Beware: A menace currently prowls in our otherwise idyllic neighborhoods, threatening to infiltrate our lives and disrupt the social structure in our communities. Once these prowlers take up residence in our localities, we cannot avoid them. They emerge like swarming termites in search of fresh pulp to sink their pincers into.
These vermin are relentless. They follow us to school, they approach us in the commissary, they ring our doorbells.
Who exactly are these pests, you might ask? No two are the same, but they all have something in common: They just PCS’ed here and are desperately looking for new friends. Yup, it’s true. The Newcomers are here.
Every summer, military families pack up, vacate housing, and move on to their new duty stations. The rest of us wave good-bye to our friends and resolve to sadly but persistently plod along without them. Just when we think we are managing just fine in our established social circles, it happens: Throngs of new people move in, unpack a few boxes, then creep out into our neighborhoods to trespass on our social territory.
Truth be told, I was one of these pestering new people just a couple years ago. After saying good-bye to family and friends back home, we plunked down into Germany without so much as a familiar face to greet us.
Our first few weeks in the base hotel waiting for housing were surprisingly enjoyable. Like a little girl playing house, I challenged myself to come up with creative ways to make a family dinner in the room’s tiny microwave. I proudly served up canned soup and egg salad sandwiches made from the hard-boiled eggs and bread we had pilfered from the hotel breakfast buffet. I reconfigured the furniture to create a place the kids could make a fort. I memorized the unfamiliar TV channels while ironing all of our shirts, pants, and underwear.
By the third week, the novelty of our life at the hotel had worn off. I found myself chatting with the hotel clerk, the commissary baggers and anyone who got in an elevator with me, to combat the solitude of spending days with my suitcases and AFN.
After five weeks, we finally moved into base housing. I scanned the neighborhood for potential friends while walking the dog, taking the trash out, and schlepping the kids to school. I would make eye contact with those who looked approachable, and offer a friendly smile in an effort to initiate an interaction.
But for some reason, nothing seemed to work. In fact, I started to get the feeling that people were avoiding me. Women seemed to avert their eyes when I glanced at them. Moms pushed their strollers a little quicker when they noticed I was behind them. As I walked by the stairwell patios, groups of chatting ladies got a little quieter.
As desperation set in, I made some rash choices. Despite the fact that I have never really enjoyed the sport, I joined the Ladies Bowling League and paid for a full year commitment. I made a pledge to volunteer every week in my daughter’s third grade classroom without considering my general exasperation with other people’s kids. I promised to sub for a bunco group that was affectionately referred to as “The Screamers,” due to their habit of emitting blood-curdling squeals after landing any mildly-beneficial roll of the dice.
In the end, it was my dog, Dinghy, that saved me from total social ambiguity. A 110-pound “labradoodle” with an explosion of dirty blonde hair, he was far more popular than I was. Kids and their mothers stopped to pet Dinghy, which required some interaction with me. In due course, people realized that I wasn’t as nerdy and pathetic as I appeared, and I made a few friends.
Now, in the third year of our tour with more friends than I need, I see “The Newcomers” skulking around with that same pitiable look in their eyes that I once had. But do not despair, you throngs of pathetic loners, your time will come. Like the circle of life, these cyclical social stages are inevitable. For now, use whatever skills you possess – your kids, delicious baked goods, your irresistible dog – and one day you will be the one running from the stalkers among us.