Thursday, April 29, 2004

Living in a busy house

Sometimes it’s difficult, when you live in one flat in a large building, to feel as if you live in anything other than your own three rooms, approached via a corridor and a couple of flights of stairs. We told ourselves that when we moved into our current flat we would make a point of introducing ourselves to our neighbours and not just live as anonymous flat-dwellers. But we fell into the usual trap and didn’t approach anyone – especially silly as, in fact, we used to live in the basement flat of the same building a few years ago and our old landlady, who we really like, still lives down there. Consequently when we eventually bump into her and explain we’re living too floors up, it will be an absurd moment.

The last few days, though, I seem to have come into lots of contact with our neighbours, or rather become conscious that there is more to the building than just us. In actual fact, apart from our experience in Seven Dials, where we were hounded by the loud music of our neighbours, this is probably the first time I’ve felt this.

Not that I’ve been doing lots of socialising with the other people in the building, mind – just that lots of little events have occurred which, joined up, add up to something, much as the 10 flats in our building must, naturally, add up to a house.

The other evening someone rang our doorbell / intercom thing. I answered it, and was met by a man demanding, rather aggressively, to speak to ‘Elisa’. I explained there was no-one there by that name, but he didn’t seem convinced, and I had to repeat myself. Then, the day before yesterday, as I was leaving for work in the morning I got to the top of the road and heard someone call “Hey” out to me. As I turned round I saw a man getting out of a nearby car and, in a familiar voice, ask me to hang on, as I was already walking on, it not being my practice to get into conversations in the street. When I did turn around, I imagined that I would be asked for directions somewhere, or at most for a cigarette or something. But the man again, asked, quite urgently, “Where is Elisa?”. He had obviously been waiting in the car for someone to leave the house. Obviously, I told him that I didn’t know of any Elisa. “But you live in that house”, he said. “Yes, but I don’t really know the neighbours, or if there is anyone of that name living there”. Thinking him a bit menacing, I continued, “As far as I know – there isn’t”. He looked pissed off and returned to his car.

Last night, bringing back memories of our last flat, we had quite a lot of loud music, overhead. I had rented out the film Together and we were trying and failing to watch it, becoming distracted by the sounds. The couple above us are not that noisy, although they always play music on Tuesday nights, and once had a fairly raucous dinner party on a Sunday night which kept us awake. However, we had observed them going up and down the stairs and their appearance seemed to explain why they had been so animated that night. It was the evening when the Greek election results were announced, and they had obviously stayed up late to watch the results coming in. We heard much stamping of feet and the kind of rumbling chatter which you know must be in a foreign language. Their appearance, besides betraying their Southern European background, also helped explain the fact that we would often hear them thumping about upstairs – we called them ‘The Elephants’.

After sitting through the music for ten minutes or so, we decided to go up and ask them to turn it down a bit - something which would of course, have been much easier if we had introduced ourselves to them when we first moved in. But doing that would, it turns out, have done more than just that - it would have disabused us of an assumption or two. Because when we got to the top of the stairs and knocked on the door, a young man in his mid-twenties (playing, I could hear now, Jimi Hendrix) answered, saying "Oui?".

Why had we reached the conclusions we had about the people overhead? Obviously the Greek couple lived somewhere else in the building. All the mental images I had of the flat above us collapsed. It was strange. The guy turned the music down immediately, of course, and we returned to the flat to wonder how we had so successfully rationalised so much of what we had - frankly - guessed at since we had moved in. The Greek elections? Now I think about it, the 'Greek' couple don't look that Greek - only slightly Mediterranean; their 'Greekness' only followed from the knowledge that the Greek elections were being held the day they had a party. How easy it is to make assumptions! Anyway - the chap who does live above us seemed nice.

When I left for work yesterday morning, I was relieved to see that the man in the car was nowhere to be seen. Nor, however, was my bus, and standing at the stop at the top of our road waiting for the 7 I noticed out of the corner of my eye, suddenly, someone I recognised. It was, of course, our former landlady, Teresa. If she saw me she reacted the same way I did; it was too late. I find meeting people unexpectedly quite alarming, usually (as does Vic, who looked away when a friend waved at her the other day. The next day she said, cheerfully, 'sorry for blanking you', which I thought was funny - I'd have made an excuse), and both myself and Teresa did that hesitate, look of confusion, look away thing. In actual fact, nine times out of ten you're level or beyond the person before you completely recognise them, I find. Well, it was a bit embarrassing. But perhaps she didn't see me at all, I don't know.

Even if we desire to live in isolation, it really isn't possible. But I can't think why we would. Living surrounded by other people means you're opened up to plenty of situations beyond your control (and the emotions I described above are hardly sanguine - embarrassment, concern, irritation, confusion) but it also means you're in some way connected, and in some sense that is calming, even if the stereo above is blaring. I feel better about living where I do after the last few days; like the house just became an organic thing. In the Geoff Dyer book I just read, he spends some time in Rome and visits the Colosseum - while on acid - and writes,

"The exhaust-smeared stones pulsed and rippled with life, warm and vital as a stroked animal. For a few minutes, anything seemed possible. I was within reach of the stillness at the centre of the stone."

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