London – Part One (with Windsor and Oxford)
In the beginning, there was Britain and London was the center of it all. In all of it’s majesty the tiny country owned 70% of the world and without it the world as we know it would be quite different. Through massive feats of exploration, colonization, war and advancements – mainly agricultural and medical – the square, gravity-less world that was once known has turned into what we see today. I think we were fortunate to catch the United Kingdom when we did; with the dollar rebounding and the pound slipping, not to mention the extreme levels of hospitality we received from numerous amounts of friends and their families while visiting. The UK has continuously escaped both of us on all travels because time and time again it is just too damn expensive. Well, it still is, but when you factor in free lodging things seem much more palatable. Er, no, take that back too. In all seriousness, I have yet to figure out how any person can afford to live here, let alone save. From the most expensive gas in Europe (probably the world), $5000 monthly rents to $15 lunches, I am so glad we were able to squeak our way through when we did. Even with free lodging and mostly free meals,the budget was broken into tiny little pieces.
We’re still trying to pick them all up.
First, there was Oli (short for Oliver) and Rose. We met them while sailing in Turkey and if they hadn’t invited us, frankly, we wouldn’t have come at all. Arriving at Oli’s flat, we thought we’d be in for some floor surfing and maybe if we were lucky, a couch would be available. Boy, were we wrong. Oli’s brother was out of town so a bed was available and the place was plush, freshly detailed by Oli’s mom just before we arrived. Erin and I decided to take a few days apart to retain the slightest bit of sanity and she stayed at Danae’s while Oli and I had some fun guy time. Mostly getting drunk and playing video games. Y’know, the norm. Here is where the “Authentic English Experience” began.
My first morning, I woke and ate toast with Marmite, a classic English entree meant to be spread on bread. Not exactly sure what the ingredients are, but I think it has something to do with vegetable yeast. Yummy. No really, it’s good. Instructions: Make toast, add butter and Marmite and enjoy. Repeat, if necessary. The secret is to go light on the Marmite and repeating becomes a breeze. Come afternoon, Oli and I had met up with Erin for a tour of West London, complete with Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the House of Parliament, the London Eye, Buckingham Palace and the National Gallery. In typical London-style, we traveled on the “tube,” London’s extensive subway network.
Oli, we quickly learned, is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to British history and we couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide. I especially enjoyed Westminster Abbey, the famous church that still holds coronation ceremonies for Kings and Queens and is the mausoleum for Royalty dating back centuries. A unique feature is the Abbey also acts as a mausoleum for non-royal famous poets, writers, scientists and other notables in British history. Monuments dedicated to Charles Darwin,Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, T.S. Elliot, and scores of others provides tourists with additional confirmation that Britain’s contribution to the world could reign unmatched.
To wrap up an already amazing day, Oli’s mother invited us over for “high tea,” something we had only heard about and weren’t quite sure if it was true. Well, it is and thank goodness for that. Oli’s mom really spared no expense when preparing everything and showed us again what English hospitality is all about. Her flat was immaculate and well decorated and the view of the square was inspiring. While listening to classical music we had two options for tea, “regular” and “earl grey.” I wasn’t quite sure how to behave during this – seeming- ritual, so I opted for regular and watching Oli and his mom, added
milk and a bit of sugar before sipping. She would balk at this, but I’m assuming everything was served on the finest of china for if it could get any classier I would assume I was in the presence of the Queen. For snacking, we had a multitude of desserts including scones, finger sandwiches, traditional pork pie and other hors d’ ouvres. Never one to be bashful, I made a meal out of what is usually a mid-afternoon snack. We spoke of travel and world affairs and her upcoming trip to Rome, savoring every second of the conversation. Unfortunately, we had to eat and leave as Erin had Danae’s house keys but we were left with an experience that we will never forget.
Back at Oli’s we cracked into some Pimm’s No. 1, an English booze whose secret recipe is guarded as close as our own Colonel Sander’s fried chicken. Mixed with lemonade (1 part Pimm’s, 3 parts lemonade) added to a cup full of chopped fruit you have a delicious way to spend any English afternoon. Or in our case, evening. Soon after, we were pounding the pavement looking for a good pub where I could whet my tastebuds with English Ales and Bitters. With a pub on just about every block, our search commenced quickly but at $6 per pint for local bitter, Bombardier, so did the evening. Pubs close at midnight anyhow so we really weren’t missing too much. Also, most patrons are sure to head to the “offy,” our equivalent of takeout before hitting the pubs. Lesson learned.
The next day it was (surprise) raining so we spent the afternoon watching cricket, rooting on team England against South Africa. It took me awhile but I can now say I fully understand the game and one day hope to bowl for five overs, hit the wickets, go for several sixes on the way to a century during a twenty-twenty test match. And they think baseball is confusing! Oli’s friends Casper, Fluff and Briggs came over, each having their own hilarious stories from the previous evening’s debauchery, reminding me and making me miss more and more my friends back home. That evening I met up with Erin and Danae for Thai dinner and a comedy show near Leicester Square (prounounced Lester,) to round out another great day.
Forecasts for rain forced us to another late start but in the afternoon we went to the park with more Pimm’s and a jubilant group in tow. Rose had returned from her travels and with Oli’s mates, we were seven strong. The guys taught me some of their soccer games, my favorite being getting in a circle and juggling and passing the ball to each other. You are allowed to let it hit the ground once but if you slip up, that’s one strike. After three strikes, you get on all fours and the others are allowed to drive the ball right into your arse! As an evil big brother, this is a game I wished I had learned many years before now. Afterwards, I showed the guys some American football games and we rounded out the afternoon playing and rough-housing. For dinner, Oli and Rose put on a real show making us an English Roast Dinner. Beef roasted to a perfect medium-rare, Bread and Yorkshire Pudding, veggies, and some French wine Rose brought home completed one perfect meal. To top the day off, the four of us double-dated to see Batman Returns. Since it was the weekend there were no congestion charges in London so were able to drive, making the show just in time.
Oli and Rose both attended Oxford-Brookes University, studying Art History in the famous town of Oxford and wanted to show us around the town. Before arriving in town however, we stopped at Eton, a prestigious high school that Oli attended, and Windsor, where one of the many royal residences, Windsor Castle is located. Since it was $25 each to go inside, we just elected to walk around the town and sip on coffee instead. Located about an hour west of London, Oxford is a quaint little town, half-empty this time of year since school is out, and lined with old buildings and cobblestone streets. We were told that in the UK, university fees are drastically less than in the United States, for example one could attend Oxford or Cambridge, the UK equivalents of Harvard and Yale, for a maximum of $6000 per year. After some sight-seeing of the colleges – a bit different than the U.S. version of college, since here they are more like living quarters complete with kitchen staff and your own private rooms – we stopped at one of Oli and Rose’s favorite pubs for a “pub lunch” of course with fish and chips and some cider and beer. It is rumored that at this very pub, Bill Clinton while studying for his Masters degree at Oxford, “didn’t inhale.”
We spent the next days touring Old London including the Tower of London, Tate Modern Museum, the Tower Bridge and St. Pauls. St. Pauls is one of the sites that our own Capitol building in Washington D.C. is designed after. Another evening we met with Oli and Rose at one of the nicest pubs I’ve ever seen, the Grenadier, where Oli and I each tried their world famous Bloody Mary’s, another secret recipe. I chased that down with a Fuller’s London Pride, a traditional cask ale before calling it a night. Erin and I had really come to appreciate the English-style of the English language and had a good laugh when hearing Rose say “sex pervert” during one of her stories. The amazing thing is that even when saying something like “sex pervert,” the English can make it sound polite. Give it a try, saying it that is.