Under certain circumstances there are few hours more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”
― Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady
Upon learning that I had become a Girl Scout Leader, friends of mine who had known me intimately in a previous incarnation, i.e. before children, must have wondered what could possibly have come over me? Indeed, if someone had told me even at the relatively tardy age of 38, when I was enjoying raising two young children, that I would be involved in girl scouting in the not too distant future, I would have laughed my head off. Scouts? Me? Are you joking? Which is why I now humbly and regularly find myself invoking Fats Waller’s famous quip, “One never knows, do one?”.
What one doesn’t ‘know’, before having children, is how much they change one’s outlook and in manners very unexpected.
And thus it came to be that my little girl decided she wanted to join the Brownies — no big deal — and that I became friends with the group’s leader, again — no big deal. A little bit of a deal when said leader and friend asked me to help her out a few years later but it was all along the lines of Noblesse oblige: anything for my little girl. And since two more girl friends were now also involved, it became another way of spending time with them.
Push came to shove when one of them moved to another part of Italy, however: there was no one else to run that age group, so … either I took over or there would be no more girl scouts for my little girl and her group of friends. What could I do? I consented and so had to undergo the training … and more than once too! Looking back, I have to recognise that I actually learned an awful lot and though I begrudged the red tape involved (I begrudge red tape wherever I find it) and fought frantically to bend the rules to suit us rather the other way around, I found myself quite stimulated on the whole — and I continue to view girl scouting in very positive terms, both for the fun that it engenders and for the life skills is can help develop.
The charming, funny and brilliant Wendy Holloway, hands-on lady behind “Flavor of Italy” (http://flavorofitaly.com/aboutus/), was one such Rome-based Girl Scout leader … I’d love to have her comment on our camping sprees in an American Army Base near Naples! She had graciously offered her house for a training weekend … and I remember being sick as a dog, with a hacking cough, and refusing to sleep outdoors because the last thing I wanted was to catch pneumonia … So I ended up ‘camping’ on the floor of her kitchen (circa April 2000). And what a beautiful kitchen to sleep in it was too!
I quite enjoyed the camping and the meetings, even some of the training, and cherished the girl scout calendars –the thing I dreaded most was having to sell those uber-sweet-uber-rich Girl Scout Cookies once a year. They might have beem iconic in the US but here in Italy they were viewed with great suspicion (and probably rightly so, they certainly can’t have been healthy and they didn’t come cheap either) and so it was mostly the expat community whom we imploringly turned to — them and our poor unsuspecting friends and family members who were simply forced to buy at least six of these expensive boxes each.
Snacks and food play a large part in scouting, and don’t think otherwise. It was part of my/our training as girl scout leaders to take into account the fact that, upon any excursion or trip, the girls had to maintain healthy blood sugar levels — which meant making sure that they had access to drinks and food, upon pain of tantrums and the like. This was preaching to the choir as far as I was concerned and our group of girls were never short of either food or drink, on the contrary. When we went camping with other girl scout groups, we were the ones who ended up being ‘noticed’ for the quality of our meals. Oh yes! Be it Mexican or Italian, any meal of ours was ‘real’ and not patched up.
But time flies. And girls start growing up at around the age of 12-13 and it’s not so ‘cool’ to be a girl scout any more … that, and they have so much homework to do. Debra Russell, Captain at the time of the whole Rome Girl Scout operations, co-leader of our group, and the warmest friend you’d ever want to bond with, broached me with a a heavy heart, intimating that we were losing them. What to do? What COULD we do — except make life easier for these girls? And so … we looked at what their age-specific agenda was, and how this clashed and/or tallied with their school work. And we came to the conclusion that … that we ‘adults’ would take over chunks of the workload that these girls could not possibly accomplish: not because they were lazy or cheap — but because there are only 24 hours in the day, and there is just so much that any person can ‘do’, however young or old he or she is.
We organised an afternoon tea after school and while we plied them with cakes and biscuits and a vast array of eye-catching goodies both savoury and sweet, we put the revised agenda to them — I suppose you could say we ‘bribed’ them, but that is such an ugly word. We made them see sense. And much to our delight, instead of giving up, these girls carried on for another two years and guess what? Our girls went on to receive the Girl Scout Silver Award—the highest award a Girl Scout Cadette can earn.
Debra and I were to discover, also, that the girl scout structure for the older age groups had come in for a fair amount of criticism because it was too much about ‘duty’ and not enough about the girls having time to relax together and just ‘be’, as well as ‘do’. We had come to the same conclusion as mothers and were very proud of how we tweaked the agenda in a mutually positive way.
When I finally read the biography of Juliette ‘Daisy’ Gordon Low, founder of the American Girl Scouts and friend of Baden Powell, I was all agog to discover that she always set great store by food in general (introducing Virginia hams to Britain), and that laying on a good tea was her preferred way of starting a girl scout meeting. You see? Great minds think alike.
A propos of which, I really do not know why there hasn’t been a film made about her — she was truly an extraordinary woman and her life experiences were certainly ‘dramatic’ enough to warrant a film script. She started the Girl Scouts in 1912 and has most likely done more to influence the cause of women’s emancipation in the USA than we could ever accurately gauge.
I was reminded of the importance of a good tea a few years ago when my sister invited me and my children to afternoon tea on the occasion of her birthday. She came up to London where I was visiting, with her husband and two young kids, and we had a lovely time together. There is something very Mary Poppins about tea, I suppose … an air of holiday about it.
And with fond memories of that lovely family occasion, my thoughts again turned to afternoon tea at the end of last August. Friends of our son, who had travelled to London from Italy to witness his graduation from uni and celebrate with him, were suitably delighted when my husband and I offered to take them out for a proper English afternoon tea. They were all looking a little the worse for wear when we met them at 4 p.m., this being the day AFTER the night before and all that that entailed … but they soon perked up. That’s what afternoon tea does to you — it perks you up and reminds you that life is good!
The Montague offers a wide array of teas to choose from.
It can be hard work deciding upon your tea of choice!
Two more friends joined us after a while — and they decided to forgo the decision altogether and settle for a beer, much easier!
London at the end of August is usually a cool time of year, ‘cool’ being an adjective referring to ambient temperature and often inclement weather. This year, instead, it was unseasonably warm and sunny and I went the whole hog and had a glass of champagne to celebrate climate change and thoroughly enjoyed my scones and dainty sandwiches. Everything was delicious and staff were very friendly … and I would certainly endorse The Montague in Bloomsbury as a perfect place to enjoy afternoon tea in London. They earned the Tea Guild Award of Excellence this year after all.
There is something slightly old fashioned about afternoon tea but I reckon that the tradition will live on. There is definitely a ‘slow food’, meditative atmosphere about it. If you are going to go to the trouble to take afternoon tea in the first place, it means that you have decided that devoting some time in the afternoon to sitting at a well laid table and unhurredly sipping tea is important. Long live afternoon tea!
“When tea becomes ritual, it takes its place at the heart of our ability to see greatness in small things. Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”
― Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog