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!
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…by