Visiting 'No. 10'

On Wednesday -- coincidentally my birthday and the tenth anniversary of Tony Blair's prime ministership (not in order of importance) -- I had a chance to visit No. 10 Downing Street for the first time. (In U.K.-ese, the phrase "Number 10" is the equivalent of "the White House.") I was invited to tea -- no joke! -- by somebody I had met in conjunction with an academic research project in the U.K. a few years ago, now serving as a public-sector reform adviser to the Prime Minister.

Security is still lower than for the White House. I had to show my passport, but I wasn't required to provide in advance a date of birth or passport number, procedures required for entry to the White House complex even before 9/11; in my experience, White House security occasionally actually denied outside visitors building access (My host shared my e-mail message about the difference in procedures, with some bemusement, with his assistant.) Having said that, I remember that the first time I was ever a tourist in London, you could actually walk past Number 10; the street was open to the public, which it now is not. (Police with machine guns are in full view.)

It was a fun experience. My host told me that the current offices represent an amalgamation of three earlier buildings, with walls knocked down. "Each individual house had nice proportions, but together they don't quite work." He showed me the Cabinet Room, adding, "Here was the room from which we lost the colonies." He also mentioned to me that during the 2000 US election Florida debacle, a U.S. Web site had suggested that Queen Elizabeth be brought over to take over running our country -- and that, apparently, the Queen herself had read the Web site content, with some interest.

When I told my family I would be going for tea at Number 10, my dad, now 88, e-mailed me: "From the White House to 10 Downing Street. Not bad for the son of a refugee from Hitler who jumped off a train to save his life." And he spoke not a word of English when he came to the United States, I might add.

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