November 6, 2007

Tea and the Queen

Kevin and I just returned from an amazing week in England: Seven whole days without rain, and the most beautiful fall foliage and Technicolor sunsets I’ve ever seen. I had half a mind to set down my bags and stay forever, but everyone kept warning me that such weather was extremely rare and that after months of cold, steady rain, I’d be eager to be quit of the place. I am not entirely convinced.

The first leg of our stay, and the real reason for our trip, was for Kevin to give a lecture at Oxford and be wined and dined by the Physics department there. Nice work if you can get it, huh? Fortunately, English hospitality extends to consorts, and I was allowed to tag along.

The English do very well by their guests, which is saying a lot coming from a Southerner. Kevin and I were put up in a suite of rooms in an 18th century country house owned by All Soul’s College. Of course, in the intervening years, the City of Oxford has greatly expanded its borders, and now the country house is in the middle of town. But it still retains an old walled garden out back, and so every morning I could look out our sitting room window at the dew on the lawn and remaining roses on the vine and pretend I was in a Jane Austen novel. (Apparently older colleges, like Merton and Christ Church, are so old and land-rich they have enough space out back to keep deer!)

Lovely as the city looked from my window, the siren song of London was calling me. I had been to London twice before, but the city offers so much in the way of museums and shops and landmarks, that I had barely scratched the surface. My plan for the trip had been to take the shuttle bus into London every day, while Kevin earned our keep chatting up the Oxford dons. So on Tuesday, I caught the early bus to town and set to work. A stroll through Hyde Park? Check. Tour of the National Gallery? Check. A live concert at St. Martins-in-the-Field? Check. See the queen? Check.

To explain: I was walking by Buckingham Palace as part of my to-do list, when Elizabeth Regina herself emerged to greet King Abdullah, Keeper of the Mosques of Mecca and Medina, who stopped by on his Grande Tour visiting the European heads of state. So, it was not so much a personal audience as a glimpse in passing. Still, it was the most bizarre thing I had ever seen: The Palace and Mall were swathed in equal numbers of Union Jacks and Saudi flags; and interspersed between Britons in feathered hats and pin stripe suits were throngs of school children draped in Saudi flags. Meanwhile, marching bands and cavalry brigades paraded by as if the Empire had never fallen. According to the bobby (do they still call them that?), Elizabeth and Abdullah were headed down to the Mews to dance a Waltz. I’m sure it must have been some party, but I didn’t stick around long enough to witness it. I had a date in Oxford for cream tea.

Now, I do not know if “tea” is still a daily tradition in Britain, but during my week there, I had it every day at 4:00 on the dot. After one of those enormous English breakfasts of eggs and bacon and sausage and toast and marmalade and … and … and … – you’re really not hungry until late afternoon.

Anyway, I liked it so much that I plan on re-importing this tradition to North America. I mean, what’s not to like about a menu that consists of bottomless cups of tea and homemade scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream?! I realize the term “clotted cream” probably has some negative connotations – clotted arteries, anyone? – but as far as I’m concerned, it is the ambrosia of the gods. It’s made by slowly reducing unpasteurized milk for several hours until it reaches the consistency of cream cheese. But unlike Philly Lite, clotted cream is as sweet as ice cream and 55% fat. Needless to say, after a solid week of generous helpings of the stuff, I’m looking a little more solid around the middle.

That evening, Claudio, our host, and Anna, his girlfriend – old friends of ours from Boston – took us on a walking tour of Oxford: into the gated colleges and down narrow alleys crowded with Tudor houses. By night, Oxford itself appeared to be so interesting that I decided to spend the rest of my visit exploring its treasures. After all, once you’ve met the queen, what else is there to do in London?

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