"It tastes like Christmas." Those were my words following my very first sip of a Starbucks chai tea latte.
Since then I've progressed. Chai latte with a double shot of espresso, chai latte with two pumps of cinnamon dolce, chai latte with vanilla and coconut milk. You name it. I've even sipped chai in Germany, Italy, Greece and Croatia and found it to be much more authentic than the heated-up Tazo cartons at Starbucks.
What is fueling my obsession? For a while, I couldn't have even told you, but a moment struck me just the other day that seemed to sum up my chai enthusiast nature to a tee. It's not the taste: I have had extremely mediocre chais that I still clung to with my life. It's not the caffeine kick, and it's not even the fact that it tastes like Christmas.
Just the other night I was having one of those overwhelmed, crawl-under-the-covers kind of nights. There was a lot on my plate, and the stress was only amplified by an incurable homesickness that seemed to evade my emotions constantly. All I wanted was to hug my best friends. The problem was they were 800 miles away. Naturally, I ordered a chai at the Starbucks I was studying in. One second I was a beaten-down, overwhelmed college student completely separated from everything she knew and loved, and then, I took a sip.
I was somewhere else. Eight hundred miles north in a little town called Lakeville, Minnesota sitting in a heated Chevrolet. Driving past evergreen pines lightly dusted with porcelain snow. My best friend Christa was in the passenger seat. We were drinking chai. The Christmas cups had just come out at Starbucks, and we were admiring them as our favorite song filled the front two seats of the truck. I smiled.
I took another sip, and I was in my childhood bedroom home from school with the flu. Wrapped up in my pink comforter, I watched my favorite old movie for the thousandth time. My bedroom door creaked open and my friends appeared carrying a large chai latte with a little extra vanilla. They had left school in the middle of the day just to bring it to me. It tasted like love.
I was in my favorite Uptown coffee shop, my best friends and I dressed up to try and look like we actually lived in the city instead of our tidy, rural suburban town. We sipped chais from mahogany white mugs. There was cinnamon delicately dusted across the foam in the shape of a heart.
I was at the airport waving goodbye to my best friend as her suitcase rolled behind her. She was boarding the next one-way flight to Germany. A tear rolled down my cheek. I sipped my chai.
I was sitting in my kitchen at 1 a.m., the lights dimmed. It was late, but we weren't tired. Five of my best friends and I were talking about God. That was a night that changed my views on everything I've ever known. We were sipping chai.
My cup was nearly empty, as I took my last sip in the bustling Starbucks of Miami University. The steady brewing of coffee had returned me to the present. I looked at my laptop screen saver. A photo of me and my friends on the lake, our happy place. I suddenly knew what it was about chai lattes. It was them. Our wild nights, late night drives, dance parties, road trips, dinner dates, movie nights. All of it. These beautiful memories and moments intertwined with sips of chai tea, a love we all shared. The taste brought me back to them, and for a moment or two, everything felt ok again.
I took my last sip and ordered another.