St. Appalling

It is easy to recognize that England is very different from America. Why, simply examining the Brits’ teeth is enough to show that England is separate from every other nation on Earth, and also to show that a nation of dentists ought to invade England and wage an aggressive campaign of orthodontia.

But while recently vacationing in London — and get used to that phrase, because I plan to write 78 columns about it — I observed that some of the most fundamental differences between us and them are exemplified in one place: St. Paul’s Cathedral.

First of all, the fact that a cathedral is a major tourist attraction separates the Brits from us, since here in America, we like to pretend religion has no connection with our nation’s history.

My friend Monty, touring the cathedral with me, had to be asked three times to take off his hat, since St. Paul’s is still a functioning church. The reason he kept putting it back on was not disrespect, but habit: Monty is very bald, and his head looks absolutely awful. Seriously, you can hardly stand to look at him when he’s hatless. His own children cry when they see him. So he always wears a hat, including when he showers.

Anyway, the Brits always sound polite, no matter what. The last time Monty was asked to remove his hat, it was by an elderly man who said, “Sir, I wonder if I might encourage you to uncover your head.” In America, the request would have been accompanied by profanity and the cocking of rifles.

No, wait. In America, they wouldn’t care if you wore a hat. In fact, they would be SELLING hats AT the cathedral, and the hats would say, “St. Paul’s ROCKS!!!!!”

If we had anything this old and beautiful in America, surely we would have stripped it of its dignity by now. We would have a college kid in a St. Paul costume dancing around the chapel, and an animated Christopher Wren (the architect who designed it) greeting visitors with a toothy smile and architecture-related puns. (“ARCH you glad you came?!! Don’t let the flying buttress hit you in the apse!!”)

There is much beauty to observe from the floor of the cathedral, but you can also go to the top of the dome and look out over the city. To do this, you must hike up 47 million steps. It is long and difficult, even for someone in good shape such as not myself. Near the top, the passageway becomes short and narrow; anyone exceptionally tall and/or fat would not be able to squeeze through. (This means King Henry VIII never saw the gorgeous view of London from atop St. Paul’s, because he was fatter than two Oprahs; also, because he died 250 years before it was finished.)

In America, there would be signs at the bottom, in four languages, warning that expectant mothers, people with heart conditions, and the elderly should not climb the steps. This would be to avoid lawsuits, which otherwise would have been issued within five minutes of the cathedral’s opening. Also, government regulations would by now have mandated reworking the whole thing to make it wheelchair accessible. We would provide helicopters, if necessary, to avoid looking like we were discriminating against anyone, and we would rewrite history to say Christopher Wren was a bigot who hated fat people, thus explaining his “oversight.”

None of this means I prefer England over America, of course. The very idea of having a king or queen is very silly to me, and if I lived under one (governmentally speaking), I fear I would never stop giggling. But in some ways, maybe they’ve surpassed us. Their dental hygiene is funnier than ours, that’s for sure.

You'll notice I got the obligatory "English people have bad teeth" joke out of the way right at the top. Hopefully, that means I won't have to do it in any other London-related columns, though I'm not promising anything. (The stereotype about British dental hygiene is true, by the way, as are most stereotypes.)

It is on the steps of St. Paul's that the old woman in "Mary Poppins" sells bags of bread crumbs for tuppance so you can feed the birds. The old woman is not there anymore, but the birds are.