Right after I got here, I received an invitation to the SIS (SHAPE International School) New Year Something-Or-Other at the Officer’s Club on SHAPE, the NATO base on which I work. I had no idea what it was really, but decided I would attend to maybe meet a few people and get a better idea of my surroundings. My department chair sent me an email encouraging me to go as well, so I knew I probably should. The Officer’s Club is known as the SHAPE club, and apparently that is a bit of a misnomer, as all Shapians are allowed to go there, but it is the place where most official social events are held. Old and dated, it is nevertheless a nice, shabbily upscale facility.
My friend and I were fashionably late. She had a meeting and she was the driver, as I don’t have a car just yet. We rushed into the meeting probably twenty minutes after the festivities began, and an older gentleman whose name and position escape me was welcoming all of the attendees. He spoke in both French and English, making most of his remarks in the language of international diplomacy, French. I picked up a glass of sparkling chardonnay or something, served by a deferential fellow in dark pants, white shirt and black tie, and found a spot where I could see the speaker.
As I looked over the shoulders of the people standing in front of me and listened to this dignified man, I began to really notice my surroundings. To the left a bit was a man in a Spanish army uniform. “Mmm, español,” I thought a little dreamily. (You know me, españo-phile, through and through.) A bit to the right was an officer in some sort of uniform I didn’t recognize. A little in front was another, probably eastern European officer. “Wait a minute,” I thought. I looked a little more closely around me, and I noticed military uniforms from ten or twelve other countries, and more men and women in civilian dress, all mixed together in this gathering, all listening as this courtly older gentleman addressed us with respect and admiration. Suddenly it hit me, and a deeper understanding of this place and time that should’ve been in the front of my mind all along became shockingly clear: I am a member of a very small group of very privileged people who work with, support, and represent ALL OF NATO. Wait. You didn’t get it. Look at it. Now…read that sentence again.
After the two speakers, both from different NATO nations, addressed us, we invited guests drank wine and ate hors d’oeuvres, and stood around chatting for a while. My mouth hung open a bit, I admit; I was a little stupefied by what I’d realized. I held my own, though, in spite of my dumbfoundedness.
Shortly I was approached by a man who identified himself as the father of one of my students. I complemented him on his son’s behavior and demeanor, as he is clearly being well-brought up, and we talked about the school system, the base, and the opportunities for travel and enrichment we have here. He introduced me to his wife, and we three ended up joking around like old pals. I knew I had met people who shared my joy at being here and who could become friends. Later the lady who had accompanied me to the event asked me, “You know who that man is, don’t you?” “Yeah, he’s so-and-so’s dad.” “Well, yeah,” she said, “and he’s a bigwig on SHAPE. A really high-ranking officer.” “Huh?” I said, chin sagging again.
I drive to work every day and look at the flags flying over the base. They represent countries from all of NATO. The US flag is one of many, not special in its stature among the others. In fact, they tell me they rotate the location of the flags so no one country appears more important than the next. When I shop in the base grocery, I hear languages I don’t quite recognize, as well as those I do, and at the checkout counter are people who, like me, work in a country that is not their own, but who are honored to serve the organization that strives for peace worldwide. Their flags are flying there, beside Old Glory. They work for my benefit and yours. And I…well, I teach their children.
I am in awe of what I get to do.