Friday, July 24, 2009

The Neighbor

I have stuck my head out the window to place myself in the sun for the first time in this long lazy day. It’s almost 5:30pm, and Carsten hasn’t made it home yet from work.
Hey. There he is again, the man I met last week, on the brick patio next door in a green plastic chair at a green plastic table, staring at the hedge in front of him. I lean out further and smile thinking about how funny our last encounter was. I have to say something.
Wait. No, I don’t. I walk away from the window after a minute. I don’t know if I want him to look up and find me smiling down at him. Danes are different than people at home. They’re closed and quiet and they don’t look at you on the street. But then I walk back and lean out the window again. I’m bored and have been in front of the computer all day.
Hey, Ken, I say out loud.
He looks up from the beer he has both hands wrapped around.
How are you? I say.
Just fine, thanks.
For some reason his English over-enunciation makes me laugh to myself. It’s as if he’s seen someone say this in a movie and he’s trying it out for the first time. He’s looking for something else to say, I can tell, but doesn’t know what.
No. I’m lying, he says next.
You are? What’s wrong?
My mother died.
Oh no. I’m so sorry. When? Today?
I didn’t know what else to say. I said to myself, of course not today, you dumbass.
Two weeks ago. She had Parkinson’s, you know, that stuff. Alzheimer’s, too.
Wow. That’s not a good way to go.
A few minutes earlier I had read about a music conductor and his wife who went to an assisted suicide clinic to die together. She had terminal cancer in her late 70’s and he was about 85, I think. They held hands on the beds next to each other and went to sleep together, never to wake up. To me, it sounded almost like the perfect way to go.
He stands up and walks to the gate so I can hear him better over the noise from the cars on the adjacent road.
She was still very much alive, still working in the garden most days, still tending the roses. Not all there all the time, of course, but you know . . .
Oh, I walk by those roses a lot. They don’t really smell like anything, though. Hold on, I’m coming down.
I do walk by those roses a lot, and every time I would smell each kind within my reach, and none of them smelled like anything. I pull some pants on and walk out the door and down the stairs in my bare feet.
As I walk out the door he begins again.
There was this one red kind that had the most wonderful perfume. Wait here, I will bring it to you.
I wait by his gate for what seems like a long time, and look down the road for Carsten approaching on his bike, but only a few bikes pass, bouncing over the speed bump out front, none carrying him.
Ken walks back across the brick patio and hands it to me.
It’s in pretty bad shape, with wilted petals and brown spots all over. I put it to my nose but smell nothing.
It smelled really good up until a couple of weeks ago, Ken says, but I think it’s gone now.
He shrugs an apology.
I’ve only been here for a few weeks, so I guess I arrived just in time for all the roses to lose their scent. I was beginning to wonder if all the roses in Denmark were of the unscented variety.
Last week I parked my bike in the central courtyard with everyone else’s and walked back out front toward the street to go in the apartment, and I almost walk into a man in his early sixties who seems to be coming from the door I’m going in. There are only three apartments up these stairs, the guy on the first floor I’ve never met, Carsten’s above him, and the old lady on the third floor who spent a lot of time last year banging on the pipes leading to her radiator, thinking we were making noise when it was actually her neighbors through another wall. So this guy and I both stop and just stare at each other. I think he must be thinking what I’m thinking—that he’s the guy on the first floor and I’m the girl on the second floor, and we should say hello.
Hello, I say.
Hej, he says back. He seems a little taken aback, even though he stopped the same as I did. I assume it’s because I said hello and not hej.
What’s your name?
It was kind of a bizarre question at that point, which made it seem appropriate.
Ken, he responds.
He now looks as if he thought I was someone he knew, but now realized I’m not.
Are you the guy that lives on the first floor right here?
No, he says. I live around the corner. You live up there?
I think we’re both amused this encounter is happening, especially considering the standard behavior for Danes: remain silent and appear absorbed in thought.
Well, alright, I continue. Did you think I was someone you knew?
Yeah, well, I’m not sure. Maybe.
Ha, alright. Well, good to meet you, Ken.
Well, what’s your name?
Alright, good to meet you, too. See you, okay.
Yeah, see you.
And we part ways, and I look for him after that, the uncommon Dane who stopped to talk to me out of the blue at the same time I wanted to stop and talk to him. I am a little lost without my usual daily casual interaction with a few dozen people at the store, or Immac, or at the Hunter Gatherer, or with a hundred or so people when I’m picking up time at the café. I miss the ability to say any random thing to people I don’t know, to make people laugh at nothing in particular. Most people here speak English, and seem to enjoy doing so, but when people don’t smile or look at each other on the street it’s a lot harder to take the risk. Carsten’s at work every weekday, and half the week I hang out with Hunter for a few hours, but my friend Jacob is out of town for weeks and I’m accustomed to a lot more human interaction.
So when I see Ken out the window I want to talk to him, even if only as a person I can wave to when I pass by any given day.
Somehow we get on the subject of family names, and I tell him my last name, one about as Scottish as they come. He becomes more animated and tells me I have to hear this Scottish band he loves, Runrig, so I follow him onto his deck, where there are rows of beer bottles awaiting refund. He walks inside to put a CD in the stereo. A very old man in a plain white undershirt and blue shorts is sitting inside, his brows furrowed at nothing in particular.
Ken says something to the old man in Danish after we have stood talking about music for a couple of minutes, so I walk over and shake his hand. He’s fine with that but doesn’t have anything to say.
Is that your dad? I ask Ken.
Yes, that’s my dad. This place belongs to my parents. I live next door.
My phone rings. It’s Carsten, so I tell him that I’m next door, which he no doubt thinks is strange, but he gamely walks over and says hello to Ken, who insists that we borrow a Runrig concert DVD before we leave.
Then he spends the rest of the evening sitting in that chair at that table with a beer, staring at the hedges in front of him.


  1. I loved this. I don't think you are alone in your culture shock. Sometimes isolation can be really productive. So glad you are blogging. Keep it coming. Love you a

  2. Thanks A, aka Carwin. You rule. :-)