While I pick dandelions and wild garlic with my preteen daughter to cook for dinner, our Swiss neighbor polishes his driveway, or maybe his sports car, for the third time this week.
He doesn’t acknowledge me when I walk out the door, nor does his wife. But I've grown almost accustomed to this. When we first moved into our rental home here by the lake, his wife dinged our doorbell. I was so excited to have a new neighbor visit, that I practically skipped to the door. Maybe she was there to acknowledge the little watercolor painting and champagne I’d set by her doorstep. I’d given it to her as a thank-you for enduring our moving trucks.
But no. She didn’t want to enter our home, she explained. She wanted to inform me that I’d parked my car over the line. It was an invisible line, she explained, but one that divided her part of the parking area from ours.
“Even if you aren’t blocking my car, you’re on our property,” she said, looking from my Mercedes station wagon across the expansive tiled courtyard between our homes, to her Cooper Mini. I apologized, admitting that at our previous house up the hill in Kusnacht, I too had a neighbor who didn’t thrill me with parking habits. That neighbor would actually block the driveway entirely, I giggled, on a regular basis, so that I couldn’t get my kids to school.
“Can you believe that?” But my new neighbor didn’t laugh— at all. “Anyway, I understand,” I said, straightening up, trying to see something nice beyond her frown lines.
“What you don’t understand,” she then said, “...is that we’re different.”
“Oh?” I said.
“Yes. You’re a renter. And I’m— an owner.”
“Ah,” I nodded. Apparently my neighbor has no kindness left, I thought.
It was weird. I looked up her nose, from my fifty-year-old eyes, and almost felt as if I’d known that moment was coming. The world had figured me out, and the meanest person of all had found my door. The world had come with all of its judgment, knocking on my expat door, ringing the bell that proclaimed look, look, this one— she’s less than us. She's different!
In the past, I’ll admit I’ve tried to tell myself I’m not different. But I’m an artsy type, a writer of thoughts, a question asker, a speaker-upper, the kind of lady who sautés dandelions and reads Kafka. I’m a lover of refugees, of painting over cat litter because it has that cool texture; of running in the sleet, of riding my bike up mountains to see how much I can hurt without dropping dead. I’m not kidding. I'm different.
And though my husband and I have been homeowners too many times, and still possess a property back in Connecticut that we'd sell to the devil if we could, I’ve always felt the way this new Swiss neighbor was treating me— like someone lesser, an outsider.
I grew up in a big American house, I went to a nice college, joined a sorority, had plenty of friends, got a good degree, earned some great jobs, a few design awards, had a lot more friends and some nice cars. I rented several apartments in San Francisco on several fancy streets. But still, I always felt like an outsider. I got married to an incredible man and moved to more fancy streets, owned homes, had three babies. But still, here I am, in Switzerland. I’m an outsider— of course. I’m different.
So what does this have to do with anything? Am I trying to say that I'm actually cool and this woman— she's just a jerk? Not quite.
During a global pandemic, in a time of staying inside, I’d like to point to the fact that we are all, naturally outsiders. We are all different.
Perhaps my neighbor feels this, and it terrifies her. Feeling different has made her behave like an ass. Maybe she’s afraid that if she’s kind, if she lets her guard down and smiles, she’ll look less important, less wealthy, less successful. If she’s nice to a mom from America who eats dandelions, maybe she thinks that she’ll appear less fitting for the wonderful yard she clips and weeds obsessively, for the beautiful home she shines daily.
In truth though, I’m like my neighbor. I’ve tried to fit-in too. I’ve worried about being different. So I get it. Plus, I know that there are more neighbors. There are cities and a whole planet of them. Some are nicer than others, but most of them (if they'd admit it) feel pretty much like outsiders, like assholes— sometimes.
Isn’t it time to admit that we all come from virtually nowhere we understand. We come one day, and then...and then...one day we go. And today, during a global pandemic, we’re forced to face this. No matter our faith, our education, our social standing, our nationality, not one of us knows exactly where we’re going or when. We don’t know who has this virus, who will pass it on, who will get really, really sick. We don’t know who is safe, who’s treading that invisible line. This virus doesn’t care about my neighbor's mini. It doesn't draw a line that we can see, at all— does it?
It’s funny. We’re all outsiders, but now, we’re mostly stuck inside. Now we’ve got to try harder to connect to the inside of ourselves, of our tiny existence, of the meaning of one another. We need to attempt to look beyond our homes, our parking spaces. They just don’t matter.
We’re all fighting— from a distance. We’re asking little questions like how can we shake hands and buy flowers again; and we're asking enormous questions like how can we say goodbye to loved ones, how can we bury our dead, how can we open schools and towns and nations— how can we help society go on?
Maybe tomorrow, I’ll drop off another bottle of champagne, or some dandelion syrup at my neighbor's house. And maybe, just maybe she'll smile back.