I grew up in a little cul de sac in a small village in Oxfordshire. In our little street there were roughly 20 houses. I think I knew well the occupants of at least fourteen of them.
As a child I played in the street until the sun went down with the others from the street – Sarah, Mark, Jason, Marty. When I got older I babysat the younger children. We played tennis and badminton on the road, I learned to cycle by free-wheeling down the gentle slope at the top of the road. The day before one neighbour’s wedding, a friend and I picked flowers (weeds, really) from the bank of the stream that ran through the middle of the street, and nervously presented them to the bride who lived at number two. Our wedding decorations included flowers plucked from a neighbours garden (with permission!). One neighbour was the usher in our wedding.
These neighbours sponsored me through various charity events, watched me grow up from a awkward child to a (maybe still awkward!) teenager. They were amongst the first to hear when I got into St Andrews university, the first to hear when I got accepted for a year at UCSB, the first to hear when I got a first class degree on graduating. They’ve invited me round for cups of tea and coffee, sent me letters and postcards, prayed for me, and hugged me tight when I came home to visit.
Today is European Neighbours Day. And here in Luxembourg they celebrate it as “Nopeschfest”. I found out about it just a few days ago, via another expat here in the city. And then I noticed the posters around for it too, although I’d have had no idea what they were advertising if I hadn’t already known.
The basic idea is to improve the neighbourly spirit and sense of community that many people argue is slipping away as we become less localised in our lifestyles – travelling for work, for shopping, for school, to see friends. It’s rarer, in cities especially, to have friends living just around the corner, and that can leave a sense of isolation or feeling a little like a stranger in your own neighbourhood.
For us young professionals, it maybe doesn’t feel like a big deal because the ease of moving around is so natural and we’re so used to living half our lives over the internet, that the disconnect is not so apparent.
But it’s not the same for everyone. Think of the old lady who struggles to clear her pathway in the winter and is overwhelmed by all the changes happening around her. Think of the young mother who is new to the country but doesn’t know where to go or how to meet new friends. And even for us who feel relatively independent, it’s kinda nice to be able to tell someone, “by the way, we’re on holiday next week so if you see anything suspicious will you check it out?”
Our neighbours have not always been the people we might have chosen to hang out with. The guy who lived across the corridor from us in Brussels was an alcoholic lacking in awareness in social situations. The first time I met him was when we discovered him unconscious outside the gate and needed to half-carry him up the stairs. No, I would not have naturally spent time with him. But underneath all the problems he was a kind and well-intentioned man, who was always grateful for any friendship shown to him.
Now our neighbours are much closer to who we might naturally spend time with. They’re friendly and well-travelled and interesting. But maybe the point is that being neighbourly is just the right thing to do. We’re maybe not morally obliged to do more than say “bonjour” if we happen to pass on the stairway, but taking a little more time to get to know the people living in our immediate surroundings feels like a small way to buck the trend of increasing independence, isolation and onlineness (yes I just made up a word).
Maybe having the neighbours round for an after work aperitif every now and then is a good way to remind ourselves that as humans we exist together. There’s a South African philosophy, ubuntu, which states: “I am what I am because of who we all are.” We don’t exist as islands, we exist as communities, as neighbourhoods. My well-being is always linked to your well-being. Maybe that should start with showing some interest in the people next door.