I grew up in a condo development. Our backyard consisted of our porch attached to the house, a gravel area under the kitchen window with pavement stones for the grill, a strip of grass about five feet wide and a row of pine trees with a bed a bark mulch that separated us from the street behind. To the left of our house was a wall that separated our porch with our neighbors, but he would easily pop his head over it if he heard us outside and say hi. To the other side of us was another neighbor and her porch was in full view of ours. Some people in the neighborhood would put out flowers etc but I basically knew my neighbors there before I could speak – and they were adults and I was a kid so the social pressures really weren’t there.
We didn’t really play in the backyard anyway – for me and the kids of the neighborhood, there were big grassy areas between the houses to play in, and trees to climb, and woods to explore across the street, and cornfields and brooks and streams even a little further. The thought of not having enough space, or not knowing what to do in that space, wasn’t even a thought for me.
Then we moved to our house and it had a front yard and a back yard and a side yard and none of our neighbors were really friendly (except the fam across the street with the St. Joes relations. We always loved them). Our yard became my refuge. Our porch looked out over the rest of the neighboorhood. If anyone wanted to attempt to converse with us, they would’ve had to yell.
In the US, at least recently, it seems that everyone keeps to themselves and our lawns are ridiculously huge and solitary. Even in college, I didn’t really talk to my neighbors in the dorms or apartments unless there was some other connection. Sharing a building didn’t mean much, but if you were seeing these people every day, at some point you kinda have to say hi, right?
In Italy, I’ve lost all sense of what is appropriate for human interaction in closed spaces. In our last apartment, I couldn’t tell you who lived upstairs, but that was mostly because I never saw them unless I was walking in or out at the exact same time. Everyone would tuck inside their apartments and there was no “common” area to hang out in. If anyone sat on the steps to our apartment, your feet would be in the path of rolly luggage and tour groups, so no one really did that either.
Since we moved out of the city center, we now have a garden surrounded by apartment buildings, which have windows and balconies looking out over our patch of grass. Maybe it’s my father in me (he didn’t understand when people didn’t say hello when walking down the street, or in a store, or from their car, etc), or maybe I’m just overly socially anxious – but if people are hanging out their windows or on their balcony in a smaller space than I used to have on my porch at my house in the US, I start to throw myself into this internal struggle of if I should look up and say hi or not. My internal dialogue goes nuts.
Do they want me to pretend to ignore them like they’re doing? Maybe they’re in a bad mood and don’t want to say hi. Maybe they’re waiting for me to say hi. Or should we even say hi? Do we all just ignore each other and pretend like there are football fields in between our living space, and not the five feet we’ve been allotted by the Florentines that built these houses hundreds of years ago when your neighbors were the only safe thing standing between you and foreigners with swords?
Now this beautiful blonde girl around my age (I think) that runs the hostel upstairs (that’s how I met her when my mum stayed up there in April) has moved into the newly refinished apartment next to ours. Her outside space is a tiled area to the left of our garden full of trees and bushes, and her presence has gotten me into a tizzy. I literally have no idea what to do now and it looks like neither does she. If we’re both sitting outside in our respective chairs, it’s like the equivalent of your neighbor coming into your US yard, propping up a chair at the end of the steps of your porch, and then trying to pretend the five feet between you is about 150. Then my head starts going again.
Should I invite her to sit with me? Would I do that at home? Does she think this is as close and strange as I do? What if we become friends if I invite her but then have a bad day and don’t want to talk but then I have to? We were going to put up more lattice to fence in the bay leave bushes but if we do it NOW will she think that we hate her? OR would she think that’s better? Please remember that of course, the interaction is in my second language, so it gets even more stressful.
For now, I’m going to sit out with my little baby blackbirds (three made their fledgling appearance just yesterday) that are hopping around my yard and take it day by day. I’ll tell you, having a big wide open yard with no one around is still my ideal situation, but probably because it’s just what makes me most comfortable. Living in the city, you get to know what your neighbors’ underwear looks like because it’s hanging outside their windows while you barbeque outside yours. I know what music the couple likes that lives on the other side of us, and what makes the other neighbor’s dog bark. I hear all of their arguments and their discussions about the recent soccer games, and in the morning, I usually lie in bed and can hear the same commercial play again and again on someone’s TV that is blasting from somewhere above our roof.
Even if I still have no idea how to do life with close neighbors, I’m doing it, and it makes me learn about people. It makes you understand that we are coinhabiting this crazy world we live in, and with how it all is going, I think that’s more important than anything else.