‘Please sir, may I go to the toilet?’ The (curious) traditions of a dining night

When I tell my civilian friends I have to wait for permission to go to the toilet at a ladies guest night, they usually fall about laughing, or look at me with disbelief! But waiting for the ‘admin break’ [that’s toilet-stop to you and me!] to be announced at these formal, but friendly, dining nights is just one of many long-standing customs followed.  Punctuated by pomp and ceremony and far-removed from the real world, the formality of dining nights starts with the dress code; usually something along the lines of:

 Dresses should be calf-length or longer and shoulders may be uncovered provided that the dress is not unduly revealing. 

Donning those easy-to-find polo-neck and ankle-length smocks, everyone meets in the Mess [formal bar!] for pre-dinner drinks, before being summoned to the dining room; sometimes by a gong or trumpet!  Filled with speeches, toasts, many courses and an abundance of wine, these are – sometimes tediously – long evenings set against a backdrop of traditional customs.  Or in my case, a backdrop of minor and not-so-minor faux-pas! In addition to the admin breaks, other defining customs include:

  • Standing behind your chair whilst waiting for the top table to enter and only sitting after the grace.
  • Resisting the natural urge to pull out your chair, as protocol states that a ‘gentleman’ do it for you.
  • And the evening finishes with the passing of the port decanter: always to your left and sometimes not allowed to touch the table between each person.  If you have managed that little feat, the next challenge arises: as tempting as the glass of port in your hand is, after enduring a long evening of speeches, rich food and lots of drink, you can not let a drop touch your lips until the Loyal (Her Majesty, the Queen) and Heads of State Toasts have been made.

That brings me back to my not-so-minor faux pas; aside from regularly forgetting most of the above, my most cringe-worthy dining night moment still has the power to make me laugh to this day:  I really didn’t like the look of the fish starter placed in front of me at one function and noticed a very appealing platter of vegetarian delicacies a little to my left.  Having enjoyed several of these tasty morsels, I was mortified when the lady sat on my left kindly asked me to stop eating from her plate!   😆 😳 The rest of the meal passed mostly in excruciating silence, as I wavered between an uncontrollable urge to giggle at my faux pas and extreme embarrassment at what she must have thought when I kept helping myself to her starter!

If you have any funny anecdotes about dining nights, please share!

Conquering cleats!

Judging by the laughter emanating from my husband, as I picked myself up from the floor – complete with trainer still attached to my bike’s pedal – the sight of me falling over whilst trying cleats for the first time, is the funniest thing-ever!

Having not fallen off my bike since I was a child, that slow-motion feeling as the inevitable happens did bring on my giggles and yes, I did feel a bit of an idiot.  However, I am consoled by the saying that everyone falls over at least once whilst getting used to cleats.  My advice: practise on a soft landing and where there are no onlookers; particularly unsympathetic husbands!

The dependants…

They call us dependants.  This official term for the spouses and children of a serving member is defined in the dictionary as someone who is reliant on someone else: this surely warrants exploring.  I guess to look at, I am small; perhaps even a little fragile-looking to some and then there’s Tina, not quite as short as me, but nonetheless we are officially dependants.

Back to Tina.  Here’s a woman who I hit it off with straight away.  What you see is what you get and then some more! Actually Tina is about the least-dependent, dependant I have ever had the privilege of meeting.  For a special birthday, she asked to be winched into the mediterranean; I am still not sure why…She recently drove a banger through parts of Europe for charity and because it would be a laugh.  And thinking about it, she probably sees more of her dog’s vet and certainly her children’s teachers, than she does her commuting husband.

I can’t boast quite the same adventurous-tales as Tina, but I was quite proud of moving countries by myself, heavily-pregnant and with a young child.  Of welcoming a lorry of possessions from Cyprus, a further lorry of long-forgotten possessions from three-years in storage and then unpacking the 60+ boxes I was surrounded by.  With a year-long weekend-only husband, I have had my share of coping with everything alone and also managed to keep a semblance of work going along the way.

“It’s like gaining an extra child,” another friend exclaimed when referring to her husband’s rare visits home.  Ever-stoical, she even appeared to take it all in her stride when a phone call from her husband was suddenly aborted with the sound of mortar.  He didn’t call back for several days….several days! When moving back to the UK, we were on the same flight, accompanied by her three boys (and no husband), and she then had a seven-hour-plus drive ahead of her to reach home.  Upon commenting on how amazing she was, she calmly told me that her husband had thanked her with a diamond necklace.  I expressed how lovely that was and still chuckle to this day when I recall her closing statement: “Oh, he doesn’t know yet!”

Living overseas, surrounded by dependants, all of whom had relocated countries, left their friends and families thousands of miles away and were totally ready for the next adventure – often with their husbands away for several months at a time – taught me one thing: we may be called dependants, but dependent, we are not!

We would love to hear your stories.

A trip down memory lane

As the rain seeped through my impractical ballerinas and soaked the bottom of my jeans on the school run this morning, I found myself wistfully thinking back to our dry, hot, humid and dusty three years in Cyprus.

My dry and dusty Cypriot garden!

My dry and dusty Cypriot garden!

After a trip down memory lane, I came up with today’s top ten things I miss:

  1. The amazing views of mountains and sea whilst cycling to the beach; particularly when the Red Arrows were on their annual practise overhead DSC_0202
    Tina and I must have been spotted cycling below...

    Tina and I must have been spotted cycling below 😉

    and Tina was alongside me!

  2. Wearing flip flops most of the year.
  3. Lizards scurrying under bushes and the sounds of the cicadas in the trees.
  4. The Cypriots love of children: not just tolerating children in restaurants, but actively welcoming them in, taking them off you to go and tour the kitchen and coming back laden with ice-cream or chocolate pudding freebies; sometimes for the whole family!
  5. Huge blocks of feta and halloumi cheese.
  6. Not having to open the curtains to work out what to wear each morning!
  7. Eating outside – all year round.
  8. The light in the house.
  9. The people and the community spirit on an overseas base.
  10. The huge and seasonal fruit and vegetables: aubergines, artichokes, watermelons and best of all; strawberries in January!

The after-effects of deployment.

Experiencing the emotional cycle of deploymentWe have all seen the heart-warming pictures: husband returns home from many months away to an emotional and joyful family reunion.  And it is emotional and joyful: months of worry and unrelenting responsibility are eclipsed by anticipation, excitement, relief and sheer, complete joy! But take a moment to imagine the what-happens-after pictures:  the wife, with her freshly-gained independence,  tediously picking up clothes and coffee mugs after her husband; or maybe the wife appreciating and yet taken aback by the fact that after months of being the sole person in charge, she is suddenly superfluous to requirements as the children can’t get enough of daddy; or poignantly, the children who panic every time daddy goes away for a short period of time; ever suspicious and fearful of another 100+ sleeps without cuddling him.

Despite my husband having returned from a four-month tour, three months ago, I still find myself adjusting to his homecoming and recently wondered why I feel a sense of comfort when he goes away for the week.

Am I unusually cold, or is this a normal part of adjusting to deployment?

The answer hit me: I have become so used to doing everything alone, that it has become my normality.  When he is here, my routine is disrupted and when he is away I go back to my normal!  Notice all the I’s and my’s: clearly another effect of enforced separation!

Of course, we all experience things differently and the reason it might be taking me a while to adjust to the homecoming may be because when he was posted a year ago, we decided to not relocate as a family so that we could keep the children in the school they are happy in.  The downside: in the past year, we have only been together at weekends and then not at all for four months.

Are my current feelings here to stay: a permanent effect of so much time alone, or is this just a transition period?

Seeking answers, I sought out a copy of  the emotional cycle of deployment and was relieved to discover that my feelings are apparently normal: I am currently somewhere between stages six and seven.  I was also thrilled to discover this embellished version by Stacy, who resides over the big pond and writes The Flibbertigibbet blog:

Now, looking back, I feel so positive about the recent deployment and time apart.  It fundamentally changes you: you do things that you might have previously left for your husband,  you become more confident by having to do everything in the house and with the cars, you manage your children’s deployment-enduced fragile emotions and constant school commitments and significantly, you feel empowered by the new tasks you take on and the things you learn.   But it takes time, a lot of time, to adjust to your new role and the first few weeks were tough; emotionally and physically:

He’s going away for four months; how can I possibly explain more than 120 sleeps to the children? 

Put it to the back of my mind: don’t think about it, it’s not for a while.

Time to start planning; endless lists of things to learn:how to maintain the cars, how to mend fuses, check out the operations of the water tank, how to contact him in the event of an emergency… and lists on how to occupy the weeks ahead: places to go and people to visit.

It’s getting closer, but I feel strong!  I’ve done this before, many times! I refuse to allow it to get me down this time; or am I deluding myself?

It’s really close; I withdraw from him, I can’t hold him and I don’t want to talk about the time apart: I don’t know why – maybe some basic preservation instinct – but I find myself secretly reading the notes about his accommodation, what he can expect out there…

The day has arrived: it drags.   Just go, get it over and done with!  Daughter, who can understand the timescale, cries herself to sleep.  Tiny son, not really comprehending but still tearful.  The last hour is heart-wrenching, endless and then in the last five minutes, the transport calls to say they have been delayed by an hour.  No, no no, no, no!!!!! The last, last hour is sheer pain: tearful, holding, empty, can’t let go:knowing it will be so long, if ever…

And then the door closes: silence, a sense of utter despair and loneliness descending with the comprehension of the long, lonely nights ahead.  Not knowing when the first contact will be, or how often; but know it will be better than the eblueys-only of a few years ago.   

Routine, routine, routine is the key.  As is supportive friends, time to myself and keeping busy.  Weeks pass, slowly but surely.  Feelings constantly change:

Feeling strong, I really can do this!  

Feeling fed up: its been so long.   Everywhere I look I see children with their dads; on the school run, at the park, at parents evening, in the shops.  

Feeling tired…so very, very tired…need a break, need some help with the chores, with the children.  

Hang on in, just a couple of weeks to go…Feeling excited, relieved, apprehensive… 

You only realise how strong you are, when there is no other choice.

Understated diary entry

July 1942Whilst looking through my granddad’s log book from WWII, I was struck by this entry:  for what must have been an absolutely terrifying moment in time, which happened 3768 weeks ago, on 02 July 1942, comes across as so matter-of-fact in the way it was written up.  As a friend said to me, “Within those few lines, lies an entire film.”

Doing too much? Complete Madness.

Yet again I find myself pondering why there are not 48 hours in every day instead of 24; wondering if I’ve taken on too much, and surrounding myself with stress…

In the past few day as as we’ve headed back to school, which of course requires new shoes, uniform checks and clubs and activities administration, such as piano lessons (why did we change the day?), swimming and martial arts, I have decided that it would be a really good idea to place our house on the market, consider volunteering to set up and run a scouting group and attend the first PTA meeting of the new academic year.  The latter requires supporting the school with the production of a charity cookbook (and having done one before I know the stress involved), whilst organising husband’s 50th birthday and coping with the changing dynamics of my mother moving into our dining room.  This, with husband currently overseas, and about to take on a militarily challenging new responsibility that is not only potentially life-threatening, but also will require extensive global travel.

Now, with little time left for self-examination, I have come to the conclusion that I am MAD! And I need to learn to say ‘no’ … but that would mean less opportunities for my children to grow and develop socially, less fundraising to support my children’s education, leaving a potentially explosive mother-daughter relationship fighting over the kitchen (and there are too many sharp knives in there), and I’ve always known my husband’s job is dangerous and that is why he finds it exciting (as I did too when I served in the Royal Air Force).

So MAD I may be, but a well intentioned MAD woman!

From civvy, to milly, to civvy

Seven years ago, Juliet and I met online desperately seeking answers!  Having just found out that we were moving to RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, we were full of questions: what furniture should we take, what would the houses be like, did we need to ship winter coats, should we stock up on anything in case the local shops didn’t sell it…?

Aside from having a marvellous sense of humour, I soon discovered that Juliet is also the master of quotes.  My personal favourite was: ‘Stick a fork in me, I’m done”.  That pretty much summed up the hot and sweaty summers in Cyprus.  Tina came along a year later and I will also never forget my first proper meeting with her as I thought my daughter, who had been playing ball with Tina’s dog in the searing sunshine, had killed said dog from heat exhaustion….

We shared the same horrors of the welcome pack, which detailed such niceties as: what to do in the event of an earthquake and you might find snakes, scorpions, Cyprus widow spiders and processionary caterpillars in your garden, as well as cockroaches in your house!  And boy did we find cockroaches!  To this day, I still remember many stories about them; including one from Ali, who woke up to use the bathroom and found one of the offenders sat on her toothbrush!  Ali, if you are reading this, imagine, if you hadn’t needed a pee that night….or if this was not the first night said cockroach had befriended your toothbrush….!

We shared the same experiences of living on a military base overseas, which was not unlike a colonial lifestyle with plenty of socialising and heat, where pretty much everyone knows everyone and every need is catered for; a cinema, a bowling alley, a school, a doctors, a dentists, a gym, shops, hairdressers, florists etc.  We met teachers, midwifes, doctors and dentists on a professional basis in the morning and then found ourselves rubbing shoulders with them on the beach in the afternoon, or in the Mess in the evening;  dreading the day we needed a smear test or some other personal trial!  We saw and supported our amazing friends who were coping with the worries and physical pressures of being left on their own for months at a time; looking after children by themselves, thousands of miles away from the support of their families, whilst their husbands were serving overseas.

And now, the three of us are back to the rain and normality! Based in Kent, Cornwall and Cambridge we chose to live outside the wire and want to reminisce with and hear from you.  Whether it is about Cyprus, being a military wife at home or overseas, adjusting to life in civvy street, coping for months on your own, or something quite unrelated, we want your comments.   Whether it’s about the Med, the MoD or just plain mad, we want to hear from you!