My Favorite Place in London
And I’m always going to stay here if I live to be ninety-nine.
Cause all the people I meet, seem to come from my street.”
(Kinks, “Autumn Almanac”)
This is a love letter to my neighbors on a tiny street, which shall remain nameless, in the very heart of Westminster in central London. For the last four and a half years, we have had the great fortune to live among them and feel truly welcome. When we arrived, we were a family of two, with a cat. I was very pregnant with our first baby. We were going to be renters on a street where many people owned their houses (in some cases for more than one generation). On the first day in the house, I arrived to meet the person taking inventory—making a list of the house’s condition and contents. The first thing he said was, “Your neighbors are so kind!” Someone had seen him come in and offered to help him with something or other. As it turned out, they are always generous like that. We would find out soon enough.
London doesn’t have a reputation for neighborliness. It’s a big city, after all, in a country which is internationally known for its reserve. But our little street had no borders. It was a cobblestoned mews, in which most of the houses are converted stables or outbuildings that used to belong to the bigger houses in the next street over. I’m not sure how many nationalities live on our street now—at least eight! We are Irish, American, Norwegian, Persian, Chinese, French, Indian, and British… ages from one to over eighty. We have picnic tables and little potted gardens (wisteria, olive trees taller than we are, window boxes of poppies, climbing jasmine) in front of our houses and on warm summer nights we pass the wine up and down and chat long after dark. Whenever there’s an event like the royal wedding or someone’s birthday, or even the Fourth of July, we move the tables to the middle of the street, hang bunting, roll a piano out of someone’s living room and have a party. Everyone knows everyone else’s business, and I love it.
Our neighbors know pretty much everything, good and bad, that has happened to us in the last few years and their embrace has been strong. They’ve watched our daughter come home from the hospital, learn to walk, then run away from us. She’s learned to trust them, to say hello when she meets them in the street, to play with their children and grandchildren (and one very friendly black lab). We’ve celebrated together, mourned together, and put up with each others’ house renovations. Our street has problems, like any other street. Not everyone absolutely loves everyone else all of the time. Sometimes it rains on our street parties. We have crime. Litter. Noise. Our street isn’t perfect, but it’s darned close. Who would ever want to leave a place like that? Not us.
I wish I could say that we loved that little mews house so much, we ended up buying it and never leaving. But in the end, something different happened. We fell in love with another house—a house that our growing family could grow into instead of outgrowing. And we decided it was time to buy a place of our own for the first time. We moved two weeks ago. Our (very old) new house is on a busy street in North London—a bus route, in fact. And there is a bus that goes right past our front door that can take us back to our old street. We were there last weekend for a summer party. It was raining a little when we arrived, but it soon stopped. One of our neighbors (who is Irish) had made a delicious traditional English trifle decorated like an American flag, in honor of Independence Day. Some English neighbors brought a pitcher of Aperol Spritz. An American showed up with a plate of devilled eggs. People brought wine, gossip, friends, kids, dogs. Some neighbors who’d moved (as far away as Germany, as close as South London) came back just for the party. They just couldn’t stay away. And neither will we.