The thing about perks is that the best ones are usually hidden, and at the risk of sounding terribly clichè, they’re also free. When you conjure images of an expat during self-isolation, the phrase “hidden perks” most likely does not come to mind. In fact, being stuck in a country other than your own during COVID-19 could be downright terrifying. While some were unable to return home due to airport closures, others like me, opted to stay in their adopted new homes thinking it would be safer than traveling. At first, this reality was painstakingly lonely, and my good friend anxiety was running laps around the block before I even got out of bed in the morning. Yet, one sunny afternoon in a cramped after-thought retro-fitted elevator, my 30-square-meter worldview began to shift: I met one of my neighbors.
In this day and age, how many people actually know their neighbors? I’m referencing more than the occasional, Hey how’s it going? as you hurriedly cross paths in an intimate, yet awkward hallway. The truth is that many of us live within a few steps of other people for years, but never actually know them. Most young professionals, like myself, are living in urban cities populated with millions of people. Yet enough of our time isn’t spent at home, and we therefore never get to know those within closest physical proximity. According to Scott Yabiku, a Sociologist at Penn State, in the 1950s it was commonplace to wed the handsome honey-tongued devil that lived down the block, or everyone’s now outdated favorite, the girl next door. But as the world expanded and globalization ensued, 20-somethings in metropolitan areas began to care less and less about who they shared their walls with.
Why don’t we know our neighbors?
I admit, I have often fallen prey to this type of unknowing. I have lived in some of the most densely populated cities in the U.S., such as San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles. However, unless an event with the proper bells and whistles (aka libations) was arranged, the chances of me meeting my neighbors was null. There’s something pervasively awkward about knocking on doors, unsure of who will answer, and saying, hi, I’m new here. But why is that? Somehow, I find this easier to do in a foreign country, where I could conveniently always play the foreigner card.
Until seven months ago, I was a Northern American that had only lived in North America. When I first arrived in my new country I could be found relishing in the autumn leaves and expansive clouds of Northern Europe. By day, I would explore the dynamic nature of Berlin’s East and West sides; discerning which cafès were best for working, people watching, or writing; and which art museums were most accessible without a coveted student ID. I would get around by foot or S-Bahn, always with a book in hand or podcast in my ear, mostly alone but never feeling as such. However, when COVID-19 arrived and I was quarantined to my 30-square-meter flat, I felt the weight of loneliness; of separateness; of differentness. I would earnestly long for 6pm CET to arrive because that meant it was 9am in California, the socially appropriate time to call people. While I am someone who revels in alone time, requiring it in copious amounts, there is an inherent emotional hardship tied with being miles (and multiple time zones) away from home. By mid-March I had the chief realization that unless I changed something about my everyday life, I was going to be in complete isolation for however long COVID-19 felt like visiting.
Elevators: a surprising way to make friends
Enter: The previously mentioned retro-fit elevator. This elevator, not common in the U.S., is rather commonplace in post-WW2 European buildings. Their framework appears like an appendage on an otherwise nondescript building. Viewable from the outside, the elevators are often completely transparent, allowing the rider to see everything from a panopticon-type view. Another interesting perk to this otherwise off-kilter method of transport is that it only holds up to 2 people, albeit rather uncomfortably. The word intimate comes to mind. I was minding everyone’s business when a neighbor abruptly entered the elevator behind me. Being that the space is what it is, I auspiciously mentioned, Small elevator, huh? He laughed and shifted nervously before asking, What are you doing? I was on my way to our roof terrace for a read. As he got out on floor 3.5, he said he would join me.
And that he did. Shortly after, another person neither of us knew joined. Together, the tripod that was our new friend group shared a few glasses of wine, some thoughts on our current expat situation, and a few rounds of Monopoly in a foreign language. As we parted ways for the evening, I started a WhatsApp group. I was filled to the brim with an anxious-like excitement over my new found neighborly domiciles. When I arrived back at my flat, it quickly materialized that I was not the only one that felt this way. All three of us instinctively sauntered to our windows, nonchalantly opened them, and peered about.
Our building, shaped like a “U,” is complete with a middle courtyard viewable from each of our windows. We began once again conversing, despite having only just met and having recently spent several hours together. Mid-conversation, a 4th window opened and revealed yet another neighbor. This individual had overheard our conversation and wanted to be included. Through the window and across the courtyard from 3 floors below, she gave me her number and I promptly added her to the WhatsApp group. From that point forward, the connections within our dwellings began to grow. Our group reached 14 people in just one month, impressive considering COVID-19 and that only >40 people live in our building.
Building a community
All of a sudden these fleeting, ‘Hey how’s it going?’ uncomfortable hallway exchanges that I would try like the dickens to avoid, were no longer uncomfortable. They became welcomed, anticipated dialogues that I found myself looking forward to. I was no longer yearning for it to be 6pm. In fact, I had stopped noticing when it was 6pm. I had let go of time-zones and the adding/subtracting of them all together. My new neighbors and I started unintentionally meeting on the rooftop terrace to read, work or talk with one another (keeping 1 meter in-between us of course.) Each of my new friends hail from a different continent, country, with an entirely different life experience. If the U.N. was an apartment building in Eastern Berlin, this would be it. From India to Belarus to Argentina to Italy to Palestine to Switzerland to France to Azerbaijan to England. I’ve been engrossed in conversations for hours just listening to their vast and disparate life experiences, so unlike my own. I delighted in hearing them reflect and share large parts of their world that I previously didn’t know much about.
And sometimes, I share with them. I started teaching Yoga and Meditation to those interested in connecting more deeply with themselves. Our bond during these types of sessions only grew. Eventually one of the neighbors offered a ride to the grocery store, one extended books to read when I had finished all of mine, one allowed me to borrow their bike, another wrote me a poem and gifted earrings from her country. A deep and ensconced community has been built within our abodes as a direct result of COVID-19. Please understand: life as an expat certainly isn’t the way it was before the pandemic, but I’m no longer lonely and detached in a foreign country. Maybe you’re feeling how I did two months ago, ransacking your brain about how to handle being an expat in an uncertain exile. My advice: Start a conversation with one of your neighbors. You probably see them more often than you see anyone else right now. And why not? Soon, you’ll begin to feel more connected and present in your surroundings. Soon you might even feel grateful for them.