By Anita Doberman
I grew up in an apartment in a busy section of Rome, and aside from my cousins who lived on different floors of the same building, we never socialized with our neighbors. In fact, we were taught specifically not to trust anyone. There was a lot of crime in Rome and many kidnappings, so my parents were always watchful, and I guess I also became very careful of my surroundings.
I carried this attitude when I lived in Manhattan, which back then had its fare share of crime. I didn’t really make an effort to get to know my neighbors and was oftentimes afraid of what was behind the closed doors of their apartments. I thought, you never know, it could be another Ted Bundy. When I first moved to Venice Beach, Calif., I wanted to become friendly with a couple right across the street from us, but was disappointed when I found out that they were arrested for dealing drugs. This incident didn’t really help my distrustful attitude.
Then we became a military family and the shock of going from big cities to small towns was significant. Perhaps in an effort to compensate for my difficulty in adjusting, I started imagining that our neighborhoods would look exactly like Seaside, Fla., where the Truman show was filmed, a sort of suburban heaven. I wanted an area where everyone knew everybody else and where children ran around unsupervised. If I couldn’t have the excitement of the city, at least I could fantasize about the perfect neighborhood.
I actually came very close to this dream at some of our duty stations, where we became fast friends with our neighbors and where our children played with the other little kids around, though supervised.
But when we moved off base and in many small towns across the United States, I found that it was a lot harder to meet neighbors, and I was surprised by this fact. I didn’t realize that the disconnect I experienced was not specific to the city, but to people, and really to me.
My reluctance to reach out to others was partially a consequence of my upbringing, but it’s also attitude. I often make excuses, telling myself that we’ll move soon, or that these people seem unfriendly; they are not military; they are too much older or too much younger. But as my mom would tell me, if a particular problem seems to follow me around, then I must be part of the problem.
So in the last few weeks, I made an effort to exchange a few words with my neighbors and even bring them some cookies. I don’t think they were very good. I should really stick to pasta, but they appreciated the effort, and I felt more positive and confident that I am making my little square of suburbia friendlier.
I am still not a person who readily trusts others, but I am finding it easier to give people a chance and fear a little less that the person next door is a serial killer, even though at times, I would love to run a background check on all my neighbors. What can I say? Old habits are hard to break.
Anita Doberman is a freelance writer, mother of five and wife of an Air Force pilot stationed at Hurlburt AFB in Florida. The family expects to be moving to Cannon Air Force Base in the next year. Contact her at: