When I first came to view my flat six years ago, one of the things my soon-to-be neighbours impressed upon me was the fact that in the summer, the inner courtyard turned into a garden. They took pride in this and, in hindsight, had I paid more attention, it might not have taken them so long to warm to me.
I took up residence in November. My neighbourly conversations were few and far between. I weathered a short bout of accusations that my renovation was responsible for everything that subsequently went wrong in the building. Then I had notes on my door complaining about the noise – apparently, it sounded as if a herd of horses was going through my flat day and night. Gradually, though, when word got around that I was, at least, making an effort to learn the language, cringe though they might at my horrendous mangling of same, they began to thaw. For a külföldi (foreigner) apparently, I was okay.
My first summer started with the appearance of window boxes. So wrapped up was in my own world that I failed to notice that mine were the only naked windowsills on the floor – nay, in the entire building. When it was pointed out to me, I made an effort. I went to my local garden centre, bought window boxes and soil and plants, and duly made my contribution to the overall appearance of the fourth floor.
I have ten fingers, none of which is green. It’s been said of me that I could wither a plant by looking at it (nekem?). But it was by not looks that I killed the first batch. I replaced them with more, who met the same end. Thankfully, my pathetic attempts at urban gardening were saved by the arrival of winter.
The following summer, I switched to herbs: harder to kill, easier to ignore, and more practical. And, I don’t like geraniums. I thought that having green boxes would be better than having no boxes at all. But I could feel that somehow I’d done something wrong. Instead of the approving smiles I’d expected to receive from my neighbours, I was on the receiving end of looks that translated into ‘so you can’t be bothered, eh?’
In my third summer, I travelled a lot. In May I duly potted my plants and then let them be. To my surprise, they thrived in my absence. My neighbours had taken it upon themselves to look after them. I was suitably grateful.
Two summers ago, they went a step further. In May, one neighbour arrived on my doorstep asking for my window boxes. I handed them over. They were returned some hours later, planted with the dreaded geraniums. My windowsills had been taken over by the fourth floor.
In an effort to show willing I bought a tree and set it outside my door where it died a slow and painful death. When I was scolded for not removing it, I duly obliged. When I was scolded for having an empty flower pot on display, I donated that too. Harmony was restored.
My relationship with my neighbours revolves around their tending my plants. We have found a way of communicating, despite the language differences. And it works.
Visiting a Hungarian friend last week, she mentioned that when she moved into her building, there were no flowers. She created a mini-garden on the landing outside her flat and pretty soon, other windowsills and alcoves flourished, too. It just took one flowerpot to make a difference. Both our worlds were changed, one flowerpot at a time.
First published in the Budapest Times 12 September 2014