30 December 2014

Houses without names

"Oh, the Schmids have repainted their shutters", I thought when seeing the bright green paint on a walk through the neighborhood. To recover from the jetlag of my flight to Switzerland, I'd decided to go for a stroll through the village I grew up in, and where we still have a home.

Building on an entire childhood's worth of memories, the streets and shortcuts are intimately familiar, and so are the families living in every building. Looks like the Römers must have gotten a new car, the Langs seem to have added a shed and here is the swingset on which I used to play with the Stein sisters. I wonder why they didn't take it down in all this time?

The answer was different from what I had expected. A few days later, while sticking to the Christmas catch-up tradition of going on a hike with the two sisters, I found out that their family no longer lives in that house. After the sisters had moved out, their parents decided to get a smaller condo in a bigger town, and a new young family has since taken over their former home. My mom told me that the Lang family had also left, and we wondered if the Schmids were still there.

It is natural for things to change, and it makes perfect sense for older couples to move out of a big family home after all the kids have gone. And yet, walking through my old town with a sentimental mindset, I had taken strange comfort in the fact that I knew the names and faces attached to most of these houses, and played in their courtyards and living rooms, even had been at sleepovers in many. It was one of the distinguishing features between the village and the big city I live in now, where I barely know the names of the two families sharing my own roof, never mind the neighbors.

Now these houses have no names any more - not to me, anyways. It's not exactly like finding out that Santa isn't real, but there was some disentchantment nonetheless.

All the more soothing, then, to visit the good friend who has moved to the tiniest of alpine hamlets, in the scenic lower Engadine valley and in spitting distance from the Austrian and Italian borders. His village looks like out of a picture book, and it hosts an intact and vivid community. Not only does everyone know everything about everyone, they also get together all the time for all sorts of activities. What started as a matter of survival in a largely self-sufficient, rural alpine environment has become one of the key attractions to the people who today elect to reside in the village, instead of moving to bigger towns with more action.

A visitor from far-away lands is immediately noticed, but once the sniff test has been passed, one is free to enjoy the peace and quiet of country living, the occasional sneaky look from behind a curtain notwithstanding.

As much as my friend enjoyed visiting me in the city earlier this year, I enjoy the cozy hospitality of his town now. The liberty and ouverture d'esprit in Montréal are ultimately what I prefer. But on a snowy walk through the picturesque lanes and alleys today, I noticed that they do not come with names or numbers here. It's unnecessary. Here, the houses stil have names.

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