In September 1938, six weeks before Kristallnacht, my German Jewish grandfather, who had fought for his country in the First World War, left Berlin on one of the proverbial last trains out. After several years in New York and then Knoxville, he would eventually settle in Texas in 1943. In Berlin he had been a lawyer; he would move to Houston for a job in an auto-supply store. His was an unremarkable refugee story, really — the story of the whole twentieth century writ small.
A little more than sixty years after my grandfather fled Germany, I would move into the Ladbroke Grove flat that the wife of a college poetry professor — who has long since become one of my closest friends — had offered up while she spent another year in Massachusetts. It seemed an absurd, insane stroke of luck that someone should make such a gift to me: the chance to live in London, a city I had visited only once, briefly, in middle school, that was the thrilling setting of at least eighty percent of my favorite novels.
The reason that I — with no concrete career prospects beyond the fuzzy desire to “become a writer” — could accept such an offer was that, the previous year, I had become a full-fledged citizen of the European Union, thanks to my long-dead German-Jewish grandfather and a Briefly Noted item my brother had happened upon in The New York Times a few years earlier. Germany, it appeared, was now offering the descendents of Jewish World War II refugees the full rights and privileges of citizenship. By lunchtime, my brother had contacted our German embassy to start the arduous process of verifying our lineage.
I arrived the August after my college graduation and right away I couldn’t believe it. London, to me, was the city of Dickens and Thackeray and Henry James. I’d expected, I’ve no idea why, a fuddy-duddy, pea-soup vestige of Merrie Olde England — oatmeal-colored men in pubs, church socials and tea cozies and spinster aunts drinking sherry. No one had warned me that the capital of England at the turn of the millennium would in fact be the pulsating center of the entire universe, more Zadie Smith than Barbara Pym.
Right away I joined a gym; “Oh, that’s just so American, isn’t it,” the man in the flat above me declared — but it wasn’t American at all. It, like so much of the London where I’d landed, was the whole world. I went to female-only step classes with women in full hijab; my two favorite yoga teachers were from the Czech Republic and New Zealand; the man who checked me in at the front desk was West Indian.
Perhaps because I was an immigrant of sorts, most of the people I met that first year were as well. I worked in a quintessentially English “gentleman’s club” in Covent Garden that was straight out of the Wodehouse novels that I loved; my fellow waitresses came from rural France, and Reunion Island, and Madeira. Our boss was Italian; the head chef was Scottish.
One night after my shift, I met a couple that would become my soulmates at an all-you-can-eat sushi bar behind Leicester Square. They were also French, but not really; one was half-Polish, the other half-Serbian. Some nights, I’d hang with a Danish neighbor and her Ghanaian boyfriend at a Spanish bar at the top of the Portobello Road, or I’d go to the movies with my half-Swedish, half-Brazilian friend. It was almost laughable, how everyone was from somewhere, from everywhere, else. Not even my American friends were fully that — they were Iranian, or half-Filipina, or half-Japanese. I had the plainest background of the bunch, with only my Judaism to add a dash of exoticism.
After my year of free lodging, I moved east and took what the English would call a proper job. At that point, I had friends both from within and without the small island we called home. I discovered distant English relatives whose forebears had settled in Nottingham while mine had washed up in Texas; they became closer to me than some family members with whom I share a much closer blood tie.
And the cosmopolitanism of my adopted city never ceased to stun me. We had Vietnamese duck on the Kingsland Road and lamb beyti on Green Lanes and curries on Brick Lane and kebabs on the Edgware Road; we had not one but two favorite Georgian restaurants, one on the Holloway Road and another on the canal near London Fields.
I didn’t have a lot of money to travel, but when I could scrounge up a few extra pounds I took little weekend trips: to Ireland, to Valencia, to Wales. If you planned ahead enough, flying to Rome cost roughly the same as a Peter Pan bus from Massachusetts to New York. I spent one Thanksgiving in Paris, one in Reykjavik, one in Swiss Cottage.
But mostly I stayed put, because why would anyone want to be anywhere else? My London was the cliché of the melting pot made real; the true crossroads of the world. London where the attendant at my laundrette took out a prayer mat and turned to Mecca in the middle of wash cycles; London where I once met the extremely English frontman of Tenpole Tudor while buying Belgian beer at a Turkish off-license.
The London where I lived, of course, is pre-financial-crash, pre-austerity London — but still. Is that idyllic, multicultural place I remember really gone forever, vanquished by that silly, terrible vote?
Not that I’ll know, because it looks like I’ll never be able to live in that or any other London again, as I’d always intended. My children won’t be able to settle in that city that changed my life, because our citizenship is German — a tiny, inadequate compensation for my grandfather’s forced exile from the fatherland so many years ago.
When my grandfather left Europe, war had been raging in Europe more or less constantly since the 1300s. There was, just to name a few, the 100 Years War, the Thirty Years War, the War of Spanish Secession, the War of Jenkins’ Ear, the Seven Years War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Revolutions of 1848, the Franco-Prussian War… Then the war to end all wars, and then the one after that. And from the rubble, the European Union.
Now, for more than seventy years, Western Europe has been relatively at peace — a far greater accomplishment than a common currency or lower trade tariffs or the hassle-free border crossings that I so enjoyed. Have the older Englishmen and women who voted to leave forgotten what a big deal that is?
Laura Moser blogs about education for Slate. She is a frequent contributor to the Forward.