July 06, 2011

Smoke Signals; or, Love Thy Neighbour

No, really: do you even know who lives next door?

I once lived next door to an elderly widow who would probably have loved some company, but most of the time one wouldn’t have known she was there. Her appearance one day at the window during my attempt at a back-yard barbeque was telling: ‘Are you trying to smoke me out?’ she yelled from the top floor of the house. She closed the window and then appeared at the back door. ‘Since my husband died I like to keep the bedroom window open’, she said. I wondered if he was still in there. In any case, it wasn’t an auspicious beginning, and I can’t say a relationship blossomed thereafter.

When I left England and moved to Montreal, my first neighbour there was a pot-smoking loner called Hubert. He really smoked a lot of pot; so much, in fact, that I spent much of the first six months in Canada feeling light-headed while teaching an assemblage of McGill ‘90 Averagers’. I blame Hubert for the smashing of this teapot, as my attempt to remain civilised failed in the drifting haze. I think the breaking of a teapot is a highly significant act, for the teapot is the pivot around which friends and neighbours are meant to gather. To imbibe tea is the modern equivalent of breaking bread. This was altogether a failure in the company stakes.

The German neighbours have been altogether a different kettle. I must say, I’ve become rather fond of our upstairs neighbour here, with his repeated insistence that we should come over and consume alcohol. He’s in his 50s, something of a lone wolf, and a tad deaf. But the act of talking to a neighbour is unlike other conversations. It’s not like talking to a friend, or a family member, or a colleague. After all, what do you have in common, other than your proximity? And to that end, talking to a neighbour reinvigorates the art of conversation, for you escape into chatter about interesting things, sometimes weighty, sometimes trivial, sometimes anecdotal, and find that you have pleasantly escaped your own stressful preoccupations for a while. Our neighbour here helps this along by his conspicuous display of maps and globes, old photographs and books, and a random assortment of antique talking points. It’s a stimulating experience, being inside the character-filled home of another. Think of that the next time you’re tempted to shop at Ikea.

Of course, it’s not all roses. We were invited to this man’s annual party once, along with an assemblage of life-long friends of his who collectively fit well with the randomness of his furniture. The only thing they had in common was a tendency to chain smoke. Being German, they all smoked inside. Since we’re now utterly unaccustomed to such an atmosphere, it was hard to swallow.

Good Neighbors: my first crush is on the right.

One way or another, it’s better to have neighbours whom you know than otherwise. It’s never a good thing to start a relationship with an argument, but unless you introduce yourself, this is likely going to be the case. So, why not send your people next door a smoke signal? What’s the worst that can happen?


  1. My mother brought me up to keep my distance from neighbours.
    I see one neighbour every year at their Christmas party but around here people just don't really do the friendly neighbour thing, we only ever see each other in summer and I wouldn't even recognise who lives more than one door down on either side if I passed them in the park.
    Weird lot!

  2. A completely different German approach .... Having grown up in a small community in Northern Ontario - I was raised to visit neighbours, and often my parents would have get together with the neighbours .. I remember parts of my childhood where our yard was full of kids and adults having a grand ole time ... Once I was out on my own, I certainly kept this "habit" up, and always welcomed our neighbours to visit, have dinner and just let the kids be kids ... ALTHOUGH, now that we are here in Germany, such is not the joy. We've now lived in 2 different villages and have found both times, that our neighbours are quite cold, and not friendly. We certainly have always a friendly face when we see them, are quick to acknowledge them and their culture - yet 15 months later have never had our neighbours over for drinks, patio get togethers .. nor have we been invited to their place. Perhaps it's the long battle "oh those Canadian Military folks" ... never the less, although we do play part in "love thy neighbour" - we've certainly hit the iceberg of places to live!

  3. We were very close to our neighbors where we used to live - great people with kids around the same age as ours. Everyone watched out for each other. We're slowly meeting our neighbors in our new neighborhood, and a recent block party helped with that. Your post is a good reminder that I should reach out to a family who moved in a couple of weeks ago. I should bring over some cookies and welcome them to town!

  4. "Fences make good neighbors"... Y'all like to throw that "u" in there to make us yanks run spellchecker...
    I have -ors to the north I never see, right wing nut job lawyers with remotes to open the garage a block away to avoid the white trash like me and mine...
    Then there are the snow birds to the south I see 1/4th of the year. Nice, but solo types, never a chat.

    I think collectively I am a pretty nice guy, and that in essence, they (the -ors) are... well, as you all say... Shite.

    Fun post!

  5. I like to think of you all as neighbours too. Blogger is the new garden fence. Now to work out to deliver cookies through it.

  6. Your first crush, Felicity Kendal, you and half the male population of the UK. She still looks great, she was recently on Strictly Come Dancing in the UK. The show which launched her popularity was called "The Good Life" in the UK but went out as Good Neighbours elsewhere.

    Nice blog!

  7. I read recently the following line: half the male population of the UK are in love with Felicity Kendal; the other half admit it freely.
    She's a gem. I spent my childhood watching the Good Life. It reminds me that life is, well, good.
    Thanks for stopping by.


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