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So, I’ve been wearing Nomad Tea from Comme des Garçons’ Series 7 “Sweet” parfums, and I’ve been thinking some more about tea ceremony. When we hear those words, we tend to think of the elaborate Japanese tea ceremony which grew out of the practice of Zen Buddhism and which is considered an art form. Though the Japanese tea ceremony is more solemn and complex than the types of rituals we engage in in the Western world, it matches up with our own notions about what ceremony is: namely, something that involves pageantry and a formal venue. Yet ceremony often flourishes in places we least expect, in places we Westerners might even consider humble. In the Sahara Desert, the nomadic traders of the camel caravans fuel their travels through the steady drinking of tea—and while the tea itself is a simple concoction of Chinese green tea, mint leaves, and sugar boiled in water, the making and taking of the tea is very much a ceremonial affair, even if it is one that takes place on a sand floor in the middle of nowhere. (Or what we would call the middle of nowhere. Considering how rapidly those middle-of-nowhere places are disappearing, they seem all the more sacred to me.)
In his book, Forbidden Sands: A Search in the Sahara, published in 1978, author Richard Trench describes tea-drinking as “the pivot of desert experience.” Trench traveled across the Sahara to visit the salt mines of Taoudenni, and his description of desert tea ceremony mirrors accounts by other authors I have read:
Tea Ceremony & Comme des Garcons Series 7 “SWEET” - NOMAD TEA
April 6, 2009:
For hours the nomads would huddle together around their open fires, knocking back the tiny thumb-sized glasses of sweetened tea, uttering a 'Bismellah' (in the name of God) followed by a 'Hamdullah' (thanks be to God) with the same gusto that a whisky drinker might have exclaimed 'Cheers' ten years ago. A nomad's dependence on tea is not unlike a seasoned whisky drinker's dependence on alcohol. With tea inside him, he is capable of almost superhuman feats of endurance. Without it he becomes a complaining wreck. 'Arab whisky', the camion driver had called it to me, showing off his cosmopolitan outlook.
I took my tea with Omar and his father, passing alternate mornings in each tent, with tea, sugar, kettle, pot, and thumb-sized glasses laid out neatly before us. There was always silence, a very primeval silence, when the old man struck flint against steel and the smoldering rag, torn off his turban, grew into a bush of flame, eating the dried-up roots that the black-robed women had collected the day before.
When the water had boiled it was poured into his silver pot, with a measure of green tea and several hunks of sugar, and left on a glowing bed of embers to stew. Then the old man would raise the teapot high above his head and pour a thin column of steaming tea into the glasses below and taste. If it tasted satisfactory, the old man would give thanks to God and hand round the glasses. If it was unsatisfactory, he would screw his face round his nose and add more sugar.
Three times he would go through these motions, three glasses and three brews for each person. Why three? I never found out. Once I asked Omar, but he just looked at me in disgust, shocked at my ignorance. 'Because it has always been so,' he said. I might just as well have asked him why the sun rose each morning.
No one ever hurried over the tea-ceremony. They dawdled over the fire as if Time stood still while they drunk their tea. It was often mid-morning before the group had fragmented, each part splitting off to its separate task.†
Reading this, I am reminded of when I took cooking classes from a Sri Lankan woman who taught our class how to make masala chai—another relatively simple concoction—by crushing cardamom pods, peppercorns, dried cloves, ginger and cinnamon sticks into fragrant little pieces just prior to simmering them in a pot with loose black tea and sweetened condensed milk. The resulting brew was absolutely delicious, and I managed to make it for about a week before I fell back into my habit of buying chai-flavored tea bags and a carton of half-n-half and calling it a day.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? In the Western world, where we have the convenience of running water, gas and electric stoves, and spacious kitchens that make it so easy to prepare virtually anything, most of us don’t make tea that requires us to do more than boil water or stir instant ice-tea mix into cold water in a pitcher. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. Those tea bags free us up to rush out the door and get on with the very busy business of living, as well as to indulge in a number of entertainments, and therein lies the difference.
If our days were spent traversing the desert with endless kilometers to cover and little to distract us, the ritual of taking tea the Saharan way (with meticulous pourings from pot to glass to pot to incorporate the sugar; the practiced way of holding the pot aloft and releasing an attenuated stream that froths when it hits the glass; the blessings that are uttered as each glass is consumed) would become an artful diversion from the monotony of days. That’s what ceremony is largely about, really: a break from the tediousness of our daily rounds, a way to attach meaning to our lives.
And therein lies the similarity. No matter whether our days are full of sound and fury and a roar of things to do, or the sound of silence and the roar of the wind, what’s clear to me is that, without ceremony (and without someone to share tea with) our lives are just an endless expanse of desert.
Contemplating all of this—writing it down here—is not because I’m trying to sound sage-like. It’s just my usual roundabout way of trying to describe what I love about the perfume I’ve been wearing lately. Because the perfume itself I could describe to you in a single paragraph: it’s Comme des Garçons Series 7 “Sweet” - Nomad Tea, and it, too, is a simple concoction. Nomad Tea’s fragrance notes are listed as wild mint, artemesia, geranium leaf, burmese green tea leaves, white sugar, and smoked woody notes. In a very straightforward way, that list is an accurate description of what the fragrance smells like. Sweet mint tea, refreshing and light. At first spritz, it smells so prettily of freshly-crushed mint leaves that it makes you want to smile. The tea note, too, is prominent and nicely balanced with the mint, and while both notes endure right through to the drydown, they pick up the lemoniness of the geranium in the process. On my skin (and my husband’s), Nomad Tea has a very light sillage but long wearability. It’s not overly sweet at all (in fact, I find it a whole lot less sweet than most floral perfumes), making it very attractive as a summer fragrance.
It only takes a few sentences to describe this delightful scent, and it would be easier if I served it up to you in a direct and concise way. But as the writer Anne Lamott once said about the act of writing (versus the end product of writing)—“It’s like discovering that while you thought you needed the tea ceremony for the caffeine, what you really needed was the the tea ceremony”—I find this holds true for wearing and writing about perfumes.
True, I love CdG Nomad Tea for how it smells, first and foremost; but I love it for what it symbolizes, too.
* * *
Comme des Garçons Series 7 “Sweet” – Nomad Tea is available from LuckyScent.com, $105 for 50 ml. [UPDATE: In the time since this post was originally published, Nomad Tea was discontinued and has become increasingly difficult to track down, even on Ebay and decanting sites, though I recently saw decants being offered from a fragrance decanter in Alaska --here's the link.]
†Forbidden Sands: A Search in the Sahara, copyright © 1978, 1980 by Richard Trench (John Murray Publisher, London, UK, 1978)
Image: Tea Ceremony by Jean-Marc Durou is from Art.Com, where it can be purchased.