Saturday, July 03, 2004

Not-so-great Britain, Part I: London calling and nobody's home

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It'll be 228 years tomorrow since America broke from England and declared the 13 original colonies free and independent of the British monarch's rule.

England in 1776 was what America is today--a big, powerful, can-do kind of country. England, buddy, got shit done. Like America today, England in 1776 was a pro-active self-starter, and worked well either in teams or individually. Both examples are also ruled by cracked guys named George, which makes me wonder if the universe has a sense of humor.

Since England's pre-eminence in the 18th century was obvious, as a kid I always wondered what it was that made the American colonists want to leave.

"The Stamp Act," was the usual answer I got. Other motives for U.S. independence I remember from elementary school are "no taxation without representation," "Boston Tea Party" and "Crispus Attucks."

I have new information. My wife and I just came from vacation, and after six days and seven nights in London, I've gotten closer to the truth of why the colonists wanted independence:

England's kind of dull.

I wouldn't want to be part of it, either.

No offense to any Britons. It's just my unshakeable opinion formed by snap judgments and a superficial understanding of your culture. Nothing personal.

My wife and I are not people who carve out a chunk of beach in an impoverished Caribbean country for seven days while the natives attend to our beverage needs. Our ideal vacation is visiting a city rich with culture and wandering around to look at interesting, nerdy stuff. That's London.

So before we left, we read a travel guide, "Frommer's England 2004."

"Look!" I told my wife. "It says here, 'Wander around to look at interesting, nerdy stuff.' It doesn't say that literally, but it's the gist."

"Palaces!" she raved. "Parks! Architecture!"

I looked at her with tears in my eyes. "The museums," I sobbed, "are free!"

I sidled up to her. She sidled up to me. We both sidled up to the travel guide. The travel guide sidled up to our closet and began picking out our clothes--it was a comprehensive guide.

"I don't want to oversell it," I said, "but it seems like we'll be having the best vacation in the history of mankind."

Getting there is half the fun

I'm usually a heavy packer, because I'm a paranoid, insane person. On even the shortest weekend trips, I bring whatever I can fit into a piano crate. This time, I kept my head. I only brought three tins of breath mints.

"Should we take our jackets?" my wife asked as we finished packing the night before we left. "In case it rains?"

I looked at her, twirling a finger around my temple. "In England? Besides, it's summer. It doesn't rain in the summer."

When she got her jacket ready I found mine, too.

"Whatever," I said.

We checked our bags for anything that might hold up a security check--nail clippers, Swiss Army knives, pointy mascara wands, jars of sulfuric acid, fireplace pokers.

We were still red-flagged at the airport. It was my sinister beard and my wife's cute face.

"Take off your shoes, and jackets, please," a security guard asked us. He leered at me. "And, sir, if you could remove your belt."

Another security guard nearby with a trombone began playing sexy music while I stripped. First I teased them with one shoe, showing a little ankle here, a little sock there. Then the other shoe came off. Somebody whistled. I fluttered a pink ostrich-feather fan while--in the middle of a crowded airport, grandmothers and young children all around--I, Dan Medeiros, undid my pants. Finally, I spun the belt around my head and flung it at the guard, who sniffed it and handed me a single with his number written on it.

Dazed and confused

After five or six days in flight, cruising in a bright blue, clear sky, our plane dove through the blanket of clouds to a gloomy, green landscape carved into sheep pastures as far as we could see. We touched down at Gatwick Airport, about 30 miles south of London.

Punchy from the flight and the airline food--I'd ordered beef and gotten lasagna that tasted like fish--we shuffled into the airport and found the currency exchange.

I handed a teller $400 in cash. The teller--our first speaking encounter with an actual British person!--forked over a few pounds.

"That's it?" my wife whispered.

The next teller over explained the lousy exchange rate to another befuddled American: "Go have a chat with Mr. Alan Greenspan!"

Our teller added a few coins and handed over a receipt.

"Cheers!" he said.

When we breathed fresh air, we both noticed it smelled funny, like England had gone stale. We couldn't tell if it was really the air or us.

Our driver navigated us through the twisty, narrow London streets, passing the same landmarks sometimes three, four times--St. James's Square, a statue of some guy, a lingerie store called the Knickerbox. We saw a lot of buildings that looked exactly alike.

When he brought us to our hotel, over by Hyde Park, it was 9 a.m. Check-in time was at 2 p.m. My wife and I decided to take a stroll to soak up the stale British air. To us, it was really 4 a.m.

Everything in London looked eerily familiar. The style of all the buildings reminded us of Boston, or the East Side of Providence.

"Now I know who put the England in New England," I said.

"We see houses like this all the time in Newport," she said. "I guess they don't keep the interesting houses in this neighborhood."

"I can't figure this out," I said, studying a street map that resembled a plate of spaghetti. "Is the hotel on Kensington Church Street, Kensington High Street, Kensington Court, Kensington Place, Kensington Court Place, or Kensington Road?"

That's when then the rain began to fall.

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