I realize that the majority of the population doesn’t know what it’s like to live on a military base, especially as an “SP” (spouse). Learning the lingo is an entirely different thing altogether, which I don’t think I will ever fully grasp. There are abbreviations for everything. Seriously, everything. CAC, SOFA, BAH, PX, etc, etc, etc. As a newbie I often nod at whoever is endlessly spouting out abbreviations, then nudge my husband (who often doesn’t know either).
Though we’re located in Bavaria, Germany, entering base feels like setting foot in a tiny, patriotic America. The differences create an environment that is slightly shifted from a typical American town. The traffic lights operate differently, flashing orange before both red and green. They are also located very close to the line, making it so you have to strain your neck to see if the light has changed. There are people walking around in uniform everywhere you look. Tanks pass by you while driving. Obviously, this isn’t surprising on a base but it takes a minute to get used to. Similarly colored buildings at every turn. I often imagine base as a college campus, though with a less aesthetically pleasing appeal.
Instead of seeing a Hannaford or Shaw’s, you see the Commissary, a dated building with COMMISSARY in large, blue, block letters bolted across the top front. It shares a mall-like building with the PX, where you can buy furniture and various odds and ends, along with a barber shop, cell-phone store, and (surprisingly), a Popeye’s and a Dunkin Donuts. I was very happy to see the Dunkin Donuts. These touches of home sometimes make me forget where I’m standing on the globe.
When going in the Commissary, you’ll see a regular, albeit lower-end grocery store, with not a wide variety of vegetables, where you need to tip the baggers and show your military ID twice before making any purchase. As you leave the self-checkout lanes a loud mechanical voice shouts out, “Thank you for shopping at the Commissary.” This used to register as strange to me, like an apocalyptic Wal-Mart, but time and repetition have made the edges less sharp on these differences. The Commissary really stands out to me here on base, probably because it’s very similar to a grocery store you’d find in any small town America, though uniformed people walk through the aisles and signs reading “Thank you for your service” stand behind the shopping baskets.
To give you a glimpse of life here outside of shopping, you will often wake up to the sound of gunfire and bombs going off. Nothing to be scared of, just practice drills. But these sounds ring on and off throughout day for multiple days, then it’s silent for days on end. You never know when they will sound off again. My friend, who lives next to a playground, hears schoolchildren screaming with each blast, then the sound of soothing teachers telling them it’s nothing to be scared of. A necessary disturbance in the grand scheme of things, but definitely something to get used to in your first few weeks on base.
On top of this, it seems like the process to do daily tasks is skewed and more complicated than back home in U.S. Buying coffee and cigarettes needs to be done with a rations card. Even getting gas for the car is an entirely different process involving a fuel card and showing your registration and ID.
Seeing a mass of people in uniform everyday eventually becomes routine, though the sheer amount of young men here is eerie, especially compared to older people, women, and children. There isn’t a wide range in age and gender, the people on base are ethnically diverse.
Though every one of these changes felt like a huge hurdle in the first month of living on base, each day that passes normalizes these subtle differences; differences that once felt like glitches in the matrix. What once was so familiar yet foreign now feels like home. A home that I am so grateful for.