[Image by urban_data, 2007, Attribution 2.0 Generic]
Elle and I had a shisha party round our apartment the other night. An Armenian friend of ours recently went on holiday to Dubai, and she brought back a shisha and some packets of flavoured tobacco. At the party, we had two flavours: one mixed fruit and one coconut - and the tobacco in both was colourful, sticky and sweet. We had beer, spirits and snacks and we passed around the shisha pipe while we chatted... and interesting things were discussed.
Somehow, at the end of the night, the conversation turned to military matters. At the table there happened to be a guy from Eritrea and a guy from Belarus. Both had done compulsory military service in their respective countries, and both told stories which reinforced to me how strange and alien the world of the military is to people who have not experienced it (i.e. me).
The guy from Eritrea explained that, during his training, his instructor had taught him not to waste bullets by holding up a round of ammunition and saying "You see this? This cost 25 cents of a dollar. 25 cents! The money paid for this bullet would have fed a family for three days. Do not miss, or you will be starving an Eritrean family for nothing."
At this, the guy from Belarus burst out into a broad smile and started reminiscing about his own experiences in the army: "Yes! I remember the Kalishnikov! I could disassemble it in 6 seconds!"
To my untrained eye, both of them appeared completely ordinary. Certainly, neither looked like they had recieved training in how to kill me should I ever try to invade their countries. It was only when they spoke so familiarly about the workings of assault rifles that they seemed in any way unusual.
When Elle travelled around the world on a ship for 100 days, she said that the one thing that struck her in every country she visited was how militarised the world was. Perhaps Western Europe is this little civilian bubble - a place where the military is kept hidden away, seperated from most people's lives by a TV screen. It's interesting to meet people with different experiences.