For the Love of Tea

Americans love tea*. Just don’t say this in front of someone from the United Kingdom or you may receive a sound scowling.

American tea.

American tea.

We consume 1.42 million pounds of tea every day. We drink more than 65 billion servings of tea every year (you read that right, billion), and since 2011 the United States has imported more tea than the UK. Half our population, 156.9 million people, drinks tea each day.

Despite the size of the UK compared to the United States (the United Kingdom is slightly smaller than Colorado, with far fewer unemployed hipsters), people there consume roughly the same amount of tea as we do, which is a hell of a lot for 62.7 million people. But their love for tea has never been in question. Ours has, and frankly, still is.

British tea.

British tea.

The problem lies in what Americans call tea.

About 85 percent of the tea Americans consume is iced tea, but you won’t find any of that in the UK. London native and professed tea lover Sally Harrild told me chilled tea is an American thing. “No one here drinks it iced,” she said. As comfortable as I’ve become in London, at that moment I felt particularly foreign; I had a pitcher of iced tea in the fridge back at my flat.

Mr. Tea.

Mr. Tea.

People in the United Kingdom drink their tea hot, and although many Americans do as well, we apparently don’t do it right.

Walk into any restaurant in the United States and ask for hot tea, you’ll get a cup containing a Lipton tea bag, and a small metal pitcher of hot water. Pour the water into the cup, wait for the water to turn brown, and drink.

This is, of course, completely wrong.

“The water should be boiling,” Harrild said, then paused and shook her head. “The water has to be boiling.”

British author George Orwell, when he wasn’t busy writing politically-charged books American junior high school students would one day be forced to read, created a list of rules about making proper tea.

On the list, which includes using a ceramic teapot, boiling over direct heat, drinking from a teacup, and avoiding sugar unless you’re a Sissy Mary (not a direct quote), he had two big rules:

I like my tea powerful enough to colonize the world.

I like my tea powerful enough to colonize the world.

1. Only use tea from India or Sri Lanka. Stay as far away from China tea as casting directors stay from Lindsay Lohan. Seems like Orwell didn’t think much of tea from China. “There is not much stimulation in it,” he wrote in his 1946 essay, ‘A Nice Cup of Tea.’ “One does not feel wiser, braver or more optimistic after drinking it. Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.”

2. Make it strong. The tea needs to be as volatile as the acid blood from the movie “Alien” (1979). “It’s too weak, goddamnit. I’m trying to lay the groundwork for democratic socialism here; I don’t have time for sleep – ever. Seriously, I’m tripping. Has anyone seen my car keys?” Orwell didn’t write this, I just assumed.

The second reason Americans can’t fix a proper cup of tea is that we don’t know what to put in it. We may add sugar, we may add lemon, and we may add whisky, but we hardly ever add milk. The British add milk and, like everything else, they enjoy arguing about it.

“There’s some debate on the best way to put milk in tea,” Harrild said.

Does the milk go in the cup before the tea, or after? Before gradually warms the milk. After helps sugar dissolve. Harrild is an after person because it’s “easier to put in the right amount of milk.”

How did Orwell do it? Like Harrild, he added milk after.

When it comes to tea, I listen to the British. Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan once conquered “the known world,” but that was like pushing the wimpy kid out of the sandbox compared to the British Empire’s colonial period. For 346 years the British owned a quarter of the entire world’s landmass and not only taught a lot of countries how to play cricket, they discovered every single thing there is to know about brewing a cup of tea.

I can’t tell you a thing about cricket, but I can now make a proper cup of Earl Grey.

 

*By “tea,” I’m referring to leaf tea in bags (even the British use bags nowadays). I’m not referring to the prepackaged refrigerated tea bottles in brands such as Snapple and Lipton in flavors such as mint and peach. If those are “tea,” Kim Kardashian became a celebrity because she has talent. They’re all rubbish, especially Kim. And Snapple. And Lipton.

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The Prime Meridian

The Royal Observatory, otherwise known as The Time Factory.

The Royal Observatory, otherwise known as The Time Factory.

It was a bit embarrassing when faced with only a few more days in a city like London I had to look for something to do. Oh, sure, there’s always something to do, but I mean something I’d kick myself for if I got back to the States and realized I’d simply missed it. Filling my days with Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, Britain’s Museum of Popular Music, and a few nights at the Warwick Arms Public House down the street (well, one or two. Or three or four), I regularly checked things off my mental England To-Do List I’d started years ago. Saw the Clock Tower? Check. Saw a three hundred fifty-one-year-old stuffed dodo? Check. Ate fish and chips? Check. Sat in the same booth at an obscure pub a member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus once sat in? Check. I had to add more Englandy goodness, and fast.

Siting at the Warwick Arms (I said it was right down the street), putting down £3.10 pints of Fuller’s London Pride like I’d never have one again until I returned to the U.K. (the closest tavern to my house that sells London Pride is 309.9 miles away at Maggie Miley’s Irish Pub in Normal, Illinois, so my statement’s petty accurate), I realized where I needed to go. The place where the days begin; the Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

The observatory, founded in 1675 by Charles II, is seriously where every day starts. By international decree, each day around the entire globe begins at this one spot right here in London, as does every new year, and every new millennium. Take that in for a second. According to our system of measuring something as obscure as time, every single second starts at this one building in London. I had to take a field trip to the Time Factory.

The Greenwich observatory is home to the Prime Meridian. A meridian is a longitudinal line someone, back when arguing about such things was important, placed at 0 degrees, splitting the Earth in a north/south line into the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. Although there is only one 180th Meridian (the Equator, which splits the world into the Northern and Southern Hemispheres), there are plenty of north/south meridians around the world. Cartographer Gerardus Mercator, born 1512 in what would today be Belgium, placed the first meridian through a spot in the Canary Islands. Others were placed through Paris, the Bering Strait, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Brussels, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Warsaw, Jerusalem, Mecca, and the Great Pyramid of Giza. The major problem with all of the sites is that not one of them is in England.

Drawn right before he got his way.

Drawn right before he got his way. Stop pouting dude. Seriously.

While the Reverend Dr. Nevil Maskelyne served as English Astronomer Royal (1765 to 1811), he based his meridian math on where he worked, at the Royal Observatory. Given the fact that at the time the British Empire controlled one quarter of the entire world, twenty-two countries voted to place the Prime Meridian of the world at the Greenwich observatory during the International Meridian Conference in 1884 because if they didn’t want Britain to devour them. This put that whole “not being in England” thing to rest, except with the French. The French continued to use the Paris Meridian until 1911 because, well, they’re French.

At that point, the Meridian Conference agreed Greenwich was the starting point for time. Pretty cool, huh?

My class boarded the Tube at Gloucester Road station to arrive at the Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich station. Tube stations are seldom empty places. Three and a half million people (half the population of London) travel the Tube each day, going to and from work, to and from lunch, and to and from a shopping district/the off-license/their mum’s. That’s a lot of to and from. Despite the great number of people going through the 270 Tube stations in the city, I walked into the small corner shop at the entrance of the station, bought a cup of coffee and a bottle of water with no trouble, walked along the orderly queue, and stepped aboard a car with no pushing, elbowing, or noise. I was going to miss all this polite orderliness once I got home where a drive to the post office makes a normal American want to pull a baseball bat out of the trunk and … well, you get the picture.

The train pulled up and the five of us stepped on; we knew we were on the right car because, unlike the randomness of the streets above us (some of which are laid atop Roman roads), directions on the Tube are easier to follow than a Candy Land game board. Our trip on the District Line took us past the familiar Westminster, Embankment, and Monument stations that would deposit us at Westminster Abbey, the Houses of Parliament, and the Monument, and to the DLR Line where we left the District Line behind and ventured into places we’d never seen.

Strange Tube stop names rolled by. Canary Wharf, Southharbour, West India Quay (pronounced Key), Heron Quays (pronounced Keys), and South Quay (still pronounced Key) follow the Thames, which makes sense because (I only know this because I looked it up) like wharf and harour, a quay is a where ships load and unload cargo.

The farther we got outside central London the less busy the Tube stations were, but I couldn’t notice from the noise, or lack of. London is the most quite place I’ve ever been to, except for a national park on an off day, in the rain. It’s that far removed from human noise. Stepping out of the station and down a paved street, a Subway Restaurant awkwardly sitting between the Gate Clock Bar & Food and graham webb international academy of hair (it was all in lower case on the sign. I promise), we walked toward the grounds of Greenwich Park, home to the University of Greenwich, and the Royal Observatory, and went right into the shadow of a three-masted clipper ship – the Cutty Sark. Guess I should have expected that, given the name of the Tube station.

Cutty Sark is a Scotch whiskey made by Edrinton Group of distillers in Glasgow, Scotland.

Not an accurate depiction of the ship.

Not an accurate depiction of the ship.

Okay, that’s not the imposing wooden figure we filed by, but a Scotch neat would be nice about now. Built in 1869, the Cutty Sark, Scottish for “short dress,” was one of the fastest clippers in the British shipping fleet, holding the record time of 73 days for travel between Australia and England. The record lasted until steamships replaced the clipper. Retired from its last duty as a training vessel in 1954, the ship is 212 feet long and 36 feet wide with a third of an acre of sails laced with 11 miles of rigging. The ship sits in dry dock at the National Maritime Museum, and after a £50 million restoration between 2007 and 2012, it looked glorious. We didn’t go on board. Tickets were £20. Twenty pounds? I could buy a plate of eel (hopefully cooked) and at least four pints of Guinness at the Richard the First Public House for £20. Besides, we weren’t there for British nautical history; we were there for the Prime Meridian.

Walking through Greenwich Park, much like our trek through Hyde Park, Regents Park, and Waterlow Park, I couldn’t help but feel this is exactly how parks should be. A breeze danced gently through the leaves of the deciduous trees dotting the pavement, and the thirteen acres of tall, thick, grassland that make up the lawn. Every park I’d seen here has tall grass, interspersed with shortly cut grass where people can walk, picnic, or quite possibly make out. American parks are filled with brightly colored playground equipment and screaming children. The 183-acre Greenwich Park, the oldest of England’s eight enclosed Royal Parks, dates to 1427 and is home to red and fallow deer, bats, and foxes. And hills. Steep hills.

See, everything's green. I think that's why it's called Greenwich.

See, everything’s green. I think that’s why it’s called Greenwich.

“Not another hill,” one of my students, Olivia, moaned as we elected to take the steep pavement with a group of German college students instead of the easier handicap access route. Yes, another hill. Since coming to London, we’ve walked most places we’ve been, and the direction always seems to be up. We hurried; we didn’t want to lose our place in some queue to the Germans.

The Flamsteed House at the Royal Observatory is an unassuming brick building that sits at the top of the hill surrounded by a brick patio and pavement enclosed by a black iron gate put there to keep out people who didn’t want to pay to see the Prime Meridian line. Like us.

A wrought-iron gate stood near the final steps that would take us to the Flamsteed House; beyond it was a piece of the Prime Meridian Line. But the gate opened the wrong way. “Hey, guys,” I said. “We might be able to get through here.” But they were already gone.

The Flamsteed House is topped by a red ball on a pole, and the pole is topped by a weather vane. The ball, installed in 1833, is one of the world’s first public time signals. The ball drops at 1 p.m. and is used to tell ships on the Thames that, well, it’s 1 p.m. The observatory is also home to London’s only planetarium, a museum, and the United Kingdom’s largest refracting telescope.

Standing in two hemispheres at once? Yeah, I totally did that.

Standing in two hemispheres at once? Yeah, I totally did that.

“The Prime Meridian Line cost £7,” Alex said, walking back to us from the entryway of the house.

“I’m not paying £7 to stand in two hemispheres. Pfft,” Lucas huffed. Although he was mostly kidding, we all had to save as much money as possible. We had two days left in London and we still had to eat.

Not a problem. We snuck through the gate on the steps when a nice Japanese family made the mistake of opening it while we were close by. And we all straddled the line. Yep, I’ve stood in two hemispheres at the same time. This line literally (well, not literally, literally. Simply figuratively) split it the world in two. Funny, I didn’t feel any different.

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My Train Stops at Whatfosters?

Warning: Vulgar language and sophomoric humor approaching.

Cockfosters?

Cockfosters?

During my first hour in London, I left Heathrow’s Terminal Three dragging my wheeled suitcase behind me, and stepped onto a Piccadilly Line train on my way to the Earl’s Court Tube station. A flat reserved for me in Kensington waited, as did the Warwick Arms public house down the road, although I didn’t yet know my soon-to-be favorite pub existed (I would in about an hour and a half). I placed my bag out of the way of other passengers, sat on a surprisingly comfortable seat, and readied myself to fall in love with London. It didn’t take long.

“This is a Piccadilly Line service,” a pleasant recorded female voice said over the public address system, “for Cockfosters.”

A grin split my face. Cockfosters? Yes, my first laugh in this new country was because of a dick joke. For the next month, every time I boarded a train on the Piccadilly Line, the public address call for Cockfosters never let me down.

Cockfosters is a north London suburb with roots in the 16th century. The name is derived from the manor house of the cock (archaic for “chief”) forester of Enfield Chase. A pubic house (trend-setting as they damn well should be) named Cockfosters opened in 1613, and a village was erected there (sorry. I couldn’t help it) shortly after.

Oh, sure, the history’s nice, but the name still makes me laugh. Cockfosters, however, isn’t the only place name in England that didn’t seem to age well, at least to my brain (playing the part of Jason’s brain is the brain of a random 12-year-old).

Maidenhead? I think a few drinks might be in order.

Maidenhead? I think a few drinks might be in order.

Maidenhead (an amazingly affluent area of England. So affluent I had to pay a licensing fee just to write that word) is quite close to Cock Marsh (one of the best lowland wetland areas of England), and not that far from Bushey (a town of 24,000 that quite possibly doesn’t know how funny its name is).

There’s also Mudchute, Tooting Broadway, Ogle Street, Penistone Road, Upper Butts, Cumming Street, Back Passage, Hooker’s Road, and the less sexual, Batman Close (which should have the lowest crime rate on the planet), Knightrider Street (a distant second), and Elvis Road (TCB, baby).

England also has Boggy Bottom, Booty Lane, Brown Willy, Clap Hill (tourist advice: don’t go there without an extra strength condom and a can of Scotch Guard), Cockermouth, Dicks Mount, Fanny Barks, Happy Bottom, (and the equally unhappy) Scratchy Bottom, Spanker Lane (which presumably never gets a date on the weekend), Titty Ho, and Wham Bottom Lane.

This isn’t just England. Strange, hilarious place names are everywhere, like the tiny Austrian village of Fucking (yes, Fucking. English speakers have stolen so many of the village’s “welcome to” signs over the years it had to make new ones out of Kryptonite and guard them with rabid bears); Dildo, Newfoundland, Canada; Middlefart, Denmark; and Blowhard, Australia. The United States is also full of “what the hell were people thinking” place names, such as Intercourse, Pennsylvania; Climax, Michigan; Pussy Creek, Ohio; Whiskey Dick Mountain in Washington State; and Looneyville, Texas.

But at least dirty British names sound amazing when the automated Tube announcer girl says them. Cockfosters. I laughed just now.

There’s an Internet claim of a street in the southwestern London borough (pronounced burra) of Tooting called Bollocks Terrace. Bollocks, in British English, otherwise known as English English, otherwise known as English, means one of two things: 1) total nonsense (first used in 1919), and, and 2) testicles (which has been used since at least 1744, although considering the British Empire controlled more than one-quarter of the world’s population from 1689 to 1901, British testicles have been in use for far longer).

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find one scrap of evidence there’s a street named Bollocks Terrace. The claim is, well, bollocks. Which is too bad. I would have liked to have my picture taken in front of the sign. Well, that and one for Cockfosters.

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London Street Signs Not For The Weak

Who said what now?

Who said what now?

The street sign looked normal at first because it was on a post. Americans put lots of things on posts, like directions, lamps, flags, and for some reason old boots. Posts are friendly pieces of verticality that hold things in a person’s line of sight to convey important bits of information, like “Stop,” “Garage Sale,” “Trespassers will be shot,” and “Big T’s, Brayton, Food, Cold Beer” on cardboard in Sharpie. This British post rose from the pavement that ran beside Greenwich Park, and held a yellow warning sign with the picture of a traffic signal in a red triangle. That made perfect sense to me; it was the words “humped pelican crossing” that did not.

Humped pelican crossing? This was a street crossing, obviously, but for what? Pelicans? The are six pelicans on the loose in London, all donated by foreign governments (namely Russia and the City of Prague) in an apparent attempt to annoy people eating lunch in a park. Namely St. James’s Park, which is across the Thames and six miles away from this sign. So what pelicans are this sign on about, and why are they humped? By “humped” does this mean the pelicans crossing here should be ringing bells at a church in France, or have they simply just had sex? Either way the sign is oddly specific.

Turns out in London this sort of sign is completely normal and has absolutely nothing to do with pelicans, physically deformed, horny, or otherwise.

There are six official types of pedestrian crossings Americans should know about when visiting the UK:

A Lollipop Person letting you know what's good for you.

A Lollipop Person letting you know what’s good for you.

School crossing. The rule here is don’t run over children no matter how annoying they are. The warning sign is a red triangle featuring the sillohete of a mother dragging her son to school, even though he’d rather be home playing video games. On the crossing itself you may find what is affectionately called a “lollipop person”; a crossing guard holding a round sign on a pole that says, “stop.”

This old thing? Nope. Never seen it before.

This old thing? Nope. Never seen it before.

Zebra crossing. You ever see the Abbey Road album jacket? If you haven’t, you’re lying. It features John, Ringo, Paul, and George crossing the street on a zebra crossing, called that because of the white stripes on black pavement. There are no lights here, nor are there lollipop people. The cool thing for pedestrians is pedestrians have the right of way. The awful thing for drivers is that pedestrians have the right of way, and may muck up the flow of traffic for an inordinately long time – especially stupid tourists on Abbey Road, of which I was one.

Now things get a bit silly.

But what good does it do if there's no light telling the CARS to stop?

But what good does it do if there’s no light telling the CARS to stop?

Puffin crossing. Puffin stands for Pedestrian User-Friendly Intelligent crossing, not the pelagic seabird. Puffin crossings don’t have a traffic light but offer a control box with a button. Once pushed, pedestrians wait until the light changes to a little green man, then cross. Kind of a like waiting for a sideways elevator.

Toucan crossing. A Toucan crossing is called a Toucan crossing because two can cross. These crossings are for pedestrians and cyclists to use. The British are much more tolerant of their cyclists than Americans and allow them to become part of traffic instead of simply giving them the finger.

Pegasus crossing. A Pegasus crossing is like a Toucan crossing except they are for people and horses not, as advertised, Pegasus.

Pelican crossing. The Pedestrian Light Controlled Crossing (Pelican) is like most crossings in the United States. There’s a traffic light, there’s a button pedestrians push that may, or may not actually work, and when the little man appears on the light across the street it’s safe to cross. A Humped Pelican crossing is a Pelican crossing with speed bumps (called “humps” in the U.K.).

I walked around the streets of London for a month. I’m lucky I survived.

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American Fast Food in London?

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I have a funny feeling I’ve seen you somewhere before.

The feeling was a little weird, like waking from a fuzzy afternoon nap to find my brain floating about two feet to the left. It was the McDonald’s Restaurant’s fault. It had to be, even though I didn’t do anything crazy like eat there; I just walked by. The Golden Arches hung on the front of the restaurant, the customary yellow-upon-red scheme as normal to me as my face in the mirror. But the slim brick building wedged between a moneychanger/souvenir shop (“Best Rates! Euro! American! I Heart London shirts, cheap!”) and the Bolivian consulate (or maybe restaurant. I can’t read Aymaran), was probably 500 years old. Things 500 years old back in the States are dug up by archeologists and put in museums; in the U.K. people buy Big Macs in them.

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Hello, gorgeous.

I think this is what bothered me; the McDonald’s Restaurant wasn’t in its natural environment. The restaurant chain, that began as a barbecue joint in Monrovia, California, in 1937 (offering more than 20 barbecue items on its menu), moved to San Bernadino, California, in 1948 and became a hamburger, French fry, and milkshake drive in. Mixer salesman Ray Crock bought franchising rights to the restaurant in 1955 and, boom, 58 years later America is the second fattest country in the world (thank you Mexico for making us Number Two). The first McDonald’s sat on the side of a highway. That’s where McDonald’s are supposed to be, on busy sidewalk-free roadways Americans have to drive to. This restaurant in London was right on the pavement where just anyone could walk in, which is a bit careless of the planning and zoning department.

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I ate exactly none of these while I was in England.

My shoes slapped the London pavement as I went by the building’s tall glass windows, stickers for the “Great Tastes of America: Louisiana BBQ, Chicago Supreme, Arizona Nacho Grande, California Melt, New York Classic,” making me wonder why, in a city with food readily available from almost every culture on this planet, would anyone go out of their way to eat an Arizona Nacho Grande Quarter Pounder from McDonald’s? Looking past the stickers I realized quite a lot of people would. The place was packed.

As frightening as this is, American food might just be part of the international cultural experience. Probably so, American restaurants in general seemed to be everywhere. There are 1,200 McDonald’s in the United Kingdom, but, unlike back home, McDonald’s doesn’t sit at the top of the fast food mountain. It’s not Burger King either, although the charbroiled burger chain has 1,400 locations in the U.K. The biggest American fast food location here is Subway with 1,500 restaurants.

A bread and lunchmeat store? Really?

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Delicious, healthy, and not an American in sight.

Walk down most business district streets in U.K. cities and you’ll not only find McDonald’s, Burger King, and Subway, but Pizza Hut (400 U.K. stores), Dominos Pizza  (770), KFC  (777), and Starbucks (556). I also saw a couple of TGIFridays in London, as well as a Chipotle Mexican Grill. What’s next for the British? Eating grits at Waffle House?

This made me wonder where all the British fast food franchises were. I saw a few Pret a Manger restaurants, which sell healthy freshly made sandwiches, but there are only 230 of these shops in England (and one in Wales), and the famous British hamburger joint Wimpy only has 150 locations in the entire United Kingdom. They must be well hidden because I didn’t see one.

As I continued down the street I walked the walk of the righteous food snob because I didn’t eat any American food while I was there. I ate at traditional British pubs, restaurants operated by people from countries most Americans don’t know exist, and street vendors. The French truffade I purchased for £4.50 from a vendor near Westminster Abbey, is sort of a pancake made with potatoes cooked in goose fat mixed with cheese, sausage, and ham. It was delicious. They don’t sell that at McDonald’s, even in France. Seriously, I checked.

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A little friendly greeting from Nottingham.

Home now I can safely say I would have gone to one American restaurant if I’d known it was there; a Hooter’s in Nottingham. Oh sure, it sells hot wings, burgers, fries (chips), onion rings, and everything else from the States that’s “delightfully tacky, yet unrefined,” but in a 7 October 2010 London Daily Mail article the author called her visit to the restaurant, “probably the worst Friday night of my life.” This article brought with it a pang of regret. Not from the article itself, but from one the 644 comments attached to it. A man complained that all the Nottingham waitress’s boobs were natural. Now there’s something you can’t find in the States.

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The Top of the Monument

The Monument: The tallest isolated column in the world.

The Monument: The tallest isolated column in the world.

The pigeons were starting to freak me out. There are more than a million feral pigeons in London. I say feral because just saying “pigeons” infers something cooingly cute, pecking the ground around wandering feet looking for lovingly dropped crumbs. “Feral” conjures images of the winged demon beasts that pecked Suzanne Pleshette to death in “The Birds.”

There are an estimated 7 million rats in the bowels New York City, 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats under a bridge in Austin, Texas, and 2,000 coyotes in the alleys of Chicago (seriously, coyotes), but these pest have the decency not to be adorable and bob around your picnic begging for food. Pigeons, formerly domesticated rock doves, come close enough to Londoners anyone can reach out and touch one. I’ve seen it happen, folks. Pigeons also cost the city of London £100,000 per year to clean the droppings.

Now that’s tax money well spent.

Sitting on a bench at the base of The Monument near the northern side of the London Bridge, a fat pigeon sat at my feet bobbing its head back and forth like it expected food. It probably did, but all I had was spearmint gum. I shooed the fat bird away with my shoe, probably breaking a dozen London laws about the proper ways to treat pigeons.

I wasn’t on this bench to see pigeons under the shadow of the stone Monument that commemorates the Great Fire of London and the city’s rebirth. I was here for the Monument itself. I waited on a group of college students for our long walk to the top of the Monument to get a great view of the city that, 347 years, four months, and 58 days ago, was engulfed in flames. Many pigeons died that day.

Inside the Monument. I'm dizzy just looking at it.

Inside the Monument. I’m dizzy just looking at it.

The Monument, at more than 200 feet, is the tallest isolated column in the world. In the center of the Monument, I’d soon discover, is a spiral staircase with 311 stone steps that lead to a wire mesh enclosed observation deck called The Cage, which is three-fourths of the way up the column at 160 feet. To put that into perspective, The Cage is 16 floors above the pavement and the city of London had to put a fence around it in 1842 because a number of very silly people simply fell off. There is no lift in the Monument; the only way to the Cage is the stairs.

The 202-foot-tall column, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, rises out of the downtown London pavement 202 feet from the spot of a bakery where the fire is thought to have started. From a bakery on Pudding Lane, the fire wiped out a large part of the city, save for stone buildings like St. Paul’s Cathedral, and lasted three days.

Hey, look at us. We're American.

Hey, look at us. We’re American.

Constructed for more than £13,000 (quite a lot of money in the 1600s), the Monument, 28,196 cubic feet of Portland stone pointing straight up, is quite imposing. Once my students showed up, I’d wished I were writing more about the pigeons.

Although thousands of people visit The Monument each year, not all of them make it to the top. A great circle of stone steps spin tourists the 160 feet to the top, not fast enough to get dizzy, however. Oh, no. Oh, hell no. You ever get that feeling during exercise that you’re going to fall down, not because you’re clumsy, or you’re experiencing a life-threatening medical emergency, but just because you’re a sack of pudding? I got that about halfway up. And I’d paid £5 for it.

“You OK, Jason?” a student asked as I paused to find the breath I lost somewhere around Step No. 158.

I nodded. “Just (wheeze) waiting (hack) for you (huff) slackers (Three Stooges noise) to catch up.” Then I finished the climb.

The view from the Cage was as beautiful as it was confusing. From this viewpoint, visitors can sees the brown water of the Thames run under the Tower Bridge, elegant stone domes rise from behind the ugly boxes of ancient office buildings, blocks of (what I can only assume are) expensive flats in structures hundreds of years old, and the tiny (by American standards) streets weaving a Spirograph picture through entire scene. It would look practically perfectly Mary Poppinsish if it weren’t for all the windows.

Enormous glass and steel structures loom over the classic London landscape like Godzilla villains. One in particular is the Shard. At 1,016 feet high, the Shard is not only the tallest building in the U.K.; it’s the tallest building in the European Union. It also fits as well into the London skyline as an Eiffel Tower-sized statue of Mr. Bean. Picture that and try to sleep tonight.

The Shard, all 1,016 ugly feet of it.

The Shard, all 1,016 ugly feet of it.

The Shard, which is home to three operating restaurants and (as of May 2013) completely empty office spaces and luxury flats, looks to be the perfect place to sit back and have a glass of bubbly the day the space aliens finally invade. They’ll head there first. The Shard isn’t the only piece of modern architecture in central London, just the biggest.

Standing in the Cage with other American tourists that kept crowding in (seriously? Didn’t anyone stay home in the States?), I finally went back down, dodging Americans, and a pack of Germans (do Germans come in packs?). At the bottom, a man in uniform handed me a 6” by 8.25” piece of heavy buff-colored paper stock and smiled. “See you made it, then.”

When I stepped back onto ground closer to sea level, I looked at the paper. It was a certificate that read, “This is to certify that ______________ has climbed the 311 steps of the Monument.” Damn straight. Despite the potential for having a heart attack on those steps, I’m glad I made it to the top.

You know, the pigeons looked much smaller from up there.

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And Now For Something Completely Different

Having a pint of pale ale at Angel Inn where members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus would drink and work on sketches for their show. Awesome.

Jason Offutt having a pint of pale ale at Angel Inn where members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus would drink and work on sketches for their show.

At first glance the London Tube map looks a lot like a schematic for something aboard the USS Enterprise. Once you get the hang of it, though, and stop giggling every time the automated voice aboard the train says, “This is the Piccadilly Line for Cockfosters,” getting around London is pretty easy. I wasn’t on the Piccadilly Line this day; I was on the Northern Line that’s only stop approaching a giggle is Tooting Broadway. It’s no Cockfosters, but it’ll do.

The train came to a stop at Archway Station and I stepped off with a few quiet passengers, and emerged onto a quiet street in the quiet North London area of Highgate (everything in England is quiet, except soccer fans). At the top of this mile-long hill in Highgate sits the Angel Inn where back in the early 1970s the Monty Python comedy troupe would work on their material, and get ridiculously drunk.

Monty Python's Flying Circus: Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam. Simply brilliant.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus: Eric Idle, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, John Cleese, Terry Jones, and Terry Gilliam. Simply brilliant.

The first time I saw Monty Python I was about 12 years old. I credit President Jimmy Carter for that, which was the only good thing he did in office. Well, that and losing the 1980 presidential election.

Carter was addressing the nation on TV so I desperately dialed through our five pre-cable channels looking for anything else to watch. I found it on PBS, and that program changed my opinion of humor (humour) forever. A group of British men were doing brilliantly ridiculous things, like trying (and completely failing) to take a bra off a store mannequin, and one man ran himself over with a car. Then I saw boobs – BOOBS – on TV. After the show I looked through TV Guide, and discovered I’d just watched Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

I didn’t realize it then, but the troupe of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, had just set the bar pretty high for what I thought was funny. For those of you not familiar with Monty Python (and who exactly are you?), this sketch program ran for 45 episodes on the BBC from 1969 to 1974 and featured intelligent people in ridiculous situations, such as the British army using the funniest joke in the world to defeat the Nazis in WWII. It was what I imagine The Three Stooges skits would be like if Shakespeare wrote the scripts.

Angel Inn in Highgate; the home of tasty beer.

Angel Inn in Highgate; the home of tasty beer.

Up the hill I walked by pubs like The Wittington Stone, The Old Crown, and The Duke’s Head before I got to the Angel Inn on the aptly named High Street. Like most British public houses I’ve been to, and since I landed in London I’ve gone to a lot, it’s an unassuming sort of building. Unlike obnoxious American restaurants and bars, splashed with red and blaring music, British pubs are quiet, friendly and in buildings so subtle it’s sometimes hard to determine what kind of business it holds. Well, that’s not entirely true, the tables out front with locals drinking beer are a dead giveaway.

Like many pubs, the interior of the two-story Angel Inn was dark, even at lunchtime. Deep brown paneling lined the walls that stretched by booths and behind the shining surface of a bar lined with pump-handle taps. The back of the pub resembled a reading lounge; a black leather sofa and leather-clad stools dot the area around a currently unlit fireplace. The flat-screen television on the wall seemed oddly out of place.

I ordered a pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord Pale Ale and sat at a polished wooden booth with maroon leather-backed benches. Did the Pythons once sit here? I wondered. If they hung out here as much as the pub boasted, could be. In London I’ve been to houses where famous people like George Orwell lived, places where famous people like Sir Isaac Newton, and Charles Dickens are buried (I hope wherever you are, Charles, you’re contemplating how horrible “Great Expectations” is to an eighth grader), and places where famous people walked, like the zebra crossing at Abbey Road. But until that moment I hadn’t sat where my idols sat to write brilliant comedy, and get completely shitfaced.

I finished my beer in the booth of awesomeness, and left.

On the outside wall rested a blue plaque set high enough to keep anyone from stealing it unless they really, really tried. Blue historical plaques like this can be seen on buildings throughout London; the only caveat is that someone interesting had to have been there once. Started in 1866 by the Royal Society of Arts, blue plaques have been placed on buildings to commemorate where “notable figures” lived or worked. This plaque on the side of the pub read: “To Preserve and Foster the Tradition of British Comedy: Graham Chapman: ‘A very naughty boy’ 8 January 1941 to 4 October 1989. Comedian and writer, member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus drank here often and copiously.”

Good for him. Satisfied I’d just experienced a piece of Monty Python history; I walked back to the Archway Tube Station and headed home.

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