Monday, January 5, 2015


Some days I get frustrated with living here. The traffic noise. Cigarette fumes in our apartment building stairwell that drift into my house. Litter on the sidewalks and street, kids who ride their bikes without respect for anyone in their paths. There are few people, if any, who take pride in their neighborhood. And why should they? The apartment blocks are, for the most part, faded or dingy. The streets are narrow (which is, to be fair, normal for Holland) and cars shuffle in and out of spaces, dodging bits of glass or rubbish that may be on the ground. The 'Te Koop' and 'Te Huur' signs that constantly pop up in windows show how often new people arrive to buy and rent. The piles of trash left on the curb at moving day show how often people leave again.

Of course, there are positives to our neighborhood. Within a five minute walk are the shops, cafes, the post office, and great public transport. There are green parks and a fascinating stream of people from dozens of cultures. Some adorable architectural quirks are scattered around the neighborhood- a few gabled rooftops, a series of stonework reliefs on one street, some stained glass windows. A bike ride of fifteen minutes will get us to church, work, the city center, or even some relatives. I'm just constantly aware that this is is not permanent. It's not where we want to raise Pippin. It's not where we want to be in three years. I don't think most people in the neighborhood want to be here in three years.

When everything is so temporary, it's easy to just live on the surface and not invest. If the neighbors downstairs will probably move soon, why bother to get to know them? If others are dumping garbage bags next to the container, why bother to put mine in neatly? I tell myself that if we lived in a 'real' neighborhood I'd take the time to sweep the sidewalk in front of our house. I'd bake cookies for the neighbors at Christmas the way my family always did. I'd get involved in neighborhood activities. But since I live here, I tend to just focus on my little home, my family, and the friends I already have. Much more practical, I reason, than wasting time and energy on our temporary surroundings.

Sometimes my logic falls pleasantly flat, though.

At the grocery store this morning, I murmured to Pippin in his baby carrier. I pulled a basket behind me, much more convenient than wrestling his stroller through the aisles. It did make unloading tricky, however. At the checkout line, I bent carefully down, not crushing his legs, and pulled out a jar of peanut butter and some lettuce from the top of the basket. As I put those on the belt, I guiltily noticed two other shoppers getting in line behind me. People are generally patient with a mother juggling a baby during errands, but it was obviously going to take a few minutes for me to unload everything.

Suddenly the man behind me walked past his cart and picked up my basket. "I'll hold it for you," he said cheerfully. "Difficult to lean over with a baby, I'm sure. Here you go!" The cashier smiled. I smiled. If the store manager was watching the security cameras, he or she probably smiled too. I thanked him warmly, and agreed that it was much easier with his help. He stood there for the next minutes, sturdily holding a heavy basket of everything from potatoes to kiwis to crackers to pasta sauce. I thanked him again after I finished, and he smiled at me cheerfully through eyes that had seen four or five decades. "Happy to help, young lady!"

Still smiling, I made my way home. Who cared if there was a broken chair next to the trash and firework papers still on the sidewalk? Someone had brightened my day by taking a few minutes out of theirs for kindness. Without any expectation that I'd return the favour some day, or even be around next week. As I turned the corner, I could see one of our 'temporary neighbors' waiting outside our building for someone. I don't know much about J. - he listens to rock music, has guests who smoke (weed), and, according to the Purple Lady Neighbor down the block, is great at fixing computers. Maybe a decent guy? Maybe not? By the time I got to the building, he had seen me coming. And then  he unlocked the front door for me and stepped inside, holding it wide open so I, Pippin, and my pull-along shopping cart could come in. I smiled and said thank you for the second time this morning. For the second time, I was reminded that while it doesn't take a big commitment to live in our neighborhood, it takes even less to be kind to someone in it.

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