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Are You Sure You Can Build a Community From Scratch?
I need a garden. That’s all I know after 6 weeks of traveling. I didn’t even realize how much I needed to be outside all the time until I had a chance to spend a few weeks like this. The mountains, the lakes, streams and rivers, ancient trees and wild flowers, the bright summer sun and ominous thunderstorms, they all soothed my soul more than I could have asked for.
Now that we’re back home I still try to spend as much time outside as I can. Last Friday I went on a long walk, rode my bike, took my daughter to not one but two garden parties, then cycled through several parks on the way back. Even all of this only added to about 5 hours total, the rest was still spent inside our apartment, the hairdresser salon and various shops. In the neighborhood we live in everything happens indoors by default. There are outdoor cafes and places you can go to for recreation, but there isn’t much space out there just to live your life outside.
I want to eat breakfast accompanied by the birds chirping. I want to sit under a tree and play my guitar, I want to do yoga in gentle breeze. I had all these things right at my doorstep while we were traveling, but each of them requires so much hassle now.
In theory, we do have a green patch right outside our apartment block door. Every time I walk my dog, I think how little it would take to turn it into a magical place. Two benches with a picnic table here, a hammock there, a few fairy lights hanging on trees in mason jars. Instead of this we have dog poop and empty vodka bottles. This is a no man’s land, nobody is responsible for this place.
For years I did everything I could to make myself at home here. We’ve sent Christmas cards to every single person in our building. We walked door to door with cookies trying to introduce ourselves. We created a Facebook group for people to get to know one another. Still, after 5 years we’re only friends with a single other family, and that’s only because their kid goes to the same kindergarten as our daughter does.
This is a fancy kindergarten that we pay a lot of money for so that our daughter can ride a wheelbarrow, pour water out of a watering can, and get dirty playing in mud. In the countryside we could easily have all of these things for free. Or actually we could have so much more, why pour water into the sandbox if you can water real flowers? Why play with sticks and leaves in the classroom if you can build a real fire together with mom? Why solve wooden puzzles if you can assist your dad while he assembles a bedframe?
Traveling in a camper van was delightful, but I felt something was missing. After a few weeks I was ready to create rather than just to consume, to enter a place and leave it better than I found it, to actively contribute to amazing experiences instead of just indulging in them. I don’t want to be a tourist all the time, I want to be responsible for a space, and make it my own, and turn it into an oasis for my friends and family where they can always come and feel loved and refreshed. I want to have good friends as my neighbors, I want our kids to run around together in grass while we’re making pierogi, singing, or crocheting together. I want us all to cocreate our neighborhood, to feel responsible for it, to look for new ways how we can make our lives together even more delightful.
I tried to make myself at home here in the city, but I had no role models here. I never knew anyone living the kind of life that I would like to. Can anyone be friends with their neighbors in the present day and age? My husband says that as an adult I simply can’t expect for my social life to be as active as it was in my student dorm. This rings true, but deep down inside my heart is yearning.
We tried to look for a bigger apartment twice in the previous year. A few days after we started searching bombs fell down on Ukraine, then a stray missile landed in Poland when we came back to this several months later. I took this as a sign that an apartment in Warsaw isn’t meant for us and went on this trip thinking, maybe as we travel around Austria and Italy we’ll fall in love with some place and decide to make it our home?
I did fall madly in love with Riva del Garda, with its majestic mountains overlooking a vast capricious lake, water sports, green boulevards, baby swans, and colonial villas. And yet I couldn’t imagine myself settling down there. I was just one tourist out of many in the endless crowd that comes there every year. The whole town runs on tourism, it would be hard to find my way into the community there.
But at this moment I realized what I’ve been doing wrong for the whole time. I was trying to build a community from scratch where none existed, and nothing ever seemed to work. I haven’t had much experience of this way of living, how could I possibly organize hundreds of uninterested people to suddenly form a closely-knit group? Instead of trying to reinventing the wheel, my only chance is to find an existing community, learn what made them successful, and build upon what they’ve already figured out.
It just so happened that a community like this exists, right around the house my husband built with his dad a while ago. We went there last weekend, just as the whole village was celebrating a first day of summer party. My daughter found a new best friend 5 seconds after we came there, and they danced together until midnight. I had a great time talking with her mom and all the people she introduced me to. There are 200 people total who live in the village and about 50 of them all came to the party. The last time I felt like this was ages ago in the student dorm.
I had to travel halfway across Europe to find a home right where I was. I don’t know much about growing gardens or communities, but these people do and I’m excited to learn from them. This is a long-term project, it will take a while for our family to move there, and even a longer while to turn it into our dream home—but I already can’t wait to share the details of this journey and what I learned along the way with you all.
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