My downstairs neighbor’s name is Cetin (pronounced similar to Satan). He’s a slight Turkish man with greying temples and a plain-spoken manner. If I were good at caricatures, he would be easy to draw. Cetin works at Haribo. I don’t think he likes his work, but it pays the bills. Cetin is a barometer for my German level. When I moved here I told him, ‘Ich bin ein fussballer.’ That was it. We did not become fast friends.
Cetin controls the backyard and is in charge of the front yard. He takes a laissez-faire attitude to yard maintenance. It’s the kind of yard where neighbors shake their head as they pass. The house is nice inside, but leaves a bit to be desired outside. I should probably take it upon myself to do more.
There’s a cherry tree in the backyard. One day I was feeling a bit more confident with my German and so I said the equivalent of ‘Cherry tree yard me cherries eat please?’ I think he got the idea and acquiesced. On another day Cetin invited me to have a beer in his place on the ground floor. We talked while the TV blared the news from Turkey. We discussed women, Turkish politics (I’d just returned from Turkish holiday) and life in Germany. We’re the kind of neighbors who don’t go out of their way to interact, but when fate deems it necessary, we get along swell.
But then fate ordained that we not interact. I had seen him entering the house with some heaviness one day and asked how he was – my German progressing – and he replied that things had not been good. He had been sick and his back was bad; he looked more slight than normal; he was off of work.
Days passed, weeks, into months and Alina and I became concerned. I knocked on the door once. I tried to watch his shoes that usually sat outside his door, did they move? The yard looked more unkempt than normal – or did it? I couldn’t tell. We didn’t know if he was off and running somewhere or other.
Some days I could swear I heard some shuffling around downstairs. And I started to creep myself out. I rearranged his shoes outside the front door in different patterns to see if things changed. But then so much time passed that I couldn’t remember how I’d changed them so I couldn’t tell if it was evidence for or against his continued existence.
And then I began to realize how easy it would have been to bake some cookies, stop by for a beer or just say hi. I began to wonder if he had passed away in silence. It’s important, I think, to check in on your neighbors. You don’t have to be their best friends, but you should probably just stop by. I began to feel bad that I wasn’t a better neighbor.
Not only did I not help keep the yard tidy, I didn’t even bother to try breaking down the door when I thought my neighbor might be dead. I had these images in my mind of a newspaper headline, “Man dead in apartment, neighbors clueless,” and I started to sniff around each day I left for work. When do you call the police? What’s the limit where you would be comfortable not seeing your neighbor.
I don’t want to let this post get too long. Eventually – I’m not sure how long after we noticed we hadn’t seen him – he was back. He reappeared. He was looking more frail than ever, but Cetin was still alive. And that’s about it. I don’t know why I wrote this up really, but I think it’s important. The realization that we can sometimes just gloss over things that are happening around us and not really stop to think. Or try to act like it’s not happening and go on with our daily life. But in the best cases, we can go that extra step and check on the folks around us.