Journeys without George: I’m Lovin’ It

Greetings from Schererville, Indiana. We begin this final edition of the European Adventure with a little Mamas and the Papas: Monday, Monday…been so good to me. And enough of that. Monday morning I headed out to investigate the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. The one thing about London that sets it apart from other cities I have visited recently is the high prices to visit sites. In China, you should see the Forbidden City for the equivalent of about $2. Most sites here cost 12-17 pounds…thanks to the exchange rate you’re hitting $25-30 per site! Thankfully you’re getting a good deal of history and cool pictures for the price, so it all works out.

I headed straight to the Tower of London which is an 18 acre fortress in the middle of the city (funny because the White House is also 18 acres). After working my way through obstacles of thousands of schoolchildren on Spring Break (more on them later), I made it up to the main gate and waited for the next Yeoman Warder (or most commonly referred to as Beefeaters) tour. Our Warder, a very funny guy, explained that they don’t know where the term Beefeaters came from, therefore, no one knows.

“There are two walls – the inner wall, and the outer wall. The inner wall was the outer wall until the outer wall was built and it became the inner wall. Got it?”

Where the moat once stood has since been excavated and they have different little activities down there, including staging of beheadings. I skipped that part. Back in the day, someone decided to build the moat in such a way that it was lower than the River Thames. So once water got into the moat, it didn’t leave. Ok, so stagnant water isn’t entirely a horrible thing – except for the fact that all waste went into the moat as well. You guessed it – it was the perfect weapon against any enemy. Who the heck could smell that and not turn away?

Later, our Warder made a special funny just for the Americans in the crowd.

Probably the neatest little fact that was passed on involved black crows. Many many years ago, a monarch that frequented the Tower of London was told in a prophecy that if at any time there were less than six black crows on the 18 acres the Tower, the monarchy and all of England would crumble.

“So we have nine, just in case,” said the Yeoman Warder. Laughter all around.

Yep, they have nine that wander the grounds. Their wings were clipped so they can’t fly away.

The tour lasted about fifty minutes and then we were left on our own. I headed straight over to another building on campus to see the Crown Jewels. The Warder assured us that they were the real things, and there has only been one attempt to steal them! The Crown Jewels are the crowns, scepters and other items used by Kings and Queens during their reign, or specifically at their coronation ceremonies. Of course, nothing from Queen Elizabeth II is available to view, but there were items from Queen Victoria and others. Talk about a lot of $$!

From there, I began the intense walking portion of my day. I walked to the Tower Bridge, and across it. I decided walking across it was much more enjoyable than paying the 6 pounds to visit a museum about it. Why not just experience it? It was free! Thankfully, they have nice walkways made for folks like me.

I retraced my steps back across the bridge and headed along the River Thames. I had planned to visit the London Eye next and felt like a nice walk was in order. Instead, I ended up at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – not the real one, silly! – that one burned down long ago. The walk took forever and took me past a pub with the greatest name ever – The Hung, Drawn and Quartered. Man, the food must be tasty there.

From the Globe, I continued along the River Thames to the Waterloo underground station, which is actually the closest to the London Eye, my original destination, to head north to Piccadilly Circus for dinner. At one point, I heard the sounds of a helicopter and naturally looked up to see what it was. It was obviously way up there, but from my vantage point, it surely looked like the beautiful dark green of the U.S. Marine and “United States of America” painted on the side. Maybe I’m wrong, but certainly looked like they were taking a press corps helo out for a test run before the arrival the next day.

Again, I was disappointed to find out that not a single elephant was on hand to entertain me. The same with Oxford Circus. So disappointing. (Another funny from our Warder “The Tower was once given an elephant. So the Yeoman Warders gave it gin and beef, they had never seen an elephant, how were they supposed to know what to feed it? It died.”)

I window shopped a few restaurants in the area to see what their menus offered. Piccadilly is actually a really fun area with a bunch of shops and restaurants. A place I could definitely spend more time in.

I decided to hit up an Italian restaurant (I don’t know that I had much choice in this area) and ordered salmon. It was good, although, the Brussels version was better. After that, I went south past Traflagar Square to Whitehall, with a great view of Big Ben, to catch another West End show.

I thought the show started at 8pm. Around 6:58pm as I walked towards the theatre, I started to get a bad feeling that maybe it started at 7pm. Not good! So I hustled and thankfully, it started at 7:30pm. So I was wrong both times.

I saw a show called “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” – just like The 39 Steps I didn’t know what to expect but there was someone somewhat recognizable in the show so I picked it. Imelda Staunton was the headliner. Her name is probably not familiar to you – but if you’ve seen the latest Harry Potter movie her face definitely is. She plays Professor Dolores Umbridge.

It was a pretty funny show, and the theatre was MUCH more comfortable than the Criterion two nights before. All the seats were considered stalls at Traflagar Studios and they were all tiered, much like a movie theatre back home, but with a lot more of them!

When I got back I did a quick Google search on the Criterian Theatre and found out it was built in the 1800s (makes sense) but the neatest thing is that for many years up until about 2005, it was the home of The Reduced Shakespeare Company – the guys that did The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (abridged) and other (abridged) shows. We did Shkspr in high school, and The Complete History of America (abridged) a few years later at Lake Central. I knew I recognized the Criterion Theatre from somewhere (in the script they say “Welcome to the Criterion Theatre, and tonight’s performance of…”). So it was rather fitting that the first West End show I saw was there.

After the show, I headed back on to the Tube and to the hotel.

Tuesday morning was all about Buckingham Palace. The every-other-day spectacle of the Changing of the Guards took place at 11:30am and I wasn’t about to miss it. But here is where the school kids come back into the story – they are EVERYWHERE! I mean, EVERYWHERE. I don’t think they are really paying attention, either, just standing around and talking. On top of it, 6 foot 5 inch guys were standing at up against the fence, on the ledge, trying to get a better view! Seriously. So it leaves the rest of us less than 6 foot 5 inchers to see nothing or just hope that our arms reach high enough to snap a decent picture.

It was hard to see a lot of the action, but I caught a few things on my Flip camera.

About half way through the guards started a little concert. It was like the Sharks and Jets going at each other (minus the stylish leather jackets), with each side of the band playing a faster paced, harder song trying to best the other side. Finally, Team Left Hand Side broke into “Livin’ la vida loca” – it was at this point that I decided to leave. There was just something about visions of Ricky Martin dancing that ruined it for me.

From there, I walked along the Birdcage Walk/Princess Diana Memorial Walk, back to Whitehall where I took some more pictures of Big Ben (this time, sans rain and hail) and headed north to give The Red Lion one more shot. The experience a few days before behind me, I headed up to the dining room and to my surprise there was only one occupied table. I was expecting a pretty sweet excuse for why they couldn’t serve me today, but the nice waitress sat me down and handed me a menu. I opened it and it looked very familiar…where I have seen it before? Yeah, turns out The Red Lion is owned by the same company as The Clarence, where I had dinner a few nights before. So the menu was EXACTLY the same – down to descriptions, prices, you name it. Oh well.

On the way out, I noticed a sign passing along the horrifying news that that week’s Wednesday trivia competition at The Red Lion was being cancelled for uncontrollable reasons – new ownership! Oh, ghast!

From there, it was time to hit up Westminster Abbey. With President Obama due in town later that day, the White House press charter had already arrived so I had sent an e-mail to a few friends from my stenographer friends to meet me at Westminster if they could at 1:30pm. It was about 1:20pm when I felt a thump on my back and it was Brian and Eirene! They weren’t certain they would find me, but they did! So we took the obligatory pictures outside Westminster and walked up Whitehall so they could see Number 10. They had to head back to the press filing center, so I thought making a little visit might be fun.

The White House press corps arrived early that morning and was busy as bees working away on the news of the day. A lot of faces I recognized were there; plus a lot I didn’t recognize. But the filing center looked exactly the same, no difference – down to the plentiful food.

The reactions on a few of the faces were priceless. Some double takes; a few “I looked up, saw you and thought ‘Oh, there’s Pete’ WAIT a second…”

The tough part of the press corps on these trips is not only the amount of news there is to cover, but also the demands of time difference. The network correspondents stay up until all hours of the night doing the nightly news and cable hits. No wonder most of the networks sent two correspondents!

All your favs were there – Jake Tapper (Yunji de Nies was off site when I visited), Chuck Todd, Savannah Guthrie, Ed Henry, Suzanne Malveaux, Bill Plante, Chip Reid, Major Garrett, Jennifer Loven, Matt Spetalnick, Hans Nichols, Rich Wolf, Julie Mason (Beltway Confidential is BACK! Check it out here. Includes a little ditty about my file center visit), Mark Smith, Don Gonyea, Paula Wolfson, Ann Compton, and their talented producers and crews, and of course – the stills! (I’m sure I missed a few people – so apologies)

After visiting with the press and meeting some of Team Obama for the first time in person (we have e-mailed many times during and since the transition) I headed off to the London Eye. It just seemed like something I had to do. The website and pamphlets are a little confusing, making it sound like there are 30 min time slots – called “flights” – that must be reserved. When I got there, I asked what was the next “flight” with availability. The lady looked at me and said, “You just get on.” Which is what I thought, which is what made the website confusing. IT’s a gigantic ferris wheels so it’s always running and you just get on. I boarded capsule 29 – fitting since my birthday is May 29 – to the 30 min “flight.” It was pretty neat, although, after you reach a certain altitude, you’ve gotten all your pictures and are ready to come back down.

Thankfully the bottom of the capsule is not glass – that could have been bad news! The view from the top was pretty awesome though. 

I met a nice couple in town from Denver. The wife asked me if I was a Red Sox fan. Seriously, that World Series jacket is gold. We chatted about baseball and why we were in London. Cheap fares, my friends.

Afterwards, I went back to the filing center and found out that my steno friends had bolted to attempt a “flight” on the London Eye themselves but while picking up tickets for the Underground they had an interested encounter…Emma Watson! I didn’t want to brag, guys, but I saw Imelda Staunton live on the West End. (Ok, Brian and Eirene win)

We went to pick another steno – Jenny – up from a nearby and saw Robert Gibbs and David Axelrod dining along with a few other top staffers. By then it was past 10pm – late dinner! (Although, they had just gotten to town from Air Force One).

A bunch of folks congregated at a pub next to the press hotel that night until they closed shortly after 11pm. And with that, it was back to the hotel to get some sleep before the long trip home.

And a funny thing happened Wednesday morning – that circus they’ve been teasing me with this whole time? I found it at Heathrow Airport! No joke. The overbearing King Lion of security, the sheepish currency exchange teller and the snails pace check-in counter line. They were all there! Oh, happy day…

THE NUMBERS:

Countries Traveled: 2
Coke Zeros/Diet Cokes/Coca-Cola Lights’ Consumed: approx 10
Individually packaged Rice Krispie treats eaten: 6 (yes, I know you’re jealous)
Times I was asked “Are you a (Red) Sox fan?” on Tuesday: 2
Nights in the Dorm Room sized hotel: 4
Visits to the non-circus Piccadilly Circus: 2
West End Shows seen: 2
Roundtrip on Eurostar: 1
Number of foul smelling neighbors on said Eurostar: 1
Days I missed reading the Politico Playbook: 0
Monk Episodes Watched: 13 (5 on flights; 8 at hotel – including all of Season One)

Until next time, America…