Luciana came around about ten. She’s my nearest neighbor, from the flat next door. She’s from Milan, and we speak “recreational” Italian with each other (usually only when the topic of conversation is not too complicated, or we don’t need an urgent resolution to a practical issue). Otherwise its English all the way. Lately, though, I think she has decided that I need the practice, so there’s been more Italian, even when it gets a bit hard-going. Yesterday, for instance, we were convening to write a list for our landlord about security issues. Luciana was broken into last Tuesday. Our next neighbours across, Rachelle and Rob, were burgled on Thursday. Bec and I were cleaned out in early February. The cops said Petersham is being “done over” in a big way, lately. All this has created an atmosphere of mild paranoia, and we’re demanding that the landlords install better locks and maybe some bars on vulnerable windows. From Luciana, I learned that the word for lock (which needs fixing on her screen door) is “serratura”. Her windows have “serrature” installed, but some of them are a bit wobbly (“molle”) and hardly inspire confidence. We also need gates (“cancelli”) at the front of the whole building – there are none, and so the crooks can easily slip down the side passage and carry out their dastardly schemes, virtually invisible from the street. We made up this list, drank some coffee, and bitched about thieves (how could they be so bold?) and landlords (how could they be so stingy?)
Common enemies bring neighbours together. This truism seemed to be a major theme of last night’s reading group. I’m part of a book club started by Anne Kay, made up of about a dozen artists and interesting folk. I agreed to host last night’s meeting, since I was Petersham-bound anyway. The reading was a text by a guy called Dave Graeber, the first chapter of a thick book called “Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Desires” (or something offputting like that). Graeber’s problem seems to be the following:
Economic theories are based around the idea that individuals seek to get the maximum amount of things they desire, and try to sacrifice as little as possible to do so. However, there are many examples where this is clearly not the case – where “values” other than economic maximisation are seen as desirable – for instance, “honour”, “happiness”, and “belonging”. These values are fiendishly difficult to quantify (they do not seem to be exchangeable for money), and even more confounding, they do not seem to be able to be compared across different cultures. Could a cross-cultural theory be formulated which took into account these “infungible” yet desirable values? (“Fungible” means exchangeable).
Whew. It’s a lofty project. As Virginia said, kind of like asking for the meaning of life.
Closer to earth, we talked a fair bit about the idea of gift giving. The way that giving a gift creates social bonds. When I gave Rohan, who lives around the corner, a pumpkin from our garden, it bound us together in some way. A relationship of “reciprocity” was established. And in fact, he immediately invited me to come over and try his homebrew some time. (To be fair, he’s been trying to get me over for beers for ages). But even if there is nothing “exchanged” in this way, the giver does in fact receive something in return – a good feeling, a sense of wellbeing, a self-importance about my vegie-growing prowess, possibly even a superiority over the gift recipient. For whatever reason, it seems we are addicted to giving, binding us together in a social network of (unspoken) obligation which (maybe) makes us feel like we belong.
“Belonging” seems to be a biggy. Last Wednesday I went to a meeting run by the local council. It was for “strategic planning” and we had focus groups talking about what we liked and don’t like about our neighbourhoods. It seemed that in Petersham, what we love is the “sense of community”. Somehow this is associated with “strip shopping” (like old village main streets), and definitely lacking in big malls like the Marrickville Metro. Knowing your neighbours – having little chats to them when picking up a loaf of bread – is a “value” we esteem highly.
We talked a lot about this stuff. Jane and Anne (who live near Marrickville station) told a story about their neighbour, an old Greek lady who is a kind of a “node” in the neighbourhood network. Her nosiness means that she’s a conduit of information about everyone up and down the street. When they moved in, she even asked Jane and Anne if they were married. Anne told her that they were partners, but by law they were not allowed to marry. She figured that if the lady was going to pass along gossip, she might as well get it right. The “node” lady was mildly irritating perhaps, definitely intrusive in a way we are not used to, but I don’t think they would want to trade her in for a “private” street where everyone just minds their own business.
Everyone filtered off from the reading group, and I made vague plans with Lisa to “ride the boundary” of Petersham sometime later this week. I’ve got the maps, I just need to mark them up with the exact streets where the ‘sham butts up against the other burbs. Then we’ll hop on our bikes and get an idea of exactly how much territory I’ve got to play in. Until then, I’m not sure exactly how claustrophobic I should be feeling…