How well do you know your neighbours? How involved are you in local community activities? How many of your friends know your other friends? Do you feel part of your community?
One has the impression that, historically speaking, these questions would have been redundant: in a feudal system every person knew what another’s role was. In village life a town is so small that is impossible to not know one’s neighbours. Having the opportunity to transplant our lives to a small rural town has provided opportunity to reflect on the differences to big city life.
Here, I cannot remember the last time I wandered around our village and did not see someone I knew. It’s even rare to go for a walk and not bump into a friend or at least an acquaintance. Contrast this with Brisbane. One might sometimes recognise someone at the supermarket, or occasionally even bump into a friend, but its rare. You might be lucky enough to know everyone on your street or apartment block, but many get by with very few acquaintances outside of work. It may be more difficult still if you are unemployed, from interstate, don’t have strong english or come from a cultural minority!
An implicit knowledge of one’s place in society has certain spin-offs. Children playing in the streets are more likely to know those walking past, and word of their behaviour is more likely to reach their parents. Newcomers are more likely to be noticed and greeted. When an individual is either out of place or looking for a place, one is less likely to shrug one’s shoulders and presume it is someone else’s job to help.
A case in point is a family who arrived in our village shortly before we did. They are a family of refugees from Iraq, fleeing persecution they have felt at the hands of ISIS. I have had the privilege to provide medical care for families with similar stories in Brisbane. Unfortunately their Australian stories are all too often that of isolation, difficulty interacting with authorities and lack of engagement with the mainstream community – mostly leading to an itinerant existence. To witness the reception that this refugee family has had here in rural France is to witness a bright light shone upon all that we are doing wrong for refugees in Australia’s big cities. The village has taken them on board as a mother of a large family would an adoptive child. French lessons are provided free by both the state and the mayor; multiple individuals in the town provide assistance by providing transport; accommodation is provided with the next door neighbours briefed to provide daily conversation; they are “roped-in” to assist in creating decorations for the annual street carnival. All the while, these activities provide language acquisition, companionship, understanding, recognition and acculturation. Instead of being disenfranchised, they are being stirred into the soup of the community. I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist in this setting: it does. But the person-to-person familiarity that has evolved acts as an antidote to these base prejudices.
Since returning to Brisbane, we have felt this difference acutely. However, it is possible to change your level of connectedness. Nothing will change the reality of big cities anytime soon. And our political system seems bent on promoting a culture of fear. But next time you see someone near where you live, why not say hello? When there is a local event like a school fete, volunteer to help. Your health, their health and the health of our communities will all benefit.