Read CHAPTER V of The Land of Thor , free online book, by J. Ross Browne, on ReadCentral.com.

TEA-DRINKING.

The traktirs, or tea-houses, are prominent among the remarkable institutions of Russia. In Moscow they abound in every street, lane, and by-alley. That situated near the Katai Gorod is said to be the best. Though inferior to the ordinary cafes of Paris or Marseilles in extent and decoration, it is nevertheless pretty stylish in its way, and is interesting to strangers from the fact that it represents a prominent feature in Russian life the drinking of tchai.

Who has not heard of Russian tea? the tea that comes all the way across the steppes of Tartary and over the Ural Mountains? the tea that never loses its flavor by admixture with the salt of the ocean, but is delivered over at the great fair of Nijni Novgorod as pure and fragrant as when it started? He who has never heard of Russian tea has heard nothing, and he who has never enjoyed a glass of it may have been highly favored in other respects, but I contend that he has nevertheless led a very benighted existence. All epicures in the delicate leaf unite in pronouncing it far superior to the nectar with which the gods of old were wont to quench their thirst. It is truly one of the luxuries of life so soft; so richly yet delicately flavored; so bright, glowing, and transparent as it flashes through the crystal glasses; nothing acrid, gross, or earthly about it a heavenly compound that “cheers but not inebriates.”

“A balm for the sickness of care,
A bliss for a bosom unbless’d.”

Come with me, friend, and let us take a seat in the traktir. Every body here is a tea-drinker. Coffee is never good in Russia. Besides, it is gross and villainous stuff compared with the tchai of Moscow. At all hours of the day we find the saloons crowded with Russians, French, Germans, and the representatives of various other nations all worshipers before the burnished shrine of Tchai. A little saint in the corner presides especially over this department. The devout Russians take off their hats and make a profound salam to this accommodating little patron, whose corpulent stomach and smiling countenance betoken an appreciation of all the good things of life. Now observe how these wonderful Russians the strangest and most incomprehensible of beings cool themselves this sweltering hot day. Each stalwart son of the North calls for a portion of tchai, not a tea-cupful or a glassful, but a genuine Russian portion a tea-potful. The tea-pot is small, but the tea is strong enough to bear an unlimited amount of dilution; and it is one of the glorious privileges of the tea-drinker in this country that he may have as much hot water as he pleases. Sugar is more sparingly supplied. The adept remedies this difficulty by placing a lump of sugar in his mouth and sipping his tea through it a great improvement upon the custom said to exist in some parts of Holland, where a lump of sugar is hung by a string over the table and swung around from mouth to mouth, so that each guest may take a pull at it after swallowing his tea. A portion would be quite enough for a good-sized family in America. The Russian makes nothing of it. Filling and swilling hour after hour, he seldom rises before he gets through ten or fifteen tumblersful, and, if he happens to be thirsty, will double it enough, one would think, to founder a horse. But the Russian stomach is constructed upon some physiological principles unknown to the rest of mankind perhaps lined with gutta-percha and riveted to a diaphragm of sheet-iron. Grease and scalding-hot tea; quass and cabbage soup; raw cucumbers; cold fish; lumps of ice; decayed cheese and black bread, seem to have no other effect upon it than to provoke an appetite. In warm weather it is absolutely marvelous to see the quantities of fiery-hot liquids these people pour down their throats. Just cast your eye upon that bearded giant in the corner, with his hissing urn of tea before him, his batvina and his shtshie! What a spectacle of physical enjoyment! His throat is bare; his face a glowing carbuncle; his body a monstrous cauldron, seething and dripping with overflowing juices. Shade of Hebe! how he swills the tea how glass after glass of the steaming-hot liquid flows into his capacious maw, and diffuses itself over his entire person! It oozes from every pore of his skin; drops in globules from his forehead; smokes through his shirt; makes a piebald chart of seas and islands over his back; streams down and simmers in his boots! He is saturated with tea, inside and out a living sponge overflowing at every pore. You might wring him out, and there would still be a heavy balance left in him.

These traktirs are the general places of meeting, where matters of business or pleasure are discussed; accounts settled and bargains made. Here the merchant, the broker, the banker, and the votary of pleasure meet in common. Here all the pursuits of human life are represented, and the best qualities of men drawn out with the drawing of the tea. Enmities are forgotten and friendships cemented in tea. In short, the traktir is an institution, and its influence extends through all the ramifications of society.

But it is in the gardens and various places of suburban resort that the universal passion for tea is displayed in its most pleasing and romantic phases. Surrounded by the beauties of nature, lovers make their avowals over the irrepressible tea-pot; the hearts of fair damsels are won in the intoxication of love and tea; quarrels between man and wife are made up, and children weaned I had almost said baptized in tea. The traveler must see the families seated under the trees, with the burnished urn before them the children romping about over the grass; joy beaming upon every face; the whole neighborhood a repetition of family groups and steaming urns, bound together by the mystic tie of sympathy, before he can fully appreciate the important part that tea performs in the great drama of Russian life.