After our stay by the Wanstead Flats, we dragged our increasingly non-functional suitcase and our thankfully still structural backpacks onto the London Overground and headed to Crouch End, where my family’s old friend Diana Sternfeld lives.
The Levitt-Sternfeld connection is an ancient and noble one: my father’s parents happened to be seated adjacent to Diana’s parents in a restaurant in Paris in the 1970s, and my grandmother, ever one to say something if she saw something, overheard the Sternfelds debating what to order and jumped in with her enthusiastic recommendations. The two couples became friendly, and my father later went backpacking with Diana and her siblings. (Diana is my parents’ age and her children are my age, for context.) Now that Sara and I have gotten to know Diana’s daughter Sally, the Levitt-Sternfeld friendship is in its third generation.
Crouch End is a kinda-hip, kinda-artsy, laid-back neighborhood in north London, just far enough from the Underground as to not be facing enormous real estate demand, but just close enough to the swing of things as to be viable for people who work in the City of London and other central areas. Almost as soon as we arrived there, Diana led us out for a vigorous walk around the neighborhood, which began with a stop in at an open-studios/art walk weekend event (free sparkling wine; we thought to ourselves, OK, this is not bad) and continued along a converted rail line that is now a walking/biking trail that runs into nearby Finsbury Park.
Crouch End has (at least one) superb pub, the Harringay Arms, and a beloved bakery, Dunn’s, that produces sensational sausage rolls, among much else. Very livable. Also very livable is Diana’s house itself, which spirals upwards around a central staircase and rolls down into a great garden in the back. (Sitting in the sunny conservatory one morning while I was out, Sara saw a fox stride through the garden!) Diana lives there with her daughter Sally and Sally’s friend Lauren. Now that her other daughter Emma lives elsewhere, there are enough vacant rooms that the home has become known as the “North London Hostel,” and true to form, Diana didn’t hesitate to welcome us in for more than a week.
Here are some things we did in London (beyond the usual tourist destinations of Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, etc.) while staying with Diana:
- Visited the Broad Street Pump, the birthplace of epidemiology;
- Caught the latter half of the choral evensong service at St Paul’s Cathedral;
- Got utterly bewildered by the range of legendary artifacts on display at the British Museum, though probably the most memorable was the Rosetta Stone, yes, the actual Rosetta Stone itself;
- If anything, were even more blown away by the Treasures of the British Library, which included autograph sheet music from Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and Mahler; the First Folio of Shakespeare; a first-edition King James Bible (and of course a Gutenberg Bible); and the Magna Carta, yes, one of four extant copies of the actual Magna Carta itself;
- Dipped our toes into the not-quite-frigid world of cask ales. The British reputation for drinking “warm beer” is uncharitable at best, and it is actually great to get some relief from the chock-full-of-hops, 9-percent-ABV-or-higher California beer scene. Most UK beers are 4 or 5 percent alcohol, and this, combined with the helpful fact that you can order half-pints of whatever you want, enables a fellow to drink a few tasty beers without getting completely smashed;
- Continued to delight in the experience of having actual conversations and engaging in wordplay in our native language. We can get by just fine in Spanish but it’s just not the same;
- Attended the dedication of a new monument honoring the conscientious objectors of Haringey borough, at which Academy Award winning British actor and Diana’s childhood friend (!!) Jim Broadbent read excerpts from an objector’s impassioned letters. This was the part where we had a beer with Jim Broadbent;
- Watched the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest, which is a major cultural phenomenon in Europe and a misunderstood oddity in the US. Unfortunately, despite having a quite appealing song, the United Kingdom finished dead last this year. This is probably because they are in the process of leaving the European Union so there is understandably some resentment;
- Apropos Brexit, learned about the so-called “metropolitan elite” (of which Diana and family are self-described members) and reflected on the fractured politics gripping Britain today. By any measure Sara and I are surely members of the American “coastal elite,” and we were already familiar with and sympathetic to the arguments against Britain leaving the EU, but it was fascinating to hear them in greater detail and in situ. We would later on in our travels hear the other side of the argument, and emerge with a more thoughtful perspective than before;
- Listened raptly to Diana’s ecstatic accounts of commuting on her beloved 91 bus, then actually took the 91 ourselves down toward Trafalgar Square. It was admittedly pretty great, as bus rides go;
- Searched intently and ultimately successfully for two touring bikes. More on that later; and
- With Diana, drove over to Hampstead Heath the afternoon before we left London, for another spirited walk across the downs (in addition to being whip-smart, kind, and generous, Diana is quite the walker), a gaze down from Parliament Hill to the historic core of London, and an amble through Kenwood House, where we had opportunity to consider that “English Heritage” is No Joke. I’m not saying that there’s no such thing as American Heritage, but, again, the Magna Carta is more than 800 years old now. Beat that, USA.
Most of all, what we did in London while staying with Diana was take in the truly astonishing urban empire that is London: its profound diversity and cosmopolitanism; its harmonious cacophony of languages, accents, cuisines; old and new, domestic and imported, familiar and alien; all cheek to jowl in a way we really hadn’t experienced thus far. Mexico City was astounding but not nearly so encompassing of this sheer breadth of cultural differences. New York is in the same league, but London may still have the upper hand. It was a wonder to behold.