If you visit any household in Ireland, not five minutes will pass from you enter the house (without taking off your shoes, only foreigners do that here), before you are offered a cup of tea. And not a nice herbal tea either, but black tea-dust scraped up from the floor of the store room where tea leaves were kept. With milk and sugar. And biscuits.
Now, you may not feel like a cup of tea, so perhaps you will refuse politely.
“Oh go on, you must have a small cup of tea!”
“Eh, thank you, no. I’m all right.”
“Oh, but it’s only a small cup, it won’t take a moment.”
“Perhaps just a glass of water?”
“Nonsense, you will have a small cup of tea, right? It’ll do you a world of good.”
“Eh, I really would prefer just a glass of water, but I appreciate the offer.”
“So I’ll just go fix you a nice cup of tea, then. Back in a sec!”
Notice the glazed look in your hostess’s eyes. She doesn’t actually hear your refusal. The words are too foreign for her, the concept of refusing a cup of tea so completely alien that she cannot process it. Her insistence will become gradually more aggressive, until finally she will just turn around, head for the kitchen to get you a cup of tea. With biscuits!
As she returns with the cup, common courtesy dictates that you accept. After all, she went to the trouble of making the bloody thing, even if it was against your express wishes. Now you have two options, you can either drink the tea, or you can hold it until it grows cold, and then try to discreetly set it aside, hoping nobody will notice.
Neither are great options, and I’ll tell you why.
If you decide to drink it, you will not have come halfway before the questions start again.
“Would you like a drop of hot water for your tea?”
“Um, thank you, but it’s all right.”
“Oh it must surely be getting cold by now. I have hot water on the kettle, it’s no trouble at all.”
“No really, I am almost done.”
“I will just go get the kettle anyway, can’t have you drinking cold tea!”
You start gulping the tea down, hoping to finish before she can return, but Irish hostesses have an instinct about these things. Before you have taken two sips she will be standing before you, kettle in hand, an angelic smile on her face as she tops up your tea with scolding hot water.
This process will repeat itself over and over until you are drinking nothing but hot water!
I promise you, it is so common that my Irish friends often just skip the middle part and simply order a cup of hot water when meeting up in coffee shops.
The other alternative is to just not drink the tea. I have fallen for the temptation to do this many times, but it always backfires. Before long, the hostess will start with the questions.
“Is your tea all right there?”
“Yes, thank you, it’s perfect, I am just waiting for it to cool a little.” (you think you’re being clever, but no)
“Would you like a bit of cold water for it?”
“No thank you, really it’s fine. Lovely weather we’re having!” (When all else fails, try distraction. And Irish people do love to talk about the weather)
“Yes, it’s glorious. Would you like some more milk in it perhaps? The tea, I mean. Perhaps a little sugar?”
No amount of distraction will work. If a guest do not drink the tea, there must have been something wrong with it, which is a black mark on the slate of any hostess, so in the end, it really is simpler to just drink the bloody tea.
However, there are ways to minimize the damage. Start by refusing the tea. This will take up about ten minutes of your visit, before the hostess decides to simply ignore the strange foreign person who tries to refuse a nice cup of tea, and makes it anyway. Then, take the tea, but don’t drink it. If she asks, say you are letting it cool. If she offers water to cool it, say you prefer the tea quite strong. You can stall for another 15 minutes this way. Then, sip the tea slowly. Keep a careful eye on your hostess. If she looks at the cup in your hand, ask her a question or tell her a story before she can offer you a “drop of hot water”, keep her talking and distracted, do NOT let her take control of the conversation. If you do, you have lost.
As a side note, Irish people have their own brand of verbal diarrhea. They take a deep breath and just start talking. If you want to get a word in you have to time it carefully, by starting to talk two seconds BEFORE the person you are talking to pauses to take a breath. That way you are already on a roll by the time he or she is ready to go again. S/he may try to interrupt you, but whatever you do, DON’T stop! Just keep going, and eventually they will slow down long enough to listen. I am convinced it is a technique that was developed specifically to avoid the dreaded “would you like a drop of hot water in your tea?”-question.
If you manage keep this going, then you can, in theory, get away with drinking only ONE cup of tea during a visit, but it requires a lot of practice. I lived in Ireland for 7 years, and even after all that time I still averaged around 3 cups per visit (I don’t even like tea).
And don’t think you’re safe if your hostess is young, when it comes to tea they are all nuts, regardless of age.
And just when you thought you were safe, the hostess asks:
“So, would you like a nice biscuit with your tea?”
I don’t care what your grounds for refusal is, be it nut allergy, diet, diabetes, gluten sensitivity…I tell you this as a friend: Just accept the biscuit.