A guide to the many cultural oddities members of the U.S. military community encounter while overseas. E-mail your questions to

Aug. 29, 2006Q:Everything and everyone one in the Mideast has an "al" in front of their name. Like al-Maliki or al-Zarqawi. What's up with that?

A: A big What's Up With That tip-of-the-cap to's Explainer, which got down to the bottom of this one earlier this year, using some Arabic linguists.

According to Slate, the "al" in Arabic would translate to "the" in English, and names that have an "al" in front of them most often refer to the area from which that person's ancestors come. (Now dead) terror leader Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi took his nom de guerre from his hometown in Jordan. So, in translation, he'd be "the Mussab from Zarqaw."

Most often, the "i" is added to the end of a name in such cases.

Another famous example would be Saddam Hussein, whose name would officially end with "al-Tikriti," indicating his ancestors were from Tikrit. The same thing goes for "el," which is a more French-Arabic way of spelling it.

Slate also went on to explain the "abu" and "bin" often used in names. "Bin" merely means "son of…" and "abu" means "father of…" and is often used in nicknames.

August 28, 2006Q:It's said that Italians talk with their hands, and they do, I see it time and again. They're very expressive and sometimes when they speak, they appear angry. What's up with that?

A: Italians are an expressive bunch, especially through gesticulating.

Funny story: when I was a child, my father believed in being respectful to children as well as adults, and would never simply say "shut up." So he'd tell me to sit on my hands instead. Gee, dad.

While the world seems to think that all Italians gesticulate, the stereotype is a wee bit off, explains Maria Minopoli, one native who has lived here more than 60 years, just about equally divided between northern and southern Italy.

In Milan, Italians are much too refined and high falutin' to speak with their hands, evident by the use of an article in front of peoples' names: the Stephen, the Sandra, she says. (Said: il Stefano, la Sandra) And they don't tend to gesticulate in Florence either.

It's mostly a southern Italy thing, "where we are just very passionate people," explained Minopoli, Neapolitan by birth but who lived in Milan for 30 years. "We are very expressive, very loud in many things we do."

Romans gesticulate - but with slightly less flair than their Neapolitan or Sicilian brethren.

"When a Roman speaks," Minopoli says, "it's like watching an orchestra conductor. It's very beautiful."

August 27, 2006Q.Ever since moving to Asia, I've spotted American celebrities hawking products on TV and on billboards all over the place. What's up with that?

A. Western celebrities wouldn't dream of shilling for products used by the unwashed masses back home, but they seem to think they can "sell out" in Japan, South Korea or elsewhere in Asia without word getting back to Hollywood.

Think J.Lo's too diva to do TV ads for shampoo sold at drugstores? Think again. She's the spokeswoman for a Japanese shampoo line called Lux. Think Brad Pitt's too busy saving the world with Angelina Jolie to stoop to padding his pockets with endorsement money? Apparently he's never too busy for TV spots or photos for the tags that dangle from every new pair of Edwin Jeans - sold at the Japanese subsidiary of Wal-Mart. In South Korea, Jessica Alba was recently seen on TV ads for skin care line Isa Knox, and Drew Barrymore enjoyed an ice cream cone on camera for Baskin-Robbins.

By doing ads in a foreign market, Western celebrities can bring in the benjamins without sacrificing their reputation back home as art eests who are above such worldly concerns. Or so they think. The Internet - especially video services like YouTube - makes this dirty little secret increasingly harder to keep, so some people predict you'll see fewer celebrities on commercials in Asia soon. Gosh, I hope they'll still be able to pay the bills.

August 22, 2006Q:I hear that, in addition to being a collector of truly trashy art and brutal dictator, Saddam was an author and that someone in Japan published his latest book. Really? What's up with that?

A: Yes, it's true. Saddam, currently on trial for his life, was also a best-selling author in Iraq. And his fourth – and presumably last - novel was published in Japan this past May. In Japan, it had the title "Devil's Dance" and was reportedly finished on the day before the U.S. invasion that deposed the dictator. Other countries, including Jordan, banned publication of the novel, which would have been called "Get Out, Damned One."

The story is supposedly a veiled fable about Jews and Christians plotting against Arabs and Muslims, and is set on the Euphrates River about 1,500 years ago.

According to the Japanese publishing firm, the manuscript was carried out of Iraq before the U.S. invasion by one of Saddam's daughters, who sought refuge across the border in Jordan.

The 256-page book was going for about $14, officials said. The publishing company said that an Arabic version of the manuscript was obtained and translated from one of Saddam's lawyers by a Japanese journalist. It wasn't clear who would get the profits from book sales.

Saddam's three other books - whose sales were certainly boosted by his particular "status" in pre-war Iraq - were called "Zabibah and the King," "The Fortified Citadel" and "Men and a City." The first is tale of a leader who sacrifices his own riches for the good of his people; the second is his history of the Baath Party's rise; the third is a fictionalized autobiography.

August 21, 2006Q:In Germany, cigarette vending machines on every street corner. What's up with that?

A: Yes, in Germany, any kid can walk up to almost any cigarette machine and buy himself some smokes. There are 620,000 of the machines in Germany, so there's probably one right in his neighborhood. Four euros is the going rate for a pack.

About 34 percent of Germany's adults are hooked on tobacco, according to the nation's Ministry of Health. The sidewalk vending machines seem to enable youngsters to pick up the habit.

The machines have been around since at least the mid-1960s, when Uwe Schaefer was a child. Schaefer, is a spokesman for the ministry's Office of the Federal Drug Commissioner.

But in a country where it is illegal to sell cigarettes to people less than 16 years old, it will soon be a lot more difficult for them to buy them down at the street corner.

By Jan. 1, all cigarette machines in Germany must be converted into coin-free machines. They would only accept credit cards that embedded with a microchip that contains the cardholder's birth date.

Schaefer said the new law would likely cause some tobacco vendors to scrap their machines instead of converting them to coin-operated ones.

"We try to reduce the number of cigarette machines, for obvious reasons, in order to minimize the health risks for young people," Schafer said.

Some machines have already been converted for smokers who use plastic.

Ironically, in the 1930s and early '40s, Germany was the world leader in anti-smoking campaigns. Propagandists for Adolf Hitler, who didn't smoke or drink, noted that Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt all used tobacco but Europe's top dictators - Hitler, Italy's Mussolini and Spain's Franco - did not.

August 20, 2006Q.Anytime I'm near a train station in Japan or South Korea, I have to walk through a minefield of people trying to hand me little packets of tissues. What's up with that?

A. In a word, advertising. Each packet comes with some sort of flier (usually unobtrusively tucked inside the clear wrapping) directing your attention to some sort of business. Could be a beauty salon, a bank, an English school or something, um, adult-oriented. If you notice the person handing out the packets targeting men only, or women only, or in some other way being pointedly selective, you can bet it's the latter.

Some reports say about 4 billion tissue packs are handed out each year in Japan. The idea has caught on to a lesser extent in large cities in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere.

If you have a big enough purse or pockets, it's fun to see how many different packets you can collect in a day of sightseeing.

Considering the handouts happen near train stations, busy intersections, shopping areas, bar districts and just about any other crowded place, you'll amass quite a collection in no time. Just think - you may never have to buy tissues again.

August 15, 2006Q:Almost every time we go out on patrol, there's a wedding going on somewhere. From what we can gather, there are some pretty strange wedding traditions in Iraq. What's up with that?

A: We assume you're referring to the celebratory gunfire after the wedding. We can only say, yes, it's a bit odd to go around shooting a gun off every time something good happens. We don't really have an explanation for that. But, we can tell you about a few other traditions.

In most cases, a couple waits seven days to celebrate their marriage - it's called by the Arabic name sab'a, or seven, for obvious reasons. In some areas, like Mosul, the wedding party is held only four days after the event.

In most cases, the party is held at the groom's house, with lots of the same things you'd see back home: dancing, singing, general revelry.

At the wedding, some of the traditions include placing seven white cups or plates in front of the bride; the cups contain things like sugar, cream and other symbolic items. A Quran and a mirror will also sometimes be used.

In a Shiite ceremony, two women stand holding a piece of white cloth above the bride's head, and a third woman will sprinkle white sugar above her head onto the cloth. At her feet are placed water with dried flowers.

Later, another party called the Nishan is held by the bride's family.

August 14, 2006Q:Thousands of American servicemembers stationed in northern Italy go to work every day at installations named after people who had no historical ties with the United States. What's up with that?

A: Most bases that the U.S. operates on in Italy belong to the Italians. So they can name them whatever they want to. Both of the major U.S. installations around Venice were first used by the Italian military. And they're both named after Italian World War I heroes who died in separate incidents near the Piave River.

Caserma Ederle in Vicenza is named after Carlo Ederle, who served in artillery units in the mountains to the north. He was wounded several times in action along the front with Austria, but refused other assignments (and promotions) that would have taken him away from the front. On Dec. 4, 1917, he was killed by an enemy machine gunner while observing the enemy.

Americans - and even many Italians - know the main Air Force base in northern Italy as Aviano Air Base. But its official name is Aeropuerto Pagliano e Gori. Maurizio Pagliano and Luigi Gori were early pioneers of Italian military aviation. On their own initiative, they staged a successful raid on an Austrian naval yard in what was then known as Yugoslavia on May 10, 1916, making them national heroes. Their exploits came to an end on Dec. 30, 1917, when their plane crashed while strafing enemy positions along the Piave. The base was named after them in 1919.

There is one American base in northern Italy named after an American, though: Camp Darby. The base located between Pisa and Livorno used by both the Army and Air Force is named after Brig. Gen. William Darby. Darby is best known for his work in creating the Army's Rangers during World War II. A film starring James Garner - "Darby's Rangers" - debuted in 1958. Darby was killed by an artillery fragment in April 1945 while serving near the Italian town of Torble as assistant commander of the 10th Mountain Division.

August 13, 2006Q:I keep seeing these little figurines of a cat with a raised paw in Japanese stores and restaurants. What's up with those?

A. They're maneki neko, or beckoning cat, and the simple answer is they're a good luck charm favored by business owners. But there are different kinds of luck, and so there are lots of different maneki neko.

The most common figurine version is the one with its left paw raised - this pose invites customers. A maneki neko with its right paw raised invites money or good fortune. Either way, the raised paw is bent forward - the Japanese gesture for beckoning. It's kind of the Western equivalent of "come here" - but Westerners do it with the back of the hand facing the other person.

Maneki neko has been around since the late 1800s, and he's kept his fashion old-school. He wears a red collar with a bell - an accessory affluent women in the 19th century gave their beloved pet cats. And the figurines sometimes have kerchiefs around their necks as well - that one's a little more of a mystery, but it's thought to be related to the custom of putting kerchiefs on small roadside Buddha statues to wish for a child's healthy upbringing. Some of the cats hold a coin, too, just for good measure.

The friendly faced, luck-bringing maneki neko is one of the most beloved characters in Japanese culture, and some think it was the inspiration for another - Hello Kitty.

August 8, 2006Q:I hear that at the top of every flagpole on every base is a metal ball that contains a bullet, a razorblade and a match. What's up with that?

A: This appears to be a military "urban legend" that has many of its roots in stories told to the newbies at West Point.

According to lore, each object has a purpose. The single bullet is to be used by the last man defending the base. The razor blade is to slice the stripes off the flag. And the match is to burn the flag, lest it fall into enemy hands.

Another version says the metal ball also contains a grain of rice, symbolic of giving a soldier sustenance to “do what needs to be done.”

Well, according to the myth-busting Web site, it's all a bunch of hooey.

As their explanation says, the American flag is one of - if not the most - important symbols to the military. Troops would go to any lengths, it's said, to protect the flag and prevent it from falling into enemy hands, thus the items said to be in the top of the flagpole.

According to Snopes: "The golden balls that top flagpoles are properly (and obscurely) styled 'finials' but have also come to be known on military bases as 'trucks.' Their purpose is to ornament solid flagpoles and keep water out of hollow ones, and they can also serve to hold the pulleys through which rope halyards are run to raise and lower the flags."

The legend of the items tucked into the trucks, is, as the site says, "a charmingly romantic bit of lore … also a wildly impractical one."

Aug. 7, 2006Q:Windmills are one of the most enduring symbols of the Netherlands. What's up with that?

A: If not for windmills, the country simply would not have been populated. Since the 16th century, hundreds of thousands of Dutch people have been living at the bottom of former lakes, originally drained with the use of wind power, according to the Web site, which is operated by The Netherlands Board of Tourism and Conventions.

Even today, windmills serve to stave off water in these low lands. The largest ones can lift up to 10,000 gallons of water per minute to the height of four feet, according to the site.

By the 17th century, windmill design had evolved enough so that the machines were used for a number of purposes, such as the timber and paper industries.

According to the Web site, Holland - one of the Netherlands' 12 provinces - was said to have more types of windmills than any other region in the country. Wind-driven pumps gradually began to decline with the advent of steam engines, and later internal combustion engines and electric motors. Today, about 1,000 windmills remain in Holland - where once there were about 10,000 windmills. Many of the original windmills remain in the region, however, and are open to the public.

Aug. 6, 2006Q:In a Korean bar the other day, someone asked me not for my sign, but for my blood type. What's up with that?

A. Maybe you thought you were being hit on by a vampire? More likely, some mere mortal simply was trying to make conversation. In South Korea, Japan and other Asian countries, blood type is thought to correspond to certain personality traits, kind of like how someone supposedly can learn something about you from your astrological sign.

There's no science whatsoever to back this up, but that doesn't keep people from believing in it. It's not unusual to hear "What's your blood type?" asked in informal social situations, and many video game, anime and manga creators are careful to mention their characters' blood types, taking care to make sure their personality traits correspond to widespread beliefs.

So what does your blood type mean?

Type A: Reserved, patient, perfectionist. Stubborn, self-conscious and uptight.Type B: Creative, passionate, highly curious. Irresponsible, forgetful.Type AB: Rational, sociable and empathetic. Critical, unforgiving.Type O: Ambitious, athletic, confident. Arrogant, vain, strong-willed.It's such an ingrained part of the culture that morning television shows often feature blood-type horoscopes, as do newspapers – though not this one. If we were meeting you in a bar, we'd probably skip the blood-type question and go straight for hoping that you come here often.

Aug. 1, 2006Q:Someone told me that Bedouins and other desert dwellers drink hot tea to stay cool in the summer. Hot tea to stay cool? What's up with that?

A: While it's true that many cultures consider hot and/or spicy foods and beverages to be a balm to the scorching summer temperatures, science might not back that up. According to tradition, hot food or drinks should be eaten because they cause a person to sweat, which helps the body's natural cooling process.

We're with you so far. But, according to the folks at, that might be more myth than reality. In an article penned by Sean Paajanen, he says that it doesn't work. We'll let him say it: "The problem in the logic lies with the laws of thermodynamics. The amount of heat lost by sweating and evaporation will never exceed the amount of heat gained by the hot drink you've consumed.

"Another problem is that the extra heat makes your blood vessels near the skin dilate to help cool your blood faster. The nerves in your skin can sense this, causing you to feel flushed and warm. Not exactly the result you are looking for."

So, what - other than sitting in the air conditioning - might work?

Other popular "traditional" methods include using mint. A mint-based soap or lotion is supposed to refresh the skin and leave a cooling sensation. Or try yoga, specifically a type known as shitali pranayama. According to some practitioners of the twisty trade, this is guaranteed to cool you down: sit cross-legged and take a few slow, deep breaths. Roll your tongue into a tube with the tip outside your mouth, breathing in through the "tube." Then move your chin down to your chest and breath out through your nose. Doing that five or ten times, some yogis say, will cool you down.

Another tip: cold water is worse for you than room-temperature. According to the science of it, your body actually burns calories while warming up the water to allow it to be digested - thus creating heat and warming up your body temperature.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now