Saturday, March 5, 2016

Ghosts of the Past

Treptower Park Soviet Memorial in Berlin

Very cool memorial in E. Berlin.  The Soviets weren't big on subtlety.  See the monument on the left.  It's a brawny Soviet soldier holding a liberated kid while holding a broadsword and stepping on a busted up swastika.  It's hard to tell from this picture but this statue was massive and was several stories high.  Rather than the German memorials that mourn the loss of their sons to the German cause, this Soviet memorial screams "We conquered, we're #1."  I supposed it makes sense when you put things in context for the time.  Kind of.

Unlike many of the other Soviet monuments around this region, this one is in really good shape.  I read that one of the conditions of the Soviets leaving East Berlin after the wall had fallen was that the new unified German government would take care of this monument.  To their credit, they have stayed true to that promise. 
Symbolic Religious Statuary at the site of the former InterGerman Border in Fulda
It's hard to see in this picture but these statues not only represented the stations of the cross but also alluded to the German oppression under communism.  Notice the color of the hammer.  In the next statue, one of the Roman soldiers was depicted in an East German helmet.  BTW, the trail in the picture to the right was the E. German patrol route that was parallel to the border.  The border was found about twenty feet to the left of the trail where the vegetation line is.  Over this hill, one can find OP Alpha which is an old US Army outpost as well as the E. German counterpart on the other side of the road.  Not as dramatic as Checkpoint Charlie but still very cool.   

Random German-Soviet Friendship Gate in E. Berlin (Mitte?).  NOTE: Notice how someone removed the German flag from the design.  At one point there was a German flag where the rusted part is located.  Sure, you hear a lot about "Ostalgia" (especially in the writings of Rick Steves for some reason) but I doubt many Germans would actually prefer reverting back to the 1950s.  This gate is a good example of that.  This is especially true in Berlin where, at the moment, the counterculture movement and free expression are flourishing.  Very exciting times!  None of that would be permissible under the old guard.  or example, I remember a display at the DDR museum that described how the communists created a dance called the Lipsi as an attempt to counter the influence of western style music and dancing.

Soviet liberation monument in Szczecin. 

It's no surprise that the Poles let this monument go to pot.  For good reason, they are still seething from half a century of "liberation" by the communists who saw fit to keep Poland under their boot.  The Poles are extremely proud people and I think the Soviets weren't too keen on this back when Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact.  Seems like they were more inclined to make nice with the East Germans who were more permissive.  As a result, Poland appeared to suffer under communism and was left to crumble.   


Wednesday, March 2, 2016


2016 started off right with some new adventures.  NATO saw fit to send me to Oberammergau, Germany for some training and while I saluted smartly and drove on to yet another hardship location, I brought my snowboard with me.  In all honestly, Oberammergau is a slice of heaven.  It's deep in the Bavarian Alps just up the road from Garmisch Partenkirchen.  The Baldwin fam took many trips to Garmisch back in the day. 
One of the highlights of this trip was x country skiing (Nordic skiing).  My old boss and great friend, Dr. Kersgard, told me about her time back in Idaho logging some hours on the Nordic tracks which got me really curious about the sport.  Unfortunately our time in Boise was too short and I never got the chance to try it out.  This time, however, I made it happen thanks to some awesome conditions.  2015/2016 won't be remembered for it's incredible snow conditions.  In fact, you'll see in an earlier post that I had to bail from a Dec ski trip to Zakopane due to the lack of snow.  In early Jan in Bavaria, the snow was falling...falling hard that is. 
I delayed by Nordic skiing until the final day of my training and was blessed with some epic blue skies and packed/groomed powder.  Ahhh, kill me now!  It took a little getting used to but after 30 minutes or so, I got the hang of it.  Not much to it especially even if you're a novice.  In fact, I think it's easier for those who haven't skied before on downhill skis.  I say this because downhill skiers will "skate" or push out the inner edge of their ski to propel themselves forward on flat ground.  I've done it a thousand times and even got a massive blister from this motion when I went ski skating around our Barber Station house in Boise after an epic snow storm.  Nordic skiing is extremely linear.  No kicking out to the sides although I understand that style of Nordic skiing is growing in popularity.  Anyhow, it was a great way to get out and enjoy this Bavarian paradise and to burn off the few beers from the previous night.  Sidebar: I ran into a Dutch colleague from our course and he was the coolest.  I quit after three beers while he lost count.  Good times. 

This is one of the reasons I had to get back to Europe.  Oberammergau, Garmisch, Innsbruck--these are the places to be in early January!

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Zakopane Snowboarding (Attempt #2)

If I look happy in the picture above, it's really because of a great train ride.  Sure, the snow was awesome, I'm at the highest point in Poland and the sun was shining which is rare in these parts.  But before I get to that I want to tell the story of two train trips.  The first one occurred in late Dec and I had intended to get in some slope time before headed back home for Christmas.  I booked the overnight train from Szczecin to Zakopane which is in the far southern part of Poland next to Slovakia (11 hrs via train).  No big deal on the way down there except for that it turns out the snow in Zakopane sucked and I decided to get off a Krakow and see that place instead.  The way back, however, was a nightmare.  Unlike the trip down, I had a seat in an open bay much like you would in a subway, bus, or airplane.  I was hoping to get a six person cabin like I had before.  Turns out every drunk in Poland was on my train and I got very little sleep.  To make things worse, the conductor kept coming by to check my ticket.  Of the 11 hours, I may have slept 3.  I was a wreck the next day. 

This time was different.  I splurged for a couchette compartment which made all of the difference.  For only an extra 100 zloty ($25) roundtrip, I got a bed in a six person cabin and as luck would have it, I had it all to myself for most of the way down to Zakopane.  The train conductor checked my ticket as I boarded and didn't come back until we were 25 min out of Szczecin.  I had a solid 10 hours of sleep which was a godsend after a day of snowboarding.  And as Jen would say, there's no sleep like the sleep you get on a train.  Something about the subtle rocking motion.  So let me break it down--of the 22 hours spent on the train between Friday night and this morning (Sunday), I slept for 19 of them.  It was going to Berlin...super easy.  Best $25 I've ever spent especially considering the total cost of the trip was around $68. 

As for snowboarding, it was a fun except that I've learned I need some green and blue slopes as a warm-up before going banzai black diamond.  Unfortunately up on Kasprowy Weirch, there was nothing except black runs with one exception (more on that below).  Whatever.  I now have some black and blue diamond-shaped bruises and bumps to remind me of this fact.  It's not the case with skiing.  I'm convinced I could ski without skipping a beat after five years of being away from the sport.  But there is something about the feeling of snowboarding that can't be beat.  It's like a flow.  Once you get into a rhythm of carving, it's like a zen like experience.  I don't get that with skiing.  Skiing is just pure adrenaline. 

At the end of the day, I had to make a decision.  Wait in line with people who are not good at standing in lines for the gondola down to the base of the mountain or ride all the way down.  Hmmm.  Easy choice.  Strap into the binding cuz were going for a ride.  Anyhow, this was the one time I wish I had a pair of skis rather than a snowboard.  I was chatting with a guy from Krakow who explained to get down the mountain, you had to follow a narrow hiking trail that was a few kilometers long and at times, it bottomed out before going downhill again.  Ordinarily I really love these sorts of runs since they are deep in the forest and are pretty challenging.  If I were on skis, I would have been going so fast my momentum would have allowed me to slide through the flat parts.  If I didn't have enough speed, I would have used my poles or skated through.  No biggie right?  Not an option with snowboarding.  Each time I had to pop out of my bindings and hoof it to the next downhill portion.  Regardless, it was still better than taking a gondola with pushy Russian tourists who think they run the place.

As for the town of Zakopane, it wasn't bad.  At sunset, the sun went down of the Tarta Mountains making for a very cool scene.  See below. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Taking to the ice in Stockholm

About ten years ago, we visited Stockholm and took a boat around the archipelago that surrounds the city.  During the ride, the driver told us the harbor freezes over and the locals go ice skating for long distances.  Seemed to me like such a good idea and a great way to see that incredible city from afar.  Fast forward nine years and when I got my assignment to Poland, I made a list of places I wanted to check out in Europe.  Turns out there were a lot of places that I still wanted to see and experience.  Long distance ice staking in Stockholm was at the top of the list.
Fortunately, getting to Stockholm from Poland is stupid cheap.  It's not really that far and this time of year, I was around a hundred bucks roundtrip.  To be honest, you may as well go this time of year since the prices in town are a bit cheaper than normal but still crazy expensive.  Not only that, there is no such thing as warm weather in Stockholm so why not go in February?  Post script: The flight was the only affordable thing in Stockholm. 
In sum, spent last Saturday skating on some ice just outside town with a group called IceGuides.  My fellow adventurers included a couple from London and Dusseldorf as well as the guide who was a local.  Couldn't have asked for a better group of folks.  Not only that, couldn't have asked for a better day.  Was on the cloudy sky but no snow or sleet (although it snowed like crazy on Saturday night). 
Now it's off to Belfast for another bucket list visit.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Julia Nowadays

I type this on a Saturday morning with Julia by my side.  Six years after returning from Europe, Julia still has some memories of our time over there. 

Greg: What do you remember about our time in Europe?
Julia: I remember our trip to Paris...climbing the Eiffel Tower and how my legs were tired.  I was jealous of Luke that he didn't have to climb up the tower
Greg: We were cheap and walked up instead of taking the elevator
Julia: I also remember the Imperial War Museum in London.  There was a trap door room where kids slept (London Blitz exhibit) and I realized I realized wouldn't want to live in such a small room. 
Greg: What about food?
Julia: I just remember eating Kinder Eggs.  Did you know you can get them over here?  They are fake ones though.
Greg: Do you remember anything about our house in Bann?
Julia: I remember having neighbors downstairs and also I was very "yelly" whenever mom tried to brush my hair.  She learned her lesson not to do that again. 
Greg: What about your schools?  Remember any of them?
Julia: I barely remember CLA (Kindsbach).  They had a party where they had a bouncy house where I jumped with my old friend Reagan. 
Greg: Where do you want to visit when you return to Europe?
Julia: I'm looking forward to returning to Paris, Brugges, Amsterdam (Anne Frank House), Bann to see our old house on Kniebrechtstrasse, London, Dublin [breaks into singing Molly Malone].  I also want to have a two day layover in New York so I can get acquainted with the city before continuing to Europe.
Greg: What about a layover in Iceland.
Julia: No.
Greg: How do you feel about spending your summer in Europe?
Julia: I'm sad I won't get to see friends but happy to be with my dad. 

Hello Again, Europe! Did You Miss Me?

Just when I thought it was time to let the sun set on this blog, I'm headed back to Europe...Poland to be specific.  This summer I will be working in the town of Szczecin which is on the western border of the country.  Before 1945, this town was called Stettin and was inhabited by ethic Germans but that all changed when the borders of the country shifted west after the defeat of Nazi Germany.  The Germans essentially moved out in the post war years only to be repopulated by the Poles and one American (70 years later for the latter). 

Unlike our "Three Year European Vacation" in Ramstein, this will be different for a number of reasons.  First, I'm going there solo and the family is returning to So Cal although they will be with me over the summers. Going unaccompanied sucks.  Second, the closest American military base is 5 hours away in Vilsek in Bavaria.  Szczecin isn't exactly Little America like Kaiserslautern.  Peanut butter and tortilla chips are not exactly readily available.  Third, this assignment should be shorter than our time in Ramstein.  Finally, I've never been to Poland and don't know a word of Polish.  I know it's a Catholic country, they make cool pottery, and they get stuck in the middle of world wars but that may be the extend of it.  Looking forward to learning more about this Central European country!  More to come later--    

Monday, June 25, 2012

Coffee Mecca

I love coffee.  Really LOVE it.  Put a guy like me in the heart of Arabica coffee country and good things happen.  Naturally I had to come home with quite a haul. 
Best part about visiting the US Embassy in Ethiopia?  The coffee with a creame leaf.  War is hell.

11 Degrees North by way of Kailua

Nearly six months after returning the United States, I linked up with my buddy Steve (Steve-o) who was a fellow 0-4 who worked across from me in bldg 100 at the Surgeon's Cell.  Steve currently serves at Pearl Harbor and while vacationing in Hawaii earlier this month, had the chance to catch up with him and his fantastic family.  Here we are in his lanai in Kailua with some fantastic Scotch and stogies recreating a scene from 11 Degrees North, the "bar" at Camp Lemonnier.  This is a scene that played out every Friday night in Dj. GOOD TIMES!

196 Days Under the Sun

My time in Djibouti was finally up on 19 Jan 12...exactly 196 days after setting foot on Djiboutian soil.  Looking back, this was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.  Don't get me wrong, I am thrilled to be home with Jen and the kids but my time out in the Horn of Africa will stay with me for a long time.

This was unlike a lot of other deployements military members participate in.  For example: 

- We had the opportunity to experience the local culture.  While Dj was sandwiched between Yemen and Somalia, it was a relatively peaceful place.  For my entire time downrange, I didn't ever feel like I was in immediate danger.  As such, we had the chance to go off of the camp and mix it up with the locals.  I took full advantage of this and ate in the Djiboutian restaurants, shopped in the Djiboutian markets, chatted it up with the locals, etc. 

- Unlike operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, our mission in Africa is relatively ignored on the nightly news.  This is probably a good thing; however, a lot of people don't realize the good that the US is doing in East Africa.  I thought for sure this was going to change with the Kony 2012 video that went viral a few months ago but even now that is an obscurity.  Not only are we helping to track down this very evil man, but we are also going after Al Shabaab (al Qaida affiliate) and al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula thus denying them a safe harbor in that part of the world.  In addition, we were trying to do right by the African people by providing them wells, assisting with famine relief, buiding them schools, etc.  This "soft power" was undoubtedly the most used weapon that we utilized.  Regardless, good luck trying to find any of that on the nightly news.  It simply doesn't fit the narrative.

- Life at Camp Lemonnier was truly joint.  While the camp was technically a Navy installation, the population was a nearly split in quarters along service lines (especially when the Marine MEU was in town).  Unlike many other AF deployments, I worked primarily with non AF people.  In fact, my boss, his boss, and his boss were all in the Navy.  This helped break down a lot of the stereotypes I had of the sister services (not all Navy guys have mustaches!) 

- Camp Lemonnier was pretty spartan by any standard but there were some definite perks.  Example, we could go off Camp and out to dinner if we wanted.  We could have three beers per night (was eventually reduced to two but whatever).  We were close to a five star hotel called the Kempinski which I was known to be seen at.  Galley food was great as were the contractors who served it.  Finally, we had our Sundays off.  Good luck finding that at other deployed locations.  I guess when you tell someone they are going to Djibouti, you got to throw in some nuggets to soften the blow.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Whale Sharks!


Short clip of me and my buddy steve-o swimming with the whale sharks in the Guld of Tajoura. This was nothing short of a chance of a lifetime.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas from Africa!

25 Dec 11: Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti

11 Degrees North Christmas Tree

F-15 Squadron getting into the spirit of the season (sort of)

Gingerbread house in the Bob Hope Galley on Christmas Day

Getting excited about Christmas at the Sheraton in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Tanzania: The Jewel of Africa

Cocoa Beach just down the road from our hotel in Dar es Salaam

Lovin life in Tanga

Outdoor bar with thached roof at our hotel room in Tanga. Watched the Tanzanian Soccer team blow a lead at this bar with the locals

US Embassy in Dar. I would brief the embassy staff moments later

Plumeria blooms in Dar es Salaam. Couldn't believe how much this place looked like Hawaii

Monday, October 17, 2011

Just Over Two Years Later...

We finally made it back to Germany and Austria! We left in July 2009 and returned in Sept 2011. During that time, we've lived in two different houses in Texas, had both kids enter school, learned a bunch of new stuff, made some new friends, and have done so many other things.

Oktoberfest 2011: Third Time's A Charm

Bann, Our German Hometown

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Ethiopia: Injera, Shoulder Dancing, and Coffee Tourism

So as a kid growing up in the early 1980s, if you were to ask me what the poorest, most desolate place on earth was, I would have instantly answered, "Ethiopia." My perception of Africa was shaped by stuff like the "We are the world" song and thirty second commercial spots between episodes of Diff'rent Strokes about how for only a dollar a day I could sponsor some poor kid in Ethiopia. Needless to say, I didn't have very high expectations when I found myself on a trip to Ethiopia. When I landed, my world was turned on its head. Instead of the 110 degree hell on earth that is Djibouti, it was about 68 and drizzling. Never in my life was I so happy to be in such "bad" weather!

The sterotypes continued to be quashed. This place was so lush and reminded me a lot of Southern California in the early spring. Also, the food was outstanding. I wasn't so sure at first but I had to try the local dish which includes injera, which is a staple of the Ethiopian diet. It's like a spongy cross between a tortilla and a crepe. It's a lot like the rubber non slip rolls people use on the bottom of their shower or on the bottom of their cupboards. You break off some of that injera, use it to scoop up some form of meat (usually beef or lamb), dip it in some spicy sauce, and down it like there's no tomorrow. Preferrably this is followed by a few sips of beer but in this case, that was forbidden by the strict no drinking policy we have to follow in all of Africa.

There were some stereotypes that were right on th money. First, coffee here is legendary. Lonely Planet had an article about coffee tourism and listed Addis Ababa as the number one destination ahead of Seattle, Paris, and Columbia. I quickly discovered this was for good reason. First, coffee in Addis is cheap. REALLY CHEAP. I paid 12 Burr for a double machiatto (see pic below) which translates to around sixty cents. Same cup of coffee would have cost about $3.66 in the US.

Aside from coffee, I got to experience a great culture in Ehtiopia. A group of us headed out to a Ethiopian Restaurant called Yod Absynnia in downtown Addis. After parking our car next to a guy with an AK at his side (true story), we went inside for what can only be described as an Ethiopian Luau Oktoberfest complete with beer, local music, cultural dances, and tons of quirky local food. Check out the video:


Finally, here are a couple more pics from my trip:

Sahara, the house pet at the Civil Affairs BN house I stayed at

Me just after leaving the US Embassy there in Addis. No uniforms=no problem!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

11 Aug: I had the chance to go out on Tues and spend time with some locals who were trying to learn English. It reminded me of Adrian Kronauer from the movie Good Morning Vietnam. Anyhow, it was very iteresting to hear their views on things like religion, love, and such. Based on what I saw, the Djiboutians are living proof that you don't need a lot of money to be happy. These were some of the happiest people I've seen and they have virtually nothing. One of the questions that was discussed amongst the group was "What is your best and worst day?" Many of the Djiboutians couldn't even think of a day that they would classify as their worst but all could easily come up with their happiest day. Also, I had a good discussion with a local on Sunday. I asked her what she thought of the Americans she said were well-liked amongst the Djiboutians. We give them jobs and build them schools. The French, according to her, are a bunch of bums and are simply relics from their colonial days

1 Aug: So let's talk weather. The problem is that when the winds blow from the ocean, it's super humid which makes it unbearable. 97 degrees with 100% humidity is miserable. The other problem is that there are few trees down in the low lands such as here. The trees that are here are stringy and are more like bushes. I'll take some pictures when I get a chance so you'll get a better idea of what I'm talking about. I suppose it could be worse considering that the weather today up in Saudi is over 120 degrees.

So I'm passed my second milestone--I'm in a new calendar month! Glad Aug is here and it came in with a bang! It rained hard last night. Yes, it rains here! Started around nine at night and lasted until around midnight. Feels really great. The air quality here is crap due to the blowing sand and the absolute lack of environmental measures when it comes to waste disposal and such. The rain cleans the air if for only a few minutes. Don't get me started on the air qualtiy around here. It's terrible.

28 Jul We went out to eat last night to a restaurant called "The Mask" in downtown Djiboutiville. While the surrounding area was super ghetto, the restaurant was an oasis. Atmosphere was phenomenal...kinda reminded me of the Elephant Bar. The walls were covered with bamboo and tribal warrior masks. Anyhow, I actually had to think about what day is was when I woke up this morning. This is actually a good sign! When the days start to blur together, that means time will start to fly by. Thank goodness. It helps that I've bonded with some of the other medics in the office across the hall. Definitely makes the quality of life better.

26 Jul: Today marks the 10% mark in my deployment. Only 90% to go. I hope it goes by faster than the first ten percent. To add to the good news, Jen and I are going to meet up in Germany at the end of next month. I'll be up in Stuttgart for a conference and will be allowed to take a few days off afterwards. This is the alternative to our Dubai trip. As it turned out, they won't allow military to go there on vacation. Guess it's too close to some global hot spots. Ironically you are allowed to go to Israel but it's definitely more dangerous there relative to Dubai. Regardless, Jen had zero interest in going there for whatever reason. Guess I'll have to make a pilgrimige to the Holy Land without her someday.
Work is going well. Some days fly by and others drag on. I worked all weekend because of the newly declared famine in Southern Somalia. I'm hoping we'll be asked to help these people out the best we can. Can't go into much detail but due to government policies, we have to be invited to assist. So far, the call hasn't come and it may never will.
It's nice to get off the base for a change. I was stuck here over the weekend because of the potential mission but I'm determined to break free this weekend. Next month they have arranged a bunch of morale trips to a local resort that is supposed to be spectacular. That's the weird thing about this country--there are little diamonds in the rough. Much of this has to do with the historic presence of the French in this area. These little gems are usually run for the French and for other Europeans.

17 Jul: Anyhow I'm about to watch the us put the smack down against japan in soccer. Will u be watching? (Post Script--We lost. Barely)

8 Jul: It's day two here in Djibouti and I have only 177 to go. Hope it goes quick. Anyhow, I made it here just fine and was travelling for two straight days. Needless to say I was super tired when I arrived. Things are much better now that I got a little sleep.
Living quarters are fine. Exact same as the last time I was here. In fact there is a chance that Im in the exacct same containerized living unit (CLU). Oh the irony. Got a roommate for now but will have my own place once a space opens up in the Field Grade CLUs. Until them I'm stuck. The good thing is my roommate is cool and is also a Major. That is always a concern.

7 Jul: I'm now up and running here at camp lemonnier. Just after landing we went off post and went to a training session with new medics from dj. No rest for the weary. Anyhow the heat here is legendary and is even worse than I remember it. Not sure how I'm going to train for the half marathon.

6 Jul: I'm in an airport terminal in Bahrain for another ninety minutes before we split for Dj. The journey so far hasn't been too bad except for a guy behind me that kept kneeing my chair. I was woken up multiple times by that fucker. Aside from that, it's just been a long trip. I've been sleeping on every leg so that time is passing alright. We're on a commercial charter flight and have made stops in Rota and Sigonella Sicily. Both of those places were fantastic and I was hoping the plane would be grounded while we were there. The weather in Sicily was perfecto and I was able to slip out of the terminal to find the NEX. I bought some sicilian cookies, pesto, and a ceramic wine topper. Was nice to be in Italy if only for a couple hours.

5 Jul: So the airport was crazy this am! Bags were checked but late. Am on the plane but bags may not make it. I finally got trough the line a mere 45 min before the flight. I'm crossing my fingers.