Friday, January 18, 2013

Won't You Be My Neighbor (whether you'd like to or not.)

“People are almost always better than their neighbors think they are.” 

The first 10 days of the New Year in Russia are 10 days of vacation for all Russians.  And just like every other day of the year, one celebrates within earshot of one's upstairs, downstairs, and next-door neighbors.

Surprisingly, concrete walls insulate very little - there is not much that is not heard or overheard within the close confines of city life here.  Neighbors know each other here well, despite any formal introductions or intentional time spent together.  Every celebration, every argument, every bark, bawl, and cry takes place under the assumption that someone's listening.  I remember the accordion music, drums, dancing, and yelps commemorating the marriage of our upstairs neighbors' daughter when we first moved in.  About nine months later, many of the same sounds were repeated, accompanied by a recurring newborn's cry about every three hours all night long for months to come.  We have only spoken with these particular neighbors once or twice, but we know intimately every coming and going of their daily lives.

It's interesting the effect this lifestyle has on a people.  Little can be hidden within this Russian city culture:  as soon as one neighbor knows how your family functions, there's no use hiding it from the rest of the city.    There's a certain candor prevalent among people here - honest (and lengthy) answers always follow trite questions such as "how are you."  Everything feels shared and out in the open, thus Russians very seldom live what we in the States term "double lives."  There's a refreshing honesty about hardship, struggle, and temptation - mostly because everybody hears the battle raging within their neighbors' apartments.  Most often one finds himself/herself here out to prove that he/she is not as bad as you think he/she is  based on what you hear - such a different dynamic than the more secretive "if-you-only-knew-what-happened-at-my-house" mentality here in the States.  We like our skeletons well hidden, the shame of our sinful patterns well tucked away, and we certainly put our best foot forward while gossiping about what we think we saw at the neighbors' last Tuesday.  City life here in Moscow seems shocking to me as an American, perhaps just as much by the content of what I overhear, but moreover the fact that it is so easily and openly overheard.  As Americans, we seem to cling to a certain image of ourselves only possible through deception and hidden truths about ourselves.  Russians, however, put everything out there at once, take it or leave it.    

The same difficulty remains:  learning to love our neighbors as ourselves.  The impossibility of such a task can can be felt and experienced daily here in the city.  In the States, that concept still feels a bit abstract at times as we live so willingly distanced by the pitfalls of human nature in close proximity.  But neighbors are the same everywhere:  the same joys, same delights, same downfalls, same struggles.  People just like you, and unfortunately, just like me, whether you know it or not.