As a little girl, I fondly remember my mom baking banana bread for the new families that would move into the neighborhood. To this day, I consider this a classy, warm, and pragmatic gesture. When we moved to Vermont in 1998, this tradition continued; interacting with our neighbors was both common and crucial, especially because of the infamous ice storm that hit the northeast that winter – coordinating snowplow schedules, sharing batteries or candles when a trip to the store was impossible, letting us park our car in their driveway when we couldn’t make it up ours, etc.
Needless to say, my childhood would have been much less entertaining if it hadn’t been for that small cluster of houses at the end of a remote dirt road. We were an adventurous but sane assortment of kids who bonded over outdoor activities and who cherished our tight-knit families – The Grassy Lane Gang. I know our parents appreciated it too – carpools, after school play dates, medical support (the neighborhood dubbed my mom “Nurse Ratchet” for her interest and ability in healing any sort of ailment), and an unspoken accord regarding healthy snacks and limited TV time.
I’ve lately been reflecting on how much neighbors mean to me. While I appreciate my alone time (of which I get quite a bit of here in Santo Domingo compared to in the campo), I’m recognizing how much I strongly value and enjoy human connection. This seems like a basic realization, but accepting a certain vulnerability that befriending the unknown requires has ultimately led me to experience tremendous humility, laughter, confusion, gratitude, frustration, and friendships. Enjoying this sort of enlightenment in the company of people who share spaces makes the experience that much richer.
Happiness is only real when shared.
Here in Santo Domingo, I live in an apartment building comprised of about 20 or so separate apartments. Though I wish I could say I know all of my neighbors like I did in Pescadería (where it was common for me lend my clothespins or toilet plunger to one of them), I know the occupants of only 3 apartments here. But nonetheless, these bonds have been helpful and genuine, and reliable sources of human connection for which I am appreciative.
Today for example, I was headed out to do a few errands when I locked the door to my apartment then realized that I had left my phone inside. Frustration (read: slight panic) struck when I went to unlock the door and part of the lock fell off into my hand, leaving another part stuck in the door. Without hesitation I knocked on my neighbor’s apartment next door, Angela, who lent me a hammer, wrench, and knife to try and fiddle my way back inside. To no avail, she volunteered her youngest child to see if he could squeeze through the bars of the iron gate. We decided instead that it was better to go downstairs and look for Leo, another neighbor who, in addition to being the fiancé of a fellow PCV, happens to be quite the handyman. Less than 5 minutes later, Leo was at my doorway, equipped with safety glasses and sawing his way through the stubborn lock. Meanwhile, Angela had provided me with a chair to sit in, assuring me not to worry and that tomorrow she would call her friend who happened to be an ironworker. In a short period of time, Leo gave one last yank on the weakened metal and I was granted access into my apartment once again (no worries – got plenty of other methods to keep my apartment secure in the mean time!). As neighbors united in a time of need, we briefly celebrated then soon went our separate ways, almost indifferent to the naturalness of the exchange.
I end this post with a tribute to my favorite neighbor of all time, Pepelo. He adopted me into his home with grace, in yet another unspoken accord between neighbors. From the moment I moved across the street from his house and built-in colmado, Pepelo cared for me as a daughter. He used the land behind my house to cultivate and provide us with the south’s infamous plantains, took care of my cat when I traveled, and never forgot to save me my share of the day’s meal. In light of it being Father’s Day here in the Dominican Republic (yet another reason why a neighbor rather than locksmith solved today’s dilemma), I encourage you to befriend your neighbors – friendly waves might one day make you family.