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.

20. September 2022 · Comments Off on Memories of the Opera · Categories: Memoir

The local classical station was playing the overture to Lehar’s Merry Widow operetta just now, and I was reminded once again of how very, very popular that musical was, in that halcyon period before the Great War, which turned out to be World War I, the first in an ongoing series. The melodies were infectiously toe-tapping and hummable, the operetta itself, incredibly popular – everyone went to see it; essentially a blockbuster about eighty years before the concept was invented for movies. The music went around the world; it seems that nothing presented on stage was so insanely popular until at least half a century later. Musical historians estimate that it got produced around the globe in every single city with pretentions to a music industry, and got tied into advertising everything from woman’s hats, to corsets, chocolates and whatever.

And when the Girl Scout troop that I belonged to went on a grand European tour – of the student charter flight-youth-hostel-EurRail variety – in the summer of 1970, we went to the Vienna Opera and watched a stage production of the Merry Widow … from the very top balcony, because we were all teenagers and on a budget. I don’t think that there were seats for us in the nosebleed row – it may have been standing room only. The view of the stage was amazing – honestly, the leading ladies’ decolletage looked as big as a tea-tray, from a vantage point so far up in the eaves and looking almost straight down at the stage. (It was standing room also when we went to see a performance of Richard III at the Shakespeare Theater in Stratford. I still have the program for that: Patrick Stewart was in the cast. When I went to the science fiction conventions in Salt Lake City in the mid-1980s and mentioned this to someone standing in line to get an autograph from Armin Shimerman, they said that I should go to a Star Trek convention where Patrick Stewart was appearing and freak him the hell out by asking him to sign it. Eh.)

I was one of those in the group who had a somewhat imprecise grasp of German, and also a knowledge of classical music, so it was bound on me to tell the other girls in whispers exactly what was going on, plot-wise. Which was a fairly simple task, based on what I already knew, thanks to being marinated in classical music, thanks to Mom, who had KPAC on all day, every day. The music was the important element, though – I think we all left humming the main waltz theme.

We were staying in a youth hostel in Esterhazy Park, not very far from the opera house – an old Nazi air raid shelter, which is now a dungeon museum. Probably a much more suitable use for the place. I rather liked Vienna, all things considered – it reminded me most of London, with ancient churches, palaces and parks around ever corner, all dusted with the faintly shabby air of an empire long gone.

The other night, I dreamt of a guy that I hadn’t seen or talked to in decades, an extremely vivid and detailed dream. We went to the beach together on a kind of surreal road-trip, embraced affectionately, spoke frankly about our various careers after we parted … and reconciled. He apologized for his ungentlemanly abandonment, and I leaned against his shoulder, the one which he once laughingly and specifically dedicated to me to cry upon … and it was all very good, although for some reason, I was babysitting Wee Jamie through this. I woke up after one segment of the dream, and when I went back to sleep, picked up the dream where I had left off. It was all very curious. I had been deeply and stupidly in love with him, over the space of three years, and wondered the next morning if this was some kind of premonition – that he had died. We are the same age, but he smoked like a factory chimney stack from the time that I first knew him, and not to put too fine a point on it; he was overweight, and to all appearances, not maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle. Also divorced at least once, possibly twice.

Yes, he is on FB, and I occasionally check in on his page, just to keep tabs, although there is not much personal on it, mostly military and veteran memes, and odd bits of this and that politically. Turns out that he has become a rabid anti-Republican and Trump-hater, which is curious for a military veteran, which would have probably necessitated a breakup eventually, even if the ferocious smoking habit hadn’t done it earlier. Back in early 1980s, when the breakup between us was still fresh and raw and agonizing; this was the song that summed it all up.



I was reminded of one of my personal great moments in customer service when I ran across this article in the Daily Mail. Honestly, I think that the provision of expensive gift hampers for the holidays is one of those in which British merchants have it all over American, but then they had a long, long, long head start on us.

Anyway, I was often stuck for a present for my paternal grandmother, Granny Dodie, as she had a houseful of things and had need of another ornamental vase, plate or candle holder about as much as President Biden needed another tub of uniformly marked and unfolded ballots in the last presidential election. I was stationed in Greece in the early 1980s, and Granny Dodie was living with Great Aunt Nan, her sister-in-law. My shopping for presents for the family was either in the various shops in the Plaka, the old district in downtown Athens which offered folk art, curios, antiques, and bits of this or that … or out of mail order catalogues. Among the paper mail order catalogues that I had was one for Fortnum and Mason, the plush and uber-upscale department store in London, and the thought came to me that Granny Dodie would certainly get a thrill out of receiving one of their gift hampers, full of traditional English specialties … so, I picked out one from the catalog that I could readily afford, filled out the order form, included an international money order (this was well, well before the internet, Oh Best Beloved…), popped the whole thing into the mail, and checked off Granny Dodie and Great Aunt Nan from my list.

Some weeks later, I was called to the telephone – at work at EBS-Hellenikon. I didn’t have a home telephone; most of us didn’t then, as the waiting list for a telephone through the Greek national telecom system was something like a decade long. (My landlord, and his sister and brother-in-law shared a single phone for their separate apartments, respectively on the ground and third floors of the building I lived in. I had the second-floor apartment. The phone traveled between apartments in a plastic shopping bag on the end of a long length of rope, as my landlord and his sisters’ family had need of it.)

The caller for me at work was from the customer service department at Fortum and Mason. Who had done a beyond-the-normal-call-of-duty effort in tracking my physical whereabouts from my unit and APO address, and somehow finding the correct base telephone number for the duty section where I could be reached during the day. It seemed that one of the items in the hamper that I had ordered – a cured ham, if I recall correctly – couldn’t be imported to the US. Customer service had an equivalent item which could be included in the gift hamper. Would that be satisfactory, and did I approve the substitution?

I approved, of course – and he assured me that the hamper would be dispatched immediately. I was slightly boggled at how he had managed to sort out where I was, when I hadn’t put a telephone number on the order form, only my address.

And Granny Dodie and Great Aunt Nan loved the hamper – they were thrilled no end, sampling the various gourmet contents. It was a success beyond my imagining as a Christmas gift, for which I was very glad later. It was the very last gift I was able to send her, as she passed away six months later.

There is a lovely little classical piece by Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed shortly after the end of the war, five of the six movements dedicated to the memory of an individual, and one for a pair of brothers, all close friends of the composer, every one of them fallen in a war of such ghastliness that it not only put paid to a century of optimistic progress, but barely twenty years later it birthed another and hardly less ghastly war. Maurice Ravel himself was over-age, under-tall and not in the most robust of health, but such was the sense of national emergency that he volunteered for the military anyway, eventually serving as a driver – frequently under fire and in danger. Not the usual place to find one of France’s contemporarily-famous composers, but they did things differently at the end of the 19th Century and heading all wide-eyed and optimistic into the 20th. Citizens of the intellectual and artistic ilk were not ashamed of their country, or feel obliged to apologize for a patriotic attachment, or make a show of sullen ingratitude for having been favored by the public in displaying their talents.

The war whose casualties Ravel memorialized in that way ended exactly a hundred years ago today; the eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour. It seems now to have been unimaginably distant at this point. The soldiers who fought in it for every nation and yet managed by pluck and luck to survive are all gone now … but like a long-healed wound, that war left horrific scars both physical and psychic. Woodlands and meadows the length of the Western Front across Belgium and France to this day are still marked by trenchworks, crumbling fortifications, the soil still poisoned by chemicals. All across Europe, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, what remained of Austria-Hungary – and the US, to a lesser extent – the smallest villages and the largest cities alike have memorials. Sometimes they are in odd corners, most often in a prominent place, with engraved tablets of names; the most notable were usually designed by the architectural great and good, standing on or near the battlefields themselves. The smallest memorials are sometimes the most moving – especially when the same handful of names appear. Everyone in this tiny village would have known this man or that, not just the immediate family and friends. This man, his neighbor, the boy who polished boots or delivered the mail; this and this, a hundred and a thousand times over. When those memorial monuments were first put up, the loss of the men – and sometimes of women – was a raw and savage grief. The observer picks up immediately on the sense of loss, the grief, the futile attempt to make a sense out of the cruelty visited on that community; they were here, they were of value, and now they are gone! The only thing we can do is to remember them.

The political and psychic scars from the First World War, I think, have proved to be the deepest, and the longest-lasting. We are still dealing politically with the fall-out and the razor-edged shards of broken empires. The Austro-Hungarian empire splintered into component nations; Russia replaced the Romanovs and old ruling nobility with an even more vicious ruling class, the Ottoman Empire both splintered geographically, replacing the old inefficient Sultanate with an equally inefficient and/or vicious assortment of local ruling talent. Germany, wracked in defeat, replaced their supreme ruler serially with inefficient democracy and then crowned that debacle with Hitler, suffering another round of defeat and division. France – gutted of a generation of able, healthy and patriotic young men, required for the continuance of a stable society, those friends whom Ravel honored and mourned in his composition. Great Britain and her far-flung Empire, also gutted of men and the supreme societal self-confidence required to maintain that Empire, fell apart on a slower timetable. Documented in small and large ways in western literature and in even popular contemporary genre novels, the war marked a turning, a vast gulf, a shattering of the old, 19th Century optimism, and the certainty that things were bound – with the aid of science and industry – to only get better and better for that part of the world which thought of itself as ‘civilized.’ To the characters created for a mass audience by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and any number of others – there seems in retrospect to be a “before” and an “after” to the war, which slashed a sharp dividing line across the cultural landscape; skirts were shorter, morals looser, music louder and more discordant, politics more rancorous, manners coarsened and buildings uglier. The shock and the loss of certainty in so much which had once been thought solid, stable, eternal … the reverberations when the guns finally fell silent on that day are still rippling across our consciousness, even when we don’t quite know why.