I used to have a rather romantic notion of neighborhoods. Neighbours would become great friends who would pop in and out of each others houses to socialize and could always be relied upon in a crisis. Perhaps I gleaned this happy, harmonious notion in early childhood. The Sesame Street jingle, ‘Who are the people in your neighbourhood?’ left a lasting impression on me, and the expectation that the local community should be a friendly place, like in Cheers, where everybody knows your name.
For many years, as an adult, I felt some sadness that real life isn’t like that. I have lived in various apartment complexes for almost 20 years now. It seems that in blocks of flats, where everyone lives in such close proximity to their neighbours, privacy is a highly valued commodity. Therefore in flats, people maintain an even greater separation from their neighbours than they do when they live in houses.
I always try to great my fellow residents with a smile, and to be courteous when it comes to use of shared facilities. I have also harboured a secret hope that one day we could all become friends, and be part of that supportive and close community I imagined as a child. But now that notion has been challenged.
A couple in our building, who we have been saying ‘hello’ to for 5 years seem to want to create that community I’d been hoping for. First, they arranged an early evening barbecue in the courtyard, so we could all meet each other. It was a pleasant, but awkward affair. Everyone was polite and on their best behavior. We all made small talk, largely around the fact that our building is a pleasant place to live – it turns out we all like it here. We all learned each other’s names too.
After the barbecue was a period of awkwardness. Whenever I passed a resident, the usual smile and ‘hello’ did not seem to be enough. It seemed necessary to make further small talk, and at times it was hard to wrap that up without being rude. At other times, attempting small talk felt a little intrusive, and forced. I didn’t want to hold my neighbours up with conversations beyond ‘hello’, but didn’t want to be rude either. It was clear that they were feeling just as awkward. This feeling was compounded by the fact I could not remember some of their names, but, after having socialized at the BBQ it seemed rude to ask. Finally, after some months, we all seemed to have returned to our more comfortable pattern of smiling and saying ‘hello’; although the greetings do feel a little warmer these days.
However a few weeks ago, the same neighbours invited us to dinner. At first I thought it was a lovely invitation, but then the doubts set in. What if we don’t get along? We will feel obliged to invite them back to our place anyway. And why have they invited us? They really have no knowledge of us beyond the friendly greetings each day – what could they possibly want? Friendship? It’s hard to believe that is what they are after when they know so little of us – aside from our address we may have absolutely nothing in common. Are they after baby sitting? Perhaps they are swingers.
And so, beset by these doubts, we joined our neighbours for dinner. There was no hidden agenda and, after a period of rather stiff, polite conversation around very safe topics, we relaxed into a very pleasant and laid back evening. It was a good night, though we all had too much red wine and were worse for it the next day.
And yes, the obligations are there. We should probably send them a card to say thank you, and invite them back to our place. But it doesn’t seem so onerous now. Maybe being part of a little community will be worth it, after all.