Sunday, May 11, 2014

Almost Over

Well, we’re about 4-5 days away from beginning the trek back to the U.S.  What can I tell you?  My first visit to Germany has in no way disappointed; then again, I’ve come with hardly any expectations or preconceived notions save the use of Deutsch in daily interpersonal interactions and in that case the expectations have been exceeded.

One of the things I have enjoyed most is the driving – namely, the road trips from one area to the other.

A couple of days ago another fellow and I had to drive from where we are (Ramsdorf) to the Air Base (Ramstein) and that’s about a three and a half hour drive.  Little did we know, however, that when you key in Ramstein to the car’s NAV system, the Air Base does not appear as a destination.  Both of us had been advised to not go to Ramstein-Miesenbach, which is close to the Air Base.  Therefore, prior to the experience, when “Ramstein” was keyed into the system and we were given two choices of destination we picked the one that was just “Ramstein” sans the “-Miesenbach.”  The estimated travel time was five hours and change, not three and not the predicted four from another member of our team.

What resulted was a three and a half hour detour to the Black Forest to a castle or something, which shares the name of the Air Base we were trying to get to.  Of course, that was a three and a half hour detour one way; what should have been about 7-8 hours in the car turned into 12 and a half.

However, it was still a good experience.  The fellow and I got to have some good conversation and get to know each other well as we work in the same office and serve in the same branch, we just hadn’t, heretofore, had the opportunity to spend such time talking to each other.

And we can now boast that we’ve practically driven the country from tip-to-tip, north to south; and the scenery was wonderful.

Parts of the autobahn reminded me of driving around North Carolina, especially in the Triangle region.  Smaller towns we drove through, especially as the geography got increasingly rocky and hilly, reminded me of driving through the Appalachians, through the western parts of NC as well as the Virginias and even a bit of Maryland. 

The drive back took place after sundown and as we made our way further north rain started falling.  By that point I was no longer driving but in the unusual position of riding, instead.  The night drive, through the rain, occasionally hitting 200 km/h was both compelling and gripping: I was compelled to grip the armrests quite tightly.  But we made it in by midnight, having left about 14 hours prior.  The next morning we set out for our final day’s work and wrapped by lunch.

At this point we have days to fill with report writing; for myself, photo logging and selecting, and writing. 

I’ve actually been catching up on a bit of reading, drawing and listening to podcasts.

Ah, yes, and I’ve taken the time each evening over the course of last week to catch up on an American cultural touchstone that members of the team deemed as a travesty of me having not experienced it before now: The Rocky Saga. 

Two Christmases ago I purchased the Rocky Blu-Ray boxed set when it was on sale, but I didn’t start at the beginning…for some reason I started with the sixth film, Rocky Balboa and I quite enjoyed it, though I knew I was missing a lot of references from the previous five.  A few months later I finally watched Rocky and quite enjoyed that.

Now, as of last Friday, I completed the saga by watching Rocky II, III, IV and V and then rewatching Balboa giving a report and critique of each film to the team each following morning. 

I had no idea that my not having seen these movies previously would cause such a stir.  Upon further questioning I now have the task of catching up with The Delta Force movies, the Rambo films, Bloodsport, Kickboxer and basically all American movies from the late 70s and early 80s that involve crazy, non-stop action and were probably rated R. 

Well, I do look forward to getting back in about a week and hopefully getting the news that I made E-5 around Memorial Day.  Thank you for reading, and look forward to perhaps one more update with photos!

Auf wiedersehen!

Sunday, April 27, 2014

From Buchen to....

If last week was three weeks, I suppose that would make this week four.  How time flies!

I remember when I first started doing this stuff how I would blink and be halfway done with the mission.  The tempo seems to be moving at a steady clip but there’s no real sense of rushing.  I reckon we have merely hit our stride and getting out of Sindelfingen and into Buchen was a pleasant transition.  Some folks on the team moan about not being nearer to a downtown-like area, but overall I think everyone prefers the homey qualities of small towns, especially in the hotels.

We’ve actually lodged the last week at the Löwen Hotel in Hettigenbeuern which is about 7 km from Buchen proper.  Hettigenbeuern is a village nestled in a valley with majestic trees and picturesque farmland running along the hills.  The staff at the hotel consists mainly of a family with a couple other folks.  They’ve been great and tonight I just learned that the cook used to be a cook in the Bavarian Navy.  The food has been delicious each morning and night – for lunch we’d go into town to get sandwiches at a bakery to take with us to the site.

And the site – mein Wort…it was in another forest but this time with no garlic-like plants.  There was practically no underbrush to speak of and I felt as though I was in a cross between the forest in E.T. and the one on Endor in Return of the Jedi. 

A local archaeologist assisted us in our work for a couple days and one day a fellow from the local police precinct helped as well.  He’d regale us with crazy stories about his work; it was quite fascinating.  He reminded us of a more personable version of Steven Seagal, what with his badass ponytail, yet friendly nature.

Buchen itself is a gem of a town.  The original downtown area retains the original medieval layout which consists of twisty cobblestone streets, tall, crowded buildings, all manner of bakeries, shops and such, and a rather old church at the main square with some historical sculptures, statues, and frescoes. 

An interesting part of the square is the contrast between the World War 1 and World War 2 memorials.  The WW1 memorial is a tall, majestic, respectful piece whereas the WW2 is a book of metal pages attached to a stone plinth with the names of the war dead inscribed on each page.

On either side of the town are the main shopping centers; one is a developing outlet mall type area, the other is an established center full of shoe shops, a restaurant, a euro store (their version of the dollar store), and a Kaufland.  I’d equate Kaufland to being the missing link between Wal-Mart and Target in retail evolution. 

Ah, and I nearly forgot – the local media did a story on us again:

And that’s pretty much it.  Monday we’re off to our second-to-last hotel stay before heading home.  It’s been a good experience, but I’ll be glad to get home.

Thanks for reading!

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Three Weeks

And now, it’s been three weeks.

I struggle to think of what to write, what to tell you about as the newness, the novelty of being in Germany has kind of worn off.   Don’t get me wrong, I’m still charmed by the language and customs, but – ah!  I know what to go on about….

Our second stop was in the Neureut/Wörth/Karlsruhe area.  The hotel was less a happy hotel like the one in Dillingen and more of a resigned one.  By that I mean, it didn’t really seem to have much personality, not much I could pick up on, anyway. 

The main person we interacted with was the new girl working the front desk, a young lady by the name of Diana who just moved to Germany from Hungary.  She’d been there a week before we arrived.

Our work had us speaking with all number of locals and our area of interest spanned two square kilometers – quite a large area considering our work.  However, we narrowed it down to a farm field, a meadow and an area of forest which I call Knoblauchwald, or the garlic forest, so named because there’s a plant there that grows with big green leaves (makes me think of lilies for some reason) and a white bloom and it smells of garlic.  Our work began at the height of its blooming and the smell of garlic was heavy in the air.

Again, it’s not garlic, but has a similar scent and taste.  We were told by Ernst that folks pay money for access to areas where the plant grows wild to harvest it and use it for cooking in the restaurant industry.  Of course, our work had us cutting out wide swaths of it and digging in the soil beneath so each day we’d retire entirely safe from vampires because A) they’re repulsed by garlic and B) they don’t exist, of course.

The area of our hotel was quite nice, I thought.  There were several restaurants and pubs and shops around within a couple clicks and the neighborhoods were charming.  A majestic church steeple and clocktower rise majestically above it all in a location central to the main area and it was there I attended church last Sunday.

It was a Protestant church and a Presbyterian one at that, I reckon, judging by the symbols on the cloth over the table up front and the fact that it featured an infant baptism.  Being of the old architecture, I would presume it used to be a Catholic church (of course, isn’t the Church herself to be catholic?). 

And with the old architecture came an old congregation; well, elderly anyway.  Based on the literature on the information board outside I thought it would be a little more contemporary, but the pastor was an elderly gentleman and the majority of the congregation was composed of seasoned citizens.  There was a group of younger folks, closer to my age, but I think they were there for the baby’s baptism as they seemed as clueless as I was, perhaps a bit less so since they at least speak Deutsch, as to how the service was supposed to progress.

Along the main sanctuary are pillars with open passageways down either side of the area.  On the pillars were these rows of numbers which I initially took for church stats, like maybe attendance, the amount of money given in the offering, stuff like that.  Turns out it was the hymn numbers to be sung during the service.  Well, at least the top three and bottom two were; somewhere along the line either the wrong numbers were put up or somebody improvised because they did not correspond with what was actually being sung.

Still, it was interesting…and a little sad.

But perhaps I shouldn’t be sad for something I couldn’t fully understand.

What made me sad was that the congregation didn’t even take up half of the sanctuary. 

The spirit of the service was dry, methodical, procedural.

The atmosphere was cold and not visitor-friendly.  Not one person greeted me or made an attempt to speak to me though I tried a couple of times.

It all seemed very rote, very routine, and I came away from it rather disappointed and melancholy. 

However, perhaps it was the cultural and lingual divide.  Perhaps if I was more confident in my Deutsch-speaking skills I could have reached out a little more effectively.

As I was leaving, one of the little old ladies was trying to get down the three steps right outside of the main entrance with her walker.  A handful of people stood around and watched; no one moved.  I asked if I could help; “Konnen ich hilfen Sie?”  I think she understood my gestures more than my verbal butchery.  She smiled and allowed me to move her walker down to the ground, retook her grasp and bid me farewell: “Tschuß!” 

Where I hoped to feel that universal, transcendent bond with other believers I felt only stolen glances and cold shoulders.

Ah, well.

There is a very charming town nearby to where we were working called Jockgrim – that’s “yock-grim.”  Driving up from the highway you pass through a gate in the ancient town wall and through the narrow streets to the town center where it’s considerably more open.  You can tell there’s been a bit of that old town restoration and revitalization going on.  The mayor’s office, for example, is in a building that used to be a tile factory.  Now, inside, it has modern, artful architecture blended masterfully with the older brickwork.  The area reminded me a great deal of Cary, the town in which I grew up.

Across the street is an Eiscafe – and this is what I mean by being charmed by the customs of this country.  They take ice cream and coffee and baked goods seriously.  In a place you’d expect to see teenagers working, instead you typically find men approaching middle age scooping ice cream and gelato into cones or bowls. 

The bakeries we’ve frequented seem to be family businesses, especially this one in the town we’ve been working out of this past week.  Tomorrow we leave the Sindelfingen/Böblingen area and head to our next destination.

Actually, the bakery I’m referring to is in a smaller, nearby town called Weil Der Stadt.  It was the Renz bakery with the Renaissance Café attached, run by the same family.  We went there for breakfast and lunch a couple of times, but mostly went to another bakery/café with morning seating more often (as the Renaissance Café didn’t open until brunch). 

We were able to complete our work by Friday so we’ve been fortunate to have Saturday and today, Easter Sunday, free.  I went back to Weil Der Stadt on my own and enjoyed a tasty bowl of tomato soup at the Renz and a pastry at the other location – I want to say it was the Reiter Café, but I may be mistaken.

We’ve been staying in Sindelfingen, about a 15 minute drive to the area we’d been working in and it’s more of a city.  While there are interesting aspects to it, it’s not my cuppa tea and the hotel, while nice enough, isn’t the homey kind of place like we stayed at in Dillingen our first week.

However, Panzer-Kaserne, an Army base, is nearby, so it has been nice being able to go on post for use of the gym and access to the PX and Laundromat.

Our latest site was in another small area of forest, but this time on a hill and with none of the garlic-like plant but plenty of underbrush we were given permission to clear.  On the second day I was put on machete detail and had a good old time bushwhacking through the trees.  I thought it a bit odd, or at least an interesting comparison to my very first mission which was in southern Laos and I remember thinking, “How did I go from working customer service and teaching high school English to bushwhacking on the side of a mountain in SE Asia?”  And there I was doing it again, but now in Western Europe.

So we’re three weeks in with about four more to go.

Lately I’ve been finding myself less inclined to engage in liberal amounts of extra photography.  I’m not exactly sure why that is.  I still take “happy snaps” and scenic photographs, but it being a Western country it’s not quite as foreign as a place like SE Asia is.  We’re also not working as closely with local folks as we would in that region of the world. 

I think part of it is I just want to be able to experience everything and not always try to capture it.  In most cases I’m finding that the most meaningful thing I can take along with me is a memory, experiencing and engaging in what’s going on rather than shooting it with my camera. 

It will be interesting to see how the next month goes.  I rather suspect it will feel as though it speeds up and will just fly by. 

I know in my last post I mentioned my intent to write more frequently, but that hasn’t happened.  Unsure of how indeed the next few weeks go I’m not going to voice any intent except to say I will write at least once more. 

I suppose it has to do with the team dynamics.  While there’s no real conflict there is a closeness, a unity of thought and sensibility I find to be lacking when reflecting upon my previous excursions.  And that just happens sometimes, I suppose.  Not every group of folks is going to gel and that’s alright.  That’s life.

Nevertheless, I look for opportunities to expand my worldview and enjoy and take in as much of the experiences as I can.  I am grateful for the opportunity to travel and participate in this mission.

Until next time….

Sunday, April 6, 2014

I can’t believe it’s already been a week since leaving Hawaii.

We departed Sunday night and arrived in California for a brief layover and continued on to New Jersey where we stayed overnight.  Initially our go time was 2AM; at 1:45 we learned it had been pushed back to 6AM.  Thankfully we were able to get our room keys back and sleep a little longer.  However, some of us found a 24-hour Subway first to get whatever odd meal you’d call it that takes place when you’re supposed to be asleep.  I believe a certain subculture calls it “the munchies.”

A few hours later we were winging our way across the Atlantic to Germany!  It was about 1AM when we arrived and 1:45 by the time we were all in our hotel rooms in Ramstein.  I was able to sleep a few hours, but I naturally woke up around 5 and started getting to the business of the day, namely wrapping up the final paperwork for obtaining a German driver’s license as I had to rent a car.  Thankfully they don’t drive on the left side of the road here, though some of the rules and laws are a bit different. 

For example, if you’re approaching an intersection and there are no signs, if someone is coming from the right, they have the right of way. 

And there’s the Autobahn…I like the lack of speed limit over most of the roadway.  However, when you’re coming up on an exit, a limit of 90 km/h goes into effect.  Also, just because there’s no set limit, in general it’s recommended you don’t go much over 120 km/h, but really if you just go with the flow of traffic you’ll be fine.  I want to say I topped out around 140-150.  It’s pretty cool.

We’re driving Ford station wagons and I dig ‘em.  They’re diesels; it’s my first time driving a diesel.  It’s not all that different from my Saturn at home except that it gets amazing fuel economy.

Anyway, our first real night in Germany we went to a restaurant called Zum Dicken Emma  - or The Fat Emma.  Seeing as how there’s an Air Force base in Ramstein a lot of the commerce in the vicinity is somewhat Americanized, and that is demonstrated, if not exaggerated, by the food portions at Fat Emma’s.  As you can see, a cheeseburger of medium size (they come in small, medium, and holy crap) is the size of normal plate, if not bigger.


And then there’s this:

I call it “the huge mistake.”

When our waitress was taking orders she gave the first guy, Bradshaw, a little grief for ordering a small beer instead of a liter; so he ordered a liter.  I was on the opposite side of the table from him, and when Johnny ordered his drink before mine the waitress casually mentioned that there’s also a three liter size.  That intrigued me.

“I’ll take the three-liter,” I said.  I don’t think she was expecting someone to actually do it.  Now, I’ve had liter-sized sodas; I’ve purchased many a two-liter in my day.  I even remember when three-liter bottles were popular – yet I was unprepared for the upright fish tank brought before me filled with Dunkelweisen beer.  The head itself was about four or five inches tall and it took a couple sips before I finally broke through the foam.

Oy vey…what was I-?  Oh – I wasn’t thinking. 

Well, drinking that beast required two hands and many bathroom breaks.  Don’t get me wrong, everyone had fun that night, as did I…until the last liter….

And I’m not sure, but I think what did me in was the shot of Uzo, which is a shot of whiskey designed to help food settle.  Well, for my internal beer sponge I had a pepper steak and some fries.  It was a delicate balance internally, but I was doing alright until Uzo…then…I held it together – nothing emerged from the properly marked exits that wasn’t supposed to, but I was hurtin’.  The three who remained with me as I finished off the Dunkelmonster and I walked – yes, walked; no staggering – back to the hotel three hours after we walked to the restaurant. 

I slept extraordinarily well that night.

Thankfully, there were no aftereffects.  I was a little groggy upon wake-up, but none the worse for wear.

Around 8 or 9 we gathered up in our convoy of three wagons and took off.

Ah!  I forgot to mention that the night before we met our translator, an older gentleman by the name of Ernst.  He’s a retired mechanical engineer who collects typewriters and lives with his wife here in southern Germany.  He is truly a delight and I’ve enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with him thus far and look forward to those to come over the next several weeks.  Perhaps I’ll interview him for the podcast….

So it was a convoy of three wagons and Ernst in his blue car.  

The ride to Dillingen wasn’t long at all, and as we drove into town the déjà vu began….

On the outskirts of town is an old Industrial Works factory – it’s now a tourist attraction, but the appearance of it triggered a memory of something I can’t remember experiencing.  Alternate realities synching up?  Dr. Bishop hasn’t been returning my calls, so I’m not positive, but we’ll see.

As we were cruising down the main drag to our first destination I spotted an Aldi on the left and thought, “Ah!  They have Aldi here, too!”  And then I remembered, this is where Aldi originated – not necessarily Dillingen, but Germany.

We were an hour or so early for our first engagement so we found a nearby Eiscafe, or ice cream shop.  It looked fairly new.  As the boss conferred with the committee I looked around, taking it all in.  As I mentioned before, Ramstein and the surrounding area is somewhat Americanized – ain’t nothing American about Dillingen. 

The seats were outside and I’d hear people speaking in German to each other as they’d walk by.  A couple at a nearby table exchanged greetings and began talking excitedly to each other over some chocolate gelato.  It was so cool to hear it being used so naturally.  I hadn’t heard that much German since high school. 

Once it was time, we arose and walked down the cobblestone sidewalks to the library and met with our contacts.  It was a brief meeting and within the hour we’d all dispersed then reconvened at a nearby Italian restaurant.  It seemed kind of small, though in a long building, and driving to it was fun.  The streets twist and turn about; there are many roundabouts in addition to traffic lights; a bridge spanning the train tracks going through town, and an older part of town filled with rows of homes that connect as one large building down each block.

Lunch was good.  I got to hear more conversational German and in my own limited usage found much of it coming back to me.  I surprised some of our hosts as well as myself. 

From there we were taken to a large field where we’d be spending the next three days doing our work.  A running trail runs along it so we weren’t without a fair share of spectators wondering what these folks were doing (“Ah! Amerikans!”) out there including a local TV crew.

Nuts…I can’t find the link to the video, but here’s a news article – in German (Google should translate):;art27857,5205263

Some local volunteers worked with us over the following couple of days, but the highlight would have to be speaking with the mother of one of the volunteers who was living in Dillingen during the War.

Now, Dillingen saw quite a bit of action at that time.  Any WWII buffs out there can look it up and see how involved it was, but just in random areas around town you’ll see bunkers with gun turrets, bullet holes in different buildings, and in the surrounding areas one can find many artifacts. 

Here are some examples and for more you can click over to my Flick*r page.


Yesterday some of us visited a restored bunker that serves as a museum, albeit quite a small one.  We descended about 30 meters into the earth and observed the cramped spaces the soldiers lived in; and yes, to be clear it was a German bunker used during WWII. 

It was very interesting seeing what life was like.  After going into the heart of the bunker we climbed 30 meters up into the turret where two to three soldiers would be serving as lookout, gunner, and assistant.  And suddenly it occurred to me that to get out of that horribly small space you’d have to go back down the ladders, through the tight passages, and back up the stairs.  That thought was immediately followed by: this would be a terrible time to get claustrophobia; that thought’s caboose carried the sensation of panic but I quickly reminded myself I’m not claustrophobic and continued to take pictures.


That pretty much concluded our time here and today, Sunday, we had a day off.

Most of our team went off to a nearby town to see the sights, but Bradshaw and I stayed behind.

We strolled around Dillingen, finding a Mediterranean Café for lunch and a nearby pub for afternoon pints (pints – one each).  Afterward Bradshaw had his own work to do and I retrieved my camera gear from my room and strolled about on my own. 

I’ve never done a time-lapse video before and the Nikon D800 I’m using has that functionality built in.  I’ve been wanting to do one for a while, especially with the more photographers I meet the more popular time lapses seem to be. 

I first walked down to the bridge spanning the train yards.  Being unsure of what the timing on the shots should be I set it at one shot every ten seconds for five minutes.  Given the combination of the brevity of what the final product would amount to along with the lack of trains I wound up with a rather boring five second clip of train tracks.  I deleted the file, took a still shot of the area and moved on.

One thing I didn’t anticipate is that most of the town shuts down on Sundays – that’s a cultural characteristic of Germany.  And I like that.  While it initially proved inconvenient for Bradshaw and I in our quest for lunch, I do like that entire municipalities at least delay opening up for the sake of going to church.  To quote the dad in That Thing You Do, “You shouldn’t have to work on Sunday to support your family.”  Saying all that to say, after 12 things start to open up and people come out to enjoy the afternoon; and it was indeed a lovely afternoon.

From the bridge I hoofed it over to the Eiscafe we stopped at when we first arrived in town.  That place was hopping!  I set up my camera on the tripod and adjusted the settings to release the shutter once every three seconds for about 20 minutes.  While I waited I wrote a bit in my journal and talked to a couple inquisitive locals about what I was doing.  Now I have a neat ten second segment of people walking around and enjoying their ice cream/gelato.  And I also want to make more time lapses.

Well, packing up from there I figured other areas of town must be more active, too.  I walked over to the main square to find - - - hardly anyone.  I walked to another area with pubs and cafes - - - hardly anyone.  Apparently, the place to be is at that one café. 

By that time it was coming up on dinner so I returned to our hotel to rendezvous with the rest of the group.

Ah, our hotel – it is one of the nicest hotels I’ve ever stayed in; and by nice I don’t mean luxurious or five stars or anything like that; it’s…nice; it’s pleasant, it’s cheerful.  The hotel’s personality is nice.  Yes, I believe that place has personality.  For example, I think I mentioned in my remarks about one of the hotels we stayed at in the Philippines (from a previous excursion) that it was a sad hotel.  Well, the Saar Hotel is nice, it’s happy, it’s good. 

Yellow is the primary color setting the scheme and it’s delightful.  When the sun shines through the windows of the quaint pub and restaurant on the ground floor it’s always with golden beams; even on cloudy days. 

My room is bright, but not uncomfortably so.  It’s bright with the sun’s warmth and tranquil cheerfulness.  It’s like setting foot inside a hug, or a freshly-baked loaf of bread.  It’s just lovely and I don’t look forward to leaving it in the morning, but we must.

140404-Germany-001 140403-Germany-008 140403-Germany-011
Well, that’s the first week in.  I’m going to try updating a bit more frequently so the posts won’t be so overloaded.  That’s dependent on what happens during the days, though, and if I ever overcome the jet lag.  Like clockwork, each night, everyone in the group starts getting sleepy around 7 or 8 o’clock.  Tonight I powered through, though, so as to get this post up.

Thanks for reading!