As I have mentioned in previous posts, it is three years ago since my partner and I moved to a little village ten miles outside Edinburgh. Prior to that I had nearly always lived in cities or large towns, in easy commutable distances of friends who lived in other parts of the same city. I liked it when local shopkeepers recognised me, or when a neighbour knew my name, but to be honest – I wasn’t really that worried about ‘belonging’ to my neighbourhood. I had lots of friends. Why bother?
When we moved to Ratho, I could not believe that our next door neighbours came straight round to introduce themselves and bring us a bottle of wine. They said, “You won’t have any plates unpacked – can we go and buy you some fish and chips for your dinner?”. We got to know the neighbours on either side of us really quite well, really quite quickly. We starting taking up invitations to go in to their houses for a cup of tea or a glass of wine, leaving gifts on the fence post for one another, feeding their cats when they went on holiday.
For the first few months, this was absolutely enough for me. I loved the depth of the relationship we were forming with these people. Then it approached Christmas and I realised an opportunity was available to introduce ourselves to the other neighbours in our street. I went next door to ask for everyone’s names in the cul-de-sac. We wrote out cards. I went from door to door, introducing myself that Sunday, late morning. It was a mixed experience, if I am honest. It seems our street is not full of early risers, so some answered the door in dressing gowns, looking wholly disinterested in having any kind of conversation. But others invited me in, told me about their family and asked what brought us to Ratho. I had some lovely conversations.
This felt great. When January came and we got snowed in, we chatted as we cleared our drives and gritted paths. Most neighbours even remembered my name! So a year came and went and I congratulated myself on being so well connected. Then one day, I was walking to the shop, and I noticed something. The other people in the main street were nodding hello or stopping to chat with one another. I briefly tried to kid myself that these were their neighbours they happened to meet… But, no. For other folk in Ratho, the whole village is their community. This seemed a bit more daunting than a cul-de-sac. A whole village? Of course. But where to begin?
Well, I sometimes do training for support workers in how they might support somebody to build community connections (one of the most fundamental tasks for a support worker, if you ask me). And I always suggest that they start by noticing the people they might know in the community who are well connected and seeing if those people can open some doors. Fortunately, one of the few ‘non-neighbours’ that I know here is Kim, who is delightful, knows EVERYONE, and is involved in various local groups. I met her for a drink and told her my mission. Even with someone as welcoming and lovely as Kim, it took some courage to ask for help with something like this. But as soon as I did, the doors opened. I went with her to a fundraiser at the local bowling club and ending up helping out with selling raffle tickets. I won a prize for a free place at a local Zumba class (I know, “fix!!”). Because I had helped out, I was invited to the fundraiser organiser’s house for cocktails afterwards. There, I met a very fun group of women and had too many cocktails. Later I went to the Zumba class and met some of them there, plus other people from the village.
One of the best things about this (as well as having people to chat to on the way to the shop) is that Kim knows I care about feeling part of, and building community. So we have a lot of conversations about how we might do that together. Just the other night she told me about her idea for December: to wander through the village singing Christmas songs for no purpose other than to make people feel nice. I’ll be delighted to be involved. Singing with my friend Kim, whilst trying to enhance community life in Ratho, sounds like my kind of evening!