Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Best Wife Ever

With the exception of Christmas, Cristi and I hate gift-giving holidays: Mothers' Day, Fathers' Day, and, yes, Valentine's Day. With everything else going on, we find ourselves with so little time that these occasions just seem like a chore, rather than something we can put time and effort into to make them special. So we'd rather not make a big deal out of them than to cause additional stress that's not needed. That was illustrated quite clearly yesterday by my low-maintenance wife.

Yesterday, a friend of ours came up to Philadelphia and stayed with Lauren so that Cristi and I could just go out and enjoy ourselves. No big plans...We just wanted to hang out and enjoy being together -- pure and simple. Wow, it was great! We drove up to a suburb north of Philadelphia where they have a huge shopping center so that we could look for some stuff and just goof off. We went into Old Navy, and Cristi found a shirt to spruce up her spring hospital wardrobe. As we finished checking out, the clerk said, "Have a great day. Enjoy your holiday!" As we're leaving, Cristi says, "Oh yeah...I was trying to figure out what holiday it was today." I love that woman!

A Trip Home, Part Drei

Our last day there, the day we flew out, we started at Kaethe Wohlfahrt; I needed to pick up an ornament for my mother. We headed to Mackebach next. Coincidentally, Don and I both lived there while we were stationed over there. We stopped at the grocery store first to do our last-minute shopping. I still needed coffee and Kinder Eggs. If you’ve never had European coffee, it’s the best. And, German coffee is one of the best of those. Kinder Eggs, are little eggs made out chocolate – about the size of Cadbury Cream Eggs – that are hollowed out and have little toys inside them. Many of the toys you have to put together, which is the really cool part. It’s amazing how much stuff you can fit in a tiny chocolate egg! Addison and Brennan have had them before and asked me to bring them back some. I figured I better get some for Lauren, too. Not that Brennan and Lauren can eat them, but remember: It’s not about the chocolate; it’s about the toy inside!

So, I strolled through the store, first stopping for coffee. I initially picked up 5 bricks, but at about $6/brick, I figured that was a lot, so I put a grand total of one back. Hey, I’m only willing to sacrifice so much! Then, on my way to the candy aisle, I went down the sauce aisle. Yep. I’m all about the pre-made schnitzel sauce! The only complicating factor is that the ingredients are in German, so I couldn’t guarantee they didn’t have milk products in them and be safe for Brennan, but I was reasonably confident, figuring I could always translate via Google, so I pulled a couple of packets. Finally…on to Kinder Eggs. I pulled nine and went to check out. Now, since it was our last day, I had used up most of my cash; I was hoping to use a credit card here…But no luck. I was frustrated but not that surprised. In many ways, German culture is a good 40-50 years behind us. This was a good example: Using credit cards everywhere just isn’t the German way. So after embarrassing myself, Don offered up his remaining cash, and I brought back only half the coffee I had intended to.

Our last item of business before lunch and a drive back to the airport was to stop at Don's landlords' house in Mackenbach. Don's wife insisted that he stop by, but Don was afraid after so many years that they might not remember him, or like being dropped in on. Well, he was wrong -- way wrong! They opened the door, immediately recognized him, gave him a bear hug, and invited us in. We talked for a little bit, then their youngest daughter came in, now a college student; she had been Don's babysitter when they lived there. I mentioned how I used to live in Mackenbach as well, and in fact, lived just a few blocks away. When I told them which house I lived in, they said, "Ah, Frau Mayer's house!" Frau Mayer was my landlady. We both had digital pictures of the family handy, so Don left some for his landlords to keep, and they offered to tell Frau Mayer I said hello and take a family picture of us! Then they offered us coffee (Wow! Starbucks got nuttin' on German coffee!!) and offered to take us out to lunch! We tried to decline politely, because we really didn't want to impose on them, but they absolutely insisted. In fact, when they couldn't find a single restaurant open (not that unusual in Germany), they just made lunch for us. This was one amazing couple! I can see why Don's wife was insistent! After lunch, I took some pictures for Don, and we left for the airport. What a great way to end our trip to Germany!

I started this blog post with the title, A Trip Home. For me, it really has been -- and for Don, too, I'd say. I’m fascinated by Germany because of its history and culture, and because my ancestors emigrated from there (and by its good food – have I mentioned that yet?). Couple that with going back to the 1st and a trip down memory lane, and – even without any real “sightseeing” – you’ve got one of the best trips ever!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Trip Home, Part Zwei

We took the majority of the afternoon off. I went to check e-mail and Facebook (to let Cristi know I made it safely). We met again that evening to do some more shopping before dinner. I had to go pick up a 110/220 adapter for my laptop (who’d’a thunk that there’d be no 110 outlets in billeting???), then to the commissary to buy some breakfast goods. We then went to find the Polish Pottery store tucked away in a little village somewhere. I had never been, but Don had when he was here a mere 6 years ago. I couldn’t even remember where the village was; he got us that far, but then the adventure began. He couldn’t remember exactly where it was, so he was looking for something familiar. Failing that, we turned down nearly every side street looking for it, ending up on two-way streets only wide enough for one car because of all the cars parked along the side because they were residential streets. Finally, we had to ask two Germans out walking. We finally found the place. It did have a fairly good selection, but man the prices were high – about 4-5 times what I paid for the stuff in Poland 10 years ago! I got the two pasta bowls to complete our collection, and Don got what his wife sent him for. Off to dinner!

When we were in the commissary, we were discussing where to go, and a lady overheard us. She told us if we wanted good schnitzel, and lots of it, to go to this place called “Big Emma’s” in Ramstein Village. We got half-portions that weighed in at a hefty 17 oz. The full portions were 35 oz, and for those big appetites, they had 71 oz portions available! It wasn’t as good as the Firehouse, but it was pretty good, and we certainly didn’t go away hungry! And so ends a great first day back in Germany…

The next day, we started our meetings – out at our new old stomping grounds. The 1st was planning a new building when I left, to replace the old WWII bomb shelter and hardened aircraft shelters we used for our workcenters. The new place was stunning! The troops now have bays big enough to store and work on their equipment indoors – a good thing considering the rainy German weather. That’s pretty impressive considering it takes a lot of space for satellite terminals, air traffic control equipment, and generators.

Combat comm units have a long tradition of high morale, probably because their sole mission is to go anywhere in the world to support the guys that put bombs on target. I already alluded that this was my best assignment, but we also have a long history of unit loyalty (we disparage the 3rd Herd and 5th Mob all the time because of their inferiority to the 1st), so I just had to get my picture taken with the 1st Combat Comm rock.

That picture will look nice in my office, don’t you think, right next to my 1st Combat Comm flag? Oh, and we had a good conference, too. The 1st’s commander, Lt Col Bill Waynick, was a great host (two more nights of good schnitzel), and we had the right folks here from the 1st, 3rd, 5th, and 644th to get some real work done figuring out what combat comm should look like in the future.

To be continued...

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Trip Home, Part Eins

(This post became so long, I decided to break it down into three parts to make it easier to read)

I got an amazing opportunity this week. I got to go back to Germany – the land of my ancestors and place of my first (real) assignment. Because of the flight schedules and jetlag, it’s almost impossible to make the trip without scheduling in a little extra time – a time I intended to take full advantage of!

I traveled with a guy I work with, Don Cournoyer, who had incidentally been assigned to the same unit I was in Germany, the 1st Combat Communications Squadron, just at a different time. For those of you unfamiliar with a combat comm unit, their mission is to deploy to a bare base that has no infrastructure whatsoever, and set up an entire base communications network, starting with a satellite communications link to connect back into the military network, and extending phone, classified and unclassified networks, video teleconferencing, and radio connectivity, among other things. We can also set up air traffic control services. Needless to say, this is about the coolest job in the whole Air Force!

We arrived Tuesday morning at 0700 with nothing to do except stay awake, because the quickest way (albeit grueling) to get over jetlag is to stay up all day, then crash early that night. So, we went shopping…and eating! We headed off to the BX to pick up some sweets to take back home for the family (Gummi Bears and German chocolate), then to Kaethe Wohlfahrt. This store stays open year-round, and sells nutcrackers, smokers, and Christmas ornaments. When we left Germany 8.5 years ago, we were pregnant with Brennan. To announce the news to the family, we bought these cute little wooden Christmas ornaments of a baby buggy under a Christmas tree. Unfortunately, we forgot to get one for ourselves to commemorate the occasion. So, I was under strict orders to go look for one over there. I didn’t hold out much hope that they’d still have that exact ornament, but Cristi asked me to look. Would you believe I got the last one they had?? I picked up four other ornaments (total of five – one for each member of the family).

By then, it was lunchtime, so we agreed on Fish ‘n Chips (authentic British-style) from this nice takeaway place in Ramstein Village. Unfortunately, it had closed. We had already discussed going to the Alte Feuerwache (Old Firehouse) at some point, so we took off over there to see if they were open for lunch. As you can see below, it really does look like an old firehouse, German-style (which indeed it was before becoming a restaurant).

This was Cristi’s and my absolute favorite restaurant in all of Europe. We had planned our last meal in Germany there, and we hadn’t had it in a while. Unfortunately, when we arrived, they were on holiday and weren’t open. We were crushed. I had wondered if it would still be open, because it was run by an older German couple. In fact, with the exception of a few grocery stores (like Aldi) and department stores (like Real, H&M, and Ikea), most businesses, hotels, and restaurants are all mom-and-pop operations. It turns out it was open, but under different owners. They had changed their menu to include Italian and some other things, as well as German. Fortunately, they still had a healthy selection of schnitzel. I ordered the Zwiebelschnitzel with bratkartoefln (onion schnitzel with fried potatoes). The portions were about as big as I remember, and the food was great, too. Here’s a picture (before I ate it!).

To be continued…