My daughter has been following a thread on one of her mom’s groups, to do with the military life; a discussion on what happens when the dependent spouse doesn’t really want to move on to the next assignment with the active military member. That, we agreed, likely spells doom for the relationship, either right away or somewhere down the road. My daughter and I both knew families – well, spouses, mostly, who basically confined themselves to the base, base housing, a tight circle of adjacent friends, and simmered for months or years with resentment over being separated from family and the community which they had come from. I remember a fellow servicewoman in Greenland, who had her mother mail her cake mixes, because she was too apprehensive to go and shop for simple ingredients at the little general store on the Danish side of the base. She was afraid the staff would be laughing at her.

Stationed next in Greece, I ran into many families who were mildly terrified by the rampant anti-Americanism in the local media, and among some local nationals there; they went from their local apartments to the base, to the BX and the club and back again, and never went anywhere else or saw anything interesting, and lived for the day they could pack out and leave Greece behind. Frankly, I never encountered anything of the sort personally, and I diddy-bopped all over Athens and the Attic Peninsula, small blond daughter in tow and driving an obviously foreign car with base license plates. I came back one day from an excursion to several fabric shops in the Plaka – that is, the old town in Athens, centered around the narrow streets at the foot of the Acropolis heights and went to the BX annex to buy matching thread and notions. Another woman there admired the bag full of pretty fabrics and asked where I had bought them, since there was nothing like them in the BX. When I told her how I left my car on base and took a regular Athens city bus downtown to the Zappeion Gardens and walked to the various little shops … holy moly, from her expression of horror and revulsion, you would have thought I went hitchhiking naked down Vouliagmeni and paid for rides with blow-jobs.

Later on, when I transferred from Greece to Spain, I took all the leave that I hadn’t taken during the tour in Greece and drove my own car to Spain. The car ferry from Patras to Brindisi, up the length of Italy, over the Brenner Pass into Austria, across Germany and France and into Spain, guided mostly by the Hallweg Road guide open on the passenger seat next to me. I only ever met one other military family, during that long eccentric journey, although I did meet a handful of other adventurous Americans. Over the six years we spent in Spain, several summers worth of leave were spent in long road trips, staying in the many campgrounds in Spain, to facilitate sight-seeing on the economy plan. I know that other military families did this, but again, I never met any of them in the campgrounds.

Shortly before we departed from Spain, I took the wife of a neighbor in San Lamberto firmly in hand and frog-marched her through the little grocery store on the ground floor of the apartment building that she and her husband and children lived in. I had met her by chance that afternoon, when she lamented that she had missed calling her husband at work to tell him to bring home a packet of frozen peas from the commissary. That’s when I lost it – I told her to collect up the peseta coins and notes that she had in the apartment; I would show here where she could buy a packet of frozen peas! And other stuff: ‘This is where they have the fresh bread, daily – pan, which is white bread, and pan integral, which is whole wheat. In here is the fresh milk – it comes in bladders, but the shelf-stable stuff is in cartons. The chocolate flavor is good and my daughter will drink it, but the regular long-life milk has an off-taste that we don’t like. This is the meat counter – just point to what you like the look of and say, ‘Media, or una kilo, por favor.’ Up there are bags of little lemons – just ask for ‘una bolsa limon.’ The case of frozen stuff is over here – this is ‘guisantes’ or peas. There’s a picture of peas on the front of the package – most grocery items do have a picture on the front! This is sugar – called ‘azucar’ – and ‘harina’, which is flour, and ‘queso’ – which is cheese. Yoghurt is over here. They spell it ‘yogur’ which is enough alike that you should recognize it…”  I think she was good with shopping at the little grocery store, after that tour. I just thought it was a pity that she would so limit herself, when most things that she might want were available in the little grocery downstairs.

It purely amazed me how well one could get along with a limited vocabulary of necessary words: ‘Yes, no, please, thank you, excuse me, how much? Numbers from one to twenty Do you accept credit cards/traveler’s checks, half a kilo, please, left, right, stop here, take me to/the American base/railway station/youth hostel/museum,’ and the names for local food items or dishes. I used to know all this in about six languages, and got along very well, considering that I was an absolute dullard at languages otherwise. Needs must, though. And you need a sense of adventure, and a willingness to go out and try things. Otherwise, you’re just sitting in a room, wishing that you were somewhere else, and that’s no way to live a fulfilling life.


  1. You are absolutely right! Such a shame to limit oneself. And on the occasions when I was traveling and mildly made a fool of myself, it wasn’t the end of the world by any means.

  2. No, – I certainly agree about the necessity for absolute brass-neck social confidence in those circumstances – it carries one a long way, and you certainly have a lot more fun!