Changing the world, one flowerpot at a time

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

4 Responses

  1. Examples of group dynamics.

    What your friend did was a beautiful thing. Planting a seed that literally grew in a flowerpot but also figuratively grew in the hearts and minds of others without pressure or influence. A grass roots event for real and healthy change. Heartwarming.

    However, your apartment floor seems to be under the control of a flower mafia seeking for control and conformity over others. Disturbing.

    1. I like that – a flower mafia. I don’t get that impression though – it’s more about the collective pride they take in the building and it’s important to them to have it all looking nice. I’m happy enough that they have taken over – saves me the problem and it definitely gives us something to talk about – so that’s a plus.

      1. Living in a small village I know about the busy bodies; normally some older (often single or widowed women) who are the queen bees and make many (of both genders) follow their…. um… view of the village. And they can become quite gossipy and spiteful if you deviate from “their view”. If it were pride alone they should be proud you renovated your apartment, since it improved the building. Yet I was nodding when you wrote ” renovation was responsible for everything that subsequently went wrong in the building”. Pretty much hit the nail on the head. Your error: you did not go to them to get their approval of “your” renovation. You acted like an individual… how dare you! So you got notes on your door to “correct you”. Been there.

        So not so sure it is collective pride, but collective conformity, under what I expect to originate from a minority that has been adopted by all others to avoid confrontation; even when such alteration of one’s own behaviour is against one’s self interest (not everyone has time to tend flowers). Not just a Hungarian thing. Have experienced queen bees in other countries as well. Of course, we are talking about flowers here. Trivial really. But it is important to recognize what may be happening else when you move up in scale you may be blind sided when important issues start to be affected by the same dynamics. In our village the queen bees try to control a lot more. When one must say “enough” to the queen bees is a matter of personal limits.

        Some times the queen bees are drones. If you get my hint….

        But I digress… back to flower pots. I have strawberries in my flower pots. My wife loves herbs. We are proud of them. Annoy our neighbours? Maybe. Oh well. I rather eat fresh strawberries than flowers. And eventually some neighbours came asking if they could have some of my strawberries. Of course I shared. Changing the world one flower pot at time sometimes means sometimes risking, and sticking to what you think is right in your flowerpot. Even if that is different and looked down upon at first. 🙂

        1. yes – have noticed that my basil plants are occasionally looking a little thin… even have a sign in there saying help yourself – in Hungarian of course. So it’s working…

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