A Raging Party Turned My 73-Year-Old Neighbor Into My Friend
“This is katastrophe!”
Frau Voller, my 73 year-old neighbor, stood on the balcony of my apartment, a look of disgust on her face as she assessed the state of my garden. Wearing jeans and knee-high rubber boots, she had obviously stopped by not just to “look at my balcony,” as she had claimed, but also to do major garden surgery.
Frau Voller and I had lived next to each other for almost a year. She was a beautician, with a steady stream of clients coming to her apartment each day. But that was all I knew about her—except that, according to her nameplate, her first name began with an “R.” She always addressed me with the formal German Sie instead of the informal du, and I had yet to have a real conversation with her.
Now, she stood on my balcony with a trimmer, a bucket, and a few other tools—not the least of which was criticism.
“This is katastrophe,” she said again in German, shaking her head as she eyed my overgrown rosemary plant. I dont speak much German, but katastrophe was so close to its English counterpart that I knew exactly what it meant.
Soon, she was down on her hands and knees, sweeping behind my planters and washing my gutters with a hose. Her grey hair hung around her shoulders as she glared up at me, hopeless un-gardener that I was, as if she found my lack of a green thumb personally offensive.
I tried to help, but she made a point of redoing everything I did. So, I just stood there and watched, alternating between wanting to laugh and cry.
A few weeks later, a huge party came to town: Badenfahrt, a 10-day festival filled with music, parades, and fireworks. Loud music was blasted every night until 4 a.m., and the usual rules—like no flushing the toilet between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.—were completely abandoned. My apartment faced the main entertainment stage, meaning I was subjected to 10 days of nonstop vibrations.
Trying to escape the thumping bass one morning, I headed to only quiet place around—the basement. Sitting on the cold concrete floor of the shared laundry room, I had just started writing when Frau Voller appeared. She was wearing a brown velour jogging suit—something much more casual than her usual pressed slacks and blouses. She drew in her breath when she saw me, almost dropping her laundry basket.
I also took a deep breath, remembering our past laundry room encounters, and braced myself for another lint lecture. I also eyed the dryer door to see if I had left it open at her preferred 45-degree angle.
Instead, she spoke to me with a surprisingly friendly tone. “Escaping the noise?” she asked. I nodded. “This is my fourth Badenfahrt,” she continued, still sounding unusually upbeat. “I’ve lived here for 35 years.”
“And you…still here are,” I said in my best German, amazed to be actually holding a conversation with her.
She walked toward me and pointed to something hanging around her neck. “It’s a Badenfahrt necklace. I collect them from each festival. Come, I’ll show you more,” she said, gesturing at me to follow her.
We left the basement and took the stairs up to her apartment. As I entered, she turned toward me.
“Hi, I’m Rosmarie,” she stated, shaking my hand like we had just met. Music from the street blared in the background, but it barely registered.
Somehow, Badenfahrt was transforming Frau Voller into my friend.
“Come!” she said, grabbing a photo album and pulling me down beside her on a maroon loveseat. All around me were indoor houseplants—orchids, violets with hundreds of happy blooms, and a delicate white flower I had never seen before.
Rosmarie flipped through photos of past Badenfahrts—along with photos of all the cats she has ever owned: Schatzi sleeping in a laundry basket; Waldi swatting at a bird outside the window; Schnoerli hiding behind a geranium.
Then, it hit me: Where were all the people? Where were the friends and family members? I had seen a photo of her niece who lived in France, but that was it.
Most women in Switzerland are forced to choose between a family and a career, due to prevailing social beliefs that mothers should not work. I had assumed that Rosmarie voluntarily chose career over family. She had once told me that she spent Christmases alone, and that was how she preferred it. But now, I began to wonder if that was true.
“Do you want some Prosecco?” she asked, offering me a champagne glass. I realized that she had just addressed me with the informal du instead of the formal Sie.
“Thank you,” I said in return, using the formal version. She corrected me, insisting that I use du. I repeated the sentence, informally.
Rosmarie and I sat at the table and smiled at each other with a shyness that seemed out of place for two people that had lived next to each other for a year. She tucked a few strands of grey hair behind her ear. Below us, the square was packed with people screaming along to a Swiss-German rapper, and the festival statues, including a gigantic Lady Liberty and a communist worker, were lit in the background.
“Prost, Chantal,” Rosmarie said loudly, holding up her glass. Cheers.
“Prost, Rosmarie,” I replied above the din.
As we clinked glasses, I thought about how making friends in Switzerland can be an unusually long and difficult process. There’s so much formality and respect for privacy that it can be hard to get to know someone. But maybe this results in more loyal friendships. It may have taken a Swiss-German rapper and thousands of partiers outside our door for Frau Voller to transform into Rosmarie, but somehow that made our friendship stronger.
When Badenfahrt ended, the city returned to its usual state of orderliness. There was no more thumping bass outside my apartment, and toilets were no longer flushed between 10 p.m and 7 a.m.
But Rosmarie didn’t go back to being Frau Voller. In fact, she’s coming over for dinner next week. I invited her, and she couldn’t have accepted more quickly.
I guess that means I should go sweep my balcony.