygone era of Victorian elegance and charm.”

At the Devon Tea Room in the quaint Cape Cod village of West Dennis, Massachusetts, a similar spirit reigns. “It is exciting…to see that all over America, people are discovering or rediscovering the pleasures of tea,” claims the tearoom’s promotional literature. “For many, a traditional afternoon tea party brings back wonderful memories.”

At the very aptly named Magnolia and Ivy Tearoom in the “good ole South,” in Plains, Georgia, Terri Eager not only manages the shop but also teaches others all over the country how to open their own tearooms. She says that people, including teenagers, visit her three shops because “they don’t feel comfortable with the cyber-future.” She not only serves tea, but for those who feel they need a bit of polishing, she offers a variety of etiquette classes: “Tea Etiquette,” “Children’s Etiquette and Dining,” and “Corporate Etiquette,” trained and certified by the Protocol School of Washington.

Perhaps that is the whole secret of the tearoom. Amid the triumphant vulgarity of an increasingly egalitarian world and the noisy, frantic, and hurly-burly pace of daily life, tradition appears as an elevated rest for the soul. It represents good sense, good breeding, good order, and the art of living wisely.

For this reason, even a distant tradition from England can find sympathy. It explains why some Americans have a penchant for all things English. Despite its censurable romantic aspects, the Victorian archetype has its restful attractions that temper our fast-paced modernity. We long for the thatched cottages, the English gardens, and the picturesque hamlets popularized by American artist Thomas Kinkaid. Such themes are typically found in Victoria magazine, for example, which regularly treats its nearly 975,000 monthly readers to features from this not-so-bygone era.

Above all, such trends serve to stress how people need tradition-especially our Christian tradition. Tradition is not just the past but an indispensable element that must rule the present. It keeps equality from sweeping away all refinement and enthroning vulgarity. It prevents freedom from serving as a pretext for chaos and depravity. Without tradition, the fast pace of technology enslaves man by turning him into a machine. Only tradition provides that mysterious something that makes life meaningful, human, and bearable.

While casually sipping my tea at the Black Rose, I could not help but feel that I had been denied something very special for too long. Yet I was comforted by the realization that I was not alone. The story has it that a long time ago there was a young English girl who was also denied the special delight of having a leisurely cup of tea. When she grew up and made a name for herself in this world, when people recognized her as somebody, one of the first things she did — after her coronation as Queen Victoria of England — was order a cup of tea.

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