In 2015, I lodged for one year in a brown brick terrace house on Dorset Square. I write "lodged" and not "rented," or "lived," even, because "lodged" is what it is when you pay for a room in a furnished house and live with your somewhat older landlady. Life in London is expensive, so finding affordable housing anywhere, and especially in Central London, is akin to winning the lottery; there's about the same chance of England finishing first in Eurovision or Trump peacefully resigning. MP, my landlady, is an admirable curator and a friend of a friend's former boss. I'm the third of three girls to quit New York and relocate to London to study art history in this house for art historians.
The flat appealed for what then seemed to be its distinctly English charms: lemon-yellow upholstery, a green Roberts radio, and stacks of teacups. The living room had floor-to-ceiling French doors that opened onto a shallow balcony. When London hit record-high temperatures that July, I'd climb through the windows with an £8 bottle of wine and stretch out. More elegant than a fire escape, the balcony made that time in London feel exactly like summers in New York and not at all the same.
There were always people in and out of Dorset Square. I thought of it like a modern salon in the style of Gertrude Stein or Florine Stettheimer — my own "golden age." Curators, academics, dancers, they all came to wine and dine. MP was a constant whir with a social life that would make anyone jealous. She's straightforward in the English way that I've never quite managed, brusque but always charismatic and kind. Sometimes, MP would have visitors to stay, and I'd give up my cozy room for a night or two. MP would bring down an air mattress, blow it up in the middle of the living room, and dress the bed in crisp monogrammed sheets. She'd say, "Here are sleeping quarters fit for a Russian princess fleeing the Bolsheviks."
Alongside MP, I also shared the house with ZO and ZM, two former Hungarian ballerinas, one of whom had been MP's Pilates instructor. We often sat around the kitchen chatting. (What is it that makes the kitchen the true center of a home?) In the space before Brexit and Trump, we'd debate the changing European order and whatever idiotic statement Nigel Farage had made that week. People, especially Americans, like to tell me that my life in London isn't different from what it was in the United States, and the shared language breeds a false set of assumptions. The truth is that my friends at home look and sound a lot like me, variations on a similar theme, and the proximity of continental Europe means that London cultivates a different sort of cosmopolitanism. ZM and ZO had grown up behind the Iron Curtain and MP in postwar Britain; their childhoods could not have been more different from my California upbringing. Time and geography meant that our lives twisted in unimaginable ways, and yet, here we were, living together. Our home represented four nationalities and five languages and spanned decades.
Boardinghouses more formalized than my own were once essential to the infrastructure of American cities. They offered, for pretty cheap rent, an equalizing space for both men and women. As Walt Whitman wrote: "Married men and single men, old women and pretty girls; milliners and masons; cobblers, colonels, and counter jumpers; tailors and teachers; lieutenants, loafers, ladies, lackbrains, and lawyers; printers and parsons — 'black spirits and white, blue spirits and gay'—all 'go out to board."
After rejecting Laurie's marriage proposal, Jo March, the plucky heroine of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, moves to New York, and the boardinghouse becomes her entrée into an exciting and dynamic new world. "I shall see and hear new things, get new ideas," she tells her mother after laying out her plan. That chapter is, in all honesty, dull (or maybe Jo just kept a dull diary) but for the first time, she has adventures all her own and even meets Fritz Bhaer, her future husband. I carry Little Women to all the places I live, so despite being of another time and in a different city, I was following in her wake, though I hoped it would be altogether more wild and irregular.