This was the early 1960s.

My first stopover was in London where I stayed for a few days, on my way to the US. The airline had booked me at a hotel, Lexham Hotel if I recall the name correctly. It was a nice little hotel. Well, every hotel in London would have looked nice to me — even luxurious — compared to the Nigar in Karachi, where I had stayed before starting my journey.

In the morning, I went down to the dining room for breakfast and sat at an empty table. The table was laid out with the necessary cutlery and crockery, a pair of salt and pepper shakers, and a small conical glass flask with some watery stuff in it. The flask was capped and had a spout to pour out whatever was in it.

The breakfast arrived with the tea in a nice teapot. I poured the tea into my cup, added some milk, and then looked for sugar on the table, but didn’t find any. I asked the waitress.

‘There!” she said, pointing to the flask. “It’s sugar syrup. Pour it to your taste.”

Pouring sugar syrup in tea was something new for me, but it sweetened my tea just as good without having to stir it with a spoon. How innovative these Westerners were, I thought, using syrup instead of sugar!

Having spent a few days in London — and getting used to pouring the sugar syrup into my tea — I moved to my next stop, Washington DC, where I stayed for a week at the Admiral. (I have described the hotel elsewhere.) By then, a little wiser about the ways of the hotels and restaurants in the West, I easily spotted the familiar flask of sugar syrup the first morning at the breakfast table. Just as before, it was sitting alongside the other condiments on the table.

Unlike in London, however, the waitress here brought the tea in a large cup filled with hot water with a tea bag floating in it — and hot milk separately at my request. (Americans don’t use milk in their tea.) I let the teabag brew in the cup for a while, added some milk, and then poured the sugar syrup.

To my surprise, the tea curdled up immediately.

I called the waitress and, pointing to my cup, told her that something was wrong with the sugar syrup. She looked at the flask and then at me in disbelief.

“You must be joking”, she said, her smile breaking into restrained laughter. “Why would you want to pour vinegar into your tea? Sugar is over there”, she said pointing to a little bowl full of neat white sugar cubes, which I had not noticed before. How was I to know that getting wiser about the ways of the world involved keeping an eye out on the ever-changing shape of the sugar on the tables?

The waitress was considerate enough to bring me a fresh cup of hot water with a new tea bag. I drank it after adding milk and, of course, sugar cubes this time.

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