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Smoothing Out the Bumps

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Building neighbourhood relations, improving roadways

Our neighbourhood’s recent road building endeavour reminds me of Robert Frost’s poem Mending Wall. In the poem, the narrator finds himself working alongside his neighbour one spring day, lifting stones into the cracks left by winter in their common wall. Frost’s narrator questions the necessity of having a fence, but his neighbour happily declares that “good fences make good neighbours.” Most striking in the poem is not the fence, but the shared experience of the two men as they worked side by side to rebuild it.

We’ve recently experienced a bit of our own lesson in community building. Like many villages on the outskirts of Prague, our neighbourhood, its houses situated on rocky soil between cherry orchards and fields, grew up quicker than the accompanying road infrastructure. The route leading from the main road to our house was in dismal shape during the first year we settled in.

According to zoning laws the road belonged to one village, while the properties on either side, ours included, belonged to two others. Thus, although we had garbage collection from the village where we paid our local taxes, none of the three claimed responsibility for the road’s maintenance. The route was a well-trafficked shortcut between villages, but no amount of attempted persuasion had roused authorities from their apathy. One of the municipalities offered to sell the road to the village that owned the most properties, but the high price tag made the “offer” a moot point.

As houses continued to spring up, heavy construction vehicles gouged deep ruts in the already poorly maintained surface. Our neighbours joked that they didn’t have reason to replace their clunkers, but they cautioned us to have friends travelling by car leave their vehicles at the bottom of the road and walk up the rest of the way. In fact, once during bad weather a taxi carrying friends to us got stuck, and Radek had to drive down and ferry our guests back up the hill. We laughed at the adventure of it, but, at the same time, I lamented the dust that flooded the house with the arrival of each new bulldozer.

Radek wasn’t satisfied with the mediocre status quo either, especially since each hard rain created a waterfall of runoff that rendered the steepest part of the road nearly impossible to drive. He thought we should spearhead a neighbourhood coalition to lobby village authorities to contribute financial support to a more solid roadway for the future. However, as the newcomers to the neighbourhood, we weren’t sure how to initiate the process, so we waited.

One April evening after Radek had finished assembling a swing set for the children, I watched from the kitchen window as he joined a few neighbours talking at the end of our road. A few minutes later, someone set up a table for drinks and snack food on the lane, and soon everyone was running home to raid pantries and liquor stashes for a contribution.

Along with four other families, we exchanged first names and toasted to a pledge to put together enough cash to surface our portion of the road. A gaggle of children ran from one garden to the next until well past dark while we adults, still standing in the road, swapped village gossip and stories. This was the first time I’d met several of the neighbours, and I had to laugh to myself when I realised that our subsequent tykání (informal) relations had resulted from a common need plus a few bottles of Becherovka. Now I felt the lively village spirit that I’d seen in old Czech movies.

On the night of the actual road surfacing, we celebrated with champagne and strawberries while kids brought out every piece of wheeled equipment, from bikes to motorcycles, scooters to rollerblades, to test out on the newly smooth surface. Using the successful completion of our small road as proof that working together can yield positive results, Radek and our neighbours coerced and cajoled the rest of the neighbourhood into refinishing the most damaged portion of the route.

The surfaced main road was in place when we returned from our summer holiday. Now, after just a few weeks of using it, I’ve already begun to forget what the old road was really like. It seems natural for the children to bike or scooter down to the nearby pond. But I’m still most heartened by thinking back on that first night with the neighbours as we stood together and took the initial steps toward the community I’d hoped we would be.

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