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Suburban Life, genesis [Secret Life of an Expat]

When I was young, my godmother lived right next door and my best friend lived across the street. These relationships were created by my parents. They forged an instant friendship with the neighbors across the street, who had a little girl my age. It was only practical. Then they appointed the neighbor my godmother. The woman on the other side of us had a nice dog named Sam, and the boy around the corner was in the same orchestra as me. We carpooled. Now, most of these relationships are broken, but I remember enjoying the knowledge of who lived where, who did what, where there were kids, and where kids were not allowed. It was a neighborhood.

After I left home, I lived through a series of apartments and apartment buildings where I knew a few of my neighbors but never felt very comfortable hanging out with them.  If I happened to be hanging out with a neighbor, say the girl on 7th and D, I usually sat there wondering why I was putting myself through such an awkward situation when I could be sitting comfy on the other side of the wall watching TV in peace. One time I moved into a building where friends occupied two other apartments. The moment my best friend moved in on the top floor was the beginning of the end. Our friendship went into default. It lasted about a year, and I still can’t tell you why it happened. I now call it ‘the falling out’ and we both do whatever necessary to avoid its recurrence.

And what would that be? Avoid being neighbors?

In California I hardly knew my neighbors beyond niceties in the hallway, signing for packages, and telling each other we left our head lights on. That’s what we needed each other for. But now in suburban France, as an adult member of a family, neighbor etiquette is necessary. There are children involved. Children who want to hang out with the neighbor’s children, and we want, no, need the children to hang out with the neighbor’s children. Anything to give them something to do, something fun and spontaneous that fills the time and makes them happy.

Our little enclave consists of four houses, two on the street, and two behind. Each with a front and back yard, a lawn, maybe a tree or hedges. We are all new to the neighborhood (within a few years), young, and there are (so far) seven kids age six and under. On warm weekends (which have officially begun) we mow our lawns with electric lawn mowers and wave to each other over the walls. M and I have a swing set, the diagonal neighbors have a miniature fairy tale house. The neighbors in front have a pink slide, and the other ones are still playing with wheelbarrows as they just move in.

A few weeks ago, we were hit with a blast of summer and everything moved outside. My stepkids overcame their shyness and started talking to the next door neighbor’s kids. Calling out to the neighbor’s kids. Squeezing through the hole in the fence to harass the neighbor’s kids. Asking the whereabouts of the neighbor’s kids. We were simultaneously very pleased and a little bit worried that our kids would become overbearing and turn off the neighbors. I can only hope the neighbors felt the same way.

Last weekend, for the first time, our diagonal neighbors threw the first barbecue. I’ve seen it in movies, the endless attendance of suburban barbecues that our hero (or her husband perhaps) is sick of going to. But I have to say I was thrilled. We needed to get together with these future friends, these people we might need help from one day, from a cup of sugar to calling the fire department to watching the kids while we run to the hospital. We needed to put our kids together and let them play, see what relationships could be forged. And of course we wanted to see what their house looked like on the inside.

This was the official beginning of our future together. Of neighborly get-togethers and more than just waving over hedges. And I had a really good time. It was pot luck, and the main course was merguez, which is often the main course at a French barbecue. I was pleased to see that the diagonal neighbors went to the same butcher, and bought the same prize winning baguette from the third bakery on the left, as we do. But of course they did. That’s what people do in our town.

featured image credit: tok’art