This is my attempt to bring to life for you one of the military’s slightly more obscure postings. Growing up an Army brat, I would occasionally hear about SHAPE and be left with so many questions. 1- It’s in Belgium? 2- Why is it called that?? 3- Who gets stationed there? We’ve been here for a year now and I’ve learned some answers: 1- In fact, yes! 2- Because acronyms! 3- A small number but a wide variety of people. My intent here is to wax eloquent on some of the basic facts of life at SHAPE. Part II will cover more of the feeling of living here.
SHAPE stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe. It’s different from any American military base, because it isn’t one--it’s a NATO installation. It’s where the military headquarters of NATO are located. People from every NATO member nation are stationed here, so the group is diverse. You get access with a NATO ID card. (In fact, it’s possible while stationed here to lose your U.S. military ID for weeks without realizing it. Ask me how I know!) It is located in the suburbs of the university town of Mons in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium.
Hôtel de Ville on the Grand-Place in Mons
SHAPE is complemented by Chièvres Air Base, 25 minutes up the road. This is a small installation, complete with American amenities like Commissary, PX, gym, lodging, barracks, thrift shop, kennel, library. Everything else is located at SHAPE: schools, CDC, clinic, mailroom, most jobs, the main chapel, some housing, library, gym and pool, club, book shop, et cetera. Most people would agree that SHAPE is the center of life while stationed here. There is some government housing available, some located on SHAPE and near Chièvres and some spread throughout the area, but most Americans live in rentals on the economy.
At the local zoo (a major tourist attraction), Pairi Daiza
The clinic is basic and for any specialists or baby-having you will have to go off base to a Belgian doctor, of which there are plenty of local options or almost-local options in Brussels. The clinic staff makes this easy. Landstuhl Regional Medical Center is also an option, if the minimum three hour drive floats your boat.
There is a grocery store on SHAPE--Carrefour, a common local brand. Along with food, it carries a small selection of household electronics, baby items and clothing and is a great resource for getting set up when you first move here. Americans do not pay certain taxes in this particular store when they shop with their SHAPE ID, so buy your new vacuum and iPhone here and not on the economy!
There is a CDC on SHAPE, along with several off-base care options for young kids and even more options once they reach age two and a half (when Belgian public preschool starts). There is an American DoDEA school on SHAPE, as well as others: a Canadian school, British school, Belgian school, and several others. Some parents apply to send their kids to other countries’ schools. It is also not uncommon for parents to send their kids to off-base Belgian schools, which are free and open to all residents.
SHAPE is in such an excellent location for travelling to diverse locales that sometimes just staying in country gets overlooked. It is 45 minutes from Brussels, and one and a half hours from Antwerp and Bruges (actually, just about everywhere in Belgium is less than two hours away). Belgium borders France, the Netherlands, Germany, and Luxembourg. SHAPE is 25 minutes from the French border, two hours from Aachen (Germany), less than three hours from Paris and Amsterdam, and just a few from London. Belgium itself is drenched in history from both world wars and further back, has beaches on the North Sea, and includes small but beautiful wild mountains in the Ardennes.
Grand-Place in Brussels
It is a trilingual country--primarily with French in the Wallonian south and Dutch in the Flemish north, but also German. Geographically, it is relatively flat but not overwhelmingly so, and it has with a temperate maritime climate--cool, but not too cold and not too hot. Winter is long and summer is short, but everything is marvelously green year-round. I’ll expound the climate next time, as it’s a frequent concern raised by those moving here.
OK, you say, I am starting to get the facts. But what is it like? How does living there feel? Well, please stay tuned for Part II.
SHAPE Fest, an annual celebration of all the NATO countries