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Open Your Door To Your Neighbor

Text by: Christine Pethel
Photography by: Jessica Ceason Photography
Stylist: Jenni Bushman

"I want you to be concerned about your next-door neighbor. Do you know your next door neighbor?"
-Mother Theresa
How well do YOU know your next-door neighbor? Some, like my sister, know theirs exceedingly well. They greet each other in the morning, swap carpool rides, exchange Christmas gifts, and throw block parties. They even have a “Neighborhood Contact Emergency List,” filled with the names, phone numbers, household pets and emergency contact information of their next-door neighboors. Then, there are some who, like me, never really get to know their neighbors. A few years ago, when I lived in Arizona, I barely knew anyone on my block. We had friends who lived behind us with whom we were acquainted with fairly well,
but we hardly knew any of those on each side of our house or across the street. It was a military town, so many of the houses were being rented to soldiers and their families who were only there for a few months at a time. Thus, it was hard to get to know them very well. By the time we realized they were even there, a moving truck was already parked in front of their house transporting them to another town.
I remember when I was little, we knew every single one of our neighbors. We knew how many kids they had, who had the best lawn-mowing equipment (to borrow, of course), whose dad worked where, and who had the best houses we could “TP” (toilet paper) without getting into too much trouble. For every neighbor, there was a “story,” and we knew it. They were our friends, and we looked out for each other. We played in their houses, walked to school through their backyards, and borrowed eggs or a cup of sugar for that batch of cookies we didn’t quite have enough ingredients for. I took piano lessons from Ms. Frankman on the corner across the street (who gave us candy bars for every song we learned), and swam in the creek behind the Wests’ home. And, on any given day, if we visited Grandma Widdison’s house, it was guaranteed that there would be a fresh batch of cookies waiting for us when we showed up. So why, then, did I not know my neighbors like that as I grew older? I realize that the times have changed, and I didn’t really need to know them as well as I did back then, but I wanted to at least know them well enough to be able to wave as they drove down the street, or have a conversation about the beautiful garden they were out planting. But then… it wasn’t long before our house
had a moving truck parked out front… transporting our family to another city- another country even. Our destination? Wiesbaden, Germany. There was a moment when we first arrived in our new home in Germany that I looked around our neighborhood, and my hopes of knowing my neighbors as well as when I was a child felt dashed. A whole different culture? A new language? And to top it off, we were “Americans” (a fact that carried with it a stigma of its own amongst the Germans). For a fleeting moment, I thought, “There’s no way.”
Still, there were more positive moments that overshadowed the negative ones. When I would stand outside my front door and gaze around at my darling neighborhood, I would notice the tall, slanted roofs of the houses across from us, surrounded by lush, green trees and bushes. It was then that I had glimmers of loving this neighborhood and getting to know those within it. It wasn’t long before the moving trucks had unloaded the last of the shipment. After days of moving in, we were finally able to spend our first night in our new home. We were extremely busy that afternoon making beds, stocking the fridge, and digging around for Halloween costumes for the church party we were attending that night. As we were backing out of our driveway, there was a quaint German
couple across the street unloading their groceries from the trunk of their car. They were directly in the line of our reversing car and would have been hit had I not gotten out to warn them. As fate would have it, they spoke very good English and properly introduced themselves and their children (who were the same ages as my own). The conversation that ensued was so pleasant that we made future plans to have a longer visit.
Fast forward five months. Not one visit had taken place. She had tried a few times - she invited us to feed the ducks by the river, go to an ice cream café, and attend a friend’s Tupperware party. I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t go to any of the events. I made excuses that I was overwhelmed and busy with life. I had also taken a three-month trip to the states. But if I wanted to be honest with myself, I would have to admit it was because I wasn’t very good at meeting new people and inviting them into my home - or my life. And in this situation, I had invented an awkwardness based on the idea that friends from a different culture automatically equaled weird and difficult social etiquette situations. What it really boiled down to was that it was I who was hiding behind my own door, when she wanted so badly to open hers to me. When I realized this, I was very disappointed and embarrassed with myself. I knew that I was going against what I believed and I needed to try harder. I needed to be a better person by opening my door to
friends and neighbors, because I truly believe that when you do this, everyone involved will be uplifted and inspired. And if we all became friends with those around us, the world would be a much better place, with more peace and happiness, rather than fear and violence.
I also believe that who, and how often, one opens their door to says a lot about the type of person they are and what values they hold dear. I needed to be that person. I wanted to be someone who was kind, giving, and made others feel comfortable in my presence and in my home. And I knew that to be that kind of person, I needed to be a much better friend and neighbor, even though I was still a little nervous and hesitant. So, what did I do? I made cookies, of course. Cookies always do the trick. I put them in a fun, red-and-white checkered gift bag with a note inviting her to dinner on Sunday. I even got the girls involved by asking them to go leave it on her porch as a surprise for when she returned home from work. We had a lovely dinner on Sunday and ever since have enjoyed each other’s company on many more occasions. We’ve made potluck dinners for each other, swapping American, Mexican, and German recipes. We’ve gone swimming
and sat around the kitchen table eating cookies and drinking hot chocolate. Her children have, and still do, come over on an almost-daily basis to play with the girls, walk down the back road to visit the horses, and play soccer in the streets… even though, unlike their parents, they don’t speak the same language as the girls (thank goodness for Internet translating programs).
I can’t even begin to tell you how much we’ve done together to help and enrich each other’s lives. For example, we’ve jumpstarted each other’s dead car batteries, they’ve given us referrals to German shoe shops, grocery stores, and pet trainers, and we’ve bought American products they can’t purchase on the German economy. On one occasion, they drove with us to the German grocery store to initiate us into buying German products with names we had no idea how to read or pronounce. The girls are learning how to speak a different language firsthand (which is so much better than learning in a classroom), and I’m learning how to make traditional German food, as well as learning the typical German “ways.” As for the
others on our street? We have been introduced to the other neighbors on our street, which has since created opportunities for some of us to become friends… well, at least friends enough to wave at each other passing by, or make conversation about the new flowers they are growing, or the reptiles they are breeding (no joke).
I’ve learned some important lessons. I’ve learned that no matter where you live, you are always a better person for knowing those around you, and that I shouldn’t have doubted the ease of making friends, even in a foreign country. In actuality, it has been an even more incredible experience than I could ever have imagined. I have learned so many wonderful things from them, and, in turn, they have learned many wonderful things from us. We’re all sharing pieces of ourselves with others, which I believe has a guaranteed return of happiness. And, lastly, by knowing my neighbors and opening my doors to them, I am becoming a better person and coming that much closer to calling this place “home.”