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Meeting the Neighbors: Part 3

4 May 2011

To read Part 1 of Meeting the Neighbors, please click here. For Part 2, please click here.

The doorbell rang a few days ago and I heard Aidan shout, “Jena – it’s for you-ou.” The doorbell rings so rarely that I know it’s never anyone I want to see, so when I hear the startling ring I am in the habit of suddenly finding something I have to do in the laundry, or the bathroom. Then Aidan can say encouraging words to the boys collecting money for their football team, or chat with the three matching young red-headed girls who came by just to see who lived here. “Are you sisters?” Aidan asked them, trying to make conversation. “No,” they sang and giggled. And then just stood there smiling at him, before saying, “Are you Danish?” (Probably the most foreign country they could think of.) One of the things Aidan hates most in the world is small talk, but I think letting him answer the door is good practice. And anyway, he is about to complete his third course in Norwegian and I have only taken level 1, so I ask you, who is more qualified to handle our doorstep visitors?

So there I was in the bathroom, having just turned the hairdryer on, and couldn’t Aidan see that I was busy?

“It’s Henrik’s mom and she needs you to sign something for the borettslag committee.”

The borettslag committee. The housing association where we used to live. Hearing those words was as if someone had shown me a picture of myself when I was 13 with my bangs sprayed straight up into a wall. A sudden proof of a past I had denied, of something I had tried hard to misremember: oh yes, that whole embarrassing thing that happened last May.

It all started late one evening at the end of a long week alone with the kids. Aidan was away at a conference and I had just finished a glass of wine, or three. It was what my friend Jenn calls wine o’clock. Time to treat myself for having managed the kids alone for five days.

The sound of the doorbell nearly threw me off the couch. In the U.S. the woman waiting for me might have been mistaken for a Mary Kay saleswoman. She was armed with brochures, a clipboard, and wearing smart clothes and lots of makeup. She began talking immediately, so quickly that it was a full minute before I realized, I think I know this lady – I think she lives in one of the blue houses – and another full minute before I really started to listen to what she was saying.

Generally, at my level of Norwegian, and especially when someone is speaking quickly to me about something unfamiliar, what I comprehend sounds like a radio station going in and out: “Ingunn is sick … to have more women … Grete signed up … women like you …”. I was still waiting to hear more clues when this wonderfully poised woman held her clipboard and pen out to me. Sure enough, the names of several of my female neighbors were there. This was certainly something I should do.

I can’t say that I actually thought about what I was signing up for. I was swept in by her smooth talking and smiling, by the very fact that I was having a real conversation with one of my neighbors. I do remember saying, “But I don’t know many people here,” thinking that would apply to anything I was being asked for. Without missing a beat she replied, “Oh but we all know you!”

Ah. So that was it. All this time I thought I had been incognito, invisible even. But just as much as Aidan and I were watching them outside our windows, they were following their own daily television series, The Americans.

A week or so later everything became clear through a notice in our mailbox: “Please come to the annual association meeting where we will be voting for a new committee member! Candidates are: Grete Olsen, Kristine Haugen, Peder Larsen, Alina Alverson, Birger Paulsen, and Jena Habegger-Conti.”

Well, I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that! What chance was there of anyone voting for me? The foreigner who could barely speak the language? The American who didn’t even watch the skiing at the last Olympics? What could she possibly know about managing a borettslag?

The night of the meeting I had to sit right in the front row because I arrived a few minutes late (which in Norway means two minutes before the event is scheduled to begin). After tediously long discussions on who could drive the snowplow next year, whether Elise Johannessen was allowed to extend her deck, if any other neighbors wanted to go in with Margreta Dahl to splash out their balconies with glass fronts . . . it was finally time to introduce the candidates. When my name was called I stood up, or sort of half way up to be closer to sitting down again, and waved to the room behind me. The faces I breezed over sealed my fate. There, smiling and waving enthusiastically back at me, was the entire crew of older women in the neighborhood. The ones I had carried groceries for. The ones who had given us toys for the kids, the ones who I had helped with pruning the high branches. The looked like they wanted to pinch my cheeks and hug me.

I won by a margin of 43 votes. And as I stood there, shaking hands with my neighbors and listening to them say, “We are so pleased you won! You are so out-going! You will get things done!” I had a giant lump in my throat. A lump like a hairball that I wanted to cough out but couldn’t. It needed to come out so I could say, “I should have never signed up for this. You see, we have just bought a house somewhere else!” It had to come out so I could tell them, “I am so sorry to disappoint you, Else. I am afraid I can’t do this, Solveig.” But the air that crept around the big ball of truth stuck in my throat simply said, “Oh, thank you! Thank you!”

It wasn’t until the first committee meeting, after I had accepted the job of planting flowers, improving the playground, and general environment beautification, that I managed to slip into the conversation: “We just bought a house and are moving at the end of the summer!”

It really is best if from now on all door-answering and interactions of any kind with the neighbors are left to Aidan or the kids. They seem to have no problem with directness, saying what they mean, signing, or not signing up for what they want. In fact, my four-year-old daughter just told a little girl who came to our door, “Go home now!” and she got exactly the results she asked for.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. 4 May 2011 14:40

    Too Funny!

    Sadly, I can relate to the ignoring the doorbell. And the phone for that matter. In addition, I often catch myself asking my husband to deal with something simply because it is på Norsk. Yes I realize how silly it sounds after I ask him, but still. And I always get myself involved in committees that I have absolutely no idea what they stand for! Mostly, I can relate to wine time! Enjoyed the post! Thanks for sharing.

    • jenaconti permalink
      4 May 2011 19:34

      Yes, I also avoid the phone! 🙂 There is so much I ignore here that I am sure I would deal with, respond to, act on, etc. if I were in the U.S. It just takes too much effort. Thanks for your comment – solidarity in avoidance and wine!

  2. Gary Scharnhorst permalink
    12 January 2012 04:17

    Jena, I’m Gary Scharnhorst at the Univ of New Mexico and the editor in alternating years (with David Nordloh) of American Literary Scholarship. Could you send me your email address so that we can chat about the annual? I trust you’re still “on-board” for next year!

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  1. Meeting the Neighbors — Part 2 « up-rooted

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