The expression “combat shopping” is a wry inside joke in the military family, because there are certain assignments that were and are well known to be — because of the variety, quality and exoticism of the merchandise, and the comparatively well-paid nature of American military service when compared to local conditions — absolutely a dedicated shopper’s paradise on earth. Even locations where the local exchange rate didn’t particularly favor the American service personnel (most of Western Europe and Japan, in my service lifetime, f’rinstance) there were nice bargains to be had. Size up the local terrain, see the bargain, scoop up the bargain in the neatest and most efficient manner possible; the essence of combat shopping.
At an assignment in Germany, or Italy, or Spain, one was always able to buy locally some attractive and comparatively inexpensive something or other that would cost four or five times as much, back in the good old US of A. (Taking the Williams-Sonoma catalogue as my guide, I could buy an astonishing number of items from it at the Al Campo supermarket, Spain’s answer to Walmart, for about a fifth of the price.) One wouldn’t even have to take a trip to load up on the souvenirs, either: the AAFES Catalogue featured a large assortment of tat.
For exuberantly bad taste, though, the AAFES catalogue paled next to an emporium like Harrys’ of K’Town (Kaiserslautern, to the uninitiated.) Harrys’ stocked elaborate, ornately decorated beer steins as tall as I am, and candles not much shorter, and cuckoo-clocks the like of which had to be seen to be disbelieved. The cuckoo-clock industry in Southern Germany apparently depended almost entirely on sales to tourists: locals had too much good taste to buy such monstrosities. (Although not to much good taste to avoid marzipan pigs crapping gold coins. The good taste thing is probably relative, I think.) Harrys’ memorably featured a cuckoo clock as large as a garden shed, with life-size deer and clusters of dead, turkey-sized doves. You’d need a living room as big as a football stadium to carry it off, and the cuckoo calling the hours was probably audible in the next county. I gave pass to cuckoo clocks, by the way. I bought Steiffel stuffed animals for my daughter, instead.
The base tourism office in Spain were always scheduling day tours to places like Muel — for the pottery, and to the Lladro factory, down near Barcelona, or more extensive excursions to Turkey… Turkey, like Korea in the Far East being The One Place to indulge in serious and prolonged retail therapy. People came back from Turkey with carpets, and brass-work, and gold: from Korea with bespoke clothes, antique furniture and jewelry. Our houses are marked and furnished with unusual items gleaned from tours and TDYs to distant and exotic foreign places. One can almost tell were we have been by looking carefully at the décor… or what we have given to our family as Christmas presents over the years.
And sometimes the phrase “combat shopping” is not entirely a joke: while traveling in a convoy from Kuwait up into Iraq shortly after the liberation, my daughter swapped some MREs for a couple of small rugs from an Iraqi vendor setting up shop along the roadside. Cpl. Blondie was teased by her friends for weeks, for being able to find something to buy, in the middle of a war zone.