How to meet the neighbours

Irving House

On Saturday night we had a brilliant evening round at our Polish neighbours’ flat – we ate great food, drank some extraordinary Hungarian wine, talked about travel, love, family and faith.  Andy finally found another chess player on the block and I vowed to teach him bridge so that we could all play together (somehow we have morphed into middle-age).

We *love* evenings like that, it makes us grateful to live where we do, alongside such a diversity of people from different cultures, and it makes the idea of local community feel tangible.

Those are the good moments. As normal and natural as they might seem, they are neither.    Even living in a social housing block where everyone is very close together, it’s normal to keep yourself to yourself.  The moments we’ve experienced of genuine community have come about because of a series of choices, a good chunk of time, and after a fair dose of false starts.

You’ve probably worked out by now that Andy and I aspire to be good neighbours.  It’s hardly a radical idea, but in London it seems to be getting more unusual. Normal is maybe saying hi if you’re on your respective doorsteps at the same time, but that’s as far as it goes.

(Not so fifty years ago, my 85 year old friend Maire tells me.  Everyone knew who you were and looked out for you.  She has lived in the same square mile her whole life and boy, has she seen things change).

A couple of months ago I spoke at an event aimed at helping people who want to get more involved with social action in London.  I was on a “panel of experts” answering questions about our experiences.  I felt like a total rookie and a bit of an impostor, but I tried to talk about our tiny attempts to be good neighbours.  And, weirdly, it seemed to be what people were most interested in.  They just wanted to know where to start.

So if you already know all your neighbours and find building relationships with them really easy, this is not the post for you (but well done).  Otherwise, this is where I share the things we are learning about it.

1.  It takes time.

By this I don’t just mean ‘gosh, people take ages to trust you, you have to stick around for years before they will open up’, although that it sometimes true.  What I mean is that we have learnt that we have to carve time out of the other stuff we do to make time for the neighbours, or else they never get more than a hello.

I moved onto an estate about seven years ago, super-keen to get to know the locals.  But I worked full-time, commuted to work, was really involved in church and saw plenty of my friends.  I was just never in, and certainly never in the daytime.

Partly motivated by this frustrating experience, four or five years ago I decided to start working part-time.  It was a financial sacrifice but it meant that I would be around in the neighbourhood more in the week, and be less exhausted at weekends.  A bit later Andy and I started booking out an evening every fortnight when we would have different neighbours over for dinner.  Sometimes it means turning down other more exciting invitations, and sometimes our neighbours bail out.  But little by little we’re making friends.

Andy’s top tip: When you leave to go out, go earlier than you need so that if you bump into neighbours you can stop for a chat.

2. It takes cultural adjustments

It’s amazing what you discover about your own expectations of people.

We’ve had neighbours show up for dinner with three extra relatives who happen to be staying, and others turn up 90 minutes late, at 9pm, with all their children on a school night.  Some people never turn the TV off (actually, most people) and plenty of them don’t have much of a taste for British cuisine (or maybe just my cooking).

Some people will come round the first time you ask, others take ages to trust you (or still don’t).  Some people invite you back, others wouldn’t dream of letting you see their flat.

All I can say is that we’re trying and we’re learning.  The “how” of making friends is different every time.

3. Look for allies!

Frank

Frank

When we moved in we were lucky enough to be introduced to loads of the neighbours by our landlady.  And one of those, our next door neighbour Frank, has become our most loyal supporter. He has lived in his flat for fifty years and he knows everything that goes on. Whenever we have a party, he’s the first to turn up. When new folk move in now, he’ll make sure we know, tell us their names and send us off with a wink!  We cook him bangers and mash every now and then (he’s not a fan of vegetables) and he’s introduced Andy to the local fish market (we have not been won over to jellied eels).

Some people are hard to get to know – so we make sure we enjoy the friends who are less hard work!

4. Push through the pain barrier.

If you love knocking on strangers’ doors, this whole business will be easy.  But for those of us who don’t, there’s just a pain barrier to push through.  Andy got used to it when he was campaigning to be a local councillor.  I have to psyche myself up a bit before I go, but if I have done that, I’m ok (can you tell I’m the less spontaneous one?).

Go and ask to borrow some sugar or some milk.  Hand-deliver invites to your house-warming.  See if someone will water your plants when you’re away. Ask the Latinos to help you with your Spanish!  I mean, don’t be too weird, but be a good neighbour – people want to discover they have nice people living nearby!

I’d love to hear about how you get to know your neighbours…

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10 thoughts on “How to meet the neighbours

  1. Teresa

    Being friends with your neighbors in an urban setting is such an anomaly that most people think that anyone knocking at their door is selling something (unfortunately, often it is too true). When I moved to San Diego, California in 1981 I proceeded to make friends–in the ways you suggested– with my neighbors. After all we all had young children! I found out how unusual that was when I was told by all of them later that they had lived in the San Diego area their whole lives and had never known any of their neighbors. It is great to share with people and have no ulterior motive except to enjoy their company and learn about their lives!

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  2. Naomi

    Heard today that my neighbours in the upstairs flat had been discussing whether I had had plastic surgery recently!
    Tried to take it as a compliment and put my ‘youth’ down to cycling.
    Twon then proceeded to offer our kids a bicycle that his son no longer needed, which is just what our 8 year old needs. Didn’t feel so bad to take this offer when 5 year old explained he had just been talking to daddy for a “trillion minutes” making her dinner late. Martyn is going to help him with his computer.
    Our neighbours are so quiet it’s nice to have exchanges like this happen sometimes.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Post author

      Haha! I too have been amazed at your beautiful, youthful complexion…And hurrah for new bikes! I love it when the neighbours surprise us, Frank is always bringing round the strangest things…

      Reply
  3. Natalie

    I love this. Tim (mutual friend – CLC) passed on the link for this. Loved reading it and can relate to it. Since we moved into our house (2 yrs ago now) I have done things from giving neighbours a bunch of daffodils at Easter, to inviting people to Pampered Chef parties. I love taking advantage of things like Easter, or Christmas – gives me an excuse to be in contact with people/invite people over. I must say, we live on a great street and they were all friendly and welcoming to us first! I love making the connection with them (although not as often as I would like) and I love pushing myself out of my comfort zone to say hi to my neighbour and to smile and not to ignore them. I don’t want to be like that – to ignore and not acknowledge – which is quicker and so much easier to do…and I’m challenged daily by this, as I would naturally want to be ignored and avoid conversation and stay in my own easy world. I love creating a little bit of community.

    Reply
    1. Jenny Post author

      Thanks for reading Natalie. I totally agree that holidays like Easter and Christmas give a brilliant excuse for presses and parties. How great to be the neighbours who are always throwing parties…

      Reply
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  5. Zoe

    I found this really helpful! We have recently moved on to an estate and really want to meet the neighbours but am not that naturally good at it! I did grit my teeth and knock and some doors on Saturday and only 1 out of 6 answered! That was really positive though and am thinking I might go back and offer him a bit of our garden for a veg patch! (He was telling me he really misses his after moving here last year!)

    Reply
    1. Jenny Post author

      That sounds like a great plan – your lucky neighbour (wish someone would offer me a veg patch!!). And also like a great start. it takes a while to work out when different people are around in the day – so don’t be discouraged! I’m sure you’ll bump into people as well. When we bump into folk on the stairs I always say hi, but Andy launches into ‘hi, I don’t think we’ve met…’ which used to embarrass me…but I’m learning to do something similar now!

      Reply
  6. Dorset Explorer

    Great post! A confirmed Londoners ourselves, I never really felt it easy to get to know neighbours, except when I had young children, when everyone who also had young children seemed to gel together for mutual support in a difficult time. Having just moved to Dorset, that ‘time’ factor you talk about is evident. Everyone will acknowledge you, and most people will pass the toe of day with you. Better than that many will seek you out for conversation, but you still have to work at it. Ask them questions, comment on things, and smile.

    Reply
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