Wednesday, September 23, 2009

University Registration

I had my first introductory class this morning at Birmingham University and everything seemingly went well.

I sat for about 2 hours listening to about 10 people talk to us about a various range of things to do with university life and I would say that 8 of the 10 people talked to us at one point or another about the many different avenues that exist for helping students having problems or in crisis.

It really makes me wonder how hard this is going to be. I mean, they were pushing it THAT hard.

After all that I went and had my picture taken for my student ID card aka my discount card and signed some paperwork so I can have the privilege to park in a pay as u stay parking lot about a 5 minute walk from my building.

Although, I noticed a nice huge house on the corner-- right across from my building. I am contemplating going and knocking on their door to see if I can pay them to utilize their drive way for 3 days a week or so.

I mean, the pay as you park parking lot is only a £1 for the entire day but I never have coins on me and parking is semi-scarce. If the home-owners agree then I will pay them a fee up front per term and that way I can keep my policy of avoiding coins.

Oh and I think I am going to play American football for the university... If they take me that is.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Important Mail

Today I received an important letter that I have been awaiting for a few weeks now through my door. It was my intro pack from the University of Birmingham with my online login and password so that I can officially register online to begin classes on Monday the 28th of this month.

I was awaiting this packet because one must register online prior to the zero week for freshman that starts the week before class so that you can receive your student ID and all the other stuff.

Now if I can just get the VA to get on the ball with funding my program. I was recently told by a VA rep on the phone that it could take up to 6 months before a decision is made. I will be close to half-way done with the first year by then.

Maybe I can get some UK funding in the mean-time.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Life Changing Deployment

Ten years ago today I was sent with my Air Force squadron to a super secret squirrel base in the middle of the Israeli desert for the majority of the month of August and it was the single most life changing trip of my life. I saw and heard a lot of things that reminded me of very unsavory parts of my life prior to that while also seeing and hearing things that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

Before leaving Germany we had to attend a mandatory briefing in which the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations ( OSI ) told us to take the batteries out of our cell phones and place them on the desk in front of us. The briefer then went on to talk to give us a briefing telling us of the hazards in the area. The strangest part of what he relayed to us was that we had to be extremely careful about where we discussed any information that was sensitive in nature because the Israelis are the forefront at collecting intelligence. We were told to never speak about sensitive information in our quarters or any other place other than a huge 10' X 8' vault that we flew in with us.

I left Germany towards the end of the first week of August 1999 flying on a military C-5 cargo plane and arrived on an airstrip in a desolate looking surroundings. My flight was the second of two flights so we were met on the tarmac by our comrades who had arrived the day prior in old Chevy pick-ups painted light brown. We loaded our bags up into the bed of the pick-ups and then jumped into the beds ourselves and headed off to our accommodation.

Our accommodations were large aluminium cans that held 6 of us in 3 bunk-beds if I remember correctly. I don't remember them having AC and it was very difficult to fall asleep at night because it was so hot. The flight training we did with the Israeli Air Force ( IAF )was pretty mundane. It was actually so easy compared to the amount of flight training we did in Germany that I don't remember too much about it.

The life-changing events on this trip took place away from work but not necessarily away from the base we were deployed to. Because the work was not time consuming we had a lot of time to mingle with the IAF members around a small mini-mall type of building that had a bakery, a small convenience store and a arcade/pool hall type place.

The Israelis were very keen to speak with us but for the most part the Americans didn't want to hang out and talk to the Israelis. Not sure if the OSI briefing before we left had put them off or if it is just a normal American tendency but I would say that there were only about 5 of us that really hung out and spoke with them in great depths.

I can't say I had any special feeling for or against the Israelis at that point in my life. I really didn't understand why they were fighting with the Palestinians nor did I really care. But that was soon to change.

I remember a few of the conversations I had with some of the IAF members and it is was very strange. I felt like I had been transported from the year 1999 back to the Alabama or Georgia of the 1950's. The outright racism and hatred for the Arabs as an ethnicity is/was no different to what some white Americans in the south of America felt about black Americans. I had experienced some racist speech from my paternal grandmother who was born in 1921 and lived in Florida. I remember when she had to have an operation done and they were telling her about a blood transfusion she made a point to tell them that she didn't want any coon blood.

I got the same types of speech from the Israelis I spoke with. In fact, I put the the blood transfusion question to them and one told me fiercely that he would 'rather die than take the blood of an Arab.'

We were allowed off of the base a few times while we were there. A couple times we were allowed to drive the 20 or so kilometers to a nearby town that had a McDonald's and another time to the small city nearby named Be'er Sheva that had a large mall.

We also has the opportunity to go to Jerusalem one Saturday which was a really special moment for me. It was such a wonderful experience being able to explore Jerusalem and Bethlehem (after making it through the Israeli checkpoints) as an 18 year old. To crouch down to enter the manger turned church where Jesus Christ was purportedly born. To see the Mount of Olives, the Wailing wall and the golden domed mosque in the skyline of the city was inspiring.

And on the following weekend while the majority of the squadron went to party in Tel-Aviv to part in the discos and on the beaches myself and a small group of maybe 9 others went on a trip to the Dead Sea. We drove down some winding type roads with markers on the side telling us how far below sea level we were with each drop.

We drove along the coast of the Dead Sea and pulled into a parking lot where we got out and trooped up the side of Mount Masada. We walked around for about an hour and half exploring the mountain top before descending sown in some sort of cable car for a small fee.

After we had all loaded up into the van our guide drove us a short distance to a Dead Sea spa. I remember going into the Dead Sea and as I had slid down a small drop off up on Masada I had a series of scratches down the side of my shin that stung like you wouldn't believe upon entering the water. They were actually scabbed by the time we left the spa.

Walking out into the Dead Sea is a very special experience. You get to a point where your feet our no longer touching the sea bottom but you are still standing up right. The water is that dense because of the salt content.

Most of the squadron had left by the last week in August but I was due to leave on the last flight out and for some reason to which my mind cannot recall now our airlift was diverted for some reason so I ended up being bored out of my mind stuck on this base in the middle of the desert with no one except an officer and a handful of Senior NCO's.

Upon returning to Germany I started to research about Israel and Palestine and the problems surrounding them. I found out that most of the Israelis were not from the 12 tribes of Judea but were Europeans who had migrated to that part of the world. That is why I saw some Israeli Air Force members who were extremely Arab looking and others who were as pale as a pearl and said that they were originally Russian or Lithuanian.

I guess I was very fortunate to go when I did because a year later the sister squadron at Spangdahlem went to the same location and never got to step foot off base because the second intifada had started up.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Froggin Alps

Last Friday I flew into Frankfurt-Hahn airport on ol' RyanAir (who did me another solid by the way!!) from Birmingham to go and visit some family and friends. As I believe I have said before Hahn airport is an old American airbase that they gave back to the Germans after downsizing sometime in the 1990's and it is very remote as most American military bases in Europe tend to be.

I landed and raced to be first through customs of course to call my ride and find out that they were still 20 minutes out. As it was coming up to 8PM when we arrived in the Kaiserslautern area and we had a long day ahead of us tomorrow my friend and I grabbed a quick bite to eat from the absolute best Turkish restaurant in Germany and took the food back to his place.

Early the next morning we woke-up and threw our bags into the car and headed out down the autobahn in the direction of Basel Switzerland. For my money Switzerland is the most beautiful country in all of Europe but it actually was not our destination on this occasion. From Basel we turned southwest in the direction of Geneva only to cross the border into France and continue on our way to our Saturday afternoon destination of Grenoble.

I first visited Grenoble back in 2000 or 2001 with my friend Angel and discovered it to be a very cool city indeed. It is said that it is the Silicon Valley of France and has a world-class university all set in some of the most dramatic scenery in France. To understand the grandness of it you need to imagine a capital letter 'Y'. The letter 'Y' is the plain or basin that the city is set across while along the perimeter of the letter 'Y' is all very large mountains.

My friend Tory and I checked into my usual hotel when I visit Grenoble and after picking up my son we were off racing around the hairpin turns heading up into the mountains in the silver Audi A4 that Tory had rented. The elevation on this particular mountain gets up to about 6000 feet (1900 meters) and the views of the city and the river that runs through it are really quite amazing.

We stopped off on the winding road a few more times that we had planned because my 6 year old son didn't really take to the ride too much and felt a little car-sick. After some fresh air and photographs in the much cooler weather (than below in the city) we were on our way through the mountain before reaching the little village of Saint-Nizer-du-Mouncherotte and turning around to head back down towards the city.

After that short trip up the mountain and because of the lack of sleep from the night before we had to crash at the hotel for a couple hours and grab a siesta while my son watched some weird French cartoons. Upon awaking we drove towards the areas largest shopping centre 'The Grande Place' and walked around before dropping my son of back to his mother at sunset and heading with Tory into the city centre so give him a little tour.

The gem in the crown of Grenoble is what they call 'The Bastille'. It is a fortified structure (that some might call a castle in the nontraditional way) on the side of a mountain just outside the city centre and has bubble like cable-cars taking you up to it unless you choose to take the long walk on the marked pathways. The signs say that this is where the French 'resistance' attacked from but I can't help but imagine it is where they hid form the Germans.

As you can see from the weather it was not so nice on Sunday in the Frog Alps. The mountain range you see here is where we had drove the previous day and taken the previous photo of the city from.

We didn't spend long up on The Bastille as we were hungry for breakfast/lunch and the restaurant up on The Bastille didn't have anything I wanted to try so we came back down the bubble like cable-car and found a nice Lebanese restaurant in the city centre.

We had lunch and then dropped my son back off to his mom before hitting the road again. A seven hour one-way ride to stay 24 hours in Grenoble would have been worth it but the most beautiful and charming town in all of Europe is on the way back towards Geneva so we had to stop.

Annecy is about 40 km southwest of Geneva and boasts the largest Bastille day celebration in all of France, or so I have heard from a frog. Nevertheless, I absolutely adore this town although I must admit on this trip it was the most crowded I had ever seen it. And that was with the weather smelling worse than the formage aisle at Carrefour.

We walked around periodically stopping for coffee when the rain would start to come down especially hard and made our way through the throngs of people for about an hour before stopping off to have simply the best pizza I have had on the entire time I have lived on this continent.

We departed Annecy around 6PM and began our journey back towards Kaiserlsautern. It seemed like there was one gigantic storm cloud over the entire country you and I call Switzerland and that cloud even was generous enough to share itself with southern Germany. We arrived at Tory's house at midnight and went straight to sleep as he had work in the AM and I had a bus to catch back to Hahn.

And here is my (Top Gear) top tip. It took me 6 and a half hours from the time I left my friend's house to when I stepped through my door. It only takes 8 hours to drive from my house in Birmingham to Tory's house in Germany... Airports suck...

Friday, July 10, 2009

Zaragoza-- Land of the Lisps

In May 2001 not too long after I had returned from Saudi Arabia with my squadron we were assigned a vacation like training deployment. We got word that the deployment was heading to Zaragoza, Spain and it was clear that the work would be very light so my boss got our crew on the list and off we were... in a C-130 HERC cargo plane sitting on nets... Not anybodies idea of a good time.

The HERC is a 4 engine turbo propeller aircraft that moves very slow. It took us around 6 hours to cross France and land in Zaragoza which is located in the norther part of Spain. The HERC's cruising speed is only about 330 MPH (540KPH) and the cargo netting is oh so not comfortable. We would take reflective belts we had to wear while in uniform after sunset and pass it through the netting and rest our foreheads in the other part and lean forward just to get some sleep. But having vehicles and other equipment needed for the deployment strapped down where your feet are supposed to be is something you can never get accustomed to. And pray that you don't feel the urge to relieve yourself.

When we landed in Spain and the doors were opened the heat and humidity entered into the plane instantly and oppressively while 90 odd bodies didn't help the situation. As the buses came we couldn't load our personal effects into the cargo bay quick enough. The air-conditioning was a Godsend and we were quickly on our way off of the Spanish military base that is attached to the public airport and into the middle of a modern, crowded and beautiful city.

We soon pulled up to a wonderful hotel in the middle of the city named Hotel Ramiro l. We were all given our own rooms and I remember speaking with some other friends on the trip about how nice the hotel was. On top of the nice hotel that we didn't have to pay for I think we were also receiving close to a hundred dollars per diem for being there.

Not long after we arrived we were all called into the conference room and were told by some OSI agents that I never saw before that there had been a political assassination that afternoon. They told us that we had nothing to worry about but to be more keen of our surroundings.

Here is the article from CNN about the incident.

Killing prompts Spanish rallies

ZARAGOZA, Spain -- Thousands of people have protested across Spain at the latest killing blamed on Basque separatists.

More than 300,000 people gathered on Monday to protest the killing of Manuel Gimenez Abad, 52, president of the local chapter of the ruling centre-right Popular Party.

Abad was shot on Sunday as he walked with his son to a soccer match.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the killing, officials immediately blamed it on Basque separatist group ETA.

Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and other Spanish politicians led the procession through Zaragoza, capital of the northeast Aragon region.

They were joined by Abad's widow Ana Larraz and their two teenage children.

Demonstrators marched holding a banner that read, "For freedom, against terrorism."

An official statement read at the rally, accused ETA of seeking independence through "suffering, injustice, fear and barbarity."

Similar rallies were held in Madrid and other Spanish cities.

Prior to the shooting ETA was thought to be observing an undeclared truce in the run-up to May 13 elections.

The last killing blamed on the group was March 20 in the Basque town of Lasarte.

Polls indicate the Popular Party, opposed to Basque independence, could win for the first time since the Basque country won limited self-rule in 1979.

Sunday's killing was the seventh blamed on ETA this year and the 30th since it ended a 14-month-old ceasefire in December 1999.

ETA has killed more than 800 people in its 33-year-old campaign for Basque independence.

Abad's funeral was held Monday afternoon in his hometown, Jaca, a village of 15,000 people at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains near the border with France.

At the service, the bishop of Jaca, Jose Maria Conget, said, "No ideology can justify terrorism. Terror is the enemy of humanity."

The killing was condemned by politicians, and all parties in the Basque elections except the pro-independence Euskal Herritarrok, widely considered ETA's political wing, suspended campaign events for Monday.

"We will defeat them with the rule of law," said Javier Arenas, president the national Popular Party.

"Basques have got to go and vote on May 13 and tell ETA that they are not wanted, that they have to disappear," said Carlos Iturgaiz, PP president in the Basque region."

So this incident caused the whole of the city to come to a standstill one day and the main boulevard in the city was packed with people marching down it. I remember I had to be to work around 2pm or so and I wanted to make a run to the McDonald's that was close by and unfortunately on the other side of the parade.

I was not going to let 300k protesters get in my way of a Big Mac! So I managed to weave in and out of the parade lines and make it across the large boulevard get lunch and then fight my back through it again... The worst part though was that my fries were cold by the time I walked back to the hotel. And I don't like cold fries.

And as I sat back in the hotel room of my crew-member eating cold fries and watching the news coverage of the protests (in Spanish) we noticed just how strong the lisp of the locals was. The name of the city we were visiting went form Zaragoza to Thaaragothah. Apparently most of Spain has this linguistic trait but it is the strongest in Zaragoza.

Other that I just did a lot of shopping and sight-seeing around the old beautiful city. And showed up for a few hours in the afternoon to do a little work. And I assume we flew back on a C-130 to Germany but I cannot remember. I need to talk to some of my old pal that went with me...

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Dangerous 4th of July Vacation

I wrote back in May about how I had been sent to an American base in Italy for Operation Allied Force (OAF) in which NATO aircraft were bombing Serbia for a total of 76 days not to long after arriving in Europe.

Looking back on it, the deployment there was probably my most memorable time in the Air Force. I was young and so new to the Air Force I didn't realize that the state we were operating in was only temporary and acceptable during 'war' circumstances. As it was all I knew I imagined it was supposed to be like it was. A situation where a lot of standards were overlooked or forgotten about because of the pressure involved in 'war-like' operations.

After we were sent back home in late June 1999 we were given what was called CAD days (contingency appreciation days) which were accumulated at the rate of 1 day off for every 6 days in a combat zone with a maximum of 14 days. These were great because they were not charged as leave and were designed to allow families to refamiliarize themselves and single guys like me to travel around Europe.

I think we had attained about 6 or 7 CAD days and then with the onset of the 4 day fourth of July holiday weekend it was a jackpot of time off.

And as I had met a girl while deployed to Italy I had a free place to crash at and it didn't take much for me to convince my best friend Angel to tag along with me. He had just arrived in Germany while I was in Italy but we knew each other prior to that from tech. school where he was about a month behind me. We had the same job and got orders to go to the same base and even the same squadron strangely enough.

As it was a 4 day weekend it was impossible to find a rental car on base on such short notice. My car was barely trustworthy enough to drive to work everyday let alone to Italy. But I had enough courage to drive it to the largest Air Force base in Germany named Ramstein AB where there was some cars available to rent. We picked up an Opel Astra four-door and parked my car on in parking lot close by bought some gas coupons and set off with nothing but a European map to get us to our destination in Italy.

We set off headed towards Munich and planned to head towards Innsbruck, Austria then south through the Alps towards an Italian town named Bolzano and then some back roads towards Pordenone which is about 115 km or 70 mi north of Venice.

We set off on the afternoon of Tuesday the 29Th of June and were thrilled that we didn't have to be back to work until the Monday the 5Th of July. It was a pretty uneventful trip through Germany and until we got to Austria. There was quite a bit of road construction through the Alps and we had to get off the autobahn and use detoured back roads. It was quite a pain but some of the scenery we saw was incredible. I remember being on this winding mountain road and seeing a large Austrian castle on the side of another mountain lit up only by the faint light of the night moon.

As Angel and I were only using a road map to guide us and now we were heavily detoured off our original path we decided to stop for the night and sleep as it has become to difficult reading the map in the car with the interior lights. We awoke the next morning to the sun coming over the crest of the mountain at around 9am and continued on our journey.

We had not been driving too long when we found ourselves on a construction marked dirt road and then at an intersection with no signs or indications as to which way we should proceed. We sat there on the smooth dirt road that was awaiting concrete to be laid on it and we decided that we would go left. Off we went down the smooth dirt road leaving a trail of dust behind us. As the road was so smooth and there was nobody insight I decided to increase my speed and soon was hitting 100 kph (60mph) when I noticed a red BMW a ways back flashing me with his lights.

I told Angel and he looked in the side mirror and said that he thought we should slow down and see what he wanted. I had other thoughts and kept going but noticed he was gaining on us very quickly and I could now hear him honking his horn at us while still flashing his headlights. Angel became much more adamant that we stop to see what he wanted and I finally relented and came to a stop. The man in the red BMW started speaking German to us and I sheepishly asked him if he spoke English to which he said that he spoke a little.

He then carried on telling us in heavily accented and slightly broken English that this road we were driving down was new and the bridge connecting it with the mountain on the other side was not finished and if we continued down it at the speed we were traveling we would have surely driven off the cliff dropping to our deaths.

Sweet... because it was definitely my and Angel's dream to re-enact Thelma and Louise with an Austrian twist.

We thanked the man profusely and he told us to follow him as he would take us back to the main road which we did and soon found ourselves stopping in Bolzano Italy for some food. By the time we set off again it was beginning to get dark and it was not too long before Angel and I realized we didn't have much money left.

The problem was that payday wasn't until the 1st (the very next day) and the rental agency had blocked off $250 on my bank card for the guarantee on the car. But more importantly at the time it meant to autostradas as they are littered with tollbooths and most importantly we didn't have anywhere enough gas to make it to Pordenone.

Off we set through the back-roads of the Italian Alps and of course we managed to find probably the only toll road in Italy that is on a small road and not the highway. We pulled up to it but there was no one there. You were supposed to put the money into an automated system similar to a candy or soda machine and the arm would them apparently lift up for you to continue on your journey.

So we sat there. I was thinking we should turn around and backtrack a little and go around it when all of a sudden Angel jumped from the passenger seat and ran up to the arm, lifted it up over his head and waved me through. He dropped it back down and jumped in the car and we took off.

Not long after that the warning light came on indicating that we were almost out of gas. I knew we probably had 50 km (30 mi) before we would stall out so I told Angel we were going to shoot for the nearest town center and wait until the morning when we would have our pay deposited into our account and then gas up.

We stopped at a gas station in the middle of a small town and decided we would wait there and keep trying our bank card in the ATM on the wall of the station as there was a machine in the middle of the 2 pumps where you could insert some lira and get gas similar to the candy or coke machine. Angel decided for some weird reason that he was going to see if he could get any gas from the pumps now. He took the nozzle inserted it into the slot and pulled up on the handle... And diesel flowed out! A total of 20,000 lire (almost $15) worth of gas poured out into our empty car. All we could think was that someone had put the money in and couldn't figure out how to get the machine to work or tried the wrong pump. I don't know. But we had go-go juice.

Between the 20,000 lire worth of diesel we were gifted and the minor amount we had left in the car we were able to make it to my friends apartment early the next morning. We didn't do to much while we were there in Italy that I can remember. I remember taking Angel to the disco I mentioned in my other Italy post as the absolute most beautiful disco I have ever seen and my friends taking us to another disco that I hadn't been to.

Angel and I also went on the base to buy some gas coupons but ended up going up a one-way road on base and getting pulled over my a military cop and thanking God he didn't give me a ticket as that would have gotten back to my squadron and Italy is quite a distance outside the 6 hour rule we are allowed to be distance wise from the base without being on leave.

I believe we left back for Germany on the Friday evening and didn't have as many problems going back like we did coming. Although we were amazed to find out that we were supposed to have a road-tax sticker for driving on any Autobahns in Austria and would have received quite the fine if we were pulled over or found out by the police.

A few weeks after returning I was called into my section chief's office and asked if I knew why OSI (The Office of Special Investigations) would be calling me over to see them. All I could think of was that I had been out of the 6 hour rule distance and maybe that cop had reported me. So, I told the section chief I had no idea why and then stopped off for some lunch before making my way to the OSI building.

I was sat in an interview room and importantly was NOT read my rights. I was asked if I had been traveling anywhere over the past week by the agent and told him that yes I had. I had travelled down to see Munich. He asked me about my driving habits overall and then specifically during that trip. I told him that in general I drive fast when there is no limit on the autobahn but obviously follow any road signs indicating speed limits when I come across them.

Apparently a woman had reported my licence plate as a car that had run her off the road somewhere between Mannheim and Munich. I have to this day no idea and never drove that erratic but I wasn't sure if that was all they had or not. So I told them that I wanted a lawyer and off I went never to hear anything about it again...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Impressions of Turkey Pt.2

So work isn't to pressing and Turkey is a mysterious and cultural challenge to unwrap. I had done all my shopping in 'the alley' right outside the base's main gate buying up carpets, tailored suits and gold jewelry. On with the exploration...

But one night we thought the base was being over-run as we were woken to the sounds of gun shots and horns honking... But in fact it was a large celebration because the Turkish team Galatasary had beaten an English football team in the UEFA cup final. Weirdos.

Angel and I found ourselves along the main river that runs through Adana on a beautiful and warm day in May. We are strolling along looking the part of curious American Air Force members watching the families sitting along the river bank in a park drinking Turkish tea and eating a variety of foods I can't readily identify. As we stuck out like Michael Jackson at a tanning salon many a Turk came up to us trying to get us to sit down and drink tea with them.

After refusing a few offers we were approached by an individual who made us feel obliged to sit with him and his family and we did so. It was an interesting conversation as his English was not that great and he seemed to be very opinionated. He had 3 children, all of them daughters, there with him and his wife and the conversation turned towards the kids he told us that his youngest child who had flowing long hair and a beautiful pink dress was actually a boy.

Angel and I thought he was joking with us or that something was being mistranslated but he reassured us that the child was a male but they dressed him up as a girl because he was their first son and they were fearful that an evil spirit would take him from them since he was their first born son. So to trick the evil spirit they dressed up the little boy as a girl... Go figure.

So after parting ways with this family we made our way towards this huge mosque they had recently completed building. It was so huge that it could be seen from the flight-line off the base some 10 miles away but it was even more grand once up close As Angel and I walked around the perimeter of the building the prayer let out and we were stuck in a throng of people for a few minutes when a kid looking around 8 years old came up to us and asked in slightly accented English if we would like to go inside the mosque and look around.


We had been told that this was off limits for us to go inside mosques by the military for our own safety but hell, we were invited in by a little Turkish kid! He took us over towards the main entrance and after telling us we had to take our shoes off he said his dad was there in the mosque and he would introduce us to him.

So we entered inside the mosque and were utterly struck by senses overload. The smell of some sort of incent burning and the noise of some people still praying. Seeing the vaulted ceilings with large beautiful chandeliers and the carefully crafted carving on the walls in Arabic script.

As Angel and I tried to stay out of the peoples ways the young boy had found his father and brought him over to introduce us. He was a short skinny man with a moustache and when he smiled I noticed he was missing quite a few teeth. He told us how he had worked on the base at the supermarket and he really liked it talking with the Americans. I did find it a bit questionable though due to his appearance but placed it in the back of my mind.

He invited us on a personal tour of the city and we took him up on it thinking we would buy the guy some lunch or maybe throw him some cash for his time afterwards. We walked around different parts of the city and he told us about the history of certain things and helped us buy some stamps to send some postcards. After a couple of hours it was past lunch time and Angel and I were definitely hungry so the man took us to a restaurant nearby. It was nothing fancy and the menu contained traditional Turkish food.

While sitting there eating our food the man from the mosque was talking to us about how he had been in the Turkish military and had fought in the Cypriot war between Greece and Turkey in the 70's and even lifted up his shirt to show the 3 bullet wounds that he received for his trouble. All the while pushing back a whole bottle of Turkish Raki. When we were finished Angel and I had no qualms about paying the bill for the boy and his father so I asked the father how much the bill was and he got up to find out at the place where you ordered. He comes back and says 25 million lira for everything so Angel and I gave him the money to pay and as we were walking out I just happened to glance at the prices for the food listed on the board behind the counter and I saw that our meals had only been 2 million lira each. At the time the rate was around 650,000 lira to 1 US dollar and we had paid over $38 for 4 people in Turkey!

I asked the guy at the counter how much he had paid him for our table and he said 15 million lira. I asked him how it could have been so much when the means were 1.5 million to 2 million each and there were only four of us... The Raki... It had cost 5 million alone. So i ran outside and started chasing the guy down the street yelling at him to, 'give me my f*#$in money!'

By now the kid is gone and the dude is walking at a really quick pace. I am still behind him telling him that if he doesn't give me my money I am going to stick my hand down his throat and make him regurgitate everything he had put into his stomach when he begins to run down a side street and then I saw why. There were 3 cops sitting in the intersection looking our way due to my yelling and hollering. I asked the cops if they spoke English to which they said no so I took off running after the dude down the side street. To which the cops started chasing me.

I saw him in a carpet shop off the side street and when he saw me he started running to the back of the carpet shop and I followed him up a pair of stairs and then out a side door down a fire escape. 2 of the cops had stayed outside while the other had gone inside the carpet shop and the cops outside made me stop but never even tried to stop the Turkish dude.

One of the guys in the carpet shop spoke English and translated 'everything' to the police and told us that this guy was a known scammer type and we weren't the first to be had by him and the kid. The cops told us to go back to base and report it there... The kid and the man were not related and the man had never worked on the base.

As we were in the taxi back home I saw the kid through a window on a bus in traffic. This little shitbird waved a 10 million lira bill at me with a big smile on his face....

Chalk it up to the game...

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Impressions of Turkey Pt.1

In May of 2000 I touched down in the south of Turkey with my squadron for a training mission at a local Turkish bombing range. Going off on these short trips was a welcome break for us as it was nice to get away from the day in and day out training taking place in Germany but also it was an opportunity to go off and visit new places on the government's dime.

When we went on these temporary deployments we were paid an extra allowance depending on the setup of where we were sent. In Turkey the amount wasn't so great because we were on an American base in tents with a chow hall. But for some other locations I was sent we got over $100 per day extra allowance.

We landed and had a day or two off before any work was to take place so my close friend named Angel and I wondered off base and into the nearest city to the base. Most Americans only visited the road right outside of the base nicknamed 'the alley' to get any taste of Turkish culture and the wares they had to offer us.

But Angel and I decided to catch a taxi to Adana which was about a 15 minute taxi ride in traffic and cost a couple million lira but that was okay because it only equated to a few dollars at the time. We were dropped off in the city center area and just wandered around. The weather was muggy and overcast when all of a sudden the skies opened up and the rain poured down as I have never seen it do before. The streets were flooded up to my knees in a matter of minutes and we along with the rest of the people we saw were utterly soaked... We packed it in and went home to change.

Incirlik Airbase is owned and by the Turks and jointly operated by them and the U.S. Air Force and it is the only base I ever went to that had a curfew. You had to be on base between 11PM and 6AM as the gates were sealed and you were unable to enter or exit during those times unless on official business. If you were caught off base by the Turkish police or the American military police you were up the creek. You could basically kiss your privilege of going off base goodbye.

Work was very light and we didn't have to put in many hours so that left a lot of time to discover and roam as we pleased. My friend Angel had his eye on a Turkish girl that worked for a military sponsored business that took military members on tours around Turkey in their spare time. She worked alongside a young Turkish kid who couldn't have been older than 18. While Angel was off talking to the girl I would sit there and talk to the kid asking him about Turkey and other things that came to mind.

One day he invited us to go out with him around Adana on the coming Saturday night. We were leery of his proposal as we didn't want to jeopardize our gate card that allowed us to go off base if we were caught out after curfew particularly as we had just recently arrived in country and it would be difficult to be stuck on base for the rest of the time.

But he relented and we agreed to meet him somewhere in downtown Adana in the late afternoon for some coffee and we would hang out form there. Around 11pm as the gates on base were being locked and we were still in the city with no way to make it back in time if we wanted to we were digging into some Adana kebabs and rice with our friend and some acquaintances of his.

After we finished eating he took us to a discotheque and realized found it astonishing how unbalanced the male to female ratio was inside. And our Turkish friend made it abundantly clear that we should under no circumstances approach any of the minuscule amount of woman we did see. He said that we should only talk to the ones that approached us as this was their custom and the best way not to find yourself in a fistfight.

We eventually left and went to eat again before making it back to his parent's apartment where he promised us it was no problem for us to stay until the gate opened back up in a few hours. Angel and I crashed in his bedroom on the floor and awoke around noon time to his mother cooking us eggs and sausage for breakfast. We thanked him for the wonderful time and caught a taxi back to base were nobody was any the wiser that we had not come back through the gate the night prior.

I guess this is my positive impression of Turkey. And I started with the positive because the negative side of it took me a long time to get over. Angel never did get too far with the girl and last I heard the boy who took us out on the town was attending a university somewhere in Germany.

Wait until you hear me chasing people through the city with the cops chasing me... next time.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

CELTA-- Mission: Accomplished!

This past Saturday the 27Th of June was my final CELTA class at Solihull College and apparently I have passed. While I was told nothing explicitly that I had passed it is apparent from the Cambridge University class manifesto that if I was going to fail I would have been told before the three quarter point of the class and given a one-to-one tutorial or something.

Apparently I will receive some certificate from Solihull College in the mail in the coming couple weeks and then the entire classes files get sent to Cambridge University where they are reviewed and then held for 1 entire year. But after they are initially reviewed and the assessors agree with our instructors marks then an official Cambridge University CELTA certificate is sent to us.

So... Do I think the class was worth it?

Yes, absolutely. I have some teaching experience behind me already but a few techniques and methods that are drilled into you are actually quite useful. They are things that you look at and say, 'Why didn't I think of that before?' type things. I imagine that for people who have no classroom experience it would be even more beneficial.

I found the class at Solihull College to be well run and the instructors very approachable and knowledgable. The building was amazing and the classrooms have top of the line equipment that made a trainee-teacher's life all the much easier.

One of the things I personally found the hardest to deal with was the difference in the instructors. They each had their own quirks; likes and dislikes. What one instructor would love another would hate and while it probably had little impact overall whether you passed or failed a training teaching lesson it was hard to take sometimes hearing somebody shoot down what the other praised. But of course out in the real world of teaching you are bound to have directors or educational coordinators who like and dislike different methods and approaches in teaching.

I never found the work for the class to be to difficult just very time consuming and cumbersome. Unless you are an absolute grammar wizz you will find yourself knee deep in a pile of teaching and grammar reference books. Searching through them to refresh yourself with what a defining and non-defining clause is the night before you are due to teach and writing out your lesson plan is a burden on your time.

Out of our class of 12 we had 2 drop out and only ended with 10 people. I am pretty sure all of them graduated minus one who may or may not have passed the course.

The one thing I found very difficult about the course was the 2 lengthy breaks we had. We had our first class at the end of March 09 and then had almost 3 weeks off because of the Easter break before coming back again for the 2nd class. We also had the half-term break in May 09 and I really found these to be inhibitive to my completing the course. I really didn't want to go back after the breaks but I am glad that I did.

If I was to make a suggestion for the course it would be to show either a blank certificate or perhaps the instructors certificate of CELTA to the class at some point between the halfway and three quarter mark of the class. I think it would be a great motivator and a reminder to the students for what they are there for.

I met a few people that I will definitely keep in contact with in my class and I am extremely glad that I did to when I did. Apparently the July/August intensive CELTA course at Solihull College has been cancelled because of one of the instructor's children coming down with swine flu!!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

CELTA in Solihull... The Final Stretch!

CELTA in Solihull is almost complete and I think I am on track to pass the course and receive my certificate... I think.

I have one more assignment due on Saturday that I need to finish off this week on what I have learned from observing other qualified teachers and CELTA trainees like myself over the past few months. I am not expecting any problems with that.

I also have to go to the college tomorrow morning and observe a qualififed teacher doing her thing in the classroom as you need to have observed a total of 6 hours. I only have 3.5 hours under my belt.

And then I have only one more teaching session consisting of one hour on Monday. Other than that, I am on a serious downhill slope.

I cannot wait to have my Saturdays back... And not having to go on the other 2 nights will be a plus too i guess...

What's next?

Well, if the VA comes through for me I will be attending The University of Birmingham in the Fall. The G.I. Bill does indeed kick ass.

Ohhh, and the weather lately kicks ass too....

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A Weekend of Wales Watching

With the weather being absolutely glorious this weekend here in The UK it was a mandatory duty to take the kids out of the city into the countryside. But where to go? Living in Birmingham kinda means that you are smack dab in the middle of England but all the cool and interesting stuff is at least a 2 hours drive away.

I decided that we were going to drive towards the middle of Wales and see what we came across but when you are traveling with 2 young kids you know you are not going to make it too far before they start getting agitated and express their desire to do something other than sit in a moving vehicle.

Not to far past the Welsh border we came across a pleasant looking area near an old novelty steam train engine railroad station where we stopped and let the kids loose. There was a large stream about 100 feet from the station and there was a decent pathway along side the stream where we could walk for a little bit and show the kids how to skip stones. They were more interested in lobbing mini boulders into the water to watch them make a splash and hear the 'kaplunk' sound.

After an hour or so we loaded back up and headed off deeper into the belly of Wales. Until the kids got hungry that is. We found a self proclaimed 'cafe' just off the road we were traveling down and stopped. The food was more expensive that I would have thought and not very good but none the less did the job. £23.50 for 2 battered Cods, a kid's chicken nuggets meal and 2 drinks really does seem over the top.

Eventually we came across some dramatic landscapes that one probably does not typically associate with Wales. Well, people who are not from The UK anyway.

I'm not trying to make it out like these were some huge mountains or anything but as you can see if you look closely in the photo there were cars stopping at that parking area solely because their cars were overheating. Well maybe the one in the photo only did that because it was a BMW.

This particular area is called Snowdonia and there were quite a few people trekking up the hills there. I mean, all the parking spots were filled but there wasn't really anyone around so I figure that they had all walked to the top somewhere. I would have really liked to climb up there but I don't think my pregnant wife and 2 young ones would have appreciated it too much.

We got back into the car and after not long at all we came to the coast. As warm as it was outside I figured there would have been a lot more people at the beach but I soon figured out why there was not more of a crowd. It seems that all the sharpest rocks that the seas have to offer decided to wash themselves up on this particular beach in Criccieth, Wales. Nice...

The kids played in the surf for a few hours before we started our journey back to the land of terraced houses but it took us a lot longer than expected to return. The roads taking everyone back to England were backed up as if border control had started to checks at the English/Welsh border.

Here's to hoping the rest of the summer stays as gorgeous as this past weekend!

Friday, May 29, 2009

My First Military Deployment

When I first arrived in Germany in the Spring of 1999 I took an immediate liking to my new surroundings. I mean THE reason I joined the Air Force was just to have the ability to travel around the world and knowing that Germany would be my new home for at least the next 24 months I couldn't have been more happier.

Although I had no idea upon arriving the base was in a strange state. One fighter squadron (The 53rd FS) was being deactivated and two (The 23rd and 81st FS) of the other three were deployed to Italy bombing Serbia into the stone age. As I was a first term airman and this was my 1st duty station I had a lot of appointments and briefing to attend that kept me away from my duty location for a couple weeks. When it was time for me to show up I was assigned some menial tasks with a mixture of guys who were waiting to leave the base and others who had just shown up and it was clear we were just there to waste time and make it seem like we were doing something.

After a short period of time I was sent over to the remaining fighter squadron on the base (the 22nd) to start doing actual work with F-16's. Normally I would have had to gone to a location to get certified but as we were actively bombing all that was thrown out the window.

I remember we were working 12 hour shifts and that we would send of 6 to 10 aircraft of at once and wait for about 6 hours for them to come back. It was actually pretty cool for maintainers. Depending on when the previous shift had sent off the prior aircraft we may sit around for an hour or 5 waiting for them to return. In that time I learned how to play dominoes and perfect my hacky-sack technique. The best nights were when there was bad weather and the aircraft had to divert to another base somewhere as that meant we could go home early.

And I thought this was how the Air Force really was. Because I had come into a war like state I knew nothing else. But then sometime in the beginning of May I was told that I would be sent to Aviano AB in northeast Italy with the 22nd Fighter Squadron to replace members of the squadron I should be assigned to, the 23rd Fighter Squadron.

I remember having really mixed emotions about going. I really loved the idea of going to Italy but as we had no idea how long we would be there I had reservations because I was still in a phase where I was getting to know my surroundings in Germany.

But Italy ended up being more fun that Germany... By a country mile!

We were still working 12 hour shifts with I think one day off a week but Italy was a dream for an 18 year old boy like I was. We were living in tents with 9 other guys and sleeping on metal framed cots but it made no difference to me. I loved it. I was put on a crew with 2 other men whom I knew from Germany. The leaser of the crew was a Staff Sergeant with probably 14 or 15 years experience who originally came from Puerto Rice. The other guy was a Senior Airman in his mid to late 20's and came from Georgia.

I learned a lot from them about how things worked in the Air Force. I remember fondly sitting at the End of Runway (EOR) in the back of the pick-up truck waiting for jets to come back throughout the warm May and June Italian nights.

Aviano Airbase was quite the unique place. Particularly Tent City. I would estimate it to be 16 tents across by 32 tents deep and although I only had 10 people in my tent for sure there were cases of 20 men to a tent. Tent City consisted of an American Navy Unit there with EA-6B aircraft, an American Marine Unit with F-18's, The 53rd FS from Shaw AFB, the 493rd FS from RAF Lakenheath, as well as the Portuguese AF with F-18's and the Canadians were there with F-18's as well.

While the Air Force officers were put up in local hotels off of the base the poor US Marines officers (pilot even!) were stuck in Tent City with the rest of us. Thank God it was a no salute zone because them Marines officers would have loved nothing more than making us salute them.

Around Tent City there were makeshifts convenience stores and hooches AKA bar rooms where the people went to blow of steam. I remember as well that we got a pre-screen showing of the new Star Wars movie that came out that year in Tent City.

I remember going to the most beautiful discotheque that I have ever seen in my life in some town between the base and Venice. Inside it was like any other European disco but outback was a large Japanese garden with a dance floor over the middle of it and a series of walkways shooting off of it. It was really amazing and no description I give it would do it justice. Wish I remembered its name.

I met a girl while I was there as well and there will be some future tales regarding my visits to go see her back in Italy soon enough! But by the end of June Milosevic had given up and we were all returning back to Germany and I was to find out what the REAL Air Force was...

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Pepsi RAW... And Why I'm Tired of Asda's Antics

I read on an online news site that I frequently read that Pepsi was releasing a new product geared towards people like me and that the UK was to be the test market. Then later that day I saw what confirmed that on the side of a Birmingham bus as it passed me by. (Also confirming that buses are good for something other than keeping bad drivers behind the wheels of those huge monstrosities where they are easily spottable.)

The new Pepsi product is their first in over 10 years or something and I think they are hitting into quite a unique market. The product is called Pepsi RAW and is completely made of all natural ingredients except for the carbonation of course. I looked online and found a little bit of info on the product and saw that it was to be available in pretty much all the major UK grocery stores including my local one, ASDA.

So I went in there to buy some but there is nothing anywhere in the store and no one has a clue what I am talking about. And really this was the excuse I had been looking for to go to another supermarket other than the local ASDA that I shopped at regularly or the local Morrison that I never took a liking to.

I have had a series of issue with ASDA as of late. First off they move products way to often. I mean for the first 3 years almost nothing ever moved. And now in the past year they seem to move shit every month to a new location. And not just from the top of the aisle to the bottom but moving a section of products to a total new aisle in a completely new area of the store.

Products that I have been buying for 3 years just disappear and no one has an answer as to why. Like Bertolli pasta sauce. Other products they never seemed to have and never get anyway. Like Green Beans. Damn store has 4 shelves full of peas in a whole variety of ways but no damn green beans.

Then they have a full stock of Ben & Jerry's ice cream but don't stock the best flavor they make named Cherry Garcia.

But the thing that they have done that really is driving me away was this whole thing about not wanting to provide any shopping bags. If I pay £150 to £225 on grocery's, damn it I want free bags. I like plastic shopping bags. No, really I do. I use them for a multitude of purposes including as liners for my small waste baskets I have around the house.

Why should I, the well paying customer have to pay you 5p for some crap green bag that I can't fit much into when it doesn't even fit my small waste basket! Don't tell me the environment! I understand that these bags can take 1000 years to degrade into the earth but that isn't my problem. Government should pass a law making the companies who produce the bags to make them more friendly to the Earth. Not try to push the stores to get me to stop using them.

So, one night after class in Solihull I stopped by the Sainsburys and went in because I was sure they would have Pepsi RAW and sure enough they did. And I only intended to buy that but I found a whole range of Bertolli pasta sauces, massive amounts of green beans, mini pretzels, fresh bagels, Pizza Express frozen Pizzas and most shockingly of all... FRANK'S RED HOT SAUCE!!!!

No more begging friends on the Air Force bases in Suffolk to bring it to me!!

And they let me take as many orange plastic shopping bags as I wanted... Free of charge!

And the Pepsi RAW tastes pretty good. Less carbonation but pretty close in flavor. The cans are the same size as a traditional Red Bull can but they have old school glass bottles as well...