Dick and I have been coming to Victoria, B.C., so regularly now for the last decade that as soon as we exit the MV Coho, the ginormous car ferry that brings us from Port Angeles, WA, across the pond to Canada, we check into our hotel room and head out for tea.
Not the high-falutin’ one at the Empress Hotel. No, we take tea at the James Bay Tea Room, a block behind our favorite hotel (the Royal Scot, with its fiberglass, kilt-wearing bear in front) that sits kitty-corner behind the Legislative Assembly building… aka Parliament. It really does look like the original in London, so it makes sense that it would have an English-style tea room nearby.
I remember being lured inside the James Bay Tea Room by the promise on the white board under the black and white awning of “full tea service.” I hadn’t had that since I was in England in the late ’80s. Dick and I went inside to the tinkle of a tiny bell and were struck by the simple square room lined with photos and portraits of the royal family from the Duke of Windsor and his brother, King George, to lots of images of Queen Elizabeth and even more of Prince Charles and Princess Di.
(Someone has grudgingly, it seems, added a photo of Charles and Camilla on their wedding day in a low spot on the wall.) On a high shelf sat brass plates and cups, cherished teapots, pewter trays and geegaws. Small tables with blue tablecloths and proper napkins waited patiently. The only thing missing was a waitress with a Cockney accent.
We go now for the tea service, including scones and tarts and clotted cream, about 4 to 5 p.m., meant to tide over hungry folks until the evening meal, about 9 p.m. Dick likes the shrimp sandwiches and the Coke. Me, I’m all about the tea and brown and white bread triangles of egg and tuna salad, as well as those tarts and scones. It’s not that the food is all that great—it just feels like England to me. England and Mollie and Barbara and Jim.
I had the great good fortune of going to England in 1978 on a college trip that dreary January with a Sacramento States professor of English history named Dr. James Straukamp. My friend Gina and I sat in his Tudor/Stuart history class in the fall of 1977 and came to love the older, balding former priest who wore funny plaid ties and tasseled loafers. He had been a Jesuit priest working on his Ph.D. in London, so he knew his stuff. Jim was wickedly smart, esoteric and funny, and when he announced he was taking a group of students to London for two weeks over the winter break, I immediately signed up.
I’d never been east of Lake Tahoe at that point. But I’d been saving my summer job money from my lifeguarding/swim teacher/synchronized swimming coach gig, and my parents allowed me to use it for the Big Trip. Since the group was departing from Los Angeles, it was decided that I would head down a couple of days early and stay with my godmother, Jo Corbin, and her partner, Dr. Ella Mae Sanders, whom we all knew as Sandy. It had never occurred to me that they were a couple until Jo and I had a conversation about two English friends of hers she thought I should visit over several free days on my trip.
“You’ll love Mollie and Barbara,” Aunt Jo told me sitting on their big sofa in the living room. “They met a girls’ school years ago. Mollie taught art and maths, and Barbara was the headmistress. Mollie is still an artist—a very good painter.”
I drank this in for a bit. Then Aunt Jo said, “They’re not a couple—they’ve just lived together for years.”
That was when I realizes that Jo and Sandy were a couple, not just roommates, though we never mentioned it again.
The funny thing was that Mollie and Barbara—I came to understand in following years after my first visit with them and subsequent visits they made to my parents’ house—were also a couple. They may not have had a romantic relationship, but they kibbitzed at each other like old married people and knew everything there was to know about each other.
I adored them almost immediately because they welcomed me, sight-unseen, into their Tudor-era, thatch-roofed cottage a few hours outside of London. I slept on a feather bed that was so soft it felt like a cloud and had to duck under the timbers of the doorways to make sure I didn’t bump my head. They trotted me around their part of the world to see, among other things, Cambridge (I immediately wanted to transfer there) and taught me to drink shandies—lemonade and beer. I didn’t take to shandies, but I did to tea. Not the drink persay, but “tea” as an afternoon meal. I’d never heard of clotted cream, but when I first plopped a spoonful into my teacup and tasted it, I was hooked. I’d never seen a scone or slathered jam (not jelly) on a tiny muffin-like thing, but I was an eager learner.
I felt like I’d fallen into Shakespeare and both Brownings and every English author I’d ever heard of—but with cars and, thank god, toilets. That, plus the fact that Straukamp was a walking encyclopedia of all things English, and he could read the Latin in all the churches, and he took us to Winchester Cathedral where, I realized, I was standing on the very spot where Jane Austen was buried. I never wanted to leave.
Mollie knitted me a “woolie” that I still have, though it doesn’t fit very well, and she and Barbara introduced me, the budding writer, to the essays of George Orwell and the poetry of Rumi. They took me to old bookshops where I bought my first copy of a book published in 1889. For two pounds, as I recall. Mollie and Barbara seemed ancient to me at the time—they were probably in their late 60s when I met them. Yet they were funny, very smart and well-read, and they changed my life.
They are both dead now, as is Aunt Jo. Jim Straukamp is still living in Sacramento with his longtime partner Bob (long ago giving up the church for the love of a good man, Jim used to say). But he is struggling with Alzheimer’s and, I understand from a mutual friend, his brilliant mind is no longer accessible. He changed my life, too.
So this week when I sat in the James Bay Tea Room, I raised my cup and silently toasted those dear friends who gave me England and so much of the person I became. They fostered a writer and a budding Anglophile.
And Victoria, the closest place to Sacramento that feels like England, brings me close to them all. I bet I wouldn’t have to look too far to find a pub that could make me a shandy. Mollie and Barbara and Jim would all approve.