Last week we left ‘A’ -a Russian visitor to the UK- waiting on the darkened doorstep of a backstreet house in Bournemouth. Let’s continue.
Pausing at the threshold
Had his hosts abandoned him to the night and retired to bed? Perhaps ‘A’s first interaction would be to drag them begrudgingly into wakefulness at some ungodly hour -not a good start to a first meeting, nor for that matter a three week stay.
With darkness at his back and no other options left; ‘A’s fingers brushed the cold brick to find the bell button and pushed, sinking it into the mounting. Somewhere within, the muffled chimes sang -far to cheery for the sombre hour- before light blossomed behind the curtains and the door’s inlaid glass. A presence revealed itself in the shifting glow, in the sound of weight on carpet, and with the fumbling of locks. Then ‘A’s host, beaming in unison with the enveloping hall light, revealed himself and welcomed him in.
Home and routine
“I was pleasantly surprised”, ‘A’ tells me of his hosts and the accommodation. What was he expecting?, I wonder. ‘C’ and his wife ‘K’ are “very nice” active pensioners with ongoing participation in local community affairs. They and ‘A’ -on opposing sides of the table- would get to know each other through dinner conversation and an active mutual interest in Russian/English life. It was, “an everyday process over the next three weeks,” reports ‘A’ -at least when time allowed.
The weekdays were devoted to English class-time (the reason behind the trip), while the weekends provided cultural enrichment in the form of guided excursions to local landmarks and beyond.
The empty city
“The houses are not like skyscrapers” ‘A’ reveals somewhat cryptically -of Bournemouth’s town planning. City Russians are mostly used to the multi-storey life -of course, and of a much greater urban population density. “It was an empty city!” he says of his temporary base (which is not a city at all) “with very quiet streets -almost nobody! I would very seldom see someone”. He then concludes: “Western people live so quietly -almost invisibly- that they should not even know each other!”
In other words: how can a community form from so few people who very rarely interact? First appearances can be deceptive, of course. ‘A’ asked of his hosts: “Do you know who lives around you?”. “Yes of course!” ‘C’ responded, somewhat surprised -and then began listing neighbours names and their individual/group connections as if called to provide evidence. In contradiction to his initial assessment ‘A’ admits, “The thing that surprised me the most – in a city (town) on the scale of Bournemouth is that they are very sociable.”
He refers to the paradox that cramming so many people together (eg. 12 million in Moscow) often builds isolation and loneliness -whereas scattering a relative few into a village (or a collection of Dachas) is likely to build a community.
The English twist
“We (the Russians) thought that only Soviet people had community groups” he continues, “but in the UK, the community groups are stronger.” I ask ‘A’ to expand upon this, and his response provides an interesting revelation. ‘A’ does not know his neighbours, so when they meet to petition the administrators of his housing block over some issue -it’s just business. None of them are friends; rather strangers, or perhaps acquaintances at best. When the issue at hand is resolved, they will all melt back into their separate lives again.
Community groups in the UK appear to also work outside of their stated functions -and to the betterment of those involved. ‘A’ sees the strong social overlap -that we take for granted, and perhaps don’t even think about. Yes, being part of a local community group may even result in you making friends! Who knew? It may even facilitate the joining of other organisations with mutual members -thereby widening your connections still further.
In summary ’A’ considers: “To live in such a way is more safe. They protect each other – it’s very useful.” He has more to say on related issues, and others, as they spill out into Russian country life and beyond, but we’ll examine such matters another time.