A cookie drive to remember

With holidays come festivities, and with festivities come many goodies, decorations, treats and such. The one thing that I – and many others I’m assuming – associate with holidays is the abundance of themed-treats that follow. As a lover of food and other sweet treats, it’s the candies and cookies I look for the instant the holidays start rearing their heads.

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December is a month of holidays, and many people celebrate in their own way. For me, the holiday I observe happens to be Christmas.

Christmas was once a time I eagerly waited for a big man donning a red suit to jump down our chimney and discretely leave mysterious packages for me to unravel in the morning with an uncontested zest. That illusion was shattered when I was five years old, when I caught my father snacking on the cookies I left for Saint Nick with a wrapped present in his other hand. I tried hard to believe my dad was on some North Pole Assistance Committee, and that he was merely subbing for Santa because he’d caught a cold or something (you know, the North Pole’s pretty cold,) but reality had already left its mark.

Speaking of cookies, that’s about all I look forward to these days, along with painfully obligatory presents from friends who buy me gift cards because they’re all a little too afraid to admit that my standards are a bit too “fickle.”

Jokes aside, cookies are one of the great ways to celebrate the coming of holidays. They come with deliciously sugary decorations that in some way represent the holiday we’re all eagerly awaiting. Baking Christmas cookies is a tradition many participate in to help bring the holiday spirit to friends and family.

But what about those who don’t have the means to bake or can’t get access to cookies because they just got here to a base overseas away from family, friends and things familiar?

On December 4, 2014, the Officers’ and Civilians’ Spouses Club (OCSC) and Spangdahlem Spouses and Enlisted Members Club (SSEMC) organized a cookie drive, one they called “Spangdahlem Cookie Crunch,” to ensure that Airmen residing in the dorms would have that pleasantry available to them come this holiday.

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Families feed family with heart-warmed cookies

Kim Nudi, the OCSC representative for this event from Fairfax, Virginia, and Katie Merry, the SSEMC representative from Modesto, California, not only gave me a sneak peek into “Santa’s cookie workshop,” but gave me an insight into what’s going on and why they were hosting this charitable community event.

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(Merry, left, and Nudi, right, the event coordinators of the cookie drive)

Nudi informed me on what was going on. Here’s what I learned:

The OCSC and SSEMC hosted a cookie drive at the Airman & Family Readiness Center (A&FRC) – which was “kind enough to provide the space”, according to Nudi. They gathered members from both clubs and volunteers from the community to package cookies donated by members of the Spangdahlem community and the local community – to include, but not limited to, spouses, a Girl Scout troop and a philanthropic sorority not from Spangdahlem.

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Festive paper bags, decorated by elementary school and kindergarten children from the Spangdahlem and Bitburg Elementary School as well as the Spangdahlem School Age Program (who had a hand in baking a lot of cookies themselves), housed the delicious baked treats.

Families feed family with heart-warmed cookies

OSCS and SSEMC also went ahead and purchased movie vouchers from the Army & Air Force Exchange Service (who, also, donated $2 snack bar coupons) so that Airmen can enjoy treats and a free movie with cheaper concessions.

Completing the process, the cookie bags were placed in bins where the First Sergeants’ Group picked them up and delivered the goods to their troops’ respective dorms.

Enthralled by the delicate procedure, planning and the sweet smell of cookies, I had to answer one question that kept tickling the back of my mind the moment I heard this drive was going on:

Why were they going to such lengths to do this for us? For me?

I had to know.

I sat down with Nudi and Merry and began grilling them about their motives behind this delicious “Cookie Crunch.”

“What we wanted to do this year was have a base-wide cookie drive so that everyone is involved in helping our unaccompanied Airmen feel welcome and feel some holiday cheer at this time when they are away from their families,” Nudi said. “The response has been wonderful because I think people really enjoy doing this. It’s been really wonderful to see all of the communities come together to support our Airmen.”

Families feed family with heart-warmed cookies
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I had to know why Nudi and Merry decided to take charge of this “Cookie Crunch” with nearly 800 dozen cookies baked and donated from members of Spangdahlem. It turned out the reason be more personal than I first thought.

“Personally, I was a single Airmen in the dorms once, myself, so I know exactly how it feels to feel alone when you don’t have your family around or being new to the base and not having friends to spend the holidays with,” Merry said. “When I heard about this drive, I thought it was a great idea and a special reminder to every Airmen that they are not here by themselves and that they are remembered. The holiday times they are not alone, even if they feel like it.”

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“It gives me the opportunity to spend a lot of that energy to help out this community,” Nudi said. “It’s a great way to give back, and I take the opportunity of not working to find ways to give back. It’s our way of saying thank you and showing our appreciation for them.”

If holiday spirit had a smell, it would smell like the cookies Nudi and Merry packed into the bags we received that afternoon.

Families feed family with heart-warmed cookies
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Volunteers who associated with neither club even extended their hand to help in this act of generosity.

Melissa Higgins, one of the volunteers not affiliated with either of the clubs, and native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, gave me her two cents on why she participated.

“We love our Airmen,” Higgins said. “We appreciate all that they do for us, so we’d like to show our appreciation for them.”

It’s just cookies, I hear you think, and everyone gets cookies during the festivities.

This is true, I respond back telepathically – but more importantly, on this blog – they may just be cookies, but it wasn’t just cookies and free movie passes that made it to the dormitory Airmen that afternoon; it was an extension of camaraderie and a token of appreciation from a group of families given to one big family – a big Air Force family.

I’m hoping that as Sabers, both accompanied and unaccompanied, spend the holidays and munch on these delicious cookies, we all stop to think what the holidays truly mean and what they represent.

It’s not about shiny, wrapped packages. It’s not about a plate of warm cookies and a tall glass of milk. It’s not about a big liar dressed in a red suit breaking and entering into people’s homes to steal treats and leave presents. Nor is it about obligatory gifts and awkward moments as you watch the recipient’s smile turn upside down when they realize all you could afford to give them for Christmas was a $10 gift card from a generic retail store.

It’s about making sure people around you – close or through peripheral association – know that, as Airmen serving on the same installation, we’re all one big family, looking out for each other and letting each other know that we are not alone. We are remembered.

Happy holidays, Saber Nation.

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Been There, Done That: Thanksgiving in Marrakech

When I think of my prime vacation destinations, Morocco sure wasn’t one of them. My wife has always wanted to go, though, and a group of our friends joined in on her enthusiasm. She told me one of the main goals of this vacation was shopping, another one of my least favorite things to do.

With much reluctance, I began saving money in our travel account to pay for our plane ride and hotel bill. We started putting money away early this year, so the bill didn’t really affect us.

But now that I’m back, I can say with full confidence that I had a great time. If you want a different experience than one you’d find in the local area, go ahead and start your paperwork to go to Africa.

Plane Ride In
We booked a Ryan Air flight a little later in the day – I think we left around 3 p.m. or so. Normally, I’m on the first flight out of Frankfurt-Hahn, so being able to sleep in and finish packing in the morning was a nice surprise.

This was our first time traveling via airplane with our 7-month-old, so we were a little anxious. I walked into the airport holding a diaper bag, two carry-on luggage bags, a car seat and bulky jackets. But thank goodness the people at the airport were genuinely kind to us and treated us with a little more compassion than usual at the check-in counter and through the security line.

Arrival

Marrakech Airport

Courtesy Photo


We arrived at the airport in Marrakech a little late and we needed to get a taxi to our all-inclusive hotel, the Riu Tikida Garden. My group had read about taxis directly outside the airport being a little expensive, so we walked a little ways out to get another taxi provider. The cost to the hotel was decent, about $25, but this is where it gets interesting.

There were a total of six people in my group, plus my baby. Consequently, we had to take two taxis. The cab drivers began loading our luggage into the trunks, and our guy grabbed the car seat and started shoving it in the trunk! We stopped him, put the car seat in the back of the cab, but apparently he was in a hurry. He started driving away before we had our seatbelts on or even had my son in the seat.

Simply put, the taxi rides were pretty wild. If you go, be prepared for broken seatbelts and fast-paced driving through crowded city streets. Blind merging, you betcha.

The Souks, or markets
Our first full day in Marrakech was spent meandering through the twisty-turny, winding souks, or markets. We wanted to see what strange or interesting items the old-town had to offer – and we saw more than we expected.

Marrakech Souk

It was a little overwhelming. The souks stretch for miles, with different sections of covered or open-air areas. Spices, lamps, woodwork, art, snake charmers, leather, scarves, trinkets, meats, metals. You name it, we saw it. The shop owners were pretty savvy at getting your attention, too.

“My friend, my friend,” they would say. “Looking is for free. Come, see, buy!”

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Haggle, haggle, haggle. It was tiring after a while seeing the same items in 100 different shops. Also, some of the starting prices seemed excessively high, as in $120 for a single Pashmina. Still, it felt dirty lowballing like I did. They’d ask for 300 Dirham (about $33) and I’d counter with 70 Dirham (about $8).

“My friend, be serious when you haggle,” a shopowner said. “Let us not waste our time, huh?”

“I am serious,” I replied, feeling bad. “This artwork isn’t that important to me, I’ll just find another one somewhere else. Let’s go. No, no, it’s okay. Thank you, thank … will you do 100 Dirham?”

We settled for 150 Dirham. Not bad.

Walking Around Town
After the marketplace, we needed a break from the crowds and noises. Smells, too. We walked along one of the main streets toward the central garden, but we had to cross a few intersections to get there, which proved to be an event in its own right.

Traffic

There were bikes and mopeds everywhere! The exhaust had that same oily, smoky smell that you’d get from two-cycle engines, like a chainsaw or weedeater. They’d dart in and out of the automobile traffic like professional stuntmen.

We eventually entered the gardens and sat on a stone bench for about a half hour. It was relaxing to finally get off my feet and just take in the green scenery, which was impressive for being located in the middle of the city.

Gardens

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Hotel Bound
At this point, our group was about ready to go back to the hotel, shower and eat some dinner. That reminds me, let’s talk about the resort for a little bit.

Since it was all inclusive, we could eat and drink all we wanted. The breakfast and dinner times had buffet options, and there was a snack-food bar between those meal times. However, I’m not sure about some of the food … it tasted pretty good, but sometimes you’d get duds. Super runny mashed potatoes, the occasional stale bread and repetitive food choices.

Also, if you’re one to enjoy an adult beverage, the serving glasses were pretty small. You could order as many as you’d like, so it didn’t matter too much. I could finish a glass of beer in two gulps.

One Last Trip to the Souks
We had another day to burn, so we returned to the souks. Except this time, my wife wanted to get a henna tattoo. We had read about a certain tea shop that also doubled as a henna parlor, so the search began. Quite honestly, I’m surprised we found it in the maze of stores.

I ordered a spearmint tea and watched an older Moroccan woman “tattoo” my wife’s forearm, all freehand. The design was intricate, and the finished product was exceptional. With proper care, these things can last for a couple of weeks.

Henna Tattoo

The Big Sendoff Huzzah
On our last day, we booked another late flight into Germany. So, that meant we had another full morning to do anything we hadn’t yet accomplished … CAMEL RIDES!

Camels!

Seriously, we went to the front desk of the resort and asked if they booked camel rides, which they totally did, for 250 Dirham per person (about $28.) The package included a one and a half hour camel ride and a halfway stop for tea.

I had never ridden a camel before, so this will be a memory I’ll keep forever. Especially since they gave us turbans to wear before we saddled up.

Camel Rides!

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I was tickled to death.

Anyway, we rode the camels for about an hour, got rained on and then stopped for tea. It was a welcome break – I didn’t realize how much of your lower back you use to stabilize yourself on top of a camel. Whew.

Going Home
We had just enough time once we got back to the hotel to check out and catch a taxi to the airport. I didn’t have time to shower and I had packed really light on clothing… so I may have smelled a little like a camel. Yeah, it wasn’t too offensive to me, just a little musky.

I apologize now to the people I sat next to on the plane. It happens, you know?

Our flight was delayed a bit, and it took longer than expected to get back to Frankfurt-Hahn. It was nearly 1:30 a.m. when I finally rolled into my driveway. I couldn’t wait to put the baby to sleep and catch some shut-eye myself.

When I finally drifted off, I thought of how lucky I am to be stationed in Germany. It really is the gateway to Europe (and Africa), and I’m thankful to have a good group of friends to travel around with. Plus, I’ll be able to tell my son that he spent his first Thanksgiving in Morocco, which is pretty sweet.

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Golden Thanksgiving reinforces silver lining

I normally associate Thanksgiving with the color gold. Why’s that you ask? Well, you’ve got the leaves, which turn a beautiful shade of red and gold. Golden pumpkin pies? And who can possibly forget the iconic golden turkey? Everything about Thanksgiving is gold!

Speaking of gold, Thanksgiving is also known for its rich wealth of joy and fellowship that comes with friends and families we spend together during this holiday of heartwarming happiness.

Two years ago, I spent my holidays with family at a local fried chicken restaurant. With a family combo laid out in front of us, we proceeded to dig in. It wasn’t a luxurious Thanksgiving dinner complete with a roast turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, corn, turkey stuffing, cornbread, biscuits, cranberry sauce, etc. We weren’t seated at a large table with a chandelier, table cloth, impressive silverware and expensive china plates.
Yeah, we didn’t have the monetary wealth to perform a “traditional” American Thanksgiving, and we weren’t sitting next to long lines of kin and blood relatives (although we didn’t need to).

My father, sister and I sat at a slightly damp table that smelled of the bleach that it was wiped-off with not too long ago. We were surrounded by grumbling employees who wanted to go home for the holiday but couldn’t because they needed to be there to ensure their families would have a turkey at the table later that day. Laid out in front of us was a family combo meal consisting of two buckets of fried legs, wings and chicken breasts and a variety of quickly processed mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, potato wedges and baked beans, but there wasn’t a frown on a single one of our faces.

Why?

We were thankful we had a place to sit somewhere warm during the cold holidays. We were glad that they had tables at the restaurant so we didn’t have to lug all the food back home. We were glad that we could at least eat something within the same family as the bird known as “turkey”, and we were just glad that we had each other’s company for Thanksgiving.

No turkey? No champagne? No pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce? We didn’t care. We laughed and joked about how much less of a chance we’d get a food coma and how we were glad the ice-cold soda would help wash down the greasiness of the chicken. We joked about how much more money and time people would be spending preparing and shopping for Thanksgiving. It only took 30 minutes to have our dinner prepared for us by those that decided to work during the holiday. We were thankful for them, for the food and for being able to have each other. That day was, without a doubt, a rich memory – a golden memory.

Thanksgiving is a holiday meant to recognize the things we have, hold dear and be thankful for the opportunity to have those things, whatever they may be.

Today, I walked around the commissary and asked a few Airmen and families on base what it was about Thanksgiving that they found thankful.

According to a military spouse:
On this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for family and friends and that they’re all in good health. I’m also thankful for the fact that we’re moving closer to family in Vance Air Force Base, Oklahoma in a month.”

A senior airman:
I’m thankful for my family and my career in the U.S. Air Force. I’m thankful that my family has supported me and without them I wouldn’t have all the opportunities I’ve had, and the same goes for the U.S. Air Force. The Air Force has provided opportunities for me to travel, meet new people and do awesome things.”

Another senior airmen:
I’m thankful for my family, especially my older brother, a staff sergeant – he helped me get into the Air Force and shaped me into who I am today.”

A staff sergeant:
I’m thankful for the opportunity to be able to wake up another day. Back two or three months ago, in August, I was involved in a rollover car accident. I was able to unbuckle, open the door and walk away from it. I’m thankful to God for that.”

Another staff sergeant:
I’m thankful for my family. I’m married with a son and a daughter. My daughter just turned three yesterday and my son turns four in eight days. I’m also thankful for their health. My son had health issues a few years ago, and it’s finally clearing up. We’re thankful for that, and I’m thankful that I’m not deployed during the holidays, which always makes things easier. We’re living in a very great country.”

Another staff sergeant:
I’m just thankful that my family and I are all together during the holidays, even though we’re away from family and friends. It’s sometimes difficult, but as a whole family, we’re still here, and I’m not deployed. I’m here, that’s the biggest thing. We have each other.”

Another military spouse:
I am thankful for my family and being in Germany. It is a wonderful, beautiful country and I’m also thankful that my husband can have some of his troops over for Thanksgiving so that I can feed a big family this year.”

As I listened to members of the Spangdahlem community tell me what they were thankful for, I couldn’t help but think of that one Thanksgiving dinner I had two years ago.

People here weren’t telling me that they were thankful for the money they were making or the car that they recently paid off or the diamond necklace their husband bought for them on their anniversary. People were telling me things that resonated with my own heartfelt thoughts – they were thankful for the families they had and how they were able to stay together.

My family’s more than 4,882 miles away this year. This is my first time spending it away from them, but you know what? I’m thankful. I’m thankful that I not only got to join the world’s greatest U.S. Air Force, but that it has given me the opportunity to provide for my family back home.

This year, I thought about how my life would’ve been different had it not been for the U.S. Air Force, and I’m glad to be where I am today. Yeah, it’s hard being away from family, but it’s not like I’m away from them doing something irrelevant. I signed my name on the dotted line to serve and protect my country.

And speaking of serving, I’m thankful to all those out there during this holiday serving in deployed locations around the world, away from their families just to make sure we can safely spend time with ours.

With my time in the U.S. Air Force, I’m just thankful that I now have the means to make sure my family can actually have a traditional turkey dinner for Thanksgiving instead of a fast food meal.

When people hear the word “gold,” they tend to think of riches, wealth and money.

On November 27, 2012, I learned that gold can also describe a moment, a feeling, a memory and a smile. As I celebrate this years’ Thanksgiving in Germany, it’s even more true today.

Have a golden Thanksgiving, Saber Nation.

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Germans, Americans unite for Volkstrauertag

I’ve covered several war memorial services throughout Europe since I arrived at Spangdahlem, Germany, in September 2013. However, I hadn’t attended a German service commemorating those who had died.

The country sets aside the second Sunday before Advent, known as Volkstrauertag, to reflect and mourn for all victims of war or suffering.

I attended Bitburg’s service Nov. 16, 2014, led by its mayor, Joachim Kandels, which featured a wreath-laying by several community organizations including the 52nd Fighter Wing at Spangdahlem Air Base.

Perhaps nothing I say or write could possibly convey the significance of what this observance means to the German people = the tragedy, the loss, the suffering and the legacy.

Yet, in compiling this blog with my photos, I wanted to include the following speech in German and translated in English from Joachim Gauck, the president of the Federal Republic of Germany, during his Volkstrauertag remarks during a plenary session of the German Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, Nov. 18, 2012.

 Germans, Americans observe Volkstrauertag

“Wir denken heute an die Opfer von Gewalt und Krieg, an Kinder, Frauen und Männer aller Völker.” / “Today, we remember the victims of violence and war — children, women and men of all nations.”

 Germans, Americans observe Volkstrauertag

Wir gedenken der Soldaten, die in den Weltkriegen starben, der Menschen, die durch Kriegshandlungen oder danach in Gefangenschaft, als Vertriebene und Flüchtlinge ihr Leben verloren.” /  “We remember the soldiers who died in the two world wars, the people who lost their lives through acts of war or afterwards in captivity, as displaced persons and refugees.”

Germans, Americans observe Volkstrauertag

“Wir gedenken derer, die verfolgt und getötet wurden, weil sie einem anderen Volk angehörten, einer anderen Rasse zugerechnet wurden, Teil einer Minderheit waren oder deren Leben wegen einer Krankheit oder Behinderung als lebensunwert bezeichnet wurde.” / “We remember those who were persecuted and killed because they belonged to another people, were of another race, were part of a minority or whose lives have been designated as unworthy of life because of an illness or disability.”

Germans, Americans observe Volkstrauertag

“Wir gedenken derer, die ums Leben kamen, weil sie Widerstand gegen Gewaltherrschaft geleistet haben, und derer, die den Tod fanden, weil sie an ihrer Überzeugung oder an ihrem Glauben festhielten.” / “We remember those who lost their lives because they resisted tyranny, and those who were killed because they held fast to their beliefs or their faith.”

Germans, Americans observe Volkstrauertag

Wir trauern um die Opfer der Kriege und Bürgerkriege unserer Tage, um die Opfer von Terrorismus und politischer Verfolgung, um die Bundeswehrsoldatinnen und -soldaten und anderen Einsatzkräfte, die im Auslandseinsatz ihr Leben verloren.” / “We mourn the victims of wars and civil wars of our day, to the victims of terrorism and political persecution who lost their lives, the Bundeswehr soldiers and soldiers and other forces deployed abroad.”

Germans, Americans observe Volkstrauertag

“Wir gedenken heute auch derer, die bei uns durch Hass und Gewalt gegen Fremde und Schwache Opfer geworden sind.” / “Today we commemorate those who have become, by hatred and violence against foreigners and the weak, victims with us.”

 Germans, Americans observe Volkstrauertag

“Wir trauern mit allen, die Leid tragen um die Toten, und teilen ihren Schmerz.” / “We mourn with those who mourn for the dead, and share their pain.”

Germans, Americans observe Volkstrauertag

“Aber unser Leben steht im Zeichen der Hoffnung auf Versöhnung unter den Menschen und Völkern, und unsere Verantwortung gilt dem Frieden unter den Menschen zu Hause und in der ganzen Welt.” / “But our life is a symbol of hope for reconciliation among people and nations, and our responsibility is true peace among people at home and around the world.”

Germans, Americans observe Volkstrauertag

Editor’s note: The full text of President Gauck’s speech can be found at the following website: http://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Berichte/DE/Joachim-Gauck/2012/11/121118-Volkstrauertag.html

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Been there, Done that: London

London By the Water

By Staff Sgt. Robbie Arp

Fish and Chips!

There are a million other things to see and do in London, but for me, it was all about the fish and chips.

My wife and I had never been to London. It was a new adventure for both of us.  She was looking forward to the sites, the history, and the shopping.  I was only looking forward to food.

We caught a late flight on Ryan Air out of Frankfurt Hahn (and if you’ve ever tried to find Frankfurt Hahn in the dark, you know it seems like you’re lost. But keep on driving, it’s out there) and arrived at Stansted Airport in England around 11 p.m.  Stansted is a little more than an hour outside of London.

There was an option to take a train that connected to the Tube (London’s Underground Subway) at Liverpool Station, hop around on the Tube for a few stops, and then walk to our hotel a few blocks away from our final stop. But it was nearly midnight by the time we got through security and claimed our luggage.

Side note, don’t check bags with Ryan Air if you’re only going somewhere for a few days. You are allowed a backpack and a small carry-on to go with you onto the plane.  Save some money, travel light. We opted for a car service that would take us directly to our hotel.  But take note, this was a seriously expensive option.  It cost one hundred and fifteen pounds.  That equals about $180.  A more cost effective option would have been to take the trains.  I told myself we were paying for peace of mind.  Now that the trip is over, do I still have that peace of mind?  Eh…

Our hotel was a little ways from any of the major attractions. We booked through one of the many online hotel sites and found a pretty affordable option that was also nice.  And even though we were away from the major attractions, transportation wasn’t an issue at all.

London has many bus tours that are “Hop On, Hop Off,” with bus stops scattered in convenient locations all over the city running every 5-15 minutes. Each tour also gives free maps of the city that highlight all the typical tourist spots.  Chances are, no matter where you want to go in London, you’ll be able to get relatively close by using one of these buses.  A 48-hour pass cost 31 pounds ($49), and they run from 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.

London mixLondon is beautiful! Point your camera in any direction (mostly) and you’ve got a pretty decent photo.  There was no shortage of interesting things to see and do.  The bus tours offer live tour guides who are pretty funny and full of knowledge.  We found the city to be completely accessible and friendly.  But I had not yet accomplished what I went there to do.  I was on a mission.

Queen's HeadHidden behind the ruckus of Piccadilly Circus, I found what would become a fond memory. The name of the establishment is The Queen’s Head.  It doubles as a Pub and a restaurant.  My wife and I took one look at the exterior of the building and we knew this was the place.  Finally, some fish and chips!

Fish and ChipsIt was exactly what I wanted. A huge, beer-battered fish filet with some thick cut potato wedges that the British lovingly refer to as chips.  Also on the plate was a scoop of mushy peas.  But please, if you find yourself in a similar situation, try these peas.  I was skeptical at first, but I thought they were awesome after I added a sprinkle of salt.  A friend of mine had told me about the mushy peas before going on this trip and how much he loved them.  He was not mistaken.  They are good!

Nightime LondonSo with my mission accomplished, I sat back and enjoyed the rest of the trip like a boss. As the sun began to fade in the beautiful British sky, my wife and I made our journey back toward our hotel.  Days tend to fly by in London.  We stayed so busy and interested in so many things.

Here are a few things to remember when planning a trip to London:

  1. It’s expensive.  The pound is a constant reminder to study for promotion.  Why?  Cuz you gotta pay to play, especially when the pound is hanging around.
  2. Plan for weather.  It tends to rain a lot in London, and in the autumn and winter months it’s pretty chilly.  So make sure you bring an umbrella, a scarf, a beanie and some gloves.  Maybe you won’t need them, but it’s better to have them instead of paying pounds for new ones.
  3. Have an idea of the train situation before you go.  Being educated on the train and the Tube will save you a lot of money and also time.
  4. If flying on Ryan Air, don’t check a bag.  Try fitting all of your stuff into a backpack and a small carry on.

I was thinking the trip would be stressful and we’d be going non-stop trying to cram a million things into two days, but I was wrong.  It wasn’t stressful.  It was fun.  And, yes, we were busy, but a fun kind of busy.  The kind of busy you had when you were a kid and lost track of time because you got lost in the good time.

Posted in Been There 2014, Been There, Done That!, Spangdahlem | Leave a comment

Sci-Fi Con: A whole new universe

By Airman 1st Class Timothy Kim

When people hear the word “sci-fi,” they tend to reference popular franchises and series such as Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who and Firefly.

On an honest scale from “no clue” to “no idea,” my knowledge on the world of science fiction and fantasy was limited.

All I knew about Sci-Fi was “Star Wars,” The Force, light sabers and a frozen Han Solo. When it came to fantasy, the only face that popped into my head was Elijah Wood from “Lord of the Rings.” That’s not to say that I was biased, I was just what my friends — who happened to be subject matter experts in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy — called an “ignoramus.”

My mind just couldn’t wrap itself around the mysteriously complex laws that surrounded the universe beyond ours.

Timelords?

141115-F-OG770-366Jedis?

141115-F-OG770-388Cyborgs?

141115-F-OG770-378Sure, I knew plenty about the “Walking Dead ” and I knew plenty about monsters and werewolves.

I knew plenty about monsters and werewolves. I know all three colors of a light saber, wait, there’s a purple one? But I knew close to nothing about the other worlds that existed.

That is, until Nov. 15.

Saturday, I had the privilege of meeting experts of science fiction and fantasy when I walked through the doors of what I thought was the Landscheid Room in our very own Club Eifel.

Oh, how wrong I was. Awestruck and gob-smacked by the intensity of the fictitious science before me, I knew I was going to have an adventure … that was out of this world!

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Okay… my bad.

Camera in hand, mike in my back pocket and my mind swirling, I walked from one corner of the room to the next as I grew anxious with anticipation.

Who were these costumed mercenaries? Why was Darth Vader staring me down from the other side of the room?

141115-F-OG770-182What in the world is Doctor Doom doing here? And who is that girl with the blue skin and is she single?

I had way too many questions. To get them answered, I walked straight over to the event organizer, who was kindly pointed out to me by a very courteous Doctor Who.

Jarrod Garceau, the genius behind Operation Sci-Fi Con 2014, was the man with the plan; a plan that has succeeded for seven years.

Though Jarrod couldn’t tell me anything about Ms. Pretty-in-Blue, he did spill the beans on his reasons for hosting this awesome get-together.

“I actually started this program seven years ago as an Airman,” Garceau said. “When I got out of the Air Force, I continued working with Club Eifel. They took the program, loved it and nurtured my nerdiness.”

Garceau proceeded to explain to me the specific events that he had planned for that day.

There were movie trailers, music, video game stations, and tabletop games – such as “Warhammer 40K.” There was also costume contests, photographs with professional costume club members (whaaaaat?) and medieval gladiator cage fights (whaaaaaaaat?!)

The Singing Sabers, individuals from the Spangdahlem community dedicated to the art of singing, sang “The Misty Mountains,” a song from “The Hobbit,” in a cappella.

The German Garrison of the 501st Legion: (Vader’s Fist), an impressive costume club that sport movie-quality equipment and props, marched through the aisles with an army of storm troopers, pilots and commanding officers.

The best part — they were led by none other than Darth Vader himself.

There was also the Mandalorian Mercs, another group of dedicated fans who also sport movie-grade quality equipment, but more akin to the bounty hunters of the Star Wars universe, such as Jango and Boba Fett. The Twin Suns, a Mandalorian Mercs clan from Belgium, graced us with their presence that day.

I even got to speak to their leader, Sonny Bertels.

“We’re invading America/Germany, and we’re doing a fine job, if I can say so myself,” Bertels said. “We’re going to attract all the cameras and make sure it’s pointed directly at us.”

And they succeeded, because I followed them with my camera for a good while before I was distracted by Doctor Doom and his league from the Luxembourg Convention.

Dedicated costumers made their appearances from the Luxembourg Convention, and there were gladiators who fought in cages with weapons from the Luxembourg Knights.

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We had merchants selling amulets, rings and necklaces. Vendors selling artwork and other crafts also made themselves known with their superb work. There was also a stand that sold other goods… like the sonic screwdriver.

But aside from the amazing attractions and impressive costumes, Sabers got to meet artists, authors and sci-fi geniuses.

I got to meet Austin May, an artist who I knew as the mastermind behind the Air Force Times’ “Air Force Toons,” as well as Keith Houin, an expert of science fiction and creator of Atomic Bazooka Studios.

“Jarrod Garceau and Club Eifel, the way they put this convention is remarkable,” Houin said. “I’ve seen events that are better funded and with bigger facilities, and all they get are 200 people – that’s it, at best. Garceau gets 500 to 600 people walking through the doors.”

Houin revealed to me that he was a former U.S. Air Force master sergeant.

“What’s really great is coming back to the Air Force,” Houin added. “I’m in Belgium right now, working for the Army, but seeing the Airmen out there that I worked with for so long, it’s great.”

What made me stare at him in awe wasn’t just because he created awesome works – such as a book he co-wrote, or his upcoming web comic, and not just because he honorably served his country as a military service member, but because he had a passion – a dream – and he still managed to pursue it and live in it.

141115-F-OG770-284Internal fan-boy moments ensued.

After the convention, I grabbed a couple of fellow attendees and asked them how they felt about the whole event.

“It was really fun; everybody is dressing up and showing off what they can do,” said a spouse of a military service member. “The costumes were awesome, and it was a lot more than I thought it’d be.”

“I liked it, it’s always interesting to come out and see,” said an Airman who worked in the 52nd Maintenance Group. “You can see just how many other nerds there are.”

A new world had been introduced to me, a world I thought I knew, but was told that the world of sci-fi had not stopped just because I stopped watching “Star Wars” when I was 12. The world of sci-fi, much like our world, continues to evolve as long as there are beautiful minds that continue to imagine, dream and wish.

Posted in Spangdahlem, Support | 1 Comment

Fear Factory’s frightening fun for family and friends

I know it’s been three days since All Hallow’s Eve – or as you may call it, “Halloween” – but in my defense, Halloween’s origin dictates that it’s a triduum: a three-day observation of remembering the dead, saints (hallows) and martyrs. Ergo, I should still be in the green – not unlike Christmas lights conveniently left hanging up within “12 days.”

I know you’re probably thinking, “I didn’t honor or remember any saints on Friday,” and that’s totally fine! The great thing about Halloween is that we get to spend time with friends and family with sugary sweets, trick-or-treating, parties and costumes. But the iconic thing about Halloween, the thing we remember it most by, is the horror we uphold on that day. Am I right?

The tradition of Halloween has been with America for a long time, but for Germany, not so much. Though it has been picking up here recently, Halloween remains mainly an American celebration.

So, to share some of our traditions with our German hosts, a horror-themed “Fear Factory” event was hosted at the Bitburg Annex from Oct. 29 to Nov. 1. The event started at 5 p.m. and ran to midnight on each day with the first hour serving as “trick-or-treat” run-through for children and the remainder being the haunted hours for adults and any “willing” children.

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René Krekel, one of the German actors who participated in the haunted house as a “chainsaw man” and a “masked massacre man”, explained to me what was going on that day, Nov. 1 on Saturday.

“I decided to do this because it’s kind of fun,” Krekel said. “With all the horror films from the U.S. becoming popular, many people here wanted to know what’s going on, so they came and had a look. They will be shocked.”

Being a fan of all things horror-related, I was more than a little eager – and, honestly, a little nervous – to see what our installation had planned for our host nation friends.

Sitting in a dark room illuminated by black light, I tried my best to listen to our “tour guide,” who led us through the maze of horrors with a green glow stick so we wouldn’t be lost. I waited patiently and anxiously for the tour guide to get things started.

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Through the maze of horrors, we encountered various monsters and other fearsome sights that included, but were not limited to: werewolves, vampires, zombies, the clinically and satanically insane, ghouls, deformed killers, demented banshees, screaming children (which is actually a lot scarier than you would think), innocent victims getting killed by monsters crying for help and last, but certainly not least, clowns.

That’s right, clowns.

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Fog and strobe lights filled the dark hallways and rooms that left you dazed, blinking and slowly shuffling forward as your heart pounded with anticipation as to what horrors lay ahead, unseen in the dense mist before you.

Banging, screaming, maniacal laughter and calls for help could be heard in the grim distance as my shaking hands kept to the wall, feeling my way forward in the Fear Factory. What lay ahead? What would jump out at me? What would they do to me once they had me clutched in their claws?

Of course, the whole thing was make-believe, but that’s what took me by surprise. As a fan, I consider myself quite critical when it comes to matters of horror. I’ve seen plenty of horror movies – since I was 8, I believe – so I’ve grown accustomed to the sight of blood and monsters. But the haunted house was so well done, I couldn’t help but feel I was part of a monster movie, and that’s what made things exciting.

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Naomi Garbay, another actor of the Fear Factory who played various roles during that night – portraying both monsters and victims – told me how she felt about the haunted house in the dressing room before the haunting started.

“We’re getting ready for our last night of scaring people and having a lot of fun,” Garbay said. “If someone should get too scared, we’ll help them out. Yes, I enjoy scaring people, but it’s really hard nowadays with a lot of horror films out there; they don’t really notice as much. It’s fun, it’s my first time and I’m really glad.”

And fun and scary it was, indeed. Many actors from the local German community and volunteers from the Spangdahlem community put their best efforts together to ensure citizens from Bitburg would truly understand what it meant to have a frightful night.

 It was Matthias Meyer, an event guide, who explained to me what Halloween meant to Germany.

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“The Americans get to enjoy the local events, such as Winefest, but now it’s time for the Americans to give something back to the local community,” he said. “We’re hosting this event for the outside community, sharing the American traditions as well, so that they can better understand what’s going on and build a better friendship between cultures.”

Though I did try to gather the reactions from a few tour groups afterward, my lack of German language skills made it difficult to understand what they felt specifically, but their universal body language was enough for me to understand they had a great time, just like me.

Spooky? Yes.

Fun? Definitely.

Horrifying? Oh, you better believe it.

The Fear Factory was a screaming success, garnering a large gathering far into the terrifying hours of that night. Teens, adults, children and parents all came together not just for a scream, but a chance to see the horrifying thrills Americans enjoy on Oct. 31, every year.

I’m definitely looking forward to attend next year. Maybe, this time, as a monster!

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Hanging shirts for domestic violence awareness

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By Airman 1st Class Kyle Gese
52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs

Airing out the dirty laundry is one thing, but Karen Pilalas’ 4th-grade class helped the 52nd Medical Operations Squadron Family Advocacy hang up shirts to raise awareness for domestic violence.

Brittny Gainey, 52nd MDOS Family Advocacy intervention specialist, spoke to the students about how to stop violence.

October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and in 1990 the Clothes Line Project was created to help raise awareness and prevent violence. It began to spread across the world, turning into an international anti-domestic violence campaign.

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In 2006, the campaign spread to Spangdahlem where children hung painted shirts on a clothes line outside of the post office. This project was tailored to the teen center and school-age children, but on occasion adults would help paint the shirts, too.

Gainey said some adults would get really emotional because they either knew a victim of domestic violence or they were a victim themselves. She also said the project was very therapeutic for them.

Family advocacy now plans to revolutionize the project to reach a wider audience. Gainey said this may be the last year that they hang shirts to raise awareness. The new project will include more people and will be visible around the base, so stay tuned!

Posted in Mission Support, Relationships, Spangdahlem | Leave a comment

Safeguarding your digital footprint

By Tech. Sgt. Steve Grever
Air Force Public Affairs Agency

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Social media is a great resource for Airmen and their families to share information and stay connected to relatives at home and abroad.

Although many depend on these wonderful tools, recent events have encouraged us to re-evaluate our digital footprint to ensure our personal and professional information is protected from online predators and individuals who want to do us harm.

While social media use can be entertaining and informative, it poses potential operations security weaknesses, and Air Force Instruction 1-1, Air Force Standards, provides guidance on appropriate social media use by Airmen.

OPSEC and personal privacy concerns should be paramount when using social media. Military members have recently been threatened on social media by terrorist organizations looking for information they can use to harm military families and disrupt Air Force operations.

The following tips will make it more difficult for unwanted users to acquire your data through social media:

• Be cautious when accepting friend requests and interacting with people online. You should never accept a friend request from someone you do not know, even if they know a friend of yours.

• Don’t share information you don’t want to become public. Remember, once you put something out there, you can’t control where it goes.

• Disable location-based social networking, or geotagging, on all social media platforms. Geotagging is the process of adding geographical identification to photographs, video, websites and text messages.

• Avoid posting work or personal schedules and travel itineraries, especially deployment information and return dates for yourself, a loved one or a unit.

• If you ever hesitate before clicking ‘post’, reconsider the content you are about to share. Our team follows the motto: When in doubt, throw it out!

• Adjust your privacy settings to ensure your posts and profile information is secured and seen only by approved audiences. This last tip applies to any social media platforms you may use, but since Facebook is the most widely used, we want to share this detailed how-to guide on how to secure your profile. Check out this guide for more details.

Practicing good OPSEC and helping family members follow these security measures is essential to protecting personal and mission-critical information on social media. If you ever feel you are being threatened or you notice vulnerable information online, be sure to alert the social media platform’s help center and your local OPSEC manager for assistance.

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Hiking Devil’s Canyon

If you live on or around base, it can be pretty easy to forget Germany is a great, big, beautiful place out there even if you’ve never stepped foot in a major European city. I’m talking about the wilds, baby, and boy are they right on our doorstep.

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I got a firsthand look during my recent “death-defying” Devil’s Canyon hike with Outdoor Recreation. Death-defying levels may vary.

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About a thirty-minute drive and we were at the start of our nearly five-hour trek through the once submerged canyon. Our guide pointed out the local flora and animal tracks, educating our little band on the dangers and surprises of the German wilds.

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We learned to identify poisonous plants, ate others I previously thought were the bane of a hiker’s existence and got a chance to enjoy some awesome local cuisine not picked off the path.

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One thing I would recommend to the would-be hiker is bring good shoes and water. While the Devil’s Canyon itself is a short stretch at the end, the winding path through the surrounding hills is both gorgeous and a little perilous for a klutz like me.

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There are stretches of this hike that can take your breath away with their beauty. There are others that can literally knock the wind out of you if you happen to take a tumble.

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While I’d recommend this hike to someone with a little bit of experience, a novice hiker can also get by with a good pair of shoes and a hardy appetite for adventure.

If you decide you need a day of exploration pretty close to home, this hike may be right up your alley. Outdoor Rec has some great guides who keep the trip entertaining and you may be surprised how much you’ll learn.

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It’s a hike that’s difficult enough to work up a sweat, but not too extreme for a novice either. So if you’re up for a trek on the wild side, why not give the Devil’s canyon a shot? Keep on exploring, my fellow adventurers. I hope to see you out there!

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