Wow, what a whirlwind six months since last I wrote! For a time there, I’d turned into that unfortunate wretch of “the stressed out grad school student” who, when trying to engage in pleasantries, could somehow only utter sentences about the large amounts of work combined with little amounts of sleep—though sometimes, when I was being truly effervescent, I would be able to monologue about my new and utter obsession with Game of Thrones. Truly, I was a rousing conversationalist! But now it’s mid-summer already and I didn’t write about things like the end of my time in Scandinavia, my trips to Lithuania and Estonia, and how shitty Norwegian springs are (answer: very.) I was in Boston for most of June, sticking around just long enough to do absolutely nothing to celebrate July 4th and then skipping across the Atlantic once again for a few nights in London to kick off European Summer 2017, which brings me here.
Harringay: The Capital of the World
Despite some good friends in London, I hadn’t really been interested in visiting because I’d been there many times before. But! I realize the problem is that I’d never been there with a true local, and now I’m slowly learning it’s the best way (for me) to travel. Brian, my Lindy Hop soul mate, grew up in North London (pronounced Norff Lahndan) and was an immaculate host at his flat in Harringay—the Capital of the World, he assured me. It’s a cool neighborhood, just on the precipice of booming—meaning great stuff but without all the crowds!
My first night we went to Jam in a Jar, which was a solid little pub with enough people to be lively but still room to find a seat. We lucked out with live music, too—a two-man-piano-and-upright-bass setup called Tankus the Henge. The piano player sang some songs that were sort of old-timey, with a swinging rhythm. So, Brian dragged me into a tiny slot of a dance floor between some tables, the stage, and the egress, and we danced some lindy hop. I have a sort of mortal fear of dancing in front of people, so I was incredibly nervous. Plus, there was very little space, and whenever someone wanted to enter or exit we had to dance up a step onto the stage to let them pass. But it was also a lot of fun. We only danced a few songs (it was all my nerves could take), and then sat and watched the band. The singer was incredibly charismatic, and I was totally entranced. He came up afterwards to thank us for our dancing, and said it’s so fun to play for dancers. As luck would have it, he was playing the next night also at the dance Brian was taking me to, so we got to dance to him again.
Highgate Cemetery and the Business of Death
The one thing I really wanted to do in London was do the Highgate West Cemetery tour, which came highly recommended to me by someone that I forget. It is only available by tour and miraculously, I remembered to book ahead.
In short, Highgate is a gorgeous landscaped cemetery that began in 1839, fell into disrepair, and now is being restored. It’s like the older cousin of Mount Auburn Cemetery, my favorite place in Cambridge, with weathered headstones nestled into the hills among tree roots and flower bushes. It used to be run by the London Cemetery Company—somehow a cemetery company seems like it could be a bit dubious, for example, do they take matters into their own hands if business is slow?! But, business must have been humming at least for a while, as there are around 55,000 graves. Now it is still a “living cemetery” (ha!) so there are still (dead) people being buried there, though rarely. Back in its height of operation, there could be up to 30 funerals a day! Meaning it required all the logistics of a sort of morbid circus that it in all likelihood resembled.
Many of the graves were grand and elaborate, and apparently the grave was a way of showing off wealth. In fact, many people spent more on themselves after death than before! Additionally, we learned that, even though beautiful old gravestones seem timeless, they are in fact subject to the fashions of the time, just like everything else. Different areas of the cemetery have graves in different styles, reflecting when there was a Roman fad or an Egyptian fad. We learned a bit about the dangers of grave digging, and how grave robbery for medical purposes was a real issue. Part of the cemetery’s marketing was providing security in order to assure families that their loved ones wouldn’t be disinterred and sold for parts.
One thing that makes Highgate so striking is how overgrown and wild it looks, with tree roots growing over headstones I couldn’t help but to reflect on the larger meaning of how, though we try to create permanence for our memory, ultimately times marches relentlessly forward, and nature will always try to take us back.
I took some photos, but it was near high noon so the sun was harsh and not ideal. As always, there are better photos available via a Google image search by people that have made it their life’s work to do this sort of thing, but I’ll include a few just so you can get a taste. In case it needs explicit statement, I would highly recommend Highgate West if you are ever in London. Afterward, stop at The Flask for a pint—a charming very old pub just up the hill in Hampstead Heath and where Brian would drink in high school.
I also went to Camden Market, a bustling spot with old buildings full of little shops, and an outdoor area with international food stall after international food stall, full of mouth watering dishes. Amy Winehouse used to hang out there. I got dizzyingly lost as Brian led me through shops and corridors and, like the true native that he is, wove in and out lazing tourists with alacrity. We got ice cream at the excellent Chin Labs, who do “nitro ice cream.” I don’t quite understand the mechanics of this method, but it involves creating ice cream in a Kitchen Aid using liquid nitrogen, so the whole thing resembles potions in a mad scientist’s laboratory.
As it turns out, I got to see Camden Market just in time. A few days later, a part of it burst into flame.
After London, I was off to Herrang once again! My last night in London, Brian and I went out dancing until 3 in the morning, and I had to wake up 3 hours later 6:30 for my flight to Sweden. God bless Brian, who, still in his PJs, rode a stop on the tube with me so he could plop me onto a train, instructing me to ride it to the end of the line. All in all, it meant I arrived at Herrang in rough shape, perhaps contributing to my getting walloped by the Herrang flu. But, that’s for next time.