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.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A New Chapter

So two years have passed since we've returned from Europe and the blog has remained largely dormant since then. Now it's time to open a new chapter! Time to blog not about Europe but Africa. Thanks to Daniel for urging me to get this started again.

Today, 14 Aug 11, is the 20% mark in my deployment to Djibouti which is located in the Horn of Africa. I'm going to begin with a retrospective from the last month or so and then will take it from there.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Best of Europe Awards

Time for a blog hiatus. But before taking a break from the blog, Jen and I wanted to throw together our best (and worst) of Europe list. So here we go!

Best hidden gem:
Greg: "Gotta be Murren (see pix to the right). This is a town high in the Swiss Alps that was stunning. I remember opening up my window in my hotel room and having a panoramic view of Jungfrau mountain. The next day Reagan and I hiked the entire day through this charming area. A close second would have to be St. Wolfgang in the Austrian Lakes District (Salzgammergut). On a smaller scale, Frankfurt's Palmengarten is a place that I will never forget and is awesome on a freezing day in Germany"
Jen: "Lakes region in Austria. Also, the entire country of Belgium. Belgian people were very friendly and the food was great. This is quintessential europe. Finally, Lucca in Tuscany. It seemed unaffected by the tourists. Primarily locals in this place"

Best Food:
Greg: "Loved the jaegerschnitzel anywhere in Germany. Zum Storchenest, our town restaurant, made the very best. I've tried the dish here in the US and no one so far has come close to what they serve in Germany. I also had goulash in Hungary and loved it. Not too spicy, not too bland...perfect"
Jen: "Chocolate croissants at Netto (our neighborhood store). They melted in your mouth...flaky and soft in your mouth all at the same time"

Biggest surprise:
Greg: "The Italian food in Germany was wonderful! Without exception it was made by Italian immigrants/expats who were probably looking to escape some of the insanity of Italy."
Jen: "How much Germans are like Americans culturally. After visiting places like Spain, France, Greece, it was clear that Germans (and somewhat the Irish) are like us. We eat meals at the same time, don't take siestas, like fireworks, etc.
Also, naked people. Europeans in general are not prude. It's not sexual to seems normal. In America, they would be arrested.
Finally, I was surprised that cops didn't issue tickets. Speed cameras gave out all the tickets"

Place that lived up to the hype:
Greg: "Venice. It was even better than I imagined. Touristy? Absolutely...but for good reason. The canals, the confluence of architectural styles, Dogges Palace, and Saint Mark's Square; not one thing disappointed. I recently got back to Vegas and went to the Venitian trying to relive the authentic Venice experience and it wasn't even close.
A close second would have to be Capri. A lot of travel writers now urge their readers to skip this touristy mecca but they're doing their readers a disservice. So long as you go in the shoulder season and stay away from the high season, Capri is perfect; otherwise, you're screwed."
Jen: "Amsterdam. 24-7 energy plus the sheer beauty of the city. Also, Brugges in Belgium is lot in time. Definitely up to the hype"

Biggest "Glad I did it but won't be doing that again" Moment:
Greg: "Running with the Bulls in Pamplona. Chance of a freaking lifetime. Especially since I ran with my dad and cousin, it's an experience that would be impossible to top."
Jen: "Riding the trains...not for pleasure but just for basic transportation. Also, using Italian pit toilets"

If I had to live somewhere in Europe, it would be:
Jen: "Vernazza in Cinque Terre or anywhere in Ireland (see pix to the right) or Amsterdam"
Greg: "Bann. But Southern Italy would be nice too"

Biggest disappointment:
Greg: "Oktoberfest (the second time). Bringing your family to Oktoberfest is a recipe for disaster. Mix in some rain and a lot of obnoxious drunks you can see why this was not a trip for the ages. That being said, I had a good time the first time I went with a colleague from work. We had better weather and since it was on opening day, no one was drunk (yet). Still, it was croweded and I was really lucky to even get inside one of the bierhalls.
Much like Oktoberfest, Naples was a big disappointment with the family. The place seemed very sketchy and dirty. A year later I returned to Naples and ventured past the area around the train station and did have a much better time.
Finally, the Autobahn is overrated. Much of it is speed restricted and is often riddled with traffic. But when it's unrestricted, it's great"
Jen: "Torino. Not picturesque. Full of immigrants. Also, Disneyland Paris (Greg disagrees). Employees were rude/characters left with kids still waiting for them/not well maintained..."

Worth the splurge:
Greg: "The London Eye. We'll probably be paying interest on the amount we shelled out to ride but the view was awesome. Hey, it's London! Everything is expensive."
Jen: "Stockholm. Expensive but worth it. Also, the room in Vernazza that overlooked the main square/church/marina"

Biggest cultural struggle:
Jen: "Nothing open on Sunday and no one takes credit"
Greg: (See previous post)

Best Souvenier:
Greg: "Our German gummi bear, Luke. We also came home with a ton of wine and beer"
Jen: "Luke."

What would you change about the time we spent in Europe:
Jen: "Spent more time in Italy and learned a foreign language so we could have chatted with the locals more"
Greg: "I would have liked to visit Calabria (more than from the deck of a ship), the French Riviera and Denmark."

Best advice to other travels:
Jen: "Get outside of the cities and go to the smaller villages. Get to interact with the locals."
Greg: "Jen's right. The cities are overrated. As for meeting people, act as if you are a temporary local"

What I miss most about living in Europe:
Greg: "British TV, Netto, good jaegerschitzel, ryanair, our village and neighbors, the crew at TPMRC, Christmas markets."
Jen: "Chocolate croissants, slower pace, drinking wine in a public park, fests, pretzels"
Pictures from top to bottom: Swiss Alps, Jen in Dublin, and our backyard in Bann

Culture Shock Moments

Looking back on our time in Europe, we always get a chuckle out of the culture shock moments we endured/suffered/enjoyed. Hey, we're American! We're bound to commit and occasional cultural faux pas. For example, when Jen and I were in England in early 1997, we were aghast at the slow and inattentive service. I mean, what was it going to take for our waiter to pay attention to us! We were fuming. Come to find out that Europeans generally believe it's rude for their waiters and waitresses to "hover" over you. To a couple of nineteen year old Yanks, we thought they were snotty and rude. Joke was on us. Truth be told--customer service expectations are WAY different in Germany and the rest of Europe compared to that in the states. I wonder what they think when they come to the US.

Speaking of Jolly olde England culture shock, open a newspaper and turn to page 3. You'll thank me later. If you're a guy--

I also remember the first time I saw a dog in a restaurant in Germany. Perfectly acceptable! Wasn't prepared for that one. Back in the states, I remember getting kicked out of an El Pollo Loco in Encino one time when I was holding our dog Reagan and ordering food to go. Maybe we can find a middle ground and achieve perfection!

Public urination is the easily the biggest culture shock moment I had in Europe. A couple years ago we headed over to Annweiler near Burg Trifels for New Years Day and I was so shocked by this hung over guy relieving himself in a parking lot. I had to take a picture because no one would believe me otherwise. Back home, taking a leak in the bushes is a thing of last resort. In Germany, not a big deal. After living there for a while you realize they HAVE to do this because there are so few public restrooms. And if you do find them, be prepared to to shell out a euro for the privilege.

The culture shock in Germany was nothing compared to that we experienced in Italy. I won't go into detail but that place is insane--wonderful, but insane. Germany, of all the places, was most like America in my opinion.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Fall 2006 Rewind: Latin Livin!


So our first attempt to get to Italy didn't turn out so well. In fact, it didn't happen at all. We were scheduled to fly into Milan, tour around, and then head over to our friends' place in the Veneto. Didn't happen. To say that we "missed our plane" is factually incorrect. Not to get too longwinded but after we were halfway to Hahn airport (about 30 minutes into our drive), we pulled a dumb American and realized we forgot our passports. Now you can't really blame us...we were still in the America state of mind where you don't need a passport to fly around.

What kills me is that we SHOULD have made that flight. Even after hauling ass back to our house and getting our passports, we made it back to Hahn with about a half hour to spare. "Sorry, sir. We cannot let you on." What! "Yes, we closed the gate with 45 minutes of takeoff" But the plane hasn't left! People are just now starting to board! "You will have to buy a ticket on the next full price." This was one of my first experiences with crappy treatment on Ryanair. Don't get me wrong, it's a great airline so long as you play by their rules. By the time we left there, we had it down to a science. We had it timed down to the minute and used the hotel parking lot saving us time and money. Not this time.

Not to be denied my Italian immersion, I told Jen that we were going to visit our friend for Thanksgiving. My friend Brent from Aviano had floated the invitation and we took full advantage. Not to bore you with the details but it was about as good as any holiday gets. I'll write about the actual holiday some other time but Italy itself was incredible. Northern Italy is magical in the fall. Since it is on the sunny side of the Alps, it provided us a welcomed respite from the gloom in Germany. Sure, there was some snow on the Dolomite Mountains down in Aviano, the weather was perfect.

View of Aviano from Brent and Maria's house

Italy has a funny effect on one's memory. Ten years prior, Jen and I visited Rome and Florence and we definitely made some wonderful memories then. Sure, I have some faint memories the hassle of Italy such as abundant graffiti, disorganization, etc. But lookin back, it's the fond memories of gelato, Rennaisance architecture, and fun loving people really stand out. So once we arrived in Italy, all these memories came rushing back and I was thinking to myself, "What too you so damn long to get back here?"

Much like Italy, Spain had a lasting impact on our family. The pace is very much the same and one couldn't escape the feeling that this place was so "Un-German". In the fall season, this is definitely a good thing. What really struck me about Spain was how much it reminded me of California. I returned to Spain three times (a different region each time) and these trips reinforced this impression. Let's face it, the temperature is nearly identical, everyone speaks Spanish, and it looks so much So Cal.


Unlike Italy, Spain was simply a place to kick back and enjoy the good life. Italy has so much to see and do while the big attraction in Spain was chillin' on the beach. After seeing a different city each weekend for four months straight, this was a welcomed relief. Travel author Rick Steves reminds his readers to take it slow. "Remember, you WILL be back. No sense in trying to see it all in one take," he says. So true! Finally, we slowed down, ordered some sangria on the beach, and took it all in for the next few days. This is what Spain is all about.