When my 7-year-old niece comes to visit, one of the things she loves to do is swim and drink tea with her uncle.  Her first choice for a swim is the ocean, but up here in Canada in January, swimming in the sea is best left to polar bears and spot prawns – not skinny little girls with little fear of the cold.  It is a trait she inherited from her late father.

A Chance Meeting

So due to the frigid waters off the British Columbia coast, we opted for a brand new community rec center with a pool that had all the trimmings – wading pool, waterslides, hot tubs, and even a flowing river that whisked you around the edge of the pool as you sat on a tube.  It took her all of 5 minutes to befriend another 7-year-old and an afternoon of aquatic fun was in the bag.

After 45 minutes in the water, I retreated to the hot tub, where a few other Dads were keeping an eye on their daughters.  As I settled down into the steamy water, the guy next to me asked how old my daughter was – he’d been watching us.  I told him she was my niece visiting me from Edmonton for a few days.  He introduced himself as Theo in a thick Aussie accent and pointed out that Meeka, my niece, was having a blast with his daughter.

Lost in Translation

We struck up a conversation and I quickly found out that he was of Greek origin, but had spent most of his life in Melbourne.  He was in the restaurant business and his wife was from Vancouver, which is why they had recently relocated to West Van.  He soon found out I was in the tea business and with that he shared a personal story about a friend named Thomas Love, whom he connected with as a teen.  The friendship sparked when Theo was 16 and roaming around the Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne with his sister, Petr.  Thomas was about 18 years old at the time and had hair that was dyed a bazillion colors.  He exuded a life energy that was unique and rare, even for an Australian.  The rainbow-haired guy immediately captivated Theo and they struck up a friendship that would last for the next two decades.  That eccentric, charismatic young man whose name I totally missed from Theo’s thick Aussie accent just so happened to be Tomislav (Thomas Love) Podreka.  We say lav as in have, they say lav as in love.

I have not mentioned to Theo that I had no idea who he was talking about for the first 10 minutes of our conversation.  It was only when he said he founded Serendipitea that I realized why I was so confused.  It was to say the least, lost in translation.

In Pursuit of Passion

So according to Theo, when Tomislav was in his early twenties, he decided to leave Melbourne and head across the ocean to New York to seek his fame and fortune.  It was in the Big Apple where Tomislav tapped into one of his primary passions – specialty tea. Within a few years of arriving on the shores of America, he had founded the successful Serendipitea, a company still prominent in the U.S. today.  He was instrumental in creating the American Premium Tea Institute, where he also served as its President, was a lecturer at the Culinary Institute of America as well as the French Culinary Institute, and also gave inspiring and energetic talks at the Take Me To Tea trade shows (the precursor to the World Tea Expo).

I attended that very first Take Me To Tea expo and remember shaking his hand at the Serendipitea booth.  His charm and charisma was captivating and infectious.  It was clear to me that he was destined for success in his chosen profession.

All through these eventful years, Tomislav managed to find the time to author a book, Serendipitea: A Guide to the Varieties, Origins, and Rituals of Tea, originally published in 1998 by William Morrow.  It is hard to understate the impact Tomislav had on specialty tea in America.

Tea to the End

When Tomislav was diagnosed with stomach cancer in 2003, he decided that to pursue treatment in the States would be prohibitively expensive, so he moved back home to Melbourne and took up residence at Theo’s parents’ family home.  Theo recalls seeing Tomislav when he first arrived back to Melbourne – skinny as a rake, his body emaciated by the sickness, yet a perma-grin attached to his face and his enthusiasm for tea and life as strong as ever.  

At the time, Theo owned a restaurant in Melbourne and within a few weeks after arriving back from the U.S., Tomislav had found his way into the kitchen and was instructing the staff on how to correctly make iced tea from loose leaves.  Theo would walk in and find the entire crew in the kitchen, captivated by what Tomislav was showing them.  A few short months later, Theo’s restaurant became the premiere destination for iced tea in Melbourne and outsold every other establishment in that department by miles. The passion and dedication of a frail friend completely transformed Theo’s tea program.

In the scheme of things, Tomislav succumbed to cancer rather quickly.  In fact, it was not much more than a year from the time that he was diagnosed in New York until he inhaled his last breath in Melbourne.  He had remarried and was now with a Venezuelan woman who accompanied him back to Australia when he was diagnosed.  It was she, along with Theo’s sister Petr, who nursed Tomislav up to the very end.  They recall that, even as his body was being eaten alive by cancer, his unique disposition and incredible charisma never wilted.

Fond Memories

If there is one indelible memory Theo’s family has of Tomislav it is that he was a man driven by a rare, bottomless pit of passion.  A foodie, a tea guru, a lover, and an avid outdoorsman, he was a man characterized by limitless innovation and charm, and possessed of a unique ability to spread that infectious personality he so justly owned.

It’s been eight years since his passing … my how time flies.  We in specialty tea can only wonder – if he were still with us – what would premium tea look like in North America today?  He inspired countless of us to pursue specialty tea, myself included.  That chance meeting a few weeks ago with Theo in the hot tub a world away and nearly a decade later from where Tomislav’s soul rests was pure serendipity.  One cannot help think that from somewhere out there in the universe, he was watching and smiling.  I believe he had a hand in this.  See you again, Thomas Love.