Teatime

Nous ne sommes pas paresseux. Nous prenons le temps de vivre, ce qui n’est pas le cas des occidentaux. Pour eux, le temps, c’est de l’argent. Pour nous, le temps n’a pas de prix. Un verre de thé suffit à notre bonheur, alors qu’aucun bonheur ne leur suffit. Toute la différence est là, mon garçon..

We are not lazy.  We take time out to live our lives, unlike Westerners. For them time is money. For us, time is priceless. A glass of tea is enough to make us happy, whilst no amount of happiness is enough for them. That makes all the difference, my boy…

Yasmina Khadra —  Ce que le jour doit à la nuit (What the Day Owes to the Night)


Teatime seems to have become a quaint anachronistic habit in Britain. Foreign visitors are probably the only ones carrying out this time-honoured ritual in the many Olde Tea Shoppes scattered around the country. Those frequenting these establishments seem to think we British spend our time eating crustless cucumber sandwiches and enjoying a nice cup of Earl Grey.

In Algeria, by contrast, it remains an important social ritual. I honestly don’t know what this small mid-afternoon meal is called in Algerian Arabic, but my mother-in-law used to call it la casse-croûte (the snack), one of the few expressions she knew in French, and she would look forward to it with the same anticipation as she looked forward to every meal. For her, a lunch (imekli) had to be a “proper” lunch, incorporating some kind of meat and perhaps a side order of chips. Above all, it had to be hot. Not for her a quick sandwich, or a chunk of bread and cheese. As for dinner (imensi) — well, it would not be a real dinner without a bowl of couscous.

So when I had first visited the family villa in Bellevue, I had been surprised to see the table laid again at four o’clock in the afternoon with small plates, cups, baskets of bread, butter and jam.  The old, dented, pewter coffee-pot, together with a jug of hot milk, took pride of place on the table. It had seemed only a couple of minutes since we had demolished a copious lunch and yet here was what looked like another breakfast.

If we were really lucky — and huge efforts were made in those first days to impress me— there would be plates of cakes or thivouline, Algerian sweet fritters.  Perhaps we could find room for a couple of wedges of themsbousht, a kind of dense, sweet omelette made from semolina and eggs? Or be persuaded to partake in some temthount, bread that could be baked in the oven, but also fried in oil? Of course, almost everything was firstly fried, then drenched either in butter and honey, or a sugar syrup (sherbet). Enough to send anybody into a sugar coma.

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Themsbousht

Although the café au lait was probably influenced by the French, and indeed the idea of afternoon tea was originally meant for famished schoolchildren returning from their classes at four o’clock —the French goûter — it had been adopted enthusiastically by Algerians to include anyone around at the time.

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Thivouline

One afternoon, during those first few days in Bellevue, T’s mother had led me ceremoniously down into the gloomy garage space under the house. Coming in from the bright sunlight, it was difficult to see at first, but I could gradually make out amidst the shadows and surrounded by ladders, old buckets and rusty utensils, the figure of The Witch Downstairs crouching over -— no, not a bubbling cauldron (that was to come later) — but a huge gas ring on which was placed an enormous frying pan, or tajine. She was ladling what looked like pancake batter into the hissing oil. Her daughters stood, or rather knelt by her, one armed with a bowl of melted butter and and the other with a jar of honey. It was rather like an assembly line of deliciousness.

Once brushed with butter and drizzled with honey, the resulting sizzling concoction was handed to me on a plate. It smelt divine, fragrant with the scent of orange-blossom water, and resembled a giant crumpet. This was the famous crêpe berbère, or Berber pancake, known as thigherifine in Kabyle, baghrir in Arabic and sometimes affectionally nicknamed mille-trous (thousand holes.)

As fate would have it, I was to eat them many years later, gussied up with a few raspberries and a dredging of icing sugar, in one of London’s most expensive “ethnic” restaurants. They were not a patch on the ones eaten with my fingers in that cobwebby garage space under the family villa.

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Thiversisine

Of course, teatime as a guest in anybody else’s home meant that the ceremonial was ratcheted up a notch. A maïda, or small round table, would be dragged out and huge trays would be ceremoniously brought in, on which reposed stainless steel thermos flasks of hot milk and coffee, and — if you were really posh — an orange-blossom water sprinkler.

One of those traditional curly silver-plated teapots, looking like something straight out of The Arabian Nights and surrounded by its phalanx of gold-rimmed tea glasses, would be on another tray. As a final decorative flourish, the teapot would have a sprig of fresh mint stuck in the spout.

Finally, another huge tray with plates of cakes, a pile of m’semen — flaky pancakes folded into squares like handkerchiefs, hence their nickname mouchoirs, or squares of m’besses, a melt-in-the-mouth semolina cake originating in Oran — would be carried in, with the bearer, usually a teenage daughter, literally staggering under the weight.

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A word to the wise: there is a knack to drinking boiling-hot tea from one of those dinky little glasses. Of course it has no handles, so what to do? You hold it around the rim, above the level of the tea. Despite this, there were always a few painful moments and quick blowing on to scalded fingers.

Drinking mint tea without sugar is rare, so lumps of sugar were originally hacked from huge loaves of the stuff before being added to the teapot and the resulting concoction boiled up on the stove. Nowadays a simple handful (or two) of sugar lumps is added. My mother-in-law would even sweeten beforehand the milk boiled for our café au lait, until I explained that I did not take sugar in my coffee. She looked at me as if I had suddenly grown two heads.

Mint tea is also served in the evening, after dinner, as a digestif.  This time, however, besides the omnipresent cakes, there are salty snacks, the favourite being roasted, salted peanuts. With one difference. In Algeria, salted peanuts (kowkow) are served preferably hot and with the skin still on.

T. just loved the ritual of rolling the peanuts between his fingers to remove the brittle skin and then popping them into his glass of tea. He would then fish them out with his teaspoon when they floated to the surface. Oh — and the polite way of drinking tea was to slurp it. Yes, you heard me correctly. Slurping the hot tea as noisily as possible was impeccable Algerian etiquette.

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My main problem was that it is considered extremely impolite in Algeria to serve tea or coffee without the accompanying plate of home-made cakes. Normal biscuits were not readily available, unless you count the sickly-sweet ones meant for children. Bought pastries were frowned on. I did not have a freezer full of beautifully decorated cakes like most Algerian wives, ready to be whipped out at the first sighting of a guest on the horizon.

Once again, I had been found wanting.

Different Strokes

I stared at T’s hands in fascination. It’s true that they were beautiful – strong and capable-looking with a sprinkling of dark hair on the back and long, elegant fingers, but it was not his hands themselves that mesmerised me. It was what he was doing with them.

We were sitting in one of the university refectories during our first month together and I was watching T. peel an apple. I am not a peeler — I just crunch my way through apples, pears — you name it. I also make a great deal of noise while doing it.

But there was T, carefully peeling away every last sliver of skin, then — oh my goodness — cutting the apple into perfect crescent-shaped segments, divesting them of any remaining core, and finally scoring them across the back with his knife before popping them one by one into his mouth and chewing silently.

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MY mouth must have dropped open. I can perhaps be excused because I was in the first flush of love and viewed everything T. did through rose-tinted glasses. Having only been to a single-sex school, men seemed like a completely different species to me. Especially one as different as T.

I was constantly amazed by the natural grace with which he did everything; the easy physicality that probably stemmed from his judo training.  As far from the awkward, tongue-tied youths in my year as you could get. And in direct contrast to me.  With my legendary clumsiness, I was perfectly capable of tripping over a line chalked on the pavement.

He even slept tidily — never snoring, never dribbling — again unlike me.  He would lie there perfectly still, his eyes and mouth closed, not making a sound and looking a bit like those marble effigies on medieval tombs. I, on the other hand,  would thrash around in bed, changing position a hundred times a night and often waking in the morning with my mouth hanging open, my hair in tangles and my face stuck to the pillow.

But I couldn’t deny the fact that some of his other habits were rather strange. All right, the careful apple-peeling might be considered as personal fastidiousness, but what about him rubbing his eye and then dropping a kiss on his finger afterwards? I asked him why he did that and he gave me a puzzled look. Not only did he not realise he was doing it, but he had no idea why. Perhaps because an eye is such a precious thing and that anything that comes in contact with it must be acknowledged in some way? He still does it and I still don’t know the reason behind it.

Another habit that I didn’t understand was the way he would always tread down the backs of espadrilles or slippers as soon as he bought them. He would then proceed to  shuffle about in them instead of walking properly. I hasten to add that he didn’t do it with any shoes that he intended to wear outside. Only later did I realise that slip-on backless shoes (babouches) had been traditional footwear in Algeria and he had probably worn them as a child. But it still annoyed me. Most Algerians do this to their shoes, almost without thinking.

Other habits were less endearing. I was woken one morning by a loud snorting noise coming from the bathroom. We had only been together a couple of months at this stage, and this was the first night I had spent in his flat. In spite of the stringent university rules in place and my mother’s probing questions, we had managed to fit in a clandestine weekend between my returning to Sheffield after the Christmas vacation and the beginning of the spring term.

I lay there in bed, thinking fuzzily that perhaps a baby warthog on the loose had shattered the peace of a Sheffield Sunday morning. Then I heard the splashing. Going into the bathroom afterwards, I found the floor awash. Not only that, but there was water dripping from the walls and bathroom mirror and a few spots of SOMETHING clinging to the sides of the washbasin.

It was only later I found out that part of his morning toilette included clearing out his nose. Not much wrong with that, you might say. He would start by filling up the washbasin with water and throwing it all over his face and head. Then he would cup some water in his hand, snort it up, and blow his nose vigorously — into the washbasin.  I found out later that this was the preferred method of most Algerians, not just a personal idiosyncrasy of T’s. I think it probably has its origins in the ritual washing before prayers. T. didn’t pray, but  had obviously been taught this method by his mother.

For my pains, I had been subjected to a LOOK when he found out that I had used a dirty towel to mop up the puddles. Shrugging his shoulders, he turned to his flatmate and muttered something about the differences in culture. So it was all right to leave snot in the washbasin, but not all right to use a stained towel to wipe the floor?

Once in Algeria, I soon discovered that everyone washed themselves using this method.  When we had guests, I would clutch my hair in despair on entering the bathroom. I could just about manage to rinse out the washbasin after my husband, but drew the line at scraping off the crusty contents of anybody else’s nose. When I protested, T. would look at me askance and tell me that that was the only effective way to wash yourself — nose and ears and all. I was the one with slovenly habits, only using tissues and cotton buds.

Of course, this inevitably leads on to a more delicate subject – hygiene of the nether regions. Toilet paper is rarely found in Algeria. Most people use water instead, hence the omnipresent bucket of water in most Algerian toilets, sometimes accompanied by a small bowl to use as a ladle.

This posed a problem for me. Especially when the toilet in question was what is known in Algeria as a toilette turque— a squat toilet — one of those miniature torture chambers where there is no pedestal, just a hole in the middle of what looks like a shower tray, on either side of which are two small raised platforms on which to place your feet.  My innate clumsiness often had indescribable consequences. I leave the rest to your imagination.

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These habits resulted in even more water being slopped all over the floor in the bathroom and the toilet. I became used to wading my way through the puddles and mopping the floor at least three or four times a day.

It was even worse when my mother-in-law came to stay as, of course, she had to go through the ritual ablutions  before each prayer. This sometimes resulted in her carefully lifting each leg in turn and depositing her foot in the washbasin to be washed. The bidet we acquired later when we moved to the Villa Robineau was quickly put to another use.

The fact that I continued to use toilet paper instead of water earned me the disapproval of my husband. I would cast a sideways glance at his curled lip whenever I bought the offending article at the grocer’s. He never said anything, but his involuntary look of distaste spoke volumes. He would stare at me until my ears turned pink under the scrutiny, but I would still buy the toilet paper.

Fortunately, though, we managed to achieve a happy medium, as in most things. I use water as well as toilet paper, and he is careful to rinse out the washbasin after use. We compromise, as most couples do. I still can’t bring myself to clean out my nose using water, though.