27,000 Cups of Tea

Geist - - Geist - Jo­ce­lyn Kuang

When I was liv­ing in Lon­don a cou­ple of years ago, I learned that ev­ery Cana­dian is en­ti­tled to at­tend a tea party at Buck­ing­ham Palace, hosted by the head of state, cur­rently Queen El­iz­a­beth II, once in their life. I made an ap­pli­ca­tion, and two weeks later an email from the Royal Events Co­or­di­na­tor at the High Com­mis­sion of Canada ar­rived, say­ing that I had been ac­cepted and that in­struc­tions would soon fol­low. A month later I re­ceived an­other email say­ing that my in­vi­ta­tion and fur­ther in­struc­tions were ready to pick up at Canada House, down on Cock­spur Street in Trafal­gar Square.

The in­vi­ta­tion was printed on thick off-white pa­per, em­bossed with the queen’s in­signia, ER (El­iz­a­beth Regina), in gold let­ters. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing the in­vi­ta­tion were in­struc­tions for or­der­ing a DVD of the tea party; a park­ing pass; in­struc­tions on how to get to the party by pub­lic tran­sit, coach and car, in­clud­ing a warn­ing about charges for driv­ing in the Con­ges­tion Charge Zone; a

map of the Buck­ing­ham Palace gar­den, in­clud­ing walk­ing dis­tances be­tween en­trances; se­cu­rity guid­ance for guests say­ing that cam­eras and mo­bile tele­phones were for­bid­den; and a check­list for the day: each guest must bring per­sonal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and a Royal or Diplo­matic Tea Tent Card (if ap­pli­ca­ble), and must not bring any hand lug­gage or any­one un­der eigh­teen years of age.

Gen­tle­men were in­structed to wear a morn­ing coat or lounge suit, and ladies to wear a day dress (trouser suits per­mit­ted pro­vid­ing they were of match­ing ma­te­rial and colour), gloves op­tional, and a hat or “sub­stan­tial fas­ci­na­tor.” I de­cided that I was go­ing to wear my one for­mal dress and that I would find a “sub­stan­tial fas­ci­na­tor” to match.

Since I had no idea what a “sub­stan­tial fas­ci­na­tor” was, I searched on­line. Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­net, the fas­ci­na­tor is a light­weight or­na­men­tal piece of head­wear made of feath­ers, flow­ers and rib­bon, at­tached to a head­band or clip, worn in­stead of a hat for for­mal oc­ca­sions such as wed­dings or horse-rac­ing events, or as an evening ac­ces­sory. The fas­ci­na­tor in its present it­er­a­tion be­came pop­u­lar in Lon­don in the 1990s as a way to wear for­mal head­gear with­out ru­in­ing one’s hair­style. A sub­stan­tial fas­ci­na­tor is sim­ply a large fas­ci­na­tor.

A cou­ple of days be­fore the tea party I headed to Lib­erty, a well-known lux­ury depart­ment store in Ox­ford Cir­cus, and marched over to the hat sec­tion. The hat racks were cov­ered with driver caps, fe­do­ras, wide-brimmed felt hats, dec­o­ra­tive hair clips and head scarves, but no fas­ci­na­tors of any size. My next stop was Ac­ces­sorize, a small ac­ces­sory shop just down the street, jam-packed with glit­ter, fake di­a­monds and shiny purses; on the back wall hung a hand­ful of fas­ci­na­tors, small and sub­stan­tial.

I tried on the sim­plest fas­ci­na­tor, navy blue with a lace bow on top. It sat too high on my head. Then I tried on a huge fas­ci­na­tor. It had a white bow tie and white feath­ers; it was too big for my head. The next fas­ci­na­tor was less sub­stan­tial, beige with light polka dots and a bow; I chose this smaller one be­cause I thought it would be eas­ier to man­age as I moved through the crowds.

On the day of the tea party, I put on my dress, slid the fas­ci­na­tor onto my head and walked to the tube. Some of

the pas­sen­gers were wear­ing base­ball caps and toques (or bean­ies, as they are called in the UK); I was the only one wear­ing a fas­ci­na­tor. By the time I ar­rived at St. James’s Park sta­tion and started walk­ing to Buck­ing­ham Palace, women in dresses and fas­ci­na­tors and men in suits had in­creased in numbers. I met my friend Anna, who was my guest, in the queue out­side Buck­ing­ham Palace. She was wear­ing a black mini fas­ci­na­tor with flow­ers on top and mesh that hung over her face; she had tucked the price tag in­side so she could re­turn it after the tea party.

At the gate the se­cu­rity guard de­manded to see my in­vi­ta­tion and two forms of ID be­fore let­ting me through. In the gar­den, hun­dreds of peo­ple roamed and min­gled, each woman in a fas­ci­na­tor or hat. A mil­i­tary brass band at one end of the gar­den played a Ste­vie Won­der med­ley, and when they were fin­ished, an­other mil­i­tary brass band at the op­po­site end of the gar­den played that Adele song from the James Bond movie, and when they were fin­ished, the first band played an old Bon Jovi clas­sic, and they went on this way all af­ter­noon, play­ing pop­u­lar rock hits as well as “God Save the Queen.”

In­side the white Royal Tea Tents, servers wear­ing black pants, aprons and white-col­lared shirts of­fered Anna and me Twin­ings Gar­den Party tea, iced cof­fee, ap­ple juice and ice wa­ter. Food choices in­cluded three kinds of sand­wich: free-range egg may­on­naise with wa­ter­cress; gam­mon ham, to­mato and whole-grain mus­tard; cu­cum­ber with fresh mint and black pep­per. There were chicken and as­para­gus wraps with baby spinach, smoked-salmon bagels, black pep­per and crème fraîche, lemon tarts, Dundee cake, cof­fee éclairs, straw­berry tarts, Vic­to­ria sponge cake, rasp­berry short­bread, straw­berry and cream Bat­ten­berg, choco­late and pra­line croustil­lant and fruit scones with black­cur­rant jam and clot­ted cream. The of­fi­cial web­site of the Bri­tish royal fam­ily claims that guests con­sume around 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sand­wiches and 20,000 slices of cake at each gar­den party.

Anna and I got some tea with milk and a side of sand­wiches—cu­cum­ber with fresh mint and black pep­per—and scones with clot­ted cream, and headed over to the big pond and sat down.

Through­out the af­ter­noon, guests in fas­ci­na­tors and hats min­gled in the gar­den. There were small and large bows, stacked flow­ers, pro­trud­ing feath­ers, net­ted mesh draped over faces. There were wide brims, curled brims, half curled and half flat brims, rounded crowns, square crowns. There were tall and short fas­ci­na­tors. There were fas­ci­na­tors that sat on top of and off to the side of the head.

At one point I looked over at the Royal Tea Tents and saw the Queen. She wore a yel­low knee-length dress, match­ing rounded flat-top hat and black patent leather shoes; a small black bag hung from her arm. She min­gled with other royal fam­ily mem­bers for about an hour and then she be­gan to head for the exit, at which point the crowd ap­plauded. She kept her gaze fixed straight ahead, look­ing tired, per­haps even bored. Charles and Camilla, who was wear­ing a light blue hat, fol­lowed the Queen, look­ing around and smil­ing, just ahead of some fif­teen men in top hats and tails, chat­ting among them­selves.

When the royal fam­ily had va­cated the grounds, a server came by with a sil­ver tray of ice cream. I asked for vanilla, but there was none left, so I got straw­berry in­stead. Anna had choco­late.

That evening we hung out in west Lon­don. We went to a pub and had a beer. We watched a gig in a small down­stairs venue. I held my fas­ci­na­tor in my hand.

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