Tag Archives: Relationships

Good Neighbours

My weekly German lessons follow a textbook, the current chapter of which is “Nebenan und Nachbarschaft”, or “Next Door and Neighbourhood”. Truth be told, much of my German lesson time is spent just chatting with my teacher and hearing a lot about life in the DDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany). I get a lot of practice listening, and learn about German society and history in the process. Last week, however, a discussion prompt in the textbook led to a discussion of German attitudes towards neighbours in comparison to American attitudes. Two points in particular were striking.


In Germany, people usually stay relatively close to where they grew up. My friends here live in the towns where they were raised, or a short drive (we’re talking minutes, not hours) away. When people move, they make a home for themselves in the new place, but are often already familiar with the area and have networks of people around, either in the new place or close by. This is quite different to the situation in the US, where the touted cultural expectation is often that young people will leave and start their own lives somewhere else, somewhere far away. (Interestingly, though the data do not bear this out, the cultural interest remains.)

Perhaps, my German teacher suggested during our discussion of an audio recording we heard during the lesson, it is this movement between places that has led to connections among neighbours. In my experiences living in the US, people make an effort to get to know each other, they have regular social gatherings, and it is not uncommon to knock on a new neighbour’s door to drop off baked goods and introduce oneself. Whenever I visit my parents, I am stunned by the number of people my mum greets by name when out walking the dog. (A brief anecdote about who they are in the neighbourhood usually follows.)

Although greeting a new neighbour with baked goods is utterly unheard of in Germany, I have found my neighbours to be quite friendly. I know a few names and greet the others around town when I see them. It is common for German neighbours to collect deliveries for each other, and I gave my neighbours the keys once to let in a repair person during the day, another perfectly common interaction. People water each other’s plants, but a social gathering would likely be out of the question, and possibly seen as an affront on much-desired privacy.

Perhaps a different environment is borne from being new to a place, from the need to learn more about the local school district, for example, and find a mechanic as soon as one settles in. German neighbours live side-by-side and are respectful of one another’s space; American neighbours might be looking for community, which Germans already have elsewhere.

Levels of relationships

The search (or not) for community upon arriving in a place might help create different levels of relationships among people. When you’re alone in a place, you need people, whether for social contact, general assistance moving house, or getting to know the area. Perhaps this creates closer bonds from the outset than in environments where people already have social networks, and perhaps cultural expectations about the relationships people have with their neighbours make it easier (or more difficult) to get to know them in some places rather than others.

For example, a friend in Denver has sent me photos of his neighbourhood spaghetti dinners, and a Canadian born-and-raised friend whose mother tongue is Swiss-German lamented how hard it was to make friends during a decade in Switzerland as an adult because people moved in the same circles they had since grade school. Many of the people I’ve met in Germany have known each other since their own school time, and even if they’re no longer close, they greet each other in the street. Perhaps when people have so many connections that stretch back so far, they don’t have the same need to look for new ones.

A phenomenon that I really like here in Germany is that of Mehrgenerationenhäuser, or “multiple generation houses”. This is the idea that people of all ages live in the same house (apartment building) with the intention of interacting with and helping each other. Older residents might provide childcare for the children of working residents, while those working-age residents might help older residents with household tasks. This is a commitment to knowing one’s neighbours in a society where people already have strong social bonds, perhaps indicating that strong relationships between neighbours would not otherwise evolve.

It was an interesting conversation to have during my German lesson, an interesting look into societal differences that tell us something about culture and attitudes. These are differences that might not be obvious from the beginning, but become increasingly so the more one looks around. And like many aspects of society, this demonstrates that there are many ways of being, and that one way is not better or worse than another. Rather, these ways of being create the culture and environment of a place, and it is to this that people adapt when moving across borders.

Old Friends

Upon receiving the invitation, my first instinct was to say I couldn’t go. It was too far, I don’t have a job that allows me to choose my holidays, and it would cost a small fortune considering how long I’d be away. So I couldn’t go.

But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, either, which meant I wanted to go. It meant the too far/no holidays/too expensive reasons were not reason enough.

So I spoke to my principal, steeled myself for days of jet lag, cashed in all of my credit cards points, and went to celebrate the wedding of my best high school girlfriend. We met on the first day of school in grade nine in our first period class when she turned to me and observed, “You’re new” and introduced herself. And that was pretty much that.

When I mentioned the trip to my grade twelve students, one asked who my closest friends are and how we keep in touch. I understand this. International school students scatter after completing high school and there is understandable uncertainty over who they will and will not see again, normal for all young people at this age. I admitted that my old friends and I aren’t really in touch, an arrangement that we all understand and that works for us. The beginning of Covid saw us on multiple video calls, which had never happened before and has not happened since. But when we’re together, it’s like nothing has changed. We slot into each others’ lives like no time has passed even though years of space can lie between each meeting. We are comfortable around each other in ways that simply come from years of shared experiences, shared stories, a shared history that fits us all into a place where we understand the intricacies of our relationships to each other.

But, my student pressed on, are my relationships with old friends superficial because we aren’t in regular contact? This was perceptive and gave me pause, but the honest answer is no. No, these relationships are not superficial. They are instead deeply genuine because we remain friends because we want to, not because we have been thrown into a space together; rather, we actively choose to create that space. These friendships are intimate because we don’t need to explain ourselves since we understand one another due to so many years of knowing each other and watching as we all change and evolve. I don’t need to explain my darkest moments and how they have led me to today because these people were there back then.

Similarly, I can ask difficult questions because we’ve done it all before. I can be confronting because these are the people who are still with me, who have chosen to remain part of my life despite all the reasons people lose track of one another. And I can answer difficult questions honestly because old friends are not looking for casual, convenient relationships. It’s okay if times are tough or if the road is rocky. They are asking because they care about me, because they have cared for years about me. These are true friendships not because they are old friendships, but they are old friendships because they stem from deep roots.

I do not have very many old friends, rather many old acquaintances. I reintroduced myself to a few people I had known casually in the past and it was a pleasure to see where they are now, so many years later. But to spend a weekend with old friends, celebrating a beautiful moment in the life of someone we all love, was a truly special experience. The last time we were all together was at another wedding, in another place, in another life. And it was a joy to come together with these people and recognize that, despite the years and the time and the space, we still know each other. We still care about each other. And for that, I still call these people my friends. It is an honour to do so.

The road to the house of a friend is never long. – Danish proverb

Warnemünde, Germany – June 2022


There has been more than a little space between blog posts recently, and it’s not for lack of what to say. Rather, it’s due to time spent being in the world where, I am grateful to say, I have found myself in good company and laughing.

Playing, I said.
Living, came the response.

And in this moment, quite so.

Where I pause, however, is when I stop to consider the gulf between my small corner of the sky and the big, wide world around me. That’s when it’s hard to laugh, hard to remain positive, hard to stomach what I read in the news with my students every day. We’ve had beautiful sunshine lately and that affects my mood, too. Fall can be a quiet, contemplative time but lately it hasn’t been. It has been lively and full and it’s easy to get swept away in that. I need to remind myself to take stock, to take a step back. I am so lucky to be here.

A year ago we started watching this tree as the leaves changed, as the days grew colder and the nights crisper. We watch nature because we are at home in it, because it’s beautiful, because it quite literally soothes the soul. And we spend as much time out in nature as we can because we know that pleasant temperatures don’t last forever.

Lately I’ve been laughing a lot, despite what’s in the news and what we expect for winter in Europe. I cannot change the world’s geopolitics but can put into the world what I believe should be part of it. To this end, I’ve been laughing with someone who reminds me to slow down, to take it easy, to take time away in order to be present with what is there.

Here now in autumn, leaves change. Colours change. The way that we approach one another during times that many of us, to varying degrees, find profoundly unsettling, can also change. We can choose to be a little kinder, a little more open, a little more honest. We can look for reasons to laugh, to play, to live.

And in the world that I believe should be, we stand up together and support one another because that creates “us” and when there’s just “us” rather than “us and them”, that creates peace. We all laugh, after all, and peace means finding commonalities and making them count.

So I’ve been out in nature and laughing. And I hope this post, and my wish for the world, inspire you to get out there, as well.