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...

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Trip to the Cadbury Factory

I had one of my old friends from my Air Force days fly in from Frankfurt for the weekend and as the Bullring was closed for most of it I booked us and my kids on a little excursion over to the Cadbury Factory on the outskirts of the city.

I booked the tickets online and made my way over there but for some strange reason the listing in my GPS of 'Cadbury World' was a residential area of terraced houses. So as the time for our appointed time was approaching I had to call 118-118, which is the UK's version of 411 to have them text me the phone number and address of the place.

We were actually only about a mile away and made it there with 10 minutes to spare.

And in fact it didn't seem to me that you really needed to book ahead. When we arrived we checked in with a woman at the cash registers and she told us to go around back to the Cadbury Essence and then come back here after that. So we walked around back and went through the Cadbury Essence 'show' telling us some things about how Cadbury was started by some holligrams. Then we were 'treated' to a cup of liquid chocolate which was kind of like having a drink of a choclate bar that was left inside the car during your last family holiday to Florida.

The kids played on a playground setup outside the exit of the essence tour for a few minutes and we then walked back around the building to where we walked into what was supposed to be an Amazon jungle scene and then an 1800's old Birmingham square. In my opinion it was kind of lame and could definitely use some other interactive features.

Then there were 2 sit down 'shows' where we were explained more in detail the history of Cadbury and how they were ahead of their time in employee rights and the such. And then the second was about the process of chocolate going from the cocoa plant to the candy bar.

Then we walked through the actual factory where chocolate bars were being heated and cooled and then wrapped. For some reason they don't allow any photography or video in there.

Then it was on to this ride that had a huge line (queue) when we first walked by it going into the factory but wasn't so bad when we actually came to stand in it after walking the factory. It basically was a train track type of car ride. Imagine the old "It's a Small World After All' tour at Disney World crossed with little chocolate beans that looked more like turds.

Some how my friends and I managed to get a car all on our own while the kids were in another car... We looked pretty gay getting out of the car at the end with no kids... I would post the photo but my friend would kill me....

Ohhh, I forgot we walked out of there with more chocolate bars than I could count between the lot of us. I imagine 50 at least. They hand them out like... Well... Candy...

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Celta in Solihull... Halfway done.... +pics

Last Saturday was our last day before breaking for the half-term break and I and a classmate went out with a bang...

We went to the main building to get some snacks on a 10 minute break and apparently the school was locked down for the half-term and we found a way in and set off the building's alarms. The caretaker was not too happy when we crossed paths.

Upon returning back from the half-term break I will be switching from the upper-intermediate level students to intermediate. There are clear advantages and disadvantages with this. Most importantly, the student's are not really able to stump you with grammar questions. But the big positive with the upper-intermediate is that you do not have to grade your own language when speaking with them. They understand most things well enough that you can speak normally and when they do not know what a word means they will ask you.

Anyway, I have no assessed teaching lessons to prepare this week and that is a needed break. I have a lot of other paperwork I need to catch up on and file away and doing lesson plans has made that quite a large pile.

So here are some pics I took in one empty room that was not in use at the time of the Tudor Grange House located on the Solihull College campus.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

British Things That Make You Go Hmmm #3

What's up with the dudes out collecting scrap metal in Birmingham? Are they like this all over Britain?

In case you do not have a clue what I am on about basically every other day (or so it seems) some guys in a British version of a pickup truck drive up and down the streets really slow playing some trumpety sounding tune while screaming something that I for the life of me cannot grasp over and over and over...

Do they expect me to run out waving my hands emphatically in the air because I heard their bellows?

I mean if I have some scrap metal I leave it out in front of the house for them to take anyway. I have put things outside and had people come and take them literally right after I plopped it down.

I have also came close to having a physical altercation with one of these brutes a couple years back. He basically wandered into a private area of my property and decided he was going to help himself to some metal items I had there. I saw him from upstairs and came down as he was putting it into the back of his truck and asked him what he was doing trespassing on my property and stealing my belongings.

He got really pissed and took the piece out of the truck and said, 'Here, take it!'

To which I told him its not the point of the item its the fact that he opened a door and walked into my property and removed something without asking first. And I jokingly informed him that where I come from you can get shot in the back for something like that...

So he looks at me and says, 'So why don't you go back there then!'

And I told him frankly that I was here doing research on the 2 wars America whooped Britain in and the other one that we saved their ass in...

Don't think he knew what I was on about...

And I guess I could consider the following to be 'Hmmm #4' but I don't want to because it is so small...

But is the proper way you secure a towed vehicle here in the UK??

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Celta in Solihull... Halfway done....

I have been taking this CELTA course now for almost 2 months now and we are just about halfway done. We have a short break for the half-term next week and it is definitely a well placed rest.

Normally I teach on Thursdays but as chance would have it a classmate rang me on Sunday as I was preparing my lesson for Thursday and asked if I could switch with them for this week. I was very happy to do so as that means that now I do not have to really to do any lesson preparation for about 2 weeks.

There are some assignments I need to work on though. I am finding those more difficult than the rest of the class for some strange reason.

But overall I am positive the class has made me a better teacher. Particularly because of the Saturday theory classes we have that involve some great teaching concepts and methodologies to utilize inside the classroom.

I have found out that I am excellent at teaching vocabulary but need to vastly improve my ability to present grammar and form.

As for the class in general then I would recommend it and if you have the ability to take it at Solihull College then I would recommend that as well. The CELTA instructors have a lot of experience and definitely know what they are talking about. They are quite helpful and very available and approachable for guidance outside and inside the class. Feedback seems to be on par with what I would expect but the ideas they give you as to what you could have done to improve a lesson is insightful.

The Tudor Grange house where we teach at Solihull College is amazing. It is like some sort of mansion you would see in a Jane Austin film adaptation or an old haunted mansion form the Scooby Doo cartoons. There are old fireplaces and beautiful carvings of different objects in the wooden frames. I will try to take some photos of the inside on Thursday to post.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

10 year anniversary pics

As promised...

Since my laptop was being repaired and I couldn't post any photos from when I first landed in Germany with that particular blog I will post them now...

The view from my dorm, building 177 room 301 on Spangdahlem Airbase Germany. All those semi-circular concrete structures are called Hardened Aircraft Structures (HAS for short) and house F-16 or O/A-10 aircraft.

The room was about 12' by 10' and I had it all to myself. I did though have to share a toilet and shower with one other guy.

Here is the other side of the room and the sink and mirror area right before the bathroom door. As you can see I didn't have much to bring with me at 18 years old.

The said bathroom area that I had to share.

An old German village that I took my first drive off base through.

The office where we were when we weren't working and weren't supposed to be as opposed to where we hid when we were supposed to be working.

An organized tour that we had to take when we first arrived to the closest city named Trier. Yes, that is a monkey on some sort of musical instrument.

This building in Trier is actually a McDonalds...

Saturday, May 9, 2009

It was the Busiest of Times... It was the best of times???

I guess it has been absolutely nuts for me and my family over the past month. I cannot recall ever being so busy in my life... And believe me that is saying a lot considering that I was assigned to a fighter squadron in the U.S. Air Force for almost 4 years.

Between preparing and then attending the CELTA course in Solihull 3 times a week I have also revamped the inside of my business and moved into a new home. The latter was probably the most stressful though as my former landlord decided he was going to be too cool for school.

I decided to take a house in Small Heath area of Birmingham back in the first week of April and of course after putting down a £400 deposit I attempted to call the landlord of the flat I was in immediately to give him my 30 day notice. As the apartment I was in was in good condition my intention was to try to find someone I knew who may be looking for a decent flat to move in. This way I wouldn't have had to pay the full 30 day notice until the 6th or 7th of May and the landlord would not lose out on any income.

So on the night of the 6th I rang his personal mobile number 2 times about 20 minutes apart. No answer.

Again the next evening I tried to call him again 2 times and again no answer. Even worse in my opinion was that I never had a returned call from the 4 times I tried to ring him.

So a couple day later I went down to the shop under the flat and asked if they had seen the landlord and if they could verify that I had the right number for him. They told me that I did but that they thought he was out of the country as he hadn't been by the shop to collect the rent from them when he was supposed to.

With that I kind of put the whole affair to the back of my head as I had so much other stuff to focus on. I tried calling him again on Monday the 13th of April and again no answer so I decided to send him a text message. I basically just wrote that I had found another place and that I would be moving out on the 1st of May. I still had no response but I did get a delivered message and again but it to the back of my mind.

I tried calling him again on the following Monday the 20th and he finally answers his phone. I tell him that I have been trying to contact him and that I will be moving out on the 1st of May. He took issue with that. He told me that he would take my 30 day notice from today (the 20th of April) and that if I find someone suitable to move in the flat that he would reimburse me the amount for whatever days I would be owed.

So I told the landlord that I didn't agree with him because I had in all earnest tried to contact him. At that time, after hanging up the phone with him I thought the easiest way out of this was to get someone willing to take the flat on the 1st of May or earlier.

When I got home I told my wife of the conversation and we both tried over the next two days to find a suitable individual. We found a couple people interested but come the evening of the 22nd we made a crucial decision. As we felt that the landlord was being unfair with us and our rent was due again on the next day (the 23rd) we decided that it was in our best interest to "do a runner."

We packed up all out things that night and moved out belongings that would not be needed for a week to a friends home and then with the other things and the kids we drove to my wife's sister's home. We cleaned the apartment to a good standard and left the key with the caretaker of the building.

Of course the landlord was not pleased when he came to realize this. He and I played phone tag for a few days and then had a conversation where he relayed to me what he thought he was owed. He had now changed his mind and decided that he would only take a payment for rent up to the 9th of May and not the 19th of May. I told him that I would never agree to that as I felt it was 100% his fault that he did not receive my notice. I called him 4 times on the 6th and 7th of April and he did not answer his phone nor did he return any of the 4 calls I made to him.

On top of that I felt aggravated that I was put into a position where I had to move in the middle of the night like a bunch of Carnies with my kids. I had been made to be uncomfortable and leave my home before I had desired to because of his unjust stance. And of course he lost 2 weeks rent I would have paid him because of his audacious stance.

Anyway we are in our new place and getting comfortable with that. The house we have moved into is an old 4 bedroom Victorian home. For the area of Birmingham I am living in it is in excellent condition. I really only have three complaints and they are bearable really.

1) The water pressure is very poor.
2) The parking is very difficult particularly at night. When I come home from my CELTA course on Mondays and Thursdays I will not find any parking nearby the house.
3) The bottom floor toilet is only accessible by... Going out the back door into the garden. But we of course do have a full bathroom on the middle floor of the house.