Welcome

Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.

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Saturday, May 10, 2008

Neighbours can be friends too.

When we moved into the little street that was to become home, about a year ago, I found it strange that none of the residents came to welcome us. Not just on or around the time we moved in but ever since. I should exclude my landlords, who live in the same street. I should also exclude a family whose daughter is in the same class as ours, and we already knew. I should also exclude a colleague of my wife's, who lived down the street. Maybe people don't do that in Barbados, known for its reservedness. Now, the arrival did not come with a big moving van, and lots of boxes being put out on the sidewalk, which often signal new arrivals even for those who are oblivious to all that is around them. So, our coming could have passed by unnoticed. But after some time of driving in and out of this dead-end street I would have expected someone to notice a new set of people. Maybe they did but did not know what to do, or felt that indifference was the order of the day, or just want to keep to themselves.

Even the neighbours on either side kept a distance, which to this day has never been broken by an introduction. Yes, we have met: I hailed one couple and found out what they both do, and since then we wave at each other when we pass. In the case of the other side neighbours, who appear to be two families living in a Taj Mahal style house, the young boys play cricket in the yard almost every day and the ball flies into our yard sometimes. Bing-bong, the bell chimes. "Yes, who is it?" I ask. "Can we get our ball?" comes the reply. "Sure" I say, and open the gate electronically but also walk outside to see who it is; this is a first meeting now. "Thanks" says the boy and saunters through the gate with his brother, I guess, and rummage around the flowers and plants and comes back smiling with his plastic tape-covered tennis ball. "Bye" I said. But that was that. Now, with children I take the view that you do what your parents encourage you to do, and clearly introducing yourself to strangers, even neighbours, is not something they do.

I had another encounter with these neighbours, who don't cause me any general problems. I saw and heard the putting up of a large satellite dish on top of the house. It was massive, and they had opted for a Mac truck in the days when you can get a Suzuki Swift equivalent in TV satellite receivers. Men were on the roof, winching and hauling this thing up in the late afternoon, and I thought, that sun's not nice. They obviously had the same thought, because the next day--Sunday--bright and early, before day break, I hear drilling and banging and whirring. These people are mad, I thought. They are Muslims, so Sunday is not sacrosanct for them. But this is Barbados! You don't make that kind of racket on a Sunday morning, I thought. So, come a decent time in the day, I set out to "meet" my neighbour. I saw two men sitting on the sidewalk outside the house, talking. "Morning. Do you live here?" A kind of bewildered stare met me, and one of the men muttered in poor English "No live here." Drat. My ire was subsiding. "Where is the man who lives here?" I asked slowly. More bewilderment before I got "Big man he not here". Drat and double drat. Well I still had to get my point over. So, I looked sternly at them--a stern stare is universal--"Alright. When he come back, tell Big man that Little man not happy to hear drilling and banging and crashing before dawn on a Sunday morning. Understand?", I said. They nodded. To this day, Big man has never come to see Little man, but noise abatement is under control.

Another set of neighbours--again a Muslim family--almost got the proverbial boot in the rear. Still without a "Howdy", even though I have walked past their house, waved, admired the dangling pomegranates in their front yard, and wondered how many people live in the house, a mother and two daughters came bing-bonging at my door one Saturday. When I got to the gate, without a "Hello, I know that we have never met, but..." I got, "Will you give us some money to sponsor a bus for our school?" I lived in a Muslim country for three years, and my mind whirled with "Eh, Allah!" I blinked, and in my British-learned manner, said "Excuse me? You what?" They proffered a piece of paper and held out their hands. I know that a hand can get chopped off for some crimes in certain Muslim countries. Well, I lost it at that moment. "Listen," I said, "You don't know me. You don't even come to acknowledge me and my family. You see me passing your yard and drop your eyes. Now you come asking me for money? You crazy?" They all understood English very well, and in a mixed Asian-Bajan lilt, the mother quietly said "Sorry for that. But will you sponsor the bus?" I grinned, and pulled out a dollar coin, and said "Good luck" I think the irony was lost on them. I have never seen them since at my gate. They race up and down the street in a little Suzuki van, eyes fixed on the road and barely slow down to pass me if I am in the street.

That said, the good neighbourliness does exist. The family we knew from school are often with us, at least with some children, and I am often at their house. Drop off, pick up, car pooling, play dates, etc, the children make a focal point for getting together almost daiyly. My landlords and us are together about 2-4 times a week, for a regular lime at their house on Thursday evenings, for breakfasts at Brighton on Saturdays, for lunches sometimes on Sundays, and today for breakfast for Mothers' Day, and so on. I even go to work there if the Internet is down at the house we rent from them, and that comes with lunch if I am there long enough. I also see one old man, who is always tending his bouganvillias, many days a week; and there is another family with a small child whom I chat with whenever we cross during a day. So, the lack of welcome is mixed.

But my wife was smoking something special as she took a leap of faith and sought out the neighbourhood association. Well, she found out that the dilapidated signs on some of the telephone poles, mentioning a neighbourhood watch, actually relate to something recent. In the broader neighbourhood there have been signs of neighbourliness spotted. I don't know if they are on a revival kick, but off my wife started to go to meetings. She's a leaderene type and within one meeting had come back with the grin of her new rank, liaison officer. Oh, lord. Everyone in the street signed up quick-a-clock once she started pounding the pavement, and dropping off fliers, and telling of "coming events". I started getting e-mails from people I did not know, but were part of a group saying "Thanks for the form, will be at the BBQ". Must be spam, I thought, and started to delete some of these messages. Well, the assiduousness of the organization was evident. I started getting reminders and other calendar prompts, and a message about what contribution to make. "Be there or be evicted?"


Well, the day arrived for the great neighbourhood block party. See how a little attention can create big things. People from what must be a half mile square were descending on another cul-de-sac to lime and wine and sit under tents and eat burgers and hot dogs, and drink lemonade, and beer and wine, and get to know each other. Whadat last part? My wife was chief name tagger, another non-paying post, and she was assisted by a chief gate prize lottery chit filler inner, as she peeled off tags and slapped them on the new arrivals. Soon, we were all peering at each others' chests--always nice for a guy when it involves looking at a full busom--and trying to read the names. Some one asked my wife if she was a pharmacist because he needed to know how many times a day to take the prescription she had pasted on his shirt. He knew his name but could not recognize it from the label. She pierced him with a squint. As time passed on a few arrivals escaped the formalities and were duly quizzed to ensure they were not gate crashers before they went back to the "waiting area" are were duly tagged.

A bit stiffly at first, people started to circulate and try to get acquainted. The children, with no real need for name tags, were playing tag and having fun with each other from the get-go. One of my neighbours, whom I got to meet first at tennis, found some cousins of hers. "Chile! Go get an umbrella. Rain go come." They all hugged and smiled and wondered why many years had passed without saying boo to a goose and it took a block party for them to meet up. But it did rain later. I met neighbours from my street that I had not seen, in one case I knew the husband and his father and mother, but his wife works late and I had never seen her. I then introduced her to neighbours who lived opposite her! And so it went on. Our MP came to the party; he used to be a resident in the neighbourhood. He could have been accused of looking political in the way he shook hands and cozied with the older set, but I think it was genuine old time friendship. I met him for the first time--I can't vote here so he would have wasted his time being political. I met other people whom I had seen elsewhere but now know are part of my extended neighbourhood.

It got better as we relaxed and the beer and wine took effect. The sugar from the homemade brownies (the universally agreed dessert, it seemed, even in appropriately race neutral brown and white styles) started to kick in. The hamburger grillers got into their groove, and even fired up a second pan. They went a bit excessive with the cutting down of mango branches to put on the grill to add some "local smoke" to the food--mango and hickory don't work the same, bro'. They tried to cater for all. There were some vegetarians waiting patiently for their veggie burgers, and these were popped on the grill right there with the meat patties. They made up their faces, and eye brows rose singly and together. Oops. Guys, next time you have to get a separate grill for the non-carnivores. But what the heck, we being neighbours now. The music, which had been on someone's list but left at home, started to get jammin...She's Royal....Mek me sweat.... I wondered if we were going to see some of the pensioners wuk up. Just party, man.

The "committee" started pulling for the door prizes. People started cheering, and walking off with smiles and a box. I did not see the prizes except a box of chocolates, but I heard one was a toaster oven. The special prize for mothers? Not sure what that was. Maybe it was the Dairy Box selection.

By 7.30 pm, the festivities that had begun at 4 were waning, but not much. Children were still playing on the swings andrunning, and in the case of my daughter, falling splat on her face and cutting her hand, and having a good cry. Then a pair of policemen arrived in one of those huge jeeps and we thought that some neighbours must have complained about the smoke and noise. But, all the neighbours were at the party. Oh, these guys were neighbours. We safe, for sure, as they toted their burgers with their machineguns slungs on their backs.

Safety and friendliness should go hand-in-hand. If I know you I can start to trust you, or at least less wary of you. If I see you now I can say to myself you are from this neighbourhood. We have little crime in the area but knowing who is who and where they're going is part of self-protection. It took an earthquake last year to get a lot of people in my street to come out and meet. But such natural shocks should not be the only reason to put out the welcome mat and the face to go with it.

3 comments:

Newcomer said...

I love reading about Barbados as seen through your eyes! I have been in my neighbourhood for 10 years and while for the most part people are friendly enough, I have not observed that we frequent others' houses; and there are no electronic gates up here! LOL. We have probably not yet discovered the gift of small talk, and I guess that is why the place is usually just quiet and peaceful. But I just love Barbados through your lenses. Ha ha ha.

Bajan girl said...

As a Bajan, I have to agree that the community spirit I grew up with is sorely lacking nowadays. I lived in Newton for several years and I cannot tell you the names of those neighbours who lived 2 doors away on either side. Like you mentioned, there was no "welcome wagon" to greet me when I arrived in the neighbourhood and more often than not. People would pass in the street and not acknowledge me as I sat on my patio or outside in the courtyard.

Sitting on my stoop said...

Oh dear, Oh dear. You all have got it wrong. In Bajan custom when you move into a new neighbourhood it is your duty to go out to the neighbour's houses to knock on doors or to ring door bells and to introduce yourself. If you do not do this then the neighbours think that you are stuck-up and they will pointedly ignore you for a year or a decade or a lifetime. They were there first, you have to make the effort to get to know them. There WON'T be a welcome wagon. This ain't America (nor Jamaica) So get out there and make yourself know.