Thursday, May 24, 2007

Cliff's Notes

16 May 2007

Well, I’m back. Sorry that it’s been so long since I’ve updated things. The main reason for my not writing is adusing to now being on mids, jet lag and being in a personal funk lately. After I arrived back, I found out that someone that I considered a friend when I left back in January has treated my friendship like spam. I don’t like feeling played-off and back-stabbed, amazingly by the same hypocrite that said to watch out for “users”!!

Well, guess I won’t have to worry since my “friend” (and I’m using the term loosely) has moved on. One of the other sure things of working in a contractor/military environment: If you’ve got a gripe with someone, don’t hang onto it too long. Either you or they will move on at some point in the near future.

Aside from that, I’ve pretty much jumped right back into things from the day I arrived. So here are the Cliff’s Notes (not available yet on their website) of what’s been going on for me:

1) My new digs. I’m into a trailer. I didn’t fall off the list since I was out on medical leave. Great thing about it is that my roomie is one of my coworkers. Better someone you know than a stranger. I’ve been that route before and it was unnerving and explosive at best!

2) My new routine. Being down with my bad back, I’ve put on about 15 lbs over the last year. Now that I got my "new and improved back" (Disk 2.0, I think), my new resolution is to get fit again. I miss my 4 and 6 milers! Now I’m watching what I eat and back to running. After so long having not run, you can’t believe how much the old corpse aches from just a mile! But I’m loving every minute of it….Hey, wasn’t that a lyric from a bad 80’s hair-band song by Loverboy?!!!

3) Unfortunately, one of the outcomes of my new regiment are the new blisters on the little toes! Right now, I’d venture to say that my left little toe swelled slightly resembling little bangers! If you don’t know what bangers are, they are little plumpish English breakfast sausages. The right one has gotten better, but the left one is still a bit tender after the swelling went down!

4) The Green Bean Coffee Shop is still alive and operating on Victory. In fact, my first night back, I walked up to get a cup of coffee and don’t you know, there are people dancing naked around the picnic tables! In all their jubilation and dancing, it was explained to me that they were celebrating the arrival of chocolate and white chocolate powder that has been out of stock for six or so weeks and they could now have their Chocolate Lattes and Chocolate Frappes.

Okay, maybe they weren’t dancing naked but there was definitely some raucous celebration happening in observance of this commodity becoming available again! Mark my word: Coffee is serious business here since there is no drinking allowed!

Friday, May 18, 2007

A Good Time for a Koelsch

7 May 2007

It’s no secret to anyone that knows me that my real second home isn’t Iraq, isn’t Antarctica, certainly isn’t Kuwait…it’s Germany!

I made sure to tuck one more stop into my itinerary to visit my friend Bill in Germany before heading back to Iraq. I’m already this far and have been away from Iraq for this long, what’s a few days waylayed in Germany, right?

Before I’d made my final plans to go back, I emailed Bill, who I hadn’t corresponded with for some time to see if he had time for an old friend passing through. He emailed back that his schedule would be clear whenever I wanted to stop in.

But first, a real coincidence! We were at our neighbor’s house the Saturday before I was to leave and my neighbor Al, was in town from his o/s job in Dubai for his son’s first communion. We got to talking about our return trips to the Middle East and low and behold, we are flying out the same day on the same airline…but not on the same flight or same time. So I ran home, called United and fortunately, they were able to put me on his flight for later that day. It is always nicer to travel with someone you know, even if it was only half the journey. And Al, I still owe you a beer or two…thanks for the ride!

So when my plane rolls into Frankfurt, Bill was there waiting and we promptly took off for Cologne, about a 2.5 hour drive north from Frankfurt. Bill has always been one to sightsee about all of Europe in his two year tour there and he’d only been to Cologne once before, so off we were to Koeln.

I couldn’t get a room at my favorite standby, the Intercontinental, so we made do with the Hyatt Regency just across the Rhein from the Dom and Bahnhof, cathedral and train station. Still very close to nearly everything you want to see and do in Cologne.

One of the first things we did was climb the spires of the Dom…some 177 steps or something ridiculous like that. Also made a stop at the Starbuck’s and I had to get my magnets at the Hard Rock Café. My sisters and I have been taken in by collecting these guitar-shaped bottle-opener Hard Rock Café refrigerator magnets. I know, more kitsch and junk, but so far we’ve got about a dozen or so of these things, so I just HAD to obtain some from Cologne. They were out of them the last time I was there.

One of the great things of this trip was the food and the restaurants! I thought that I knew Cologne well, but Bill and I stumbled upon the riverfront of pubs and restaurants in the Neumarkt district that I had not remembered was there. I had been in that area in about 1986 when my friend Cynthia and whatever flavor-of-the-year-boyfriend she traveled there with met me there, but I had completely not seen this area in all the times that I’ve recently been back to the city.

It was during this time that I felt compelled to introduce Bill to the wonderful world of Koelsch bier. Koelsch is only brewed in Cologne and is served up cold in tall and thin 0.2 liter glasses so the bier is always fresh and cold. Whipping around the tables with his little handled tray/holder that conveniently must hold about 20 of these little glasses, nearly as soon as the waiter sees your little .2 liter glass down to empty, like an eagle hunting prey, in one fell swoop he is spiriting off your empty glass, dropping a fresh one and marking your deckle (coaster) faster than the eye can blink! So Friday day/night and Saturday morning and afternoon were spent in Cologne eating and drinking well, thank you very much!

Too soon, we had to part with my adopted home away from home, Cologne, but not before I bought my Cologne Starbuck’s mug for the mug tree in the kitchen. I’m such a tourist sometimes! We had an invite to a birthday party about 30 minutes from Frankfurt in Bad Nauheim to attend. Bill’s friend Christine was celebrating her 30th and I was invited to attend with him.

No matter how confident other people perceive you to be with a second language, you always have the inner concern that you’re still being judged on your speaking as an outsider. Maybe that comes from all the language training back in high school and college…think word order (verb last), conjugations, consistent tenses, proper grammar, colloquialisms, ugggggh! I guess it is true that you are your own worst critic. I consider my German passable, but am always striving to pass it off to the Germans as fluent! Well, tonight was my chance to prove myself again.

If you weren’t aware of it, the two biggest hobbies of the Germans are drinking beer and talking world politics…and that might be considered by them as one hobby since it tends to go hand in hand! Or maybe it fits more into the category of Sport! This I learned a long, long time ago and tonight was going to be no exception. Fortunately for me, the Germans aren’t particularly critical of your political point of view, they only want to convince you of theirs!

So yes, my German got a workout. But I also had the opportunity to ask questions about the war (WWII) and them to me about our current skirmish in Iraq, and had the opportunity to learn more about their current culture. The political and even the cultural climate in Germany has really changed since the wall fell in ’89 as well as with the adoption of the Euro in ‘02.

To say that I enjoyed talking with Christine’s family is probably the understatement of the century. I didn’t find out until the evening was over that her one Uncle that I spent quite some time talking with, is a local judge! That kind of flipped me out. And as I said, they were not any bit critical of me or of our policy, only curious to discuss our thinking and approach of different situations.

Ulli, one of my German friends in Kalkar commented to me when I was leaving back in ‘87 that he was going to really miss me because I was one of the only Americans that could and would actually talk politics…in German. Maybe beer and politics are as much my Sport as theirs. Or maybe during those three years in Kalkar, Ulli trained me to be more German than I ever realized!

I finally crawled into bed at 0300. Bill took off ahead of me but we were getting up at 0830 for breakfast before he was to take me to the airport. My quick weekend in Germany had already come to an end. I had a great time and this will be the last time that I see Bill for awhile because he is PCSing (Permanent Change of Station) out to the Far East in three weeks.

The nice thing about friends overseas is you always have someone somewhere to go visit. The hard thing about friends overseas is that you never know how long it will be till you see them again. Aufwiedersehen Germany, aufwiedersehen Bill…until we meet again.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"Portrait of a Soldier"

02 May 2007

Yesterday in my flurry of trying to see people on my list of people to visit before I leave to go back to Camp Victory, I stopped by NIU (Northern Illinois University in DeKalb). I did get in to see Ann, but Harry was as elusive as ever. I also wanted to stop by and see one of my old marketing profs, Tanuja.

While waiting in the waiting area for her, I was scanning through the university paper, the Northern Star. On page three, I saw an article by Carlene Eck about “Dead soldiers honored, remembered at HSC” (Holmes Student Center on the campus.) After reading the article, I knew that I’d have to view this memorial after my visit with Tanuja.

“Illinois Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn visited NIU Monday morning to unveil “Portrait of a Soldier,” a memorial showcasing 150 Illinois men and women who have died while serving in the military since Sept. 11.”

“The portraits were hand-drawn by Cameron Schilling, 24, of Mattoon, as a gift to the families who have lost loved ones in the Iraq war.”

Our local DeKalb, Daily Chronicle also featured this memorial on the front page in an article written by Dana Herra. In it, Dana notes that “Sketches of dead Americans go ‘right to your heart’”…a point which I will not argue, especially after seeing it.

The pencil sketches are almost lifelike and are arranged with personal histories of each Soldier, Marine, Sailor and Airman. About half-way through however, I was overcome with emotion as Dana Herra describes the reason for my getting all choked up. “A piece of pink notepaper is stuck to the sketch of Lance Cpl. Sean Maher, a 19-year old Marine. ‘Sean Patrick, I love and miss you very much,’ the note reads. It’s signed, ‘Your loving sister.’”

I have been to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, but didn’t connect to the emotion attached to that rock by so many I saw there. Prior to my experiences in Iraq how could I fully understand the personal impact of the casualties of war? It is the hand-written notes of people still emotionally connected to their loved ones that now helps me understand and connect with their loss.

These men and women depicted in the life-like poses with their steel-faced determination appeared to me as troops in formation ready for combat until I reached that pink hand-written note. Someone’s personal reminder of their loss. That cold reminder that these men and woman will be forever remembered as Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen. Names forever etched in marble or steel on their tombstones, honored and remembered in front of their county courthouses on veteran remembrance statues and obelisks. God willing, they will also be remembered for the honor with which they served their country and for their ultimate sacrifice in the name of Freedom.

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