The Old Lady living Downstairs Died7 min read

And I know nothing about her.

Almost 4 weeks after we got back from our summer holidays, my husband told me that he just found out the old lady living below us had died while we were away. “Oh! May she RIP. Poor her,” I said sadly.

I asked him how she died, whether she was alone but he did not know. I later asked him, “what happened with the dog? The poor thing”. We don’t know.

All I could think of, was how alone this woman seemed to me.

But in all honesty, I knew nothing about her except that she lived with her dog, she lived alone and she always greeted me with a smile. But I have never seen her with another human being during the entire time she lived here; Always at her door, the garage or out on the street with her dog.

And in all the years she lived in that apartment, our greetings never got further than the civil and friendly, Grüezi, comments on the weather, that it is cold, or it is a  beautiful day.

It never got to anything personal.

No wonder I know nothing about her. I mean maybe she had a full life when I could not see her. Maybe she was the type of person who preferred to be alone. Maybe she was afraid of people. Maybe she did not like people. Maybe she had an awful experience in her life. Maybe she was very happy. Maybe she was a cruel woman who was mean to people and lost all her close relationships.  I will never know. That much I know.

I also know why I don’t know. Because most of the interactions similar to the ones I had with her, I have here with lots of people, and these do not lead to anywhere more personal than that.

I have lived in another building before. The only relationship I had there was with one woman who had moved from Geneva, had 3 children, and when we met, we quickly built it up into sharing random bits from our lives. At first, we had run into each other a couple of times and exchanged a few words about our lives. Then once at the elevator, as I was getting to my apartment, I asked her if she wanted to come in for coffee.  She came in, I pressed the machine for coffee as I started to unpack groceries and we continued to chat.

Despite most neighbours being stay-home mothers, any other coffees I had were planned (some many weeks in advance), and it was with only one neighbour that we went as far as having planned coffees at all. But it was still not possible to do it spontaneously- it felt like an intrusion on their privacy which they guarded dearly and clearly. There were never unpackings of grocery bags, or an untidy kitchen, or anything in the process of being done. It was a scheduled coffee and chat. Prepared. One said it to me once when she saw a friend of mine walk in and I told her she can join us if she wants. She asked us if we had planned it.  We said that we had not planned it but changed our minds about other plans and decided for coffee instead. She said, “I don’t know how to live this way.”

When I lived in Dubai for one and a half years, it was in a high rise. My one bedroom was in the 17th floor. I never expected to know my neighbours. But I knew that the guy working at the grocery shop at the bottom had 5 siblings, tried to quit smoking 3 times and does not like the beach. The rest of his family is in India but 2 of his siblings live abroad. My banker had a mother whose birthday was like mine and she also suffered frequent migraines. He was very keen on being tidy with utmost attention to details of his clothes. His mother had told him something about a tidy appearance being a sign of respect or something to that effect. One of my neighbours whom I used to meet at the gym in the building, had lost her father the year before and now wants to try to go to Egypt at least every month to see her mother. A colleague of mine had suffered the divorce of his parents at a very young age as a single child and his wife – a single child too – wants to have at least 3 children.

Back in Egypt, at the office, the janitor had an ongoing dispute with his paternal uncle about family matters;  At the hairdresser, the guy who washes my hair wants to travel to Croatia, likes their president and hates the French national team. He is single and his ideal girl has to be open minded and likes to travel. A colleague had his marriage to his first love from high school turn into a bitter divorce only after 3 years of marriage and now he is very concerned his daughter is too serious with a guy she had been with for 10 years sine she was 16. Honesty is the most important characteristic of a man for my waxing lady. She had a cheating ex-fiance and found it to be what she hates most. For her colleague, as long as he is not stingy, all else is manageable; She finds stinginess the most repelling trait in a man. None of these people are among those I would call close friends. They are people I know, because I see somewhat regularly.  But I know some things about them. My neighbours in Egypt at my parents place are `eshra (an Egyptian word meaning people we spent a lot of lifetime with. The word comes from `iisha which is life in Egyptian). We consider them longtime neighbours. We know much more about each other: The stories of their families, their jobs, what they wish for the children, their dreams and many of their unrealized wishes.

Perhaps, as I have often suspected, the notion of privacy is a major cultural variance that has a palpable impact on more than we think. It taps into my musings over the strict boundaries people here have around their private lives and how they consider any personal information too private to share with people who do not fall under the personal relationship category. Egypt and Switzerland are perhaps at the extreme opposite ends. In Egypt, in its extreme form, it borders on an invasion of our privacy. Most people suffer the suffocation of the mild form.

It also taps into my interest in the link between spontaneity and intimacy. Mainly I believe that it is by spending unstructured or unplanned time with people that we can truly cultivate any meaningful connections with others and maintain those relationships too.  Very often, I listen to people who tell me that they meet their parents a certain number of times a year (for some it is only once or twice – while they live in the same 100 kilometers), sit across a dinning table and ask each other, “Tell me about your life…what is going on in it? at your job?”

I think I know what my close relationships are struggling with and how they feel about things, because I happen to be with them (in touch) while they go through life… their daily lives. I was there when my friend got a call about her son getting into a fight at school. I sat next to friends waiting for results of medical tests, after interviews, talked to them when I scolded my children and felt angry or frustrated, had a fight with my husband, felt challenged or overwhelmed by life. We get into deep reflections about the inner makings of each of us when we experience each other at tense times, pivotal moments as they come…while making important decisions…at happy moments and at sad happenings. It does not happen because we sit across from each other in scheduled times and ask each other about how we feel or what happened during the last year.

We cannot summon ‘talkings’ from the heart. They happen when we experience feelings of fear, joy, anxiety, excitement, grief…..together.

I got to all of this because the lady downstairs died and I don’t know anything about her. And this is sad.

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