Embracing change: my experience of living in military housing, overseas

Not too long ago I found myself advising a close friend to try to be excited about a life-changing move. Her husband had accepted a job overseas and to say she didn’t want to re-locate was putting it mildly. And I knew those feelings all too well. Seven years ago, we found out we were moving to Cyprus and although I had a flicker of excitement, I really didn’t want to go. I had a great job and my family and friends were in the UK; why would I want to give that all up? But as a good military wife does, I packed up the house and went without [too much] complaint. Three years later, I didn’t want to come home as despite a rocky start, I had learnt to embrace the differences and had the most amazing time. But in the first few weeks, I could never have anticipated that…

Five hours after take off, we arrived at RAF Akrotiri as a family. This was no mean feat given that my then eighteen-month-old daughter had first been booked onto a different flight to us and then, after I queried this anomaly, the same flight, but a different seat. A few minutes into the guided tour of my first ever military house, I was overwhelmed by misgivings about this overseas house move. I should point out that I had always, until this point, chosen to live off base in civilian housing. Ed, who showed us around and had not lived off base for some years, mistook my silence for delight at how large the house was. ‘I know, it’s huge, isn’t it!’ he enthusiastically trilled. I summoned up a half-hearted smile to hide my disappointment: big it may have been but beautiful it certainly wasn’t!

The house tour got progressively worse and I could only deduce that whoever styled military houses, took their inspiration from schools and hospitals. After despairing at the hospital-style railings and doors, 1980s taste in wall and floor tiles and lurid-green carpets with matching curtains, DSC02253pelmets and sofa covers, I encountered my first cockroach. That’s right, as a thoughtful nod to its new housemates, a cockroach was languidly strolling across the living room floor. Welcome to your new home! images

And so it was that in the early hours of the morning, I found myself desperate for a pee but unable to leave the relative-safety of my bed for fear of treading on one of the hard-shelled critters. Just to compound matters, the next day I found my curiously-named welcome-in pack; detailing all the ‘differences’ we might encounter: snakes, processionary caterpillars, scorpions, cockroaches, ant infestations and ‘what to do in the event of an earthquake’. Differences: were they serious? Surely differences would have been warmer water flowing through the taps, slow-flushing toilets and heat waves; not once had I considered that I would be sharing my house and garden with scorpions and snakes! Where was that in the glossy holiday brochures? Welcome to Cyprus indeed; I gave my husband a two-week limit where if I saw one more cockroach, or anything else from the welcome-in pack, I was on a flight UK-bound.

A few days in, I discovered that the sand-encrusted carpets were laid over a tiled floor. Granted, not limestone, slate or travertine, but tiles nonetheless. I started to see light at the end of this questionably-decorated house; light in the form of proper mediterranean living with stone floors that were much more suited to a hot, dusty and sandy environment. My aspirations were quickly quashed by those-in-the-know: no stone floors for the Brits living here, no, we had to have carpets. I was, however, informed that I could go and choose some new carpets as ours were several years old and a spectrum of hope re-appeared. Not for long though: flicking through the swatches I was unsure whether to laugh or cry: navy, pink, emerald green, or burnt orange… and then I chanced upon oatmeal. This was it! A fairly neutral, unoffensive colour, that just might improve the decor. ‘I’ll have that one,’ I gushed to the Cypriot in charge. After a long and heated phone call to his colleague [Cypriots rarely talk passively on the phone, it sounds like an argument to the un-trained ear] my hopes were again dashed; they had unsurprisingly run out of oatmeal as it was the most popular colour on the base. And so I found myself ruminating over the other choices. Should I choose pink and make a home Barbie would be proud of; a Barbie dreamhouse? Or should I choose burnt orange and give our guests a strong talking point? Or maybe even navy just to finish off that institutional-styled decor? Choices, choices…

Pushing my luck, I braved asking if we could also change the sofa covers, which were a shiny nylon, tie-dye effect; just perfect for bare legs on a hot, humid day!Picture 076 After a few moments of staring at me in disapproval – I gleamed that asking for more than one change is not the done thing – he banged around in his cupboards and reluctantly presented me with the sofa cover swatches. In sheer incredulity, I pored over the rainbow of other shiny nylon, tie-dye effect colours and realised this was one futile battle. Thankfully, good fortune stepped in as our possessions arrived from the UK a few weeks later and we could say a welcome cheerio to all-but-one tasteless shiny nylon-covered sofa.

After a shaky few weeks getting used to military housing and a very different way of living, I found myself thinking ‘it’s not so bad really’ and this was a real eye opener. The old part of me was a little worried that I was losing my sense of house style, whereas the new part of me was relishing new experiences. Yes the houses had pretty bad decor, but if anything went wrong in the house, someone would come to fix it. We also had a ready-made strong and supportive community, as at some point we had all been in the same position, resulting in a highly-active social life. Other experiences left us bemused: every few months the toilets would block and the sewage team would have to come and saw tree roots out of the toilets; having completed their job – often without protective gloves – it was not unknown for them to tweak my daughter’s cheek on their way out, commenting how cute she was! Or the time someone came to check a leaking gas cylinder in the garden; complete with cigarette in mouth…things were certainly approached differently, but that was, oddly, part of the charm!

As difficult as the first few weeks were: leaving behind an old life and starting a new one, looking back I can say that it was one of the best things I ever did.  Cyprus has some beautiful, relatively-undiscovered areas and the Cypriots are passionate, warm and very child-friendly people.  I am so glad that I did not act on my early misgivings by coming home and would counsel anyone in a similar position to give it time.  In case you are wondering about whether I encountered any more of the delights from our welcome-in pack; yes I did! But it wasn’t too bad, in three years we encountered: one scorpion in the living room, one snake in the garden, a never-ending supply of ants, countless cockroaches and one earthquake. Creepy crawlies-aside, getting on that flight to come home was just as difficult as the outbound flight had been three years earlier!

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.

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!