This morning I woke to "The Star Spangled Banner." Even on weekends, it's played on the base-wide PA system, and this morning it seemed brutally loud and very foreign when I was trying for the first time in weeks to sleep late.
I had a millisecond of panic before recognition set in: I'm in Cuba. On an American base. My kids attend the only American school in a Communist country in the world. I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4000 Cubans who are trained to kill me.
Okay, that last part isn't really true. But I can see Cuban watchtowers out of my front windows. And I'm sure they watch me, too.
This week marks six months that I've been here, and next week will be six months for the guys. Can you believe it?
In many ways, our lives have remained the same. Yes, we are living in a foreign country, far away from home. No, we really aren't living in a foreign country---we're living in a 45 square mile area of foreign country that is segregated from any actual "foreign-ness."
Except it really is a whole other world.
Twice this week, I've heard people refer to this place as "Back to the Future." As in, you got out of your DeLorean, and it is April 20, 1991. Time has neglected this place. Lots of buildings are full of termites or rust or mold. I sometimes think someone in Washington has forgotten about us, because many places here are in serious need of an overhaul.
I have reflected this last week, when talks of furloughs have settled down and several excessed teachers of closing DoDDS schools in Europe are finding out where they are going, about what would have happened if my first job would have been on any other international post in the world.
We would be experiencing the actual culture of a country right now, instead of getting glimpses of it through binoculars or hearing bits and pieces on the radio.
Instead of McDonalds or Subway or Pizza Hut or a handful of small (mostly American) restaurants on base, we could venture out for authentic local cuisine. I could be writing this as I sit with my glass of wine, people watching from a café in Germany or I could be nursing a beer in a pub in Belgium or drinking a strong expresso in Italy. I could be experiencing my life-long dream of traveling through Asia.
Weekends would be hopping on trains or autobahns or subways and seeing the world. It would be much easier to go back to the States anywhere else (and easier for people to come see us). We could grocery shop at local farmer's markets and grocery stores and try to guess what the labels are saying. My kids would be picking up another language.
My highschooler could participate in sports against other teenagers, instead of against adults. I still feel lots of sadness and guilt for taking him away from a music program where, for three years, he had learned to beautifully play the cello. We could be somewhere that has a high school orchestra.
But when I get down on what we don't have, I also think about what we do have.
Anywhere else in the world, we would be living off the military post and on the local economy. It requires a lot of paperwork, and requires a leap of faith that you will end up in a good area for commuting while taking traffic or weather or your children in account. As I am writing this, a herd of kids just ran through the back door and out the front. Would we have that if we were living in the middle of a town somewhere else, especially moving in the middle of the school year when we didn't know anyone? Would my kids have instant friends in the neighborhood? Would there even be kids in the neighborhood?
Would it be safe for my teenager to hop a bus and be home by 11 pm? Could he go to the movies (for free) or bowling (for cheap) and meet friends without us worrying about his safety or us having to take him there and back home?
It is very back to the future---I do feel like I'm raising my kids in the 1970s. Get them some bell bottoms and a banana seat bike (mine was purple), and the effect would be complete.
I don't know how I would handle living where it is cold and wet and damp and grey again. Living in Washington State almost killed me. Oh, it was so depressing! And I loved Colorado and snow---until my feet got wet and cold. Then I become a sniveling, whiny baby. Nobody needs to see a middle aged mom whine and cry about her feet being cold.
Being, well, STUCK at this place without a way to live off post---a requirement of civilian employees anywhere else in the world----means that the military has graciously extended benefits to us that most civilians don't get. My dependents and I can participate in base-wide events for free; we get to shop and attend programs that most civilians don't know about or get to do anywhere else in the world.
I really like that we rub elbows with the military community more here than we would at any other place, because they are, after all, the heart of this place and the reason the schools exist. (And being a former Army wife, I have a very soft spot for anyone who has lived that life).
This is a great first place to land, and if for some reason we decide to stay forever or go back to the States, it will be a great last place. In six months, I have managed to find a nice mix of friends, including coworkers, neighbors, and friends of friends. I feel like I'm back in my little hometown of less than 2000 people---I was in the Commissary this morning, and had two little girls hug me at the meat counter, another one hug me in the cereal aisle, had 3 different parents of my kids' classmates greet me, talked to a coworker at the doorway, had another conversation with someone I just met at a workshop this week, and made sure I stood in line for my favorite checker---he always gives the youngest a fist-bump and teases him.
I could have tried harder the last 10 years that I was in Texas, I guess---I could have tried every single semester, for example, to get into the local school district so I could have known many more people and felt like I was more connected to my community. I could have gotten out more in my neighborhood, baked pies for the new folks, offered to help the old folks with yard work, etc. We could have moved out of our historical neighborhood and into a newer, family-friendly development that attracts more than house flippers and old people.
But some of you know how this goes---once you are living your life, you can't just slow it down and start over. Sometimes you need a drastic change---like pulling up stakes and moving your family, even if it is to a base that many Americans don't even realize exists.