Thursday, August 21, 2008

Love Thy Neighbor

My wife and I used to rent a house next door to a brothel where, weather permitting, the prostitutes would come out and sing on the porch. They could carry a tune pretty well. It was a tough neighborhood to leave, all that excitement just twenty meters outside my door. But the rent was high and the place poorly insulated, so we moved out. Luckily, our new neighborhood isn’t a total bore.

The kid next door regularly disassembles his entire car, strewing the parts all over his yard, and puts it back together within a couple of hours. I’ve often wondered if he’s training to work in a Formula One pit crew. Or perhaps he wants to be a deejay. During his automotive work, he shares his music with the entire neighborhood: Imagine the sound of an aquarium’s oxygen pump set to a heavy drum beat with the voice of a tortured dog. All this at a concert-level 120 decibels. Looped. But he’s not a bad kid. He borrowed my ladder one day and brought it back. He loaned me his dad’s garden hose.

Another neighbor hosts Tallinn’s taxi drivers. Every few minutes one departs from his house and another arrives. So many taxi drivers in one place make me nervous. I’ve convinced myself the house is either a drug den or the local headquarters for Nashi. There might even be some WMDs inside.

There’s also an elderly woman who likes to garden in the vacant lot next to our house. The builders plowed it under months ago, readying it for construction, but she’s still out there trying to save the poppies that grew before the demolition. I once saw her waiting for a bus, took her aboard my car, and she remarked: “Oh, so chivalrous. You treat me like a German lady.” She sometimes leaves nasty notes for us on the fence, telling us to replace her flowers or fix her clothes line, the former which we haven’t touched, the latter which hasn’t existed since the lot was plowed under.

But I’m sure our neighbors aren’t in love with us, either. My wife’s aunt, who lives below us and is not fully sane, dries her laundry on the fence, making our garden look like a gypsy camp in a yuppie neighborhood. She also exercises her rabbit in the yard, and squeals for hours in a high pitch when it escapes under the fence. But she won’t allow me to build a hutch for it. “He wants to be free,” she screamed at me. “Can’t you see he wants the whole garden?”

The outside of our house is awaiting its final coat of paint. Due to a major mistake by the builder, the house looks like its suffering from a skin disease, and the banker next door keeps asking when we’re going to finish it. “We’re all out of money,” I say. “But I do hope to complete it before I die.” Actually, the builder has sworn he’ll fix it within the month. But no point me telling the banker that.

It’s never easy being a good neighbor. It’s even harder when you’re in a culture not your own, surrounded by people you think are complete crackpots. But I know that’s what they think of me, too. And so while we may not be the best of friends, at least there’s comfort in knowing we’re even.