Saved by the Tower and Chestnuts Roasting

TowerI didn’t want to be a stick in the mud, so I decided to take the positive approach to Donna’s Must-See-Every-Goddamn-Thing-in-London tour she’d planned for the next couple of days. The first stop was Westminster Abby and the best part was walking up to it. The place was gigantic and quite imposing. Donna told us this Gothic monster was over 700 years old. I wondered how the people of that time built something like it. Weren’t they living in huts?  This is what goes through the mind of a guy who spent more time demagnetizing his eight track tape player than studying history. After the first ten minutes inside this royal astrodome every thing started looking the same and felt like meandering through rows and rows of “As Seen on TV” booths at the county fair. After a couple of hours of tomb hopping my head grew numb.  I recognized that English history is important to know, but this crash course was taking its toll on me. The kids were yawning as well and I imagined them telling their teachers they walked over the graves of England’s finest but couldn’t remember their names. I worried they might get history burn out on our first day.

* * *

Donna had been talking about the Tower of London for months, and all the while I imagined a single tower. I know it’s stupid, but I pictured the Washington Monument with rustic stone siding and a gabled roof – with an elevator manned by one of those gents with funny hats and fuzzy collars from the gin bottles crying out: “8th Floor – “Henry the Eight’s codpiece” or “9th Floor – 16th Century  torture devices.” Turns out the place is a mega-castle with – yes – several towers.

After walking over a dry moat and passing through two sets of thick stone walls we entered a Disney-like courtyard with cobble stone streets, tudor-style buildings, and lots of paned glass windows. Best of all, a guy from the gin bottle was there to greet us. His fluffy collar was gone, but he still wore the brightly colored red and blue uniform with the Queen’s initials printed boldly on the chest. These “Beefeaters” I learned, have been the security guards for the Queen, her crown jewels, and other important stuff for a long time, and now serve as tour guides. Ours was a very knowledgeable older gentleman who impressed us with stories of torture, death, and other misgivings which shed light on the politics and social culture of the day. Most importantly he kept the kids attention for more than five minutes. At the end of the tour, they wanted to tip him. I searched my pocket for five pounds, but Chris beat me to the punch. I was alarmed to see my boy handing this man a single dollar bill. I thought for sure he’d be offended. Instead he graciously accepted it and held it above his head and examined its details, acting as if this greenback was the most interesting thing he’d seen all day, pointing out unique characteristics of the bill. He even gave the kids a lesson on currency exchange rates before happily posing with them for a photo.

Within walking distance of the Tower stood the remains of a wall the Roman’s built. Amid protests from the kids, who were now feeling the sting of the cold and had no desire to see anything more than six months old, Donna insisted it was on our way home. The wall was – quite frankly – just another stone wall. Part of a wall actually. I really had to get psyched to show any excitement about it. I did however, get jazzed about the guy peddling hot roasted chestnuts on the sidewalk next to the wall. The mere site of his cart warmed my chilled bones – red hot coals beneath a heavy black pan filled with crackling brown nuts. I’m sure the Romans worked hard on that wall, but I felt greater appreciation for the man behind that smoking pan. I ordered a bag which also served as a perfect hand warmer. I’d heard these described every Christmas, now I was watching them roast right in front of me. The hot soft meat quickly cooled when exposed to the open air, allowing me to taste the chestnut’s unique sweetness. We all agreed this was a “where’ve you been all my life” moment as we stood on the sidewalk, watching others admire the – you know – whatchamacallit – (munch munch) – wall.

NEXT: Facing the Electric Snake

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