Monday, 11 January 2010

‘When the neighbours complain, it’s time to move’

So says my friend Ronaldo, and I agree.

Ten years ago, when I first moved to the small Swartland town in which I have since lived in a state of unadulterated bliss if you don’t count the three relationships I’ve had with serial killers, it was so off-the-map that people would ask me where it was. It’s actually only an hour’s drive from Cape Town, but at that time it was so little known it may as well have been a clitoris.

Back then, I lived on the outskirts of town in a little house (so small we called it ‘The Doll’s House’) on a huge plot of land. My only neighbour was a crazy artist who could frequently be seen standing outside on the dirt road, wearing nothing but outrageously camp jockeys and holding a charged martini glass, admiring and sometimes howling at the moon. We often held noisy parties on my verandah, and since the crazy artist was almost always a guest at these, and all the others were Cape Town temporary-escapees and/or criminally insane, no-one complained.

Eight years ago I moved some way into town – I bought a house on a tarred road (the house I wanted; the tarred road came with it). I had no neighbour on one side, just a large empty plot; and my neighbour on the other, the incomparable Oom Vossie (now deceased and much missed), was both slightly deaf and gratifyingly sprightly – he enjoyed hearing us partying into the small hours, he said, and I had no reason to disbelieve him. Across the road was a young, newly married couple who were so busy honeymooning that they were, assumedly, always too exhausted (or, perhaps, busy) to be disturbed by the 2am strains of ABBA emanating from my living room.

Then our little town got popular. ‘The new Franschhoek’ (blech), people started calling it, for the plethora of eateries and boutiques that began springing into existence (like, say, venomous serpents from Medusa’s head); the old and beloved Royal Hotel was bought by foreigners and renovated into ‘the Mount Nelson of the Swartland’ (ugh, and try and get a simple gin and tonic there and they’ll look at you as if you’ve just ordered squid eyes on a bed of minced babies); and house prices sky-rocketed. Where before, on any given street, there were at least two large empty plots to every dwelling, a demented rash of subdivision and construction began profoundly changing the landscape of the village.

And I got neighbours. And with them: noise. The house below mine, previously occupied by an elderly farmer’s widow whom I kept sweet by allowing her to harvest, for free, all the fruit on my property for use in her jam-making enterprises, sold out to a city couple, who wasted no time in renovating the house and installing – as city folk invariably do when they move to the country, because clearly they leave their brains behind – a large fowl run replete with crowing roosters, quacking ducks and honking geese. The plot on one side of my house was subdivided and sold, and the new incumbent immediately began building and has never stopped; and, for a time, he raised (or, anyway, tried to) free-range bunnies in his garden, and as the owner of (then) six cats I don’t think I have to say anything more about his choice vis-à-vis his rural ambitions, do I? When Oom Vossie died, my friend T bought his property and the renovations on that side have been ongoing for a year. My honeymooning neighbours produced, to no-one’s great surprise and in quick succession, three children, and then went the whole koeksister and opened a preschool so that during the week their front lawn was populated by dozens of tots apparently intent on tearing each other limb from limb and not doing it quietly.

And so some sort of quid-pro-quo reigned: my neighbours didn’t complain when my friends and I occasionally partied well into the night, and I didn’t complain about the endless daytime din of barnyard, building and minced-babies-in-the-making.

Until Wednesday night. We had a little gathering which, as these things do, turned into a bigger one when Johann arrived: late, and with bad company. While some of my more sensible guests went to bed, the others (and, of course, me) stayed up and danced. Granted, the music system – a small portable one – was, unusually, outside on the verandah (normally it’s inside, so the 100-year-old house walls screen at least some of the sound). And, at 2am, the police came knocking and told us to turn off the music as they’d received a complaint. We didn’t, of course, receive this information at first hand (we were too busy dancing): my son, asleep in one of the front rooms, was woken by the police (ironic, really, when you think about it), and he then came through to the back verandah and said to me, smirking with the kind of smirk that told me he would be cashing in this particular chit some time in the not-too-distant future: ‘Well, Mom, you’ve just got your first official complaint.’ (I wanted to say to him, ‘Nobody likes a wise-arse, darling,’ but I didn’t because the music was too loud and he wouldn’t have heard me. Not really.)

So, chastened, I turned down the music (more). Well, I was chastened; Johann immediately offered to burn down the house of whoever it was who’d whinged. But he can be like that.

On Friday morning I tested the sound system to see how loud the music had actually been – its top volume goes to 32; we’d kept it at 20 (and, as I said, it’s a small portable system). A friend who’d slept over (who, indeed, was accommodated in a room that opens directly onto the verandah) said that while she was dropping off to sleep, not only could she clearly hear our voices talking over the music, but that the sound of our feet as we lang-armed across the verandah was audible. So, we concluded, the music really hadn’t been that loud at all. (I double-tested it on Friday night, by taking it out onto the verandah and turning it up as loud as it would go and playing it at that volume for all the hours available until midnight, and it still wasn’t all that loud. Really.)

Look, I know what it’s like to be kept awake by thumping music and drunken screeching – I lived in Observatory in Cape Town for seven years, in a house sited directly, with frankly bizarre unfortunateness, across the road from two student digs whose denizens partied practically without cease, and there were times I lay awake in bed, drenched in anger and harbouring murderous intent. But, having conducted my volume experiments and garnered opinion from those who’d been in my actual house on Wednesday night, I have to conclude that one of my neighbours just has a bug up their bum.

So perhaps, having now received my first ‘official’ noise complaint in 10 years, it’s time to move on. I’m thinking an old rambling house under a windmill on a remote Karoo farm, where the nearest neighbours are kilometres away and the silence is deafening – except, of course, when the pristine semi-desert night is being torn to bits by Neil Diamond playing at full volume on the industrial music system I plan to install.

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MzHartz said...

We had that problem last summer and I'm ready to get a house in the middle of the woods.

We live in a townhouse. Our property has 92 townhouses on it spread across 4 long buildings. We live in the 3rd building. Between the 1st and 2nd buildings there is a large paved area.

On a warm Friday night, neighbors sitting outside their houses started to congregate in this paved area, us included. There were residents from at least 7 houses out there.

We weren't even playing any music. Most of us were just sitting around chatting, while 2 houses started a couple games of beer pong.

At 1am, the night manager came over and told us all to go inside. He didn't ask us to keep it down, he didn't ask us if we would go into one of the houses, he told us we had to go in. I was rather offended, but we walked over to our building and went home.

That next Monday we got a letter from the management that was an official noise complaint for having a loud party, and it was going into our file! One other house got the letter, but the houses that were playing beer pong, the only thing I can think of that would be loud, didn't get any letters. Heck, our house isn't even in the area where people were congregating!

At any rate, that was a long drawn out explanation just to say: I sympathize.

Juno said...

Mur, this post - and especially the splendid opening paragraph - confirms my belief that you are the funniest and most talented writers I have ever met.

sbu said...

you could always move to Soweto - the Cops never come. Not sure that's a good thing thou.
But as they say one woman's delicacy is another man's poison.

Muriel said...

MzHartz - Thanks for your sympathies. And 'beer pong'? I'm intrigued. How does it work?
Juno - Thank you darling thing! And I'm hoping that you will be with me on my verandah, disturbing the neighbours, very soon.
Sbu - My poison in this case isn't the cops so much as the people: my neighbours. And I'm pretty sure Soweto has a lot of neighbours! But thanks for the suggestion! :)

ali g said...

Come to Mudgee central tablelands NSW Australia Mez. can make all the noise you want here at our place ...nearest neighboor 2klms away. bloody geese and cows can be a bit over the top at times though but Neil Diamond at full volume is way to go and if it upsets the cattle well WTF. love your new picture

Maz said...

What a lovely article! I think we have all been there at some point. The thing to do now is to flush out the rat!

Muriel said...

Ali G - Ta for the invite, and don't be surprised if I turn up at your place one day (with my portable music system and Neil Diamond CDs, of course).
Thanks, Maz - and, believe me, my rat antennae are out and waving!

Mad scientist chef! said...

LOL! Oh heck, wonder what my neighbours think every time I blast them into orbit through the nightclub-sized speakers my husband still has left over from his djaying days? They've never complained so I assume they must be just as mad about techno and 80's music that I am.

Everyone's so uptight in suburbia though, and with a tendency to not get to know your neighbours, calling out the night manager in a complex is just insane.

Pablo (yo) said...

Great blog!!!
If you like, come back and visit mine:

Pablo from Argentina

Muriel said...

Mad scientist chef - nightclub-sized speakers?? I am pop-eyed with envy!
Pablo - thanks, and am coming to visit.

BBS said...

Oh what a shame.

MzHartz said...

Beer pong is usually played on one of those portable banquet tables. 10 plastic cups with a little bit of beer in the bottom are set up in a pyramid shape (like bowling pins) on each end. There's two people on each team. Standing on the opposite side of the table, each player throws a ping pong ball at the glasses on the other end. If they make it, the other team has to drink the beer out of the glass.

There's other rules too that some people use to make it more interesting, but that's the gist of it. And well, we've also played Wine Pong, Cocktail Pong, etc.