SHAPE, US Military Installation In Belgium: What's It Like? Part 2

This is Part 2 of a series about SHAPE, NATO headquarters in Belgium. Click here to read Part 1.

CONTRIBUTED BY MARTHA HEPLER

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Perhaps some of you are reading this to find out what you’re in for, and perhaps some of you are reading to decide whether SHAPE is for you, as you’re lucky enough to have some say in the matter. Regardless, I want to preface this with a thousand disclaimers, which boil down to: this is one woman’s opinion. (Don’t blame me if you move here and decide I was wrong!) I like to judge an opinion by knowing who it’s coming from, so a very brief biography: I’m a third-generation Army wife with roots on both coasts; I’ve been doing this Army thing with my husband for 10 years, including three overseas tours (two in Europe and one in Asia); I have two young kids; we’ve purposefully pursued overseas assignments because we think they’re awesome; I do my best to like wherever we live because otherwise life is sad. So.

The most glaringly obvious thing to mention is that SHAPE is different.

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It’s not American, so the installation itself comes with a host of unfamiliar sights, sounds, activities, and cultures. All 28 NATO member nations are represented at this base. You’ll see soldiers in a visual potpurri of uniforms taking beers in front of the cafe in the midafternoon, while housewives sit with cigarettes and cappuccinos nearby. You’ll hear people who don’t speak the same language communicating as best they can in English or French, though you’re likely to hear Italian, Turkish, or German floating by as well.

You’ll meet American moms who have their kids in the Canadian school, Belgians who have their kids in the American school, bilingual families trying to decide between German, American, and British schools. You can get library books in French, Norwegian, Croation, etc. as well as in English. The speed limit on base is a little higher than the 15 kph you might expect, there’s “motorbike” parking in front of the grocery store, and look out for some cultural confusion in the traffic circles! The on-base bureaucracy is, quite frankly, a labyrinth bathed in molasses, so best to come mentally prepared for that. The year-round festivals for each NATO country are plenteous and scrumptious. You will not find a mini-America here. (Go to Chièvres Air Base for that.) I would call the SHAPE experience slightly less comfortable but a lot more culturally rich than your typical American installation overseas.

Like any military base, though, it does have a distinct culture from what’s around it, after you make your way past the typical near-base blight (abandoned car dealerships, a sketchy club, a burned-out building–but we all know you could find those things next to almost any military base). Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium where SHAPE is, is a pleasantly low-key place that rocks the shabby chic. The roads are potholed, but the drivers may let you in–and their priority-to-the-right rule is the single most civilized driving concept I’ve ever encountered. (On paper, that is. In real life it doesn’t always turn out quite so civilized.)

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Like everywhere in Europe, the modern and practical is mixed with the ancient, the elegant, and the crumbling–efficient apartments next to rambling farm houses, cow pastures next to gas stations, butchers next to computer repair places, a gargantuan cement factory straddling the banks of a quaint canal, grand chateaux nestled in suburban sprawl. And in a style very typical of this particular place, everywhere, bricks: bleak city-house bricks pressing in along narrow roads; perfectly weathered country bricks tracing the path of where a chimney used to be; sleek new beige bricks on an energy-conserving modern house; ivy-laden pockmarked bricks on that bit of falling-down wall in the pasture; the creepy brick spines of early 20th-century coal-fortune mansions. Bricks to walk on and bricks arching above you. I even saw a small brick building being transported on a truck once; I don’t know how that’s possible, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

And then there’s the climate. It, along with the northern latitude, was my top concern about moving here. We’ve been here a year and a half now, and I came prepared for the darkest, gloomiest, rainiest existence I could take–and I’ll tell you that these expectations were not met. Yes, it is frequently misting and it rains often enough, but we see the sun more than I expected. Yes, in the winter it gets dark awfully early and stays dark late, but when the spring comes around the tilt of the earth moves awfully fast in the other direction–catastrophically, even, for a mom of young kids who like to be up when the sun is–and you find yourself photographing the remnants of the sunset at 11 PM. (Dear everyone who lives north of here: respect and excellent black-out shades to you, brave folk.) The whole cycle from dark to light is a little bit extreme, but it’s certainly no Alaska or Norway. With the proper window dressing, eye masks, and maybe a little light therapy lamp and vitamin D for the winter you’ll be fine.

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You will find yourself wearing your fleece and rain jacket in every month of the year here, and there’s a pleasant stability to it with the temperature being between 45 and 65 Farenheit most of the time. Yet it is not without variety. Winter is dark and cloudy, no doubt. But in March the sun breaks through and winds push shapeshifting clouds across the blue. Last April for two weeks our weather was exactly the same as Sicily’s. In May we had daily 10-minute hailstorms. In July we groaned sleepless under ceiling fans for a week, the heat blanketing us. There are swings that keep things interesting, but the weather always returns to something reasonable, if a tad moist.

After only a year, I’m not sure how to speak about the culture without engaging in the most base stereotyping, but I’ll try. Wallonia is not the “northern-European” creature that many expect–I know now that would be Dutch-speaking Flanders to the north. Locals have more in common with the French than with the Dutch. Francophones love their language dearly, and they appreciate it when you try to speak it. Aside from those associated with SHAPE, you often won’t find much English spoken. There is a delectable, wry sense of humor that runs through the current of daily life and transcends language. The Mons area has historically had a very heavily Italian influence, which is evident from the restaurants to the culture to the number of “I” plates you see around. The Montoise, like elsewhere in Belgium, love their mussels, their fries–or their potatoes in any form–their waffles, and of course their beer and chocolate.

One of the loveliest things about the area around SHAPE is how green it is, even in January. The grass is lush year-round. If you leave the confines of base,  you will find a fascinating area with plenty to explore. Whether it’s one in a string of overseas assignments or your only foray into the rest of the world, I believe it’s worth it.

This post was originally published on Our Gypsy Camp, and is being re-used here with permission of the author.

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