Who can you see?

Bookmark and Share

I like words and am delighted when one I have known for a long time takes on a new meaning. I remember it striking me that the first part of vinegar is French for wine. Now I knew that is wine if left in the open air it spoils and goes sour. So I was pleased to discover that a French word for sour is aigre. So vinegar means sour wine in French. Well I found it fun anyway!

Similarly neighbour means someone living nearby. Now neigh means being close to and bour is old English for farmer. This is common to the Boers, Dutch farmers who had gone from Holland to South Africa and sadly we had a war with at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Perhaps you don’t think of the person next door as a close farmer. But you can see how words with a long history would have been from an agricultural context. Or you do think of them as peasants anyway? Now words are not just about their derivations. They change form as they move through time and from nation to nation.

On a recent holiday I went for a walk in the countryside around where we were staying. The fields and woods were delightful. I found hares scurrying away from me. I also came across an enclosure keeping pheasants. The land was flat and that gave the impression that the skies were bigger. It was a wonderful afternoon. One of the difficulties was that at some points I had to walk along quite busy roads. Being out of town there were no pavements and so being alert to the traffic was very important. The general rule is to walk on the right hand side of the road so you can see the traffic approaching you. But on a tight corner the traffic could be obscured if you are on the inside of the curve. It is safer to be on the outside of the curve and have a better view even if the traffic is now coming from behind. 

But even if you know where the traffic is the roads were not big enough to allow passing traffic and a pedestrian so I had to step out of the road on to the verge. As a car approached I looked toward the driver and waved. I was pleased and a little surprised that the driver waved back. Well I had done them a favour and they did not have to move to the centre of the road or slow down. They had been as active in looking for pedestrians and seeking their welfare as I was to be safe. So each time a car passed I would wave at them. The great majority of drivers waved back.

Why I am I making something of this? I suppose because I was pleasantly surprised by behaviour that I not been told about when learning to drive with the Highway Code or even in the Country Code as a Scout. My other source of surprise was finding a sense of society and mutual respect that is often absent in town. How many times as a driver do we spot someone we know walking on the pavement or as a pedestrian see a friend drive past us. And yet there are oblivious to us. Maybe we wave and it is not returned. Maybe we feel a little foolish.

I think a lot of this is about the scarcity of people in the countryside compared to the town. The overload of so many people in a town makes us insular and not expect to be noticed let alone interacted with. In the early months of lock down Gill and I would make an effort to go for walks. Exercise is good for both mind and body. On our travels we would pass people and I would gently wish people a good day. Most people returned the greeting but usually after stepping out of their reverie. They had not expected to be noticed. Often these walks happened in our local countryside. It is not the place it is the culture that we have of self sufficiency, feeling overloaded, maybe even anxious about making the first step.

On my holiday walk I liked people who were neighbourly even thought it was such a fleeting experience. I learnt something new about sharing an encounter that we both recognised because we were looking out for each other. All of this should have been familiar as our faith says ‘love one another as you love your self’’. Who is my neighbour? Well it is the person that you see. Is it easier in the country where people are more rare but just as important in our towns that can be rather impersonal.

Best wishes

Alan Keeler