Adventures Across The Atlantic


April 24, 1994|By DAVE BARRY

Recently I went to England on a selfless humanitarian mission to sell books. It was a very relaxing trip until about 35 minutes after the plane landed at Heathrow Airport, which is when a British person cheerfully informed my wife and me that terrorists had been shooting mortar bombs onto the runway.

Really. They have political organizations over there that believe the way to garner public support is to bomb and mortar the public.

Shortly after we arrived, there were two more mortar attacks on Heathrow. None of the bombs detonated, but I was starting to wonder about the quality of the airport security.

Don't get me wrong. I live in South Florida, and we have our problems, too. The very week I was in England, a German tourist, checking out of a South Florida hotel, complained about an odor in his room, which turned out to be emanating from -- I am not making this up -- a corpse under the bed. (Apparently he failed to put out the little doorknob sign that says "Maid: Please remove corpse.") But we South Floridians pride ourselves on our mortar-free runways, which enable us to guarantee that our tourists will be safe and secure. Unless of course they are foolish enough to actually get off the plane.

Anyway, the mortars were scary, but we had a much scarier experience in England: Somehow -- probably because of another massive screw up at the CIA -- we got invited to dine at the U.S. ambassador's residence. We were the only people on the guest list whose titles were "Mr. and Mrs." Everybody else was something like "The Lord Earl of Gwebbing and Her Worshipfulhood the Viscountess Lady Huffington Prawn-Armature." So when we arrived at the ambassador's residence, which is approximately the size of Wales, we were feeling socially intimidated.

Fortunately, the ambassador and his wife were extremely nice, which was reassuring, as was the fact that they had three dogs (one main, two backups) with no sense of etiquette whatsoever ("I know! Let's sniff the viscountess!"). Nevertheless, when it came time to eat dinner, I developed severe Table Manners Paranoia. I estimate that there were 27 forks at my place setting alone. Plus, it turns out that at these formal dinners they have rules about whom you talk to: Before the main course, you're supposed to talk exclusively to the lady on your left, but when the main course arrives, you're supposed to drop her like used chewing gum and talk to the lady on your right.

Of course I didn't know about this, so midway through the dinner I suddenly found myself having an animated conversation with the back of the head of the lady on my left, who, despite having been, only moments earlier, my closest personal friend, no longer seemed to realize that I existed. (To this day, she never calls, and she never writes.)

Speaking of exciting social adventures: Several nights later, we were at a party, and the host came up and said, "I'd like you to meet Salman Rushdie." Really. Apparently Salman has turned into a major party animal. So there I was, chatting with him, trying to appear cool, but in fact wondering if I would have been safer just staying at the airport. "So, Salman!" I wanted to say. "Perhaps we would be more comfortable if we were lying face-down on the floor away from the windows!"

But other than these few anxious moments, we had a wonderful time in England. They were having some highly entertaining government scandals. We Americans tend to have obscure, boring, complicated financial Whitewater-type scandals that nobody understands; whereas the British have scandals involving straightforward, clear-cut issues of obvious significance, such as high government officials paying for sex with fish.

Speaking of food: The British are definitely getting better at cooking. Fortunately, however, some things have not changed: They still have the Royal Dysfunctional Family, and it is still a constant source of entertainment.

Also, the British still speak in British accents, so that no matter what they say, it sounds really intelligent to Americans. Plus they keep inventing wonderful expressions. For example, I saw a newspaper front page that had a photograph of a man, with the headline: "Mr. Chuckletrousers."

I asked a number of British people about this expression; they had no idea what it meant, but they all agreed that they would definitely try to use it a lot. So should we, I think. We should maintain close ties with our friends across the Atlantic. But we should also remain out of mortar range.

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