Saturday, January 23, 2016

The familiar and strange

How many people know their neighbours these days? We may know their names, but do we know any more than that? Today our neighbours had a party, and it was strange how familiar strangers can seem.

Our neighbours on one side are new. And when I say “new”, I really mean probably a couple months or so—I can’t remember, exactly, because not only have we never met them, I don’t even have any idea who, exactly, lives there. That’s not the oddest bit: The next house along in our little mews has neighbours we’ve also never actually met, even though they’ve lived there for years; we smile and wave when we see each other leaving or arriving home, but that’s it. Our next closest neighbours we do know a little better, and the furthest in the mews, too—but we can go weeks or months without ever speaking.

This is quite common these days—people not knowing their neighbours—and despite the occasional vaguely guilt-tripping “meet your neighbours” campaigns, that just doesn't change. Sure, it might be helpful to know one’s neighbours in a geologically active country like this one—it could be handy if there was ever a natural disaster. Some of those guilt-trip campaigns have used planning for disaster as the hook, but that’s been no motivator, either.

The thing is, most people these days, it seems to me, would really rather not have much to do with strangers, even when they live next door. I’m pretty shy by nature, but I also value my privacy and don’t really want to live communally. A lot of people are like me, to one extent or another.

So, this afternoon the neighbours had many guests over, with laughing and drinking, and loud talking. I went outside to hang up some washing (which is in the part of our section nearest their house) and I could hear the guests talking, and even the different qualities of their voices—but I couldn’t hear a word they were saying. It was like the background sound of conversation in a movie or TV show, and it was so very familiar and strange at the same time.

I went back inside to my computer, where I was catching up on the day, and I noticed all the party noise had stopped. “That’s odd,” I thought, and imagined why the party had stopped so suddenly—and so early. Maybe they were all headed to an event together (seemed doubtful—too many of them). Maybe they were religious and having a prayer meeting (hardly likely in this country, but it wasn’t a serious thought—it was a bit of humour since I could all the beer bottles being put in their recycling bin). I stopped thinking about them as I continued what I was doing on the computer.

Suddenly, a cheer rang out—“Surprise!!”. It startled me. And, it answered why things had gone quiet all the sudden. The previous party noise resumed—after what I guess was some speaking.

Later on, there seemed to be some cheering—more speeches?—then everyone was eating and they were pretty quiet again. This part I worked out because about the same time I was heading out to pick up our takeaways.

Now, some four hours after it started, the party is like anyone else’s, though with quieter music than some people have. It's all quite civil.

I describe all of that for a reason: Living so close it was kind of like we were part of it, and yet, not even remotely part of it. That weird TV-like conversation background noise made it seem less real, and yet, parties that I’ve been to would sound much the same from a distance. So, even that strangeness seemed familiar.

We don’t know our neighbours, or anything about them. They may very well know more about us than we do about them, since their landlord is another of the owners near us, but maybe they don’t. Yet here we are, the two houses maybe 8 metres apart (give or take) at their closest points, and things like parties in one house are bound to touch onto the other houses, making us kind of part of whatever is going on—even though we’re strangers.

The familiar can be strange.

Update January 24: For those who may have wondered, the party ended about 11pm, and must not have had too much excess: They were up and tidying up by around 8:15 this morning. That's a bit different than parties when I was in my 20s…


rogerogreen said...

Our neighbors to the south we used to know quite well. Then they lost the house, some guy bought it, carved it up into student housing, and right this minute, I know NO ONE there by name, though I have in the past.

Arthur Schenck (AmeriNZ) said...

I have to admit that part of the reason I haven't bothered to meet the new neighbours is that they're tenants: Who knows how long they'll be there?