When Jen and I were on study abroad in 1994, we lived quite near the palace, and its famous inhabitant, our royal neighbor, Diana, Princess of Wales. In fact, whenever we would hear a helicopter, we would run at top speed out the door of 27 Palace Court, London W2, and south through Kensington Park to the grassy area next to the palace, where HRH might alight from her chopper, and we could try to take her picture.
(Really, I'm certain I made less of a scene running after Princess Di than I did a few weeks later, running through Covent Garden on my 21st birthday, trying to get to Miss Saigon on time. We arrived at the theater sweaty and gasping, but Jen had breath enough for one final gasp. "Look!" Jen cried. I looked. The buttons on my dress had come undone all the way to my waist, and I had been running for 6 blocks. It was quite a spectacle. At least, I like to think so. I can picture some middle-aged Englishman, wearing a natty jumper (sweater), saying to his friend: Did you see that American girl, running by with her top down? It isn't proper! What does she think this is, Baywatch? Remember, this was 1994). The photo at right is Jen and I at Windsor in back then. I am wearing the trick dress.
Back then, no lowly lassies like us were allowed inside Kensington Palace , so this summer I was anxious to peer inside. It became immediately apparent to us that Di's In-Laws had, in fact, hated her guts. They are living like kings (ha!) over there at Buckingham, and she's in squalor over here in the sticks. Okay, not quite squalor, but her rooms were something of a royal dump. Oh, well! On to the Orangerie, a little lunch, and a little tea.
Chamomile tea (rhymes with smile) is twigs and berries, (not real tea, which is not allowed, not even on vacation). It is exactly like the French Chamomile tea (rhymes with heel). No Englishman with any sense wants to sound like a Frenchy (Jake loved this about the Brits). If you ask for it Frenchy-style, that is, rhymes with heel, a Brit will pretend they do not understand you. Sometimes it is safer to order Lemon Zinger. Or you can speak in the international language of Diet Coke. Don't ask for root beer, though. It can cause quite a stir. Another short walk south through the park and along Knightsbridge, and we were back at the Hotel. Now, it is REALLY time for tea. High tea (code for snacks). So we sat down to eat, again.
Here is the Mandarin Oriental Tea Menu:
Devonshire clotted cream, where have you been all my life? (Available at AJ's, in the refrigerated dairy case). Tiny petit four, eclairs, assorted treats. Before all that, though, were tiny finger sandwiches. Smoked salmon, cucumber, tuna with corn. Everything was so tiny and delicious we forgot we had eaten only 1 hour before! All very lovely!
May 9, 2007: The next day Jen, Andrew, Jake and I took a day trip to Stonehenge, Bath, and Salisbury Cathedral. Our tour guide, Marcus, picked us up in his station wagon (which he repeatedly called a van). Jake told Marcus that I was the leader (the Rick Steves, if you will) of our London adventures. This is perfectly true. I am always planning English excursions. If you ever see me staring off into space and not blinking, I am probably plotting which wing of the Victoria and Albert I will see on my next British holiday.
Jen and I at Stonehenge in 1994. Back then, you could walk around and sit on the stones, urinate, make animal sacrifices, or whatnot.
Here we are back again 13 years later. Now we can't get close enough to do our black magic. (Look at these cute boys we've picked up in the interim. We didn't do so bad for ourselves,eh, Jen?)
On our way out of London in the van, Jen was telling the boys about all the traditional British delicacies we had been carefully avoiding the whole trip (it is easy to avoid bangers and mash if you only eat at Mr. Chow's). "Wait!" I said. "What about all the finger sandwiches at tea yesterday! Those are very traditional. What could be more British than cucumber sandwiches? Or tuna and corn?"
Now, until this moment, Marcus had been rather quiet, letting us make hidebound Yankee arses of ourselves by ridiculing English fare, but at this point he quietly interjects: "Well, now, I don't want to undermine your authority, but I don't believe tuna and corn is very traditional."
So we all had a good laugh. Mostly because he was such a polite Briton and we were such stereotypically rude Americans. You know, though, the more I stew on it, the more I think, Marcus was wrong. Here's why:
1. The next day, we saw tuna and corn sandwiches on another, completely unrelated menu.
2. The British are always tossing a tin of cold veggies into an often already unappetizing meal. This is not a very American thing to do. We are more frozen and fresh vegetable sort of people. So maybe the corn and tuna is not specifically traditional, but rather just symbolic of what an Englishman might do to his food.
On the other hand, Marcus might be right. Most British food is inedible, and tuna and corn is comparatively quite nice, if not delicious. If you want really delicious, try Hob Nobs cookies with milk chocolate or clotted cream on your scones. No need to cross the pond. You can get them at AJ's.
In another installment: Why the Englishman's bad hair is not his fault.
(I took this photo at right on the tube in '94. I was enamored of this guy's blond 'fro. It was pretty risky taking pics of strangers on the subway. I had to use Jen as a decoy. This snapshot proves that my obsession began long before I had curly blond kids.)