I was padding around my neighbourhood the other day, going some messages, as Uncle Ratty’s Scottish Aunt Agatha would say. The phrase to me evokes one’s own familiar locality, a network of inter-relationships, of picking up and delivering, moseying between places on foot and greeting or chatting to anyone coming the other way. My messages, took me down the hill a little to drop off a note about borrowing a car, a few steps more to cancel a massage and a few steps more to thank a friend for a meal. It meant strolling across the road and chatting to a chum who was working in her garden, waving at people in the café, idling into the post office to buy flowers and stamps and to post two cards for friends beyond the message orbit. And here I was given a banana because they had noticed that days before I had left one on the counter. The next little stretch sloped downhill and veered leftwards towards the creek and led to the recipient of said flowers, and a cup of tea and a hug; then a steep climb through a back yard – with a wallaby beside me – to slip a card of congratulations under the door.
And back to my burrow.
When does this sense of neighbourhood begin? I am a creature of habit, a homebody, a nester by inclination, but I have moved twenty-six times:
lived in three different countries, five cities and countless villages, hamlets, isolated spots. I have shaped myself into attics and cellars, shared rooms, shared burrows, solitary burrows, big burrows, small burrows and a humpy in a clearing in a forest. I have lived on hillsides and near the sea, I have lived next to a bombsite, next to a railway station, next to a farm, next to a brothel, next to an apple shed, next to a tennis court, and between a locksmith and a courthouse.
When does the sense of not just in but next to start? In my fleeting places – places I am merely visiting for a week or two – I am not adventurer. I like to pinpoint one or two retreats, a shop perhaps, a café, not more. These I visit repeatedly, making them my neighbourhood. In big cities and burrows shared with others, it was the public spaces that became familiar – the shopkeepers I spoke to: fish and chip shops, grocers, laundromats and the pub. But sharing burrows, although easing one’s sense of belonging, can diminish one’s antennae for neighbourhood. Moles living together often flock together and the self-sufficiency of our bandedness can pre-empt us from getting to know those around us.
Once upon a time moles never moved far from their original burrows. When I think of Great Uncle Mole I get a sense of what that kind of embeddedness feels like. I never visited him anywhere but the one burrow. It had belonged to his forbears before him. Quite apart from the mental ancestral charts he maintained of all his neighbours, Great Uncle Mole’s knowledge of his surroundings reached deep into the earth, extended itself around and into the trees, the hills, the seasons.
In Switzerland there are different words in the official language of belonging. As well as Geburtsort (place of birth) and Wohnungsort (place of residence) a mole has a designated Heimatort, a home, which is deemed to be the birthplace of the parent whose name it has taken. It gives, or intends to give, the nipper a deeper rootedness than its place of birth might. When I was small most Swiss stayed close to their roots and the three identifications of Geburts-,Wohnungs-, and Heimatsort were one and the same, but the British were gallivanters, my molekin in particular, and my place of birth, residence, and Heimatort were dotted in three, or was it four, countries. The concept of Heimatort was the most confusing of all. Mine was Karachi; – but how to identify it further? Was it in India, where Karachi was when my Papa was born, or Pakistan where it is now?
There were glimmers of neighbourhood in the various places I lived as small nipper: a weighing machine outside a chemists, a belisha beacon and a zebra crossing, a small bridge leading to allotments, and a roundabout mysteriously called the Ace of Spades. But we stayed nowhere long enough for a real sense of neighbourhood. Indeed, it was only the burrows of my grandparents that seemed to grant any sense of stability – I was unaware at the time that it was only as older moles they had settled after nomadic lives.
We moved to a new place in a new country and with a new language just as I was reaching the age of exploration (of self and neighbourhood). Why was I here?What does anything mean? My Mama sought refuge in landscape and sent me on botanical excursions. I listened to the moles about me, wondering whether they were greeting me or calling me names, learned to find my way home, stumbled over the words to ask for bread in the corner shop, began to learn the names of those who shared our six-family burrow. Gradually I became known as Frau so-and-so’s nipper, visited the old paper-maker up the road, was invited in by a painter near the cross-roads. After a while the neighbourhood became my own. I knew nippers who lived at the orphanage, on the farm, in the new flats.
That neighbourhood is imprinted on my molemind both as it was at the beginning and how it is now.
Although I am a solitary sort of a mole, I have always been happiest if there are others close at hand. Places I have lived far from neighbours have palled – I can appreaciate their beauty but not feel it in my moleheart. Bern and Hobart are not dissimilar in size. In both cases I have lived not in the city but in a neighbourhood within walking distance of it. You might think I that the first experience predisposed me to seek out and feel at home in the second.
But that isn’t the case. When I first moved here I felt its lack of a visible neighbourhood. I felt the linearity and length of the road on which it sits rather than the heart of the blocks that the cross-streets create. It has taken years and years of walking its pavements, the slowness of walking that allows a mole to drink in the smells and moods of a place, allows a mole to greet the fellows it meets; the repeated greetings, then the greeting that extend to chats, and the chats to conversations and sometimes even to friendship.
I have been here for over two decades now and so seen nippers born and grow and and move on. I have grown older with others – I know the place and am known in this place in the way my dear Mama and Papa were known in the village that became an outskirt of Bern, the one I still know in my bones and where they lived for fifty years before they died.