Lady Cat 6 is the first to admit she loves the convenience of on-base lodging, eating, and shopping! When traveling in the US (CONUS and OCONUS), my sponsor and I take advantage of on-base lodging the nights before and after our flights whenever we can. If we’re staying somewhere expensive, like Hawaii, we stop off at the Exchange and Commissary to load up on basic items, and plan on eating and staying on-base when possible. It helps that Hickam has the FABulous Lanai at Mamala Bay restaurant – one of our favorites!
View from The Lanai at Mamala Bay
In travels overseas, we like to stop in to a base for a little break every few weeks, if it’s convenient. However, we do not travel to Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece, or anywhere else outside the US intending to stay on post any longer than necessary for flights. Yes, it’s easier and more comfortable and convenient to be surrounded by “little America”, but we found out pretty quick that traveling that way really puts the ki-bosh on getting to know the local people and customs in an authentic manner and setting.
And so, our motto is: Stay, Eat, and Shop local, whenever we can!
Staying local is pretty easy. We use Expedia, Trip Advisor, or other hotel booking app for hotels, and Air BnB for apartments. If we’re staying more than one night, we usually go the Air BnB route, because we can usually get an entire apartment for less than the price of a hotel room. Hosts usually have a list of local dining and shopping options available, and will usually provide more detailed assistance if asked. Which makes the other two commitments, eating and shopping local, easier to fulfill.
Typical trattoria meal in Bella Italia
We’ve found the local nationals who work on base to be great resources for dining and shopping advice. They live there, they know the area, and, in our experience, they’ve always been happy to share their knowledge and recommendations with us! We’ve asked passenger service representatives, mini-mart employees, lodging employees, Commissary and Exchange employees – any locals we run into – for recommendations, and they’ve always been happy to oblige. It’s a wonderful way to get off the regular tourist circuit and explore where the locals eat and shop!
Shopping is important to us! Since we keep our bags light and easy to manage, we leave some things – like shampoo – behind altogether, and, other things – like antiperspirant, extra razors and sundries – limited to travel-size items. Which means we need to shop to replenish during our travels. Even if we purchase on base, we’ll be needing more during our journey. Local grocery stores, pharmacies, and sundry shops are our go-to for these items.
We usually try to stay in one place for several days at a time, so we also need groceries. Fortunately, Europe has a store familiar to most Americans, located in almost every town of any size – ALDI’S! Owned by the same German company that owns Trader Joe’s, Aldi’s are almost everywhere. So, if you want to be out on the local economy, but want to save some euro and have an experience that feels familiar, head on over!
Just like in the US, however, one cannot count on finding everything one needs at Aldi’s, and must have other stores to fall back upon. There are supermarkets similar to what we are accustomed to, and even super-supermarkets, similar to WalMart or Target, nearly everywhere. It’s great fun to wander the aisles and see what local folks shop for. We also like to shop at little mom-and-pop stores specializing in meat, veggies, baked goods, cheese or other foods. And, the local weekly outdoor market is another great source for everything from olives to underwear – really!
Be aware that almost every store in Europe charges for bags at check out. We have a couple of our own that we pack with us (they also make great beach or picnic bags!), But, if we forget to bring them to the store, we just pay for the bags we need and re-use them. My Italian grocery bags are some of my favorite souvenirs :)! In most supermarkets, just like at Aldi’s, you release your shopping cart outside the store by inserting a one euro coin into the slot. You get it back when you return the cart.
One reason many prefer on-base options is because of fear of a perceived language barrier. People can be hesitant to try engaging with locals because they fear the language experience will be frustrating or embarrassing.
Lady Cat 6 must admit that this embarrassment has happened to her! Many years ago, while on vacation in Mexico with a large number of extended family ranging in age from mid – 70s to teens, we were eating at a cabana-style beach restaurant. The windows were closed, and it was uncomfortably warm. And, so, launching confidently into Spanish, I requested that our handsome young waiter open the windows, because we were all “too hot”. The waiter looked at me, stunned, for a second or two, then, laughing, went off to do as requested. About a minute later, I realized, to my horror, that I had used the wrong form of “hot”, and had literally asked our waiter – did I mention he was young and handsome? – to open the windows because we were all VERY sexually aroused! I could not look him in the eye for the rest of the evening!
Normally, though, Lady Cat 6 is able to get by in several languages (without too much embarrassment), and is fairly fluent in Italian. She has a language brain! But, her sponsor is as monolingual as they come! Fortunately, he viewed the language barrier as a challenge that could be overcome in more ways than speech.
In the “old” days, when we were stationed in Greece and Naples, he took great delight in going down to the local hardware or auto parts store (he’s a mechanical engineer and fixer-of-anything-that-can-be-fixed!). He didn’t speak a word of Greek or Italian, but, through pantomime and sketching, could eventually communicate exactly what he wanted. It was like a game for both him and the sales person he was working with. Most times, the store would either have the item he was looking for, or call someone else who did, to get it for him. Every purchase was a victory!
Fortunately, today, language is an area where technology is definitely our friend. Things are much easier!
We both have the Google Translate app downloaded onto our phones and tablets. There are also several other good translation options out there to help ease language fears. Just set your app to translate to the language of the country you’re visiting, type whatever you want in English, and it will show up, translated, on your screen. The apps even talk! Easy peasy!
Another thing I’ve found is that many more people speak English than may admit at first. For instance, anywhere in France, whenever I began trying to speak in my rusty high school French, the person I was speaking to, sometimes with a barely suppressed friendly little chuckle, nearly always offered to continue in English. And, once, in a grocery store in Greece, I could not remember the word for “turkey” – it was almost Thanksgiving. I approached a high-school aged young woman (everyone studies English in school in Europe) and asked her – in English – if she could help me. At first, she said “no”, but when I implored with a desperate “parakalo!” (please!), she sheepishly supplied the word (pavo) for me.
The key to encouraging others to speak English seems to be to know at least a few basic words in their native tongue. This is another area where a good translation app can help. If you can say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, how much, etc., in the local language, people I’ve run into have almost always appreciated the effort, and provided a “rescue” in English, if they could.
There’s a whole world out there beyond the confines of the base! Whether by necessity – you’re in a country that does not allow on-base shopping, or the base doesn’t have lodging available or lacks any decent on-post dining options – or, even better, by choice – you’re traveling because you want to expand your horizons and experience the people and customs in the place you’ve come so far to visit – go out the gate and into the local community. Stay in local hotels, pensiones, or apartments. Eat where the local people eat. Shop where the locals shop. Engage people in conversation and ask their advice. I think you’ll find your travels much enriched, and you’ll have much better stories to tell – even if they are a bit embarrassing ;).
We’ve found that, wherever we travel, most people are nice! I think you will, too, if you give going local a go!