For April I’ll be looking at community and friendship as a way into belonging.
To kick off the month I hosted a Sunday morning tea, inviting neighbours and acquaintances in the area to celebrate Australia’s Neighbour Day on March 30.
Nobody I mentioned it to had ever heard of Neighbour Day.
”So it’s not hide-from-your-neighbour day?’’ someone asked.
I was off to a bad start. Maybe morning tea from 10am til noon on a Sunday was too early, or maybe I put the invites in post boxes too late, or maybe the steamy Queensland drizzle kept people in bed?
Our next door neighbour was the first to arrive with her boys and stayed for a short chat and some salted caramels. After they left, I looked at all the food I’d ordered from the local French bakery and started to despair. Well, I thought, I won’t be taking it to the neighbours if they can’t be bothered to show up, which, I admit, wasn’t very neighbourly of me.
The idea behind Neighbours’ Day is that by starting small and sharing a moment together, people will start to connect. In other words, people will start to feel they belong, if not in that country, at least on their street, in their apartment block, or in that community.
Neighbours’ Day was launched in Paris in 2000. It grew out of a group called ‘’Paris d’Amis’’ started by Atanese Périfan a decade before to combat loneliness and to help people who were withdrawing from community or in need of help. This year millions of people from at least 36 countries will celebrate their neighbours.
In Australia, Neighbour Day started in 2003. At first it was a call for people to check on their neighbours after the two-year-old remains of an elderly woman were found in her apartment. Now it has grown into a community event, although it doesn’t appear to be linked to the international celebrations and hardly anyone seems to know about it.
According to one poll, Australians could use a little more neighbourly love.Almost 60 per cent of people here don’t speak to their neighbours and 38 per cent don’t know their neighbours at all, according to a 2010 survey by That’s Life magazine. That’s not too different to the British. About 70 per cent of people said they wouldn’t recognize their neighbour if they passed them on the street, according to a UK survey.
I was just re-writing my ”neighbourly’’ piece in my head, when several families arrived at once.
So how did my neighbours fare?
I dropped off 12 invitations to nearby post boxes and sent emails and texts to local people we know from our girls’ school. All of the post box invitations went to people we’d had some contact with over the years: chatting on the street at Hallowe’en or helping out during floods.
Half the families replied to the post box drop. Half of the families didn’t answer the RSVP. Would it be the same in any metropolitan suburb in any developed country?
On the day, three neighbours came to our morning tea. That’s a 25 percent success rate. In the interest of transparency, we would have had more success if our two closest neighbours, who we see regularly, were in town.Interestingly, all of the local families that we’d invited from the girls’ school, came. We’d still be eating croissants and sales caramels if they hadn’t.
I know this isn’t a scientific study. It’s an experiment.Would I do it again?I’m not sure. I can’t figure out if I feel more connected to the people who did come or just grateful, but I still don’t feel like I belong here.And I have to admit the thing that bothered me most was that half of the families didn’t send a text RSVP with a ”thanks, but no thanks’’.Is this what it’s like all over urban Australia?