Choosing the Right Neighbourhood
There are pivotal pearls of wisdom that we each receive at some time or other, that profoundly impact on he success of our expat journey. One of my personal favorites was from a friend in LA, who noted
"Choose the neighborhood, not the house"
It has stayed with me ever since, and keeps my priorities straight when I am tempted by cathedral ceilings, gleaming fitted kitchens, and lavish decor. Over time, I have discovered that what truly makes me happy is friendly, tolerant warmhearted neighbors who invite you in for a cup of tea regardless of the chaos in their kitchens, who drop round unannounced when they have something to share, and who could care less about the state of my carpets. When you have four dogs and a cat, the latter is pretty obligatory..
Not everyone will share my preferences, but that's why the Gaining Clarity exercise in Finding Home Abroad is so important. You need a clear picture of what really makes you feel at home, and equally important, what will soon feel uncomfortable. Choosing a neighborhood is partly to do with practicalities, and partly to do with your own preferences, all of which are different for every person or family.
Go for a drive
This is my personal favorite, and the one I do first when choosing locations. Getting in the car (or on a bike, which is often even better) and just driving around the residential areas will quickly give you a clear snapshot of the people around you and the lives they lead. Are the houses single family homes or townhouses, condos, apartment blocks? What is the level of maintenance, and are the homeowners out maintaining them, or playing in the yards or local parks. Are people out walking or cycling? Do people stop and say hello if you are walking? Are children playing in the street, and are they supervised? Do the houses have very evident security features, and high fences, or are the yards open?
And what about dogs – often the breeds of dogs give clues about what type of needs the local people have – are they ‘vanity’ or ‘toy’ breeds such as Yorkies, Chihuahuas or Shi-tzus; family dogs like mutts, Labradors, Retrievers etc, or are they guard dog breeds – German shepherds, Dobermanns, Pit bulls or Rottweilers. And yes, I know these are broad generalizations, but you can see what might reflect your own lifestyle choices.
Some of us see children playing on the street as a sign that it is an area with strong family values, a safe neighborhood, and calm traffic; others see it as a potential for broken windows, loud noise levels and no peace. It’s not about what these characteristics mean to others, it’s what they mean for you and your day to day living.
What do I look for? Single family homes, homeowners carrying out their own maintenance, no gated communities, a mixture of all age groups, dogs that don’t bark incessantly whose owners pick up after them. And yes, I do have four dogs who have been with us for a total of 24 years and 3 continents, so it’s not that I don’t like dogs. I just don't want to be constantly (and loudly) reminded that the neighbors also have them..
Shop at the Stores – (especially grocery stores)
Everyone has to eat, even stick thin celebrities, so one of the quickest ways to get a snapshot of your local community is to head to the local grocery stores. All of them.
Not only do you get a pretty accurate picture of the local demographics, you also get a quick and dirty on their driving skills, their manners, and their eating habits. Oh, and if you are single, it’s a great place to meet fellow singletons.
Parks & Recreation Facilities
While you may never see anyone during working hours, here’s where you get to see your neighbors at play. But it’s also where you get to see how they behave in the sandbox – do they share, do they fight, or do they all play together nicely. Remember those school days when you watched the dynamics of the school playground? Well, the names and ages may have changed, but the rules sure haven’t, and here’s where you decide which team to try out for.. Or not.
So while we’ve taken a lighthearted look at good ways to check out your new neighbors, the bottom line is this – how did it all make you feel? Sure, you might not know anyone, but did the places and people make you feel comfortable and want to hang around, or did the little voice inside you tell you to get in the car and drive on to the next place? Call it intuition, call it gut feeling, call it what you want, but it’s actually you picking up on all the social signals that are sent out, and your job is to hear what’s being said, and decide whether you agree or not..