It is particularly cold outside, one of those sharp December days where the frost never really has a chance to melt and one’s mind lightly turns to thoughts of wearing as many layers of sweater as humanly possible. One’s mind also turns to thoughts of warm beverages liberally laced with sugar and caffeine—and, specifically, the most delicious tea I’ve ever known.
Uskollinen Ystävä, from Nordqvist. The name means Faithful Friend.
On another cold winter’s day, several years before, I checked my email to discover a friend had sent me a link to a sale Scandinavian Airlines was running. Roundtrip, nonstop flights to Helsinki were going for a mere three hundred clams, plus taxes. At the time, I was living with my parents for a few months between apartments, and even a bookstore clerk can build up some savings when you’re not paying rent and your mother is feeding you. Plus, I’d just become a one-day Jeopardy! champion (under my day-name, for those of you quick on the Google) and had some vacation days to use up.
The choice was clear. I bought my ticket, went down to REI, and outfitted myself like Shackleton.
The plane ticket came with restrictions, which is how I ended up in downtown Helsinki in February, disoriented in a labyrinth of narrow old-world streets, with everything I owned in a single backpack. I’d been up for more than 36 hours at this point, and though I tried to find my chosen hostel I eventually gave in to the desire for a bath and a bed and got myself a spendy room at the Radisson (the only hotel I could find that was open). Once I finally was warm and cozy and tucked between some very high-thread-count sheets, it hit me.
Loneliness—hard and fast and solid, like a brick to the throat.
I’d never traveled on my own before. Even my first weeks of college had been packed full of other people, with the sense that friends yet unmet were waiting just around the corner. Maybe if I’d found the hostel that night it would have been different, but right then it was dark and beginning to snow and everyone I loved was half the world away.
It was a miserable night.
I rallied my spirits the next morning over the continental breakfast. Coffee tends to tap-dance in my stomach, so I turned to the tea selections instead. And there, shining like a beacon among the other tea choices, was this sunny little number called Faithful Friend. It offered black tea with peach and orange—a combination I already knew I liked—with the tantalizing addition of pineapple.
How good could a tropical fruit tea be in a near-Arctic climate?
It was phenomenal. Strong and sweet and lush, with none of the black-tea bitterness. Wonderful with lemon and honey, or cream and sugar. It was also loaded with caffeine.
And it helped me believe things were going to work out.
I found the hostel—and some interesting-looking fellow travelers—and later that day I found a place to stock up on food supplies that also sold whole boxes of Uskollinen Ystävä. It became my morning ritual to have a cup before starting the day’s adventures: hiking down the snowy freeway to the zoo (camels in winter = pissed off!), drinking beer with Australians, recklessly walking across part of the frozen Northern Sea. I made sure to take a box of Nordqvist tea home with me when I left, knowing I could parcel them out slowly over the next few months.
And then my roommate drank them all while I was out one evening.
I stared aghast at the five little yellow tags hanging from the giant water pot. “Oh, was that your tea?” the roommate asked. “It was really good.”
“Yes,” I agreed sadly, “yes it was.”
Metsästys: The Hunt
A year or so later, I had just entered graduate school and was taking a class in Finnish when I met Mr. Waite at a karaoke bar. I sang “Creep”; he sang “Sledgehammer”; within a month we knew we were going to get married someday.
He was also being sent on a whirlwind European tour that winter for work—a tour that included Helsinki among other cities. I pleaded with him to find me this tea, showed him photos of the box online, found descriptions for him. He agreed to do his best.
In the 24 hours Mr. Waite spent in Helsinki, he enlisted the help of his Finnish comrades and came home with two boxes of teabags and two packages of the loose-leaf variety. The latter was especially delightful, as it contained actual chunks of dried pineapple, scattered amid the tea leaves.
This tea, which I’d used as a talisman against loneliness, was now evidence that I was loved.
I was careful with my treasure, this time; it lasted me over a year, as Mr. Waite and I designed rings, got engaged, and planned a wedding.
Reader, I married him. We went to Helsinki for our honeymoon, where my two years of Finnish language classes proved adequate for reading things but not for much conversation. There was some trouble finding places to buy Uskollinen Ystävä, but we eventually tracked down a few boxes in a hidden grocery store on the outskirts of town. The adventure took us three hours, two smartphones, and a couple experiments with stop-and-ask-the-locals. But we found it, together, and carried it home in our bags as though those friendly yellow boxes were gold bars.
I drank the last cup of Uskollinen Ystävä about a month ago. I miss it still. Lady Grey and English Breakfast are all very well, but nothing quite bolsters the spirit like a Faithful Friend. (And if you have an octopus teacup to drink it from, so much the better.)