The importance of ‘love thy neighbor’

Every year, the building I live in holds a party for Neighbors’ Day. We eat, drink, laugh, and come together in extraordinary ways.

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I distinctly remember the time my school teacher was trying to explain the importance of loving thy neighbor. I was around eight-years-old and all I could think was but my neighbor petrifies me! It wasn’t really surprising, he was an exceptionally tall man with a huge bushy beard, a deep bellowing voice and a dog the size of a small pony—for any young child it was an impressive sight, and perhaps one that doesn’t naturally evoke love. With age, of course, I began to understand the real meaning and significance of neighborly love, but it’s only very recently that the very fruits of this love have revealed themselves. And it’s all thanks to Neighbors’ Day, an annual French tradition that I adore. To celebrate Neighbors’ Day, which happens at the end of May, people across Europe, host and attend neighbor parties.

Initially launched in France in 2000, this celebration has been spreading to more cities, and growing in size every year. The principle of this event is to provide “the opportunity to reconnect with the values of solidarity, brotherhood and friendship that should be at the forefront of neighborly relations,” according to the organizers. And, impressively, it really is working: neighbors like me add this date to our agendas every year, without question.

It’s not only reassuring but heart-warming, especially in a big city where anonymity often reigns, to have an evening set aside to realize and appreciate that we’re not alone. We have a mini-community.”

So tomorrow night my building, along with many others throughout Paris and Europe, will be opening its various apartment doors to all its inhabitants. Neighbors will gather, bringing their chairs and tables and favorite dishes to share food, music, jokes and the odd dance. We will probably also take the opportunity to commiserate with one another about the building falling apart, or complain about those little niggles that neighbors so often have with each other. (I do honestly try to stop my children from playing music too loudly at 7 a.m. on Saturday mornings!) It provides an amiable forum to air grievances lightly, without causing umbrage. Sometimes I have seen these parties result in compromises or solutions.

But I think this celebration is most important because of the sense of community it builds. These are people we pass every day in the elevator or parking lot with just a nod or a smile. But now we have a chance to get to know them better. And, hopefully, to like them better. Neighbors are people who can be there for us when in need … of laughter, a shoulder to cry on, or to provide us with that missing ingredient. It’s not only reassuring but heart-warming, especially in a big city where anonymity often reigns, to have an evening set aside to realize and appreciate that we’re not alone. We have a mini-community. It’s a community where we look out for each other’s kids; children like Camilla, a 13-year-old child with Down Syndrome who loves to go off alone on adventures. She is often brought back to her door by a vigilant neighbor. Or, Jonathan, a severely autistic man still living with his elderly parents, who panics when he gets in the elevator. But a friendly smile and a “bonjour” is enough to calm him until he reaches his floor.

Growing old can be a lonely business sometimes, but as I watch the two generations interact, I know I see a bit more tolerance growing; a little more patience is brewing for the kids who tear around the building with boundless energy.”

And within our little community, I find that these gatherings encourage the young and old to appreciate each other. The children are not only in charge of decorating (which can be a little eccentric with clashing color streamers and barbies tethering down helium balloons to function as the table centerpieces) but they also serve drinks, and offer food to our elderly neighbors. Being old can be a lonely business sometimes, but as I watch the two generations interact, I know I see a bit more tolerance growing; a little more patience is brewing for the kids who tear around the building with boundless energy. On the other side, I know it helps the younger ones develop compassion and respect for our more aged inhabitants. By appreciating the struggles of their elderly neighbors my children readily hold open doors for them and carry their shopping. And isn’t that what love thy neighbor is really all about?

It’s amazing. A simple party once a year provides valuable life lessons for everyone in my building: it reinforces acts of kindness, a general feeling of neighborly love (for both the people in our lives, and for our homes). It’s the power of togetherness. Love thy neighbor? Without a doubt. But not only do I truly understand this, now my children do too. They won’t be scared of their neighbors, as I was of my old neighbor, the tall man with the dog. They will learn from them, and love them.

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In America National Neighborhood Day takes place the third Sunday in September. If you’d like to organize your own party, start talking about it now, not just with the neighbors you know, but the ones you don’t!

Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner
Cerith Gardiner was born in London and has been living in Paris for 14 years. She spends her time working as an English consultant, acting as taxi driver to her four children, and wondering if she'll ever be as stylish as the French.

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