Posted by: Daryl & Wendy Ashby | December 26, 2010

Real Neighbours

The man in the James Bay consignment shop addresses me by name and I feel wholly at home. It wasn’t always thus.

When I first moved to Victoria, my digs were in Cook Street Village and the welcome almost immediate. Terri, the Portuguese seller of fresh produce at the end of my street, made sure of that. Within days, she knew about my preference for a particular fresh berry, my penchant for white asparagus.

After an endlessly rainy week in the middle of winter, I was feeling a rare homesickness for snow. Then I passed her shop and had to laugh. In a huge mud puddle that had collected in front swam a flock of rubber duckies.

In no time, the baristas at my favourite coffee place had my order down pat. The jaunty, quick-witted convenience store clerk had my weekly magazines at the ready. An early-morning walk in Beacon Hill Park, where peacocks ambled languorously about, cleansed me of cynicism. This was my ‘hood. I felt a fierce, visceral connection to it and was prepared to challenge those who had foolishly settled elsewhere.

Sadly, the place I’d been renting was sold out from under me and I was forced to move. Uprooted. Bereft. Nothing comparable available in the area.

Where to go? Oak Bay? It seemed a tad too anglophile for this former Quebecer. Fernwood? I appreciated the underbelly that hid beneath the fine, old-stock housing. It had grit. I love grit. But I couldn’t find a place that suited. Gordon Head? Far too suburban for a downtown girl.

Ultimately, I found a charming heritage house in James Bay. Not a bad second choice. Windy but walkable. It had all the amenities at hand. Still, what did I have in common — what did I really share — with these new folks? No matter that, in reality, they lived mere city blocks away from my old address.

Then I got to chatting with the woman who sells Street Newz in front of Thrifty’s. I passed the time of day with the man who walked his two big Bouviers by my house. He admired my mutt and we talked about off-the-leash issues. I also learned to gently avoid the terminally chatty gossip who lived nearby.

I found I liked the mix of old and young, eccentrics and conservatives. Cook Street Village came to seem a little precious to me then. What had I been thinking?

I was adapting to the neighbourhood. The neighbourhood was adapting to me.

People take pride in where they live. It also reflects a common human characteristic — the need for a group identity. It’s as close to a tribal experience as we have in modern times.

Presumably, we live in an area because we have certain tastes and needs, which correspond to the tastes and needs of those who live up our streets and down our blocks.

Just as often, however, we find our tastes and needs harmonizing with the neighbourhoods in which we somehow find ourselves.

This synthesis is heartfelt. For a while there, we might have been tempted to think real neighbourhoods were old hat. There’s a lot of talk nowadays about the affinities and relationships people develop online — talk that these will serve as a viable substitute for real-life encounters. But as in so many other aspects of the cyberworld, we’ve been oversold on the notion.

Bits and bytes will never replace bricks and mortar. Our fundamental natures cannot be transmitted by modem. We are a sensual species and a tactile one. We like to see and feel the people we relate to. We need their physical reality.

It is a natural instinct to form associations with others. Neighbourhoods provide an ideal balance. Too much association and we find ourselves living in each other’s pockets, picking up lint and who-knows-what other private items lying there. Too little association and we languish, alone and alienated, hearing the echo of our own voices.

The beauty of the neighbourhood is that it answers our need for company. It knows just when to back off. But it also addresses our drive to work and celebrate together.

In that spirit, happy holidays, James Bay. Happy holidays, wherever you live.

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