C'mon Nelson, get out and meet your neighbours

JAN MARSH
Last updated 09:26 20/01/2014

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OPINION: I learned a new word from the blog of Five Foot Traveller, Anis Ibrahim: dérive, a French term meaning drift. We do it when we stroll about a new town, often lost and hoping to be found again, seeing the streets with the fresh eyes of a tourist.

I'm delighted to have a word for the way I wander around a new place and enjoy chance encounters.

I recall the tiny elderly woman in Vietnam who, almost buried under a bamboo frame festooned with fluorescent pink and green toys for sale, beckoned to me and helped me cross a death defying road in Ho Chi Minh city, and another who waved me into her restaurant and sat me down on a child-sized plastic stool in front of a plate of seafood, rice and salad.

In Vietnam, Bali or Nepal, life fills the streets and the wanderer can see barbers cutting hair, bamboo goods being woven, strange metal objects being welded, old men playing dominoes and all shapes and sizes of people exercising, chatting, eating and generally going about their day. But Anis also suggests viewing our home town in the same way, perhaps using a formula to gain some randomness: first left, second right and so on.

I set out for my usual evening walk and instead of going down the steps to the waterfront, where I would normally iPod my way briskly to the fishing platform while gazing out to sea, I head up the new Goat Track steps to the street above my home.

Winding along the ridges, the first thing I notice is how quiet and empty the streets are. A car passes me as it heads uphill, a young woman smiles at me from her iPod trance, and for the next 20 minutes I see no other person, not even in a front garden or on a verandah.

It makes me think of the line in Krishnan's Dairy when Krishnan's mother, random dialling to India to assuage her loneliness, advises the woman on the other end of the phone to tell her son not to emigrate to New Zealand: "It's too cold and nobody lives here."

In Albert St my eye is caught by colourful bamboo and fabric banners, such as I saw recently in Bali.

A whiteboard announced the Albert St Christmas party and a diagram shows who's who in the street while a table and chair under an awning look as though someone will meet and greet or take registrations.

There's not a person in sight. Is it too early or is the party in full swing (very quietly) on the back lawn? Why aren't they having a riot, free from any concerns about disturbing the neighbours?

I drop down to the waterfront where a few optimists are coming in to the yacht club and a lone paddle boarder heads towards the beach. A woman passes with two small dogs on leashes and a teenage boy jogs past in jandals, carrying his running shoes in his hand. Blisters, maybe?

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There are people in the cafes and a few fishermen on the wharf, but mostly the people I see are the drivers of the cars that purr by. I complete my circuit and head home.

Recently the street I live in was re-designed to be a "shared zone" with landscaping and low speed limits so that cars, pedestrians and cyclists can mix safely.

Apart from some rather free-range little girls who walk their dogs and ride their scooters, it is still as empty as the surrounding roads.

I recall a long ago visit to Penang when I watched from the window in the late afternoon as the men came home from work and took their children out on to the street while the women cooked the family meal.

They strolled up and down comparing babies and bringing their toddlers to socialise with the neighbours, standing in gateways and on the pavement to chat.

At the time it struck me as a charming novelty, but surely it is essential community behaviour. Apparently the same custom occurs in Spain and Italy and includes smartly dressed young women promenading.

Come on Nelson, get out of your houses and cars. Meet the neighbours. Stroll, chat, show off your babies, your new dresses and your front gardens. Connect with each other and this lovely place we are so lucky to live in.

  • Jan Marsh is a local Clinical Psychologist and keen walker.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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