Friday, 12 February 2010

Neighbourhood watch

A friend came to pick me up last night. We were on our way to a school mummies’ night out. As we got into the warmth of her car, my friend pointed out of the window: “Look, - she said- can you see? There are some people peeping in the window of your neighbours’ house.”

It was dark and empty outside, and the hooded figures lurking at the neighbours’ windows did look rather disturbing. “I don’t like that”, I told my friend. “No-she said-I don’t like that either. What should we do?”

After sitting there for a few minutes watching the hooded figures, who by then noticed us too and were staring back, we decided to be brave and walk to the house to warn the owners. Of course, not before a friend of husband showed up at our house. Which meant I had someone to cover my back should the guys start shooting.

"You watch me!"- I told them, marching across the road, my friend running after me. In the end, our neighbourhood watch proved useless: a young girl opened the door, smiling- “That’s okay- she said- It was my brother and his friend”.

As we drove off, laughing, I was thinking of all the usual stuff I hear so often about the "western neighbours". How you cannot borrow salt from them, never know their names or say hello. How you cannot rely on their help, should something go wrong.

In Baku, my mother’s flat has been ours for a very long time. I still think fondly of the gray stone steps, high flights of stairs and the strong stench of urine.
After the second floor, things improved. On the third floor, a new family painted their section of the landing pale pink. On the fourth floor, a rich neighbour installed the mightiest ever security door, with lots of bolts and keyholes. On the fifth floor, we shared the landing with Mubik and his family. Mubik’s official name sounds a lot more impressive- Mubariz. However, to us he will always be simply Mubik.

We go a long way back, Mubik and us. When I was little, Mubik, then single and with more hair, shared the flat with his elderly parents. His father, a violin player, was a very quiet man. He had very thick lens glasses. I liked listening to the sounds of him practicing his violin through the stone walls. One evening, as my father and I were happily stuffing our faces with pelmeni, we heard a scream on our landing. A kind of scream that fills your heart with little sharp icicles. In Baku, when neighbours scream, we rush straight out- some people to help, some to watch. My mother told us to stay put and keep eating our dinner. She ran outside. It was Mubik’s mother. She kept gesturing towards the flat, grabbing my mother’s arm and pulling her along.

“Come, come quick!”- she kept repeating in Azeri.

It turned out that Mubik’s father, the violin player, hung himself. He and his blue tongue were hanging in the bathroom, to my mother’s horror. “Cut him off, cut him off! “his wife screamed and my mother obeyed. She cut off the rope and helped to drag the lifeless body into the room, call the police and hang out for whatever else was involved.

Many years passed since then. Mubik got married, lost a lot of hair and had a child, but our relationship is still close. To me, now foreign in so many ways, it seems a bit too close. Every time I fly back, I know that we will barely have time to catch up on our morning sleep after a night flight, when the doorbell will ring. Mubik will be standing in the doorway, an accusing look on his chabby face. However hard might my mother try to keep my arrival in secrecy, Mubik will know. He will demand my time and attention, and expect presents. He will ask me if my house is huge and my husband is rich. He will hope I use my old contacts and find him a new job. Baku neighbours are unique.

An English friend of mine and I were discussing this uniqueness of neighbourhood environment back in Baku, which can often be a nuisance, but can also be quite helpful. "I wonder- my friend suggested- if there are not as many kidnapped kids in Baku because someone is always watching?"

So yes, neighbours are,indeed, a lot more curious, watchful and often irritating back home. But I cannot agree that there is no concept of neighbourhood in the UK.

I guess it entirely depends on the area. I can borrow salt in our neighbourhood, trust me. I have asked for flour, eggs and other cooking ingredients from next door, and I know she would do the same. I was also told to “stop bloody asking and just cut some off”, should I need more rosemary from their front garden. Another neighbour knocked on my door when she saw a traffic warden issuing me with a parking ticket. It was my neighbours who brought us some champagne to celebrate our moving in. And last night, it was me and my local friend who were not prepared to just drive off to our drinks party and let some suspicious youngsters peep through ( OK, their own, but we had to check, right?) windows. So I can safely say that we are good over here. People still care. They might not cut the rope off if I ever decide to hang myself, but they would at least call the police.


  1. Hahaha! Don't you ever hang yourself, Scary. You're awesome!

  2. Wow! What a story that of Mubik's father. Really shocking.
    Here in Lima, and I guess in other Peruvian cities, you can rely on your neighbors... depending on a lot of things. My 15 year old nephew hangs out all day long with his neighbors. He refers to his friends' parents as aunts and uncles, and the same goes for my sister in law and the other youngsters. It's a nice group, and you can find groups like that one in many neighborhoods.
    I can cite more examples, but I don't want to be borrriing. ;)

  3. Depends where you choose to live, I guess, and your own personality - how well you integrate.

    OUr neighbourhood in Houston was like a big 'italian' yard in Baku with gossips and tea parties and going to great extents to help each other. Borrowing flour and butter was a norm. Stopping by to have a glass of wine on the front yard was normal too although in the US it is illegal to drink 'on public'
    Kind of the same here in France - people bring you a lot of excess of their garden produce, sardines, mackerel and crabs when they go fishing. The top was when one couple brought us a huge lobster and abalones - they had too much and it was a shame to freeze it. These people have an extra set of keys to our house - they feed our cat when we are not around.
    So how different are neighbors through the world actually?

  4. We have the most international neighborhood so it’s hard to say if it’s typical. Most people are doctor/lawyer/engineer types and came to US to study or work and stayed here. Our block parties are famous for the mixture of Indian, Jamaican, African, Asian, Middle-Eastern and (very little) American food. Kids waiting for a school bus in the morning look like a Benetton ad. I can honestly say that I like to have privacy yet know that I can count on my neighbors if I need their help. As supposed to my Baku neighbors with the famously nosy Gulya xala from 5th floor who made it her business to know who came home when, yet wouldn’t call the police when our neighbor’s flat was robbed.
    This week when we had another foot of snow our Egyptian neighbor came and cleared our driveway with his new snow blower before my husband even got home from work. And his Persian wife brings my Mom roses from their garden for no reason at all. The best part is when she comes my Mom and her speak in their broken Azeri and they understand each other perfectly well.

  5. @ Yvetta and Nata...Oh and Gabriela...:) It sounds so great where you guys are! :)

  6. Scary, don't ever hang yourself :) I live in downtown of Chicago/"Gold Coast" where money is plenty, care is scarce. They even say hi to each other. :(

  7. We,Azeries,often say: some neighbors are better/or closer/ than some relatives

  8. Будете у нас на Колыме, заходите :):) Seriously though, always welcome!

  9. Agree, it depends on where you live, and who your neighbors are. We live in London, few years ago, we were sharing the same patio with a lovely Austrian lady in her mid 80th, and Polish workers in their mid 30th. We were new comers, and the older lady was very nice, we started watering her flowers – all flowers on the patio were hers, and it looked like a garden – beautiful! She was very touched, as Polish workers, who lived there for more than 10 years, and knew her all that time haven’t watered a pot… not once!!!!!
    When my Azeri brother visited us he helped her to carry her shopping bags, which she, at the start, didn’t want to give him, probably suspecting that he is going to run away with her bags! :)) Later she said no one has ever offered her help – it was only my husband, brother and me who were helping her. Though I have to add, that my English husband always very nice with neighbors, and always helps to elderly people wherever he is, because he was brought up like that… :)