The first time I tried it, I was in Portugal.
I was there to study otters – their behaviour, their ecology. Basically, what I had to do was spend up to ten hours every day looking for our radio-collared otters, driving around the countryside with an antenna and waiting to hear the familiar beep that meant the otter was nearby. Even at night.
One night I came back around four in the morning and found our neighbour, the same one that introduced me to sopa de agriao, sitting on a chair in our shared backyard. It was summer, and hot. She was wearing long pigiama trousers and a white vest and was smoking, slowly. She turned her head as I walked in – I saw her immediately, her white vest reflecting the moon.
Can’t sleep, she muttered. Full moon.
I leaned the antenna on the wall of our house, my thick walking boots losing mud every step I took, my light summer trousers ripped on my thigh where they had snagged on some barbed wire. I sat on the chair beside her.
I’ll make you something, she said.
Without waiting for an answer, she clicked the back door open and slipped inside her house, where her son and husband were sound asleep. Something rustled in the vegetation behind the wall, and a bird chirped sharply in alarm. I heard the stove being turned on – click, click, click and a silent whoosh as the gas caught fire. As quietly as she had gone, she was back with two empty mugs and strode towards the wall. I got up and, somewhat less quietly, followed her. The bird flew away and she stopped at a thick bush, leafy and as tall as us. Long, slender branches grew haphazardly around a thin trunk; light green lanceolate leaves shot out at odd angles and shone in the moonlight.
She picked a few tops, and walked back to the kitchen. A few minutes later she emerged again, with the two mugs steaming. She passed me one and I sat, starting to sweat just by having such a heat in my hands. The night was just starting to cool – the last thing I needed was a scorching hot tea.
Hold it, she said. With both hands.
I obeyed. The heat seeped into my skin and was so intense that a shiver crept up my spine and brought goosebumps on my arms.
Erva Luisa, she said, and nodded to the mug. Erva Luisa. What is it in English?
I didn’t know, but although I was exhausted, I remembered something. Erba Luigia, I said. In Italian, it’s called Erba Luigia. Like Luisa, my grandmother.
Luisa, she said, like Maria Luisa de Parma. Queen of Spain. Wife of one of the Carlos. Quarto, Terceiro…. Can’t remember. Tea for Princesses.
She settled more comfortably in the cheap, plastic garden chair. I pushed back against mine and propped my heavy feet up on the table. I snuck my nose in the steam trickling lazily from the mug into the hot, summer air and breathed deep. Lemon, I smelt. Lemongrass? No, not lemongrass, but something similar. We had no smartphones.
Good for relaxing. For your stomach. For sleeping, she said.
With fish, and rice, instead of lemon. More taste. Less aggressive.
Both hands still tight around the mug, I sipped and closed my eyes as the heat ran all the way down.
I like it, I said. Thank you
Our eyes met, and I realised how tired she was. What kept her up, after working all day? What pushed her out of bed, and into the night?
But the hot Erva Luisa was already working its magic. I yawned, drowsy, and don’t really remember the rest of the night. After a while, the tea finished, I must have thanked her and collapsed in my tiny bed placed as close as possible to the coolest wall of the house.
Even now, however, after a long, long day of Christmas celebrations and eating and talking; even in the wrong season, in the wrong country, when I pick my way through our backyard, past the fruit trees and up to the furthest and warmest corner of the garden to gather a handful of leaves from our huge haphazard bush; even now, when I sit down to watch another episode of an endless series, not having looked for any otters for years; even now, when I sip the delicate lemon verbena infusion, I think of that night, and how perfect it was.
A tea fit for Princesses. And aren’t we all?