When we moved to Alabama for graduate school in 2003, I had some unspoken expectations—firmly rooted in stereotype—of a certain Southern Hospitality we would experience upon our arrival. Our first year was spent in a second floor apartment on the outskirts of town, so there was little surprise when we knew our neighbors neither by name nor, really, by sight. But when we bought a garden home (ie, small house) in a new subdivision with its very own lake and a walking path, I envisioned neighborly hellos, the borrowing and gifting of eggs and sugar, the occasional block party, and “Welcome to the Neighborhood” apple pies.
I’m allergic to apples, but damn it I wanted an apple pie.
In reverse order, I will now note that: a) No apple pies, cookie plates or other comestible welcomes arrived. Verbal welcomes were absent as well. b) No block parties. This just wasn’t a thing in our neighborhood, though I witnessed and attended block parties when visiting friends in Louisiana—and a crawfish boil at that!—so I know they do exist south of the good ol’ M-D. c) I once did in fact run out of eggs mid-brownie baking, so I knocked on a neighbor’s door. And another neighbor. And another. People were home, but no one answered. Finally, one person came to the door, opened it barely a crack, demanded to know who I was, then firmly told me they had no eggs. d) My neighbors never said hello, and I eventually stopped saying hello to them.
A lesson in hospitality: Once, the homeowner across the street knocked on our door and requested, firmly, that our dinner guests move their car, which was parked in front of the neighbor’s house. Are they blocking your driveway? “No.” Do you have guests who need to park there? “No. But people should only park in front of the house they are visiting, not across the street. It’s rude.” Ah, thank you for letting us know. We didn’t mean to be inhospitable.
The neighborliness outlined above may have been an aberration. I rather think it was. I enjoyed living in the South overall, and Southerners are not puppets of their media caricatures, positive and negative alike. But I’ve lived in high-rise lofts, midtown condos, suburban tract homes, and an Italian village, and the least hospitable neighborhood of them all was that subdivision in Northport, Alabama in 2004.
Since then, I have experienced genuine neighborliness and been inspired by the hospitality of strangers, which makes our experiences in our first house all the sadder for me to recall. I could talk about impromptu block parties in San Jose, CA, where by the end of our first summer we knew every neighbor by name. I could tell stories about our apartment-mates in Povo, Italia—the cyclist whose cat preferred our balcony, the German teacher who taught me to roast chestnuts: their presence eased a difficult expatriation. But this is a blog about our move to Colorado*, and here I’ve been overwhelmed, again, by the loveliness of neighbors.
We’ve met so many neighbors and are meeting more. Late last summer, before the start of school, the retired couple behind us brought a loaf of banana bread and made it clear we’re welcome to the plums from their tree. The neighbor across the street placed a basket of gourds and pumpkins on our porch and a note with their contact info in case we might need anything. While my daughter was playing with a friend she’d just met, the mother ran to the store and returned with sunflowers. A World War II vet from down the street came by Sunday while we were playing in front and was overjoyed by C’s red hair (as if he couldn’t help himself, he reached down and lifted her into the air). After Christmas, a neighbor and his children shoveled the snow from our driveway because we were gone and wouldn’t return until late.
And because that’s what neighbors do.
Much has been written about how busy and insular Americans have become. We work long hours, and when we return home the garage doors quickly close. On weekends we retreat to fenced back yards. Through Facebook and Instagram, we maintain relationships with distant relatives and childhood friends. But family and friends spread across the country and around the world are not enough; community needs to be built closer to home.
I think our neighbors can be our family, too. Their presence in our lives is just as circumstantial and unavoidable as the relations we were born with, and we can avoid and ignore them—as one might an overbearing aunt or a disapproving brother—or we can make those relationships intentional, meaningful. I do not yet know all our neighbors by name, but I keep a dry-erase board on the refrigerator where I add names and contact info for people we’ve met in the neighborhood. I want to learn about my neighbors. I want to be a neighbor back to them.
*At least, it is meant to be. When I actually post.