I am reading Anna Funder’s debut novel All That I Am for the ANZ LitLovers book group, and as you’d expect from the author of Stasiland (see Sue’s terrific review at Whispering Gums and Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List) it’s full of Sensational Snippets – but this one especially caught my eye:
Refugees from Nazi Germany, Hans and Ruth, are coming to grips with English culture:
Hans, who was shy speaking to the English, spoke of them as they fitted his preconceptions: a nation of shopkeepers, tea drinkers, lawn clippers. But I came to see them differently. What had seemed like conformist reticence revealed itself, after a time, to be an inbred, ineffable sense of fair play. They didn’t need as many external rules as we did because they had internalised the standards of decency. (All That I Am by Anna Funder, Penguin, 2011, p162)
Funder’s description of the mysteries of an English afternoon tea being revealed reminded me of an invitation my mother received to ‘tea’ when we first arrived in Australia. She arrived – to a very flustered reception from her Aussie host – at four o’clock, not knowing that in Australia, ‘tea’ means dinner (the evening meal), served in the early evening (not at eight o’clock as in England). (Which just goes to show that new arrivals can commit a faux-pas even when they speak the same language as the host country).
The meal was announced as the clock chimed. It was afternoon tea, not a repast we were familiar with. The table was fully laid; there were sandwiches made of white bread on tiered stands, with fillings of cucumber, smoked salmon, egg and mayonnaise, prawn. Other stands held cakes – tiny chocolate squares in ruffled paper, berry tartlets, and pink-and-white coconut fingers. Bowls of jam glistened darkly at each end of the table, next to ones of clotted cream. The maid appeared with platters of warm scones and put them down. We didn’t know what order to serve ourselves in. We watched others closely and followed suit: it seemed you could have cake before a sandwich or an asparagus roll, but only one thing on the plate at any time. Our hostess stood and poured tea from a height. There was no lemon for it, but milk instead. A serving girl came round with a tray bearing coupes of champagne. (ibid, p163)