After moving to London, Misti Traya was determined to bring some American neighbourliness with her. She soon learned the error of her ways…
When I first moved to London, my English husband gave me a copy of Kate Fox’s Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. This might seem like an innocuous present to you but I knew my husband’s ulterior motive. Henry was like the 1950s parent who so dreaded a discussion about sex with his adolescent that he handed her a book explaining it instead. That’s what this gift was — my husband hoping to avoid any awkward conversation about our cultural differences. As an American who has now lived here for five years, I cannot think of anything more English than that.
Fox’s chapter about introductions bothered me. The brash American approach: “Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa,” particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and a beaming smile makes the English wince and cringe. I had never known friendliness to be cringeworthy. Suddenly, I felt sorry for Bill from Iowa. I pictured him arriving in my neighbourhood and being scorned for enthusiastically introducing himself to strangers at the pub.
While Iowa is not my home, I love it. I have plenty of family and fond memories there. When my grandfather died, people brought cakes, cards, flowers, pies, and roasts to my grandmother. Many of these people were not close friends, just neighbours being neighbourly.
Henry tried to explain. “We don’t do that. We don’t talk to neighbours. Maybe people in the country do, but not Londoners. In fact, I’d say people move to London just so they don’t have to talk to neighbours.”
I could not get to the heart of this misanthropy so eventually I quit seeking answers and accepted Henry’s words as fact. I also decided to keep neighbourliness in my heart. I resolved to knock on strangers’ doors and introduce myself while offering them slices of buttermilk chocolate cake. Because seriously, and especially as an outsider, how else do you meet people?
The house opposite ours boasts the prettiest front garden in the neighbourhood. Passers-by stop and instagram or pick flowers when they think no one is looking. Though I didn’t meet him until months later, the architect of this landscaping masterpiece was Sam. When we moved in last spring, Sam was busy in his garden. His handiwork was visible from most rooms in our flat. I wanted to introduce myself but my cake baking plans were put asunder by our two year-old running riot and me taking forever to put the finishing touches on our new nest.
When summer came, Sam was outside with a wheelbarrow of lilies and lupins and a pack of Mayfairs in his back pocket. By fall, he was digging up dahlias and repotting peonies. He switched to an electronic cigarette and went though a variety of flavours. I could smell them all when the wind blew. Eventually he settled on orange cream.
Once our flat was fully furnished, we introduced ourselves to Sam. I brought him a slice of cake. Henry gave him a bottle of wine. Our toddler stroked his cat’s fur in the wrong direction. Sam seemed pleased though painfully shy. He barely made eye contact. For the next few months, we would wave hello to Sam whenever we passed him on the street. He would return our greetings but never our gaze. That he kept fixed on the flowers around him or the dirty blue Crocs on his feet.
On Christmas Eve my family went for a cheery romp through foul weather to the pub. When we were walking home Sam ran out of his flat waving an envelope. It was a card for our family with a red breasted robin on the front. We thanked him for it and asked about his holiday plans. He said he was going to be on his own as he didn’t want to leave his cat. He sounded so lonely. We couldn’t help but invite him for a drink at ours.
At 5 o’clock when we were expecting Sam, we could see him standing in his window stroking his cat. At 5:30 he was doing the same. Eventually the buzzer rang. We did our best to serve Sam not only stilton and tawny port but holiday cheer. He didn’t say much though he did mention problems with his downstairs neighbour, a 70 year-old man Sam accused of playing the radio too loud. We thought nothing of it and offered him more hazelnut biscuits with cheese.
Our daughter danced to a Top of the Pops special and twirled like a top in her tartan Christmas dress from Scottish granny. She lavished Sam with attention showing him her books and introducing him to her toys. Some of her teddies gave him kisses. Before Sam left, I gave him a sac of dark chocolate almond brittle that I tied with red satin ribbon. He pulled me into a bear hug and smiled. We wished him a merry Christmas and told him that if he ever needed a break from his neighbour’s noise then he should just come around for tea.
In the months that followed, Sam would show up unannounced and invite himself in. He would sulk in our kitchen and complain about his neighbour. I would offer him cups of tea but he didn’t like my darjeeling. Later he would tell me he didn’t like tea at all. So I brewed coffee, baked cookies, and made supportive noises while also entertaining my toddler. The only thing that would snap Sam out of a mood was my Sarah Raven catalogue.
Sarah Raven is the Martha Stewart of English gardening. If you want to buy Genoa zinnias or master floristry in a weekend, she is your woman. Sam would sit cross-legged with this catalogue in his lap, flipping pages, and dog-earing the ones he liked best. Tulip collections, perfect perennials, stunning alliums. He wanted them all. He also wanted to know if I put edible flowers in my salads because he was thinking about planting a bed.
After a while, Henry gave Sam his mobile number hoping this would curb the unannounced visits. It did not. Sam’s surprise visits continued until one night he had a mini meltdown at ours. I was bathing our daughter and Henry was checking work emails when Sam insisted we didn’t like him. We assured him we did. Then he apologized for being insecure. Again we told him it was alright. Neither of us wanted to upset him. Sam became frantic like a bird trapped in a house. Abruptly he left. Henry and I agreed we had to create some distance.
On April 15th Sam woke up the entire street by howling at the full moon around 4 a.m. Henry and I assumed he was drunk. Then Sam started shouting that only he knew the truth and would somebody please help him. This episode went on for twenty minutes until the cops arrived and took him away. Sam has not been home since. The following day, the police and several neighbours paid me a visit. Yes, I had tea and cake ready for them all. With full mouths they told me Sam tried to drop an axe on his neighbour in the dark from the top of the staircase but missed. Locals had already nicknamed him The Axe Man.
After being carted off by the police, Sam called or sent text messages to Henry near daily for almost 2 months. Henry never replied though Sam begged him to call him and expressed a hope that “everything is still cool.” At one point, his messages took the tone of a jilted lover. “You don’t have the heart to call me!” was the last text he sent before Henry changed his number.
Sam’s flowers have died. Grasses have grown tall and weeds have moved in. The garden beds look as if they were sown with malice. Passers-by still stop and instagram just not for the same reason as before.
My poor husband is somewhat scarred by the ordeal. I can’t blame him. He gave me a book outlining the rules of English social protocol and I ignored them. I played by my own rules and look what happened. I invited The Axe Man to tea. Still, for all that’s gone wrong, my husband and I have met four great people on the block. Our world is a little bigger. For that I am thankful. Sure I burnt my hand on the metaphorical stove but I’m going to keep cooking, not just eat cold cereal the rest of my days. Because no matter where I am in the world “Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa.”
*I changed our former neighbour’s name for the sake of this piece
Misti Traya is an actress and writer living in London. Her recipes and ramblings can be found at Chagrinnamon Toast.