October makes me nostalgic for London, which I’ve only ever seen under autumn skies. In particular it makes me long for what I’ve come to consider my own little corner of the city, the “village” of Stoke Newington where Matt, Tommy, and I spent a month six years ago.
Stoke Newington isn’t a tourist destination – there’s nothing there you’d find in a guidebook. What you will find is real Londoners of many stripes going about their real London lives. It is however kind of cool, kind of edgy, and has its own nickname: Stokey. Here Turks and Cypriots, Indians and Pakistanis, Muslims and Hasidic Jews live side by side with the many hip young families of all ethnicities who have flocked there to find reasonably-priced housing (by London’s standards anyway) and green space without moving to the suburbs. On Church Street, the main shopping drag, you can get South Indian, Japanese, French, organic, and Mediterranean food. Walk around the corner and you’ll see pubs and also chickens roasting on spits outside the Halal butcher’s shop. Throw in some public housing and a number of African and Caribbean expatriates, and you have an almost dizzying mix that makes the adjective multicultural seem inadequately bland.
When we stayed there, we rented a row house that was part of a long street of Edwardian terraces stretching from Butterfield Green, a quiet and depressing little park whose sole charm lay in its name, to the High Street, the British equivalent of Main Street. The gently curving road was lined with blond brick row houses fronted by bay windows, the thickly painted and repainted trim on almost all of them a uniform white with the occasional rebel yellow or maroon. Waxy cyclamen filled the planters. Evil eye ornaments winked out of many windows casting Mediterranean blue reflections on the pavement.
It was impossible to escape the fact that we were living in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities—the airplanes flying almost continually overhead, the teeming streets and dense traffic, and the diversity of attire (ranging from women with nose studs wearing salwaar kameez to bewigged and skirted Orthodox wives) were a constant reminder. But there was also something essentially domestic about Stoke Newington. From the diminutive vicar of the local Anglican Church, who bustled around in his collar to the uniformed school children who swarmed the sidewalks every morning and afternoon to the street names like Green Lanes and Albion Road, life there evoked the village past. After a few chilly hours strolling around the neighborhood, I may have stopped for pannini and cappuccino rather than tea and crumpets, but the feeling was the same.
We were there long enough to have our very own local hangout, discovered on our very first day: the Belle Epoque, a café five minutes from our house where we could purchase an almond croissant, a pain au chocolat, a fresh-squeezed orange juice and a cappuccino for the unheard-of low price of five pounds. The owners of this shop are a French couple, the husband a pastry chef with a fanatical air whose exquisite tarts and marzipan fruit fill the front case. Once he came out while we were eating to show us two large glistening doves covered with flourishes and flowers he had made to decorate a wedding cake. They were about eight inches tall and looked like glass but were constructed entirely out of spun sugar. His dark-haired wife (on whom Matt had something of a crush) was about seven months pregnant at the time and she usually watched Tommy (then 18 months old) with a mixture of curiosity and bemusement. Tommy loved the shop with its beamed ceiling, large windows, and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of Lu cookies, Bonne Maman preserves, and Perroquet lump sugar, the boxes of which he would stack and restack while Matt and I drank our coffee.
I’m dreaming today of that coffee followed by a stroll up to Clissold Park. Two churches, one ancient, one merely old, sit at its edge, their spires silhouetted against the gray sky. Up the path from the playground is a duck pond surrounded by willow trees and a small zoo with pygmy goats. And because in this chilly damp country, a hot beverage is never be more than throwing distance away, there is also a café. That this café is located in a large, box-shaped, and slightly seedy mansion dating from the 1800s only adds to its appeal. Tea, hot chocolate, croissants, and, on Sunday afternoons, roasts with Yorkshire pudding, can all be bought and consumed where the lord of the manor once received his guests.
There are many things to see and do in London of course, and I’m looking forward to taking both my boys there. Since they’re both older now, we’ll probably spend most of our time visiting museums and historical sites closer to the center of the city. But I’ll be sure also to make a jaunt up to the N16 district for a Turkish lunch and hot chocolate in the park – where we’ll bring some bread to feed the ducks. So they can see my own little homey – and dreamy – corner of London.
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Picture 1 courtesy of Ines 93.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pontonoi/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Picture 2 courtesy of Gordon McMullan.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/gordonmcmullan/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Pictures 3 and 4 courtesy of acb.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/acb/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0