Making the transition from the “Englishman’s home is his castle” style of living to life in the Lisbon neighbourhood I’ve lived in for over a decade, took a while. Apartment living inevitably means that you’re going about your daily business cheek by jowl with your neighbours and basically you’re down with your homies, whether you like it or not.
Our initiation into this scenario was an early, slightly tense negotiation with our upstairs neighbour (let’s call her Dona Olinda) over how she dried her voluminous and strikingly patterned bed linen. In her view it was fine to do this over our dining room windows, meaning it was less room with a view and more akin to breakfast in bed. The matter was resolved amicably enough in the end, unlike a friend of ours who experienced a similar problem. Frustrated, after weeks of his neighbour’s insistence on hanging her sheets over his veranda and thereby blocking out any natural light, he did what any reasonable person would do when pushed to their limits, and took a pair of scissors to the offending bedding. A line had been drawn in the sand and I believe the situation never reoccurred – although I seem to recall him mentioning an encounter with the stubborn neighbour in the street soon after scissor-gate. As I remember it, no words were exchanged, although her nervousness betrayed her as she scurried away, expedited by what was, no doubt, anxiety-induced flatulence.
It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, but in the case of Dona Olinda, I’ve found the opposite to be true. In keeping with Portuguese custom, I respectfully refer to her as “Dona” Olinda and she simply calls me “menina” (this may be because she doesn’t feel the need to remember my name). The fact that no woman over the age of 30 can really carry off “menina” completely convincingly is irrelevant – it’s English equivalent is “miss” or “young lady” I suppose – but as the Portuguese would rationalise, no harm done. She’s shown an appropriate level of interest in our growing family, although maybe I could have done without the bald proclamation that I was getting “really fat now” when I was nearing the end of one of my pregnancies. Perhaps it was a step too far. Repeat the mantra “no harm done”.
Dona Olinda has not changed one bit in the 13 years I’ve been acquainted with her and equally, her eyesight has seemingly neither improved or deteriorated. Essentially, she’s in fact as blind as a bat. A while ago, late at night, we’d hear her television, which was fine, but occasionally there’d be an almighty hum emanating from the aforementioned TV. There was clearly something seriously wrong with the audio and in an act of neighbourliness, my husband offered to take her to an electrical store to replace it. She declined the offer on the grounds that despite the strange noises, the picture was excellent. I just had to wonder, given her visual impairment, how she knew.
The only time I would say we got too close for comfort was during the course of building work we had done about 5 years ago. It transpired that a fundamental supporting beam separating our hallway ceiling from her hallway floor was completely rotten. Alarmingly, Dona Olinda had chosen to ignore the seriousness of the problem, or more accurately, was in complete denial. In spite of her poor eyesight, she’d obviously noticed something wasn’t quite right, as she’d thrown a few rugs over her sagging floorboards and taken to creeping around the soon-to-be-hole, rather than addressing the issue. I’ll never forget my husband’s exclamation when he went to inspect the situation upstairs (I was at home, downstairs, Dona Olinda and he were above; the only thing separating us by this point was the offending rotten beam). It drove home the seriousness of the situation. Dona Olinda really could have made an unexpected house call at any minute, with potentially catastrophic consequences.
This time, our offers of help to resolve the problem were accepted after only a little resistance, her main concern being cost. In the event, our lively and efficient building crew fixed her floor and I even got wind of the fact that she gave these 40-something “meninos” (boys) lunch money, thereby ensuring they worked on a full stomach. As I say, I’m very fond of Dona Olinda; all’s well that ends well. And no harm done.