Monday, December 14, 2009

Starting Anew - Deutsch to Dutch

It's been over three weeks since we've packed up the car and drove the 2.5 hours from Wiesbaden to our new base in Geilenkirchen. Only three weeks and 2.5 hours, but yet it feels continents away from our previous life. I thought that moving from a base in Germany to another base in Germany would be a much simpler transition especially with the added bonus of having both cars with us and a ton of stuff we could carry along. What I wasn't counting on was the night and day difference of a NATO base and the rural countryside. The closest cities are both 35-40 minutes away, and other than two large towns, most of the communities are small farm villages.

We have been staying in a guest house in Gangelt, a charming historically medieval village about 10 minutes from the base and 400 meters from the Dutch border. The town is surrounded by wonderful trails and farmland and we've enjoyed running in the forests each morning just across the border. We especially look forward to passing one very interesting farmhouse along our route. Of course there are the usual animals; horses, cows, sheep and dogs, but in the front yard, there are also swans, geese, gunea pigs and wallabies. Yes, that's right, the small kangaroos. Now, on a Texas ranch, I would expect this wacky combination of animals, but in the Netherlands? Where it's cold? The other day we ran past and they had new residents - camels.

It is extremely quiet around here and unless there is an event, such as a Christmas market or soemthing else taking place, the villages pretty much shut down at 7:00 p.m., save for the two token restaurants. Gangelt is an exception, becuase they have five restaurants. The guest house we are staying in is great and the family that owns it lives on the second floor. They are very hospitable and have had us over a couple times already. Needless to say, it is quite a different experience from our urban Wiesbaden where everything was right there, a mere four flights of stairs beneath us.
The house-hunting has been extremely frustrating and as we've already lived in Germany for three years, we hoped to find a home in the Netherlands in order to have a new experience (even if it is just minutes from Germany). What we didn't realize is that the homes in the Netherlands are generally more expensive and smaller. After two weeks of intense emotional roller coasters getting excited about a house and then realizing it wasn't for rent, etc., we found it. The perfect place. It's located in the Dutch town of Sittard, about 20 minutes from base. The town has a plethora of restaurants, bars, a pedestrian area with shopping and a beautiful market square. Although it's not nearly as big as Wiesbaden, it's also not a farm village. From the first moment we walked around Sittard, I knew I wanted it to be home. We found a superb house at a great deal that is far larger than what we need, but will be perfect for visitors. The catch is, we can't move in until January 4th. This means that we must spend the next two weeks chillin' at the guest house before we head home for the holidays.

With so much time on our hands and not much to do, we've explored the area in it's entiretly including all three nearby bases, and every city, town and village in a 30-minute radius. And as it's the Christmas season, we've enjoyed visiting every Christmas market nearby as well. Although the Kristkindlmarkt is mostly a Germany tradition, the towns close to the German border in the Netherlands and Belgium also have similar markets. The first one we visited in this area was in the Dutch town of Valkenburg. It is a charming town with a beautiful castle (now in ruins) that sits atop a hill towering over the city. We attended the opening of their Kerstmarkt, complete with a parade, dancing elves, angels, Father Christmas and fireworks.

The most unique aspect of this city's market is that it's in a cave. The tunnels in this cave once served as a back entrance to the caste or an escape route. Today, it is open to visitors and during Christmas time, they have a market in the tunnels. All the vendors line up along the sides of the tunnel selling their products, with Christmas music playing through the loudspeakers.
They even have a restaurant halfway through and places to get gluwein (hot red wine). It was an incredible experience!
Our favorite nearby city is Maastricht. I had been there twice before, both times visiting Baylor professors that teach there for our Baylor program. As it is only 20 minutes from Sittard, we are looking forward to visiting this Dutch city much more often. The pedestrian area is enormous with beautiful cafes, wonderful shopping and an amazing history. I'm not sure why it's not in more guidebooks, as it has so much to offer! We returned again last week to see the Winter Festival in the main square. Much like a Christmas market, they do have vendors selling things, however not as many as the German markets. It is more like a Christmas carnival with several rides, an ice-skating rink, and festively decorated outdoor huts to grab a snack or drink in.

The next day, we went to the famous Aachen Christmas market, known for being one of the largest markets in Germany. It was extremely crowded, but I could see why it is such a popular market. This being the first time to this historic city, I was in awe of the beautiful churches, squares and old part of town.
The garland and wreaths hanging across the cobbled streets were so picturesque, and although I didn't get to shop too much due to the crowds, the number of vendors was quite impressive.
This past weekend, we attended the Bastogne historic walk in Belgium (blog entry of event to follow). On our way back to Germany, we stopped at the Christmas market in Liege in order to round out our tri-country Christmas market tour. Although we saw a repeat of items sold at all the markets, it was interesting to discover the subtle differences. Liege had their market divided in two main areas - each in a historic square. This was my first time exploring the city and I was surprised at how large it is. We look forward to returning during the day time and visiting the sites.

Although we never imagined we would still be in a guest house three weeks after arriving here, we have only one more week before we board a plane headed for home. We are gradually adjusting to life here and I think it will come more naturally once we are moved into our house. We already have found a church, are re-connecting with acquaintences Jon knew at previous bases, and are learning about things we want to be involved with. Although I may only be a mere 2.5 hours from my previous home and life, this is indeed a different world. Although this realization makes me somewhat wary, it is also exciting, as it will no doubt be a completely unique experience, and not simply a continuation of the past three years.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Athens Classic Marathon

Jon's Story: "Welcome to Athens Classic Marathon, please be happy..." the organizers sought to reassure the drenched masses of runners that with a positive outlook the torrents would pass. Cat was in the group immediuatley following my own so we were abe to stretch together a little. Right before the hot race action it struck me that we were about to do a marathon in Marathon. I mean if they run it, do they just say, "later dude, I'm going to run an us."? A minute prior to the gun I went back up to my superior classmates (comprised of folks who entered a legitimate or exaggerated time of their last marathon on the registration and a bunch of jerks who cut in line). A pledge of sorts was read off and everyone saluted with the fist of power raised to Greek words, you then got a full snoot of international B.O.. The Gun at last!

When you run in the rain, the immediate benefit is a nice cooling effect on your skin. If we had been purists to the Greek Olympic tradition and ran in our birthday suits, we would have been very cool indeed. However, modern man with our poly-fibers and running shoes only reap a feeling of 10 lb shoes and soaked clothes. Adjusting to a heavier stride forced a more conservative pace, which is a great tactic for such a long distance. Running on, we came across several dudes dressed up as Phideppides (the original marathon runner) complete with shield, spear and tunic. One of those, " just when you think you have it bad," moments you see that guy and life ain't so bad in booty shorts.

The course is almost a straight shot from Marathon to downtown Athens albeit uphill for 90% of the time. Along the route you are in small city streets without a lot to look at, but you can see the next thundering hill ahead. Support was excellent with water and poweraide at every 2-3 km. At one point a dude pulled a 90 degree turn and began leaking on the side of the course with no coverage. Across the street three police in unision turned their backs and started laughing.

Occasionally, you glimpsed a dog of Athens, joining in the fun and running along racers for a few or until a dog butt needed to be urgently sniffed.

Rain brought an added layer of friction, Cat had some major Achellies Heel blisters flare up and drain gnarly bloody streaks down the back of her shoes! For my part a little toe blistered up and then, crushed by the rest of my foot in a footfall, popped like a grape all over the toebox of my left shoe, so that I had a crimson gush on the previously white sneaker. The rain pissed out at halfway and within came the sun = boiling! But the wind was still present and while Cat and I got to work on the tan some more it was cool enough to keep pace. At this same distance, I lost the km to miles conversion and just looked forward to plinking down the clicks consistently until the 32 km which I knew was only a 10 k left. Upon reaching that point, I plastered a goofy grin across my mug and created a whole situation in my head that I was only out to run a 10k today. Another mile into the race, we got a break and some downhill-OUTSTANDING! Except the legs didn't move any faster-like they had been set into climbing for so long that topography or even gravity was out the window.

The last 800m of the course takes you through embassy row and it was cool to see the Greek guard festooned with ceremonial garm standing guard outside some office. Now, the last 200m everyone extols about how amazing it is to finish in the Olympic Stadium, and I was ecstatic! The shining white marble opened up and you could see the finish ahead, so close...Then a dude, after 26.2mi, challenges me. At that point all I could hear was the blood in my ears and tunnel vision for the finish as I kicked it in for the final 200m, destroying the competition in a blast of unsaved aderenaline through the line.

Cat's Story: Rain, and hills and unremarkable scenery along the course aside, the last 200m of the race made it all worthwhile. As I entered the Olympic Stadium, a wave of emotion overcame me as I thought of all the athletes who have finished extraordinary races in this historic place. Although I am no special athlete, I felt honored to be running alongside so many other ordinary runners who are inspired to take up the challenge of running a marathon. As I've said countless times before, anyone can run a marathon, but not just anyone will. It takes not only endurance of the lungs or legs, but an edurance of the will to train and finish the race despite aching joints and exhaustion that you must simply run through. As I was nearing the finish, the Black Eyed Peas song, "Tonight's Gonna be a Good Night" was blasting over the loudspeaker and I couldn't help but sprint toward the finish thinking yes, it definitely will be, because I just fulfilled a long-time dream of running the marathon of marathons! Surprsingly, I finished in a time of 3:48 only two minutes off my personal best. Jon finished in 3:04.

After basking in the sunlight of the marble bleachers in the stadium and watching other runners finish, we hobbled back to the hotel to recuperate before a celebratory Greek dinner. It was a pretty sad sight to see us walk and get up and down from our chairs, and it took us no time to spot others who had run the race as they were in old-timer mode as well.

After dinner, we went to a nearby spirits bar for drinks. When the clock struck midnight, it was time for another celebration... Jon's 30th birthday! He ran his ninth marathon on the last day of his 29th year in 2009, and I have a feeling there will be many more in this decade as well.

Although the marathon was our main purpose for visiting Athens, we did a lot of sight-seeing during our long weekend there. Our hotel was located close to all the sights and had amazing views from the rooftop terrace. On one side you could see the Acropolis and the other the Temple of Olympian Zeus (pictured). The views were especially breath-taking at night with the ruins all lit up.

The first day, we acquainted ourselves with a walk around the Plaka, or old town, at the base of the Acropolis. We walked a narrow, rocky path to the village of Antifiotica just below the Acropolis, whose white-washed architecture mimics that of the villages in the Greek islands.

Many Athenians have "holiday" apartments here when they want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city below. We continued our walk around the Acropolis to the Roman and ancient agora.

The agora was absolutely beautiful and was like a pristine park, yet had ancient columns and aqueducts every where you turn.
The agora was the heart of ancient Athens, the focus of political, commercial, administrative and social activity, the religious and cultural center and the seat of justice. The site was occupied without interruption in all periods of the city's history.

The beautiful Temple of Hephaistos.

From the agora, we began our ascent to the Acropolis, passing the famous Mars Hill, where Apostle Paul preached to the Romans about the identity of the "Unknown God." Making our way up to the Parthenon, we saw the beautiful Theatre of Dionysus, which is still used during festivals today.

Continuing our climb higher through the ruins of the Propylaea (which used to be a massive gate and entrance) we reached the top where the Parthenon stood in all its ancient glory. Although it will probably always be partly covered by scaffolding, it is still an awe-inspiring site to marvel at the architecture and symmetry of the building, which was completed in 432 BC.

The backside of the Parthenon.
The Erechtheum temple across from the Parthenon.

After a first full day of enjoying the sites that are still a part of the city of Athens, we spent the following day in the National Archaelogical Museum admiring the many ancient sculptures and pre-historic items from all over Greece. This statue was particularly interesting as it shows a woman with her sandal in her hand trying to "shoe away" the advances of a mythical male creature. Some things never change.

We spent our final day in Athens exploring the parks and boardwalk along the sea. It was a beautiful sunshine day and we knew we better enjoy it before returning to overcast Germany. What a holiday! Delicious Greek food, fabulous warm weather, the completion of THE marathon, a birthday celebration, and a long-time dream realized. Pheidippides' words when he reached Athens to share the news of the victory at Marathon never seemed more fitting - "Nenikekamen" - We were victorious!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Final Days....

It's hard to believe that in the next month, Jon and I will be moving from this apartment, our squadron, Wiesbaden, and possibly Germany (though we won't be far from it). The fall season is absolutely flying by and we've been keeping busy with all kinds of activities.
As usual, the autumn is when most of the college fairs take place and my busiest time for work. This year I've had to scale back on fairs as we have the move to focus on. In October, I traveled to Berlin, Brussels, the Black Forest, and Kaiserslautern for various events. Jon accompanied me to the military fair and did an amazing job as usual talking to students. He does get a bit competitive though, and likes to see who can get more cards filled out by students. He won - but only because who can say no to those blue eyes?!
In mid-October, we spent a few days visiting the area we'll be moving to near Geilenkirchen, Germany. We were able to tour the NATO base, visit many nearby German villages, as well as see some towns on the Netherlands side of the border. Although the scenery is beautiful there, we are not quite sure we're ready to live in a farm village, and have to decide whether a farther commute to live in a city may be worth it. One thing's for sure, this will be a completely different experience than Wiesbaden. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, but is making me realize how much I need to appreciate and savor our last few weeks here.
On October 18th, we took part in a squadron event in the Rheingau wine region to do some grape-picking. Several American groups do this each year and basically, a farmer has you pick his grapes off his vines for about four hours and afterwards provides a dinner and opportunity to buy some wine.
Although it was actually pretty tedious work, we had so much fun enjoying the beautiful weather with our friends and it wasn't all work. We did take lots of breaks for wine drinking and to appreciate the fruits of our labor.
Molly and me holding the extremely heavy buckets of grapes.
Last weekend, we had a farewell party for four families that are leaving the squadron over the next few weeks (including us). The evening took place at the beautiful Kloster Eberbach, which is a former Cistercian monastery and was founded in 1136. There are several vineyards around the monastery and today it is a major area of wine production.
The evening started with a tour where we learned about the start of the monastery, visited the abbey, dormitory and wine press room. We ended the tour in the Cabinetkeller, or cellar of Cabinet wines, and enjoyed tasting three different kinds.
The evening concluded with a delicious dinner in the restaurant. It was so much fun to be surrounded by the many wonderful friends that we've made over the past three years in the squadron. However, it was a very bittersweet feeling, not knowing when or if we would see many of the people again. I guess that is part of the military life and the key is to always cherish the memories and friendships made with no regrets. We plan to do just that over the next few weeks and live every moment in Wiesbaden to its utmost!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oktoberfest: Partying with the Polkas!

The week of September 18-25 was a momentous occasion as one of my best friends from high school, Allison, and her husband, JW came to visit us in Germany. This was the first time one of my friends (non-family) from the States has come to visit and I had been looking forward to the Polkas' arrival since they'd planned the trip nine months ago.

We began the celebration with a bang by meeting up in Munich for the kick-off weekend of Oktoberfest. I had told Allison that I would be wearing my dirndl (or traditional Bavarian beer maid outfit) and had requested that she get one as well. However, she didn't sound too enthused so I was totally surprised to see not only her decked out, but also JW wearing lederhosen! It was so completely awesome, and our only regret was that Jon was the only one not wearing the gear.

Upon arriving in Munich and meeting up at their hotel, we immediately headed to the fairgrounds to see about getting into a tent with no reservations. Although you may be asking... reservations at Oktoberfest? Yes, it is imperative to have reservations, as most of the tents book up months in advance. Therefore, those without are left begging by the side door for entrance. We thought we'd simply experience the fairgrounds, hang out and then we'd probably have enough. We didn't necessarily need to have the tent experience. What we didn't know is that it's impossible to find beer anywhere on the fairgrounds. Beer is only sold inside the tent or in the tent beer gardens.

After perusing some gardens with no luck, Allison finally suggested we wait by the door swarming with people trying to get their grubby hands wrapped around a beer inside. I thought to myself, this is absolutely crazy and there is no way we're going to get in when there are 20 people in front of us. This is not 6th Street and people are a little more strict here! Nonetheless we waited and held up our hands with the number of people in our party, and low and behold, 10 minutes later we were called to the front. Of course, all the people in front of us were not happy about it, but oh well. They weren't wearing cute little beer maid outfits like we were.

Once inside, Suck-toberfest turned into Rock-toberfest! We immediately ordered beers, joined in on the sing-along with the oompah band to traditional folk music as well as contemporary music. Although we were seated at (rather standing on) a table with a group of pre-teens, we quickly realized that we were all here to have a good time and take part in one of the biggest parties in the world.

It turned out to be a complete blast and after about four hours in our 6,000 person tent, we decided to head back out to the fairgrounds in order to enjoy the rides. But first, we stopped off for some delicious bratwursts. Although I was very wary of the entire Oktoberfest venture, it definitely worked out in our favor, and although I may never choose to return and take part in the madness again, I couldn't' have asked for a better experience with more fun people to experience it with.

The next day, we did some more sight-seeing of Munich, toured the Residenz palace and then headed to Rothenburg where we would spend the night. This was my umpteenth time to visit this medieval city, but I can't resist an opportunity to show visitors its charm and beauty.

We had a great time during our overnight stay hitting up the town wall, the Nightwatchman's tour, Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum and of course, plenty of shopping!

The following day, we drove to Wiesbaden where our guests could enjoy being in one place. We spent a couple days showing them around our lovely town, eating at our favorite restaurants and introducing them to our favorite beer.... kolsch!

We did take a couple day trips to some of the many attractions nearby. The first daytrip we took was to Koln, or Cologne, where we toured the massive cathedral. Afterward, we drove to the Mosel River and our favorite castle in Germany, Burg Eltz.

We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful day to tour this castle in such a fairytale setting. As Jon and I had done the castle tour twice before, we decided to sit it out and walk around the many trails that surround the castle.

Our next day trip was to Burg Reichenstein along the Rhine River. This was actually a castle I had not been to, which was why it was such an appealing option. I wasn't expecting anything fantastic, but boy was I in for a surprise. It was a gorgeous castle with a commanding view of the Rhine and several watchtowers you could climb up to. The castle itself is tourable on your own, so we got to take our time enjoying every room and section of the castle. Although the rooms may not have been as authentic as Burg Eltz, it was still wonderful to see the beautiful architecture, gardens and chapel of the castle.
Afterward, we drove to the wine village, Bacharach, where we had lunch and a wine-tasting.

A view of Bacharach and the Rhine below.

On our final night together, we decided to celebrate in style with a dinner at La Bodega, our favorite Spanish restaurant. After enjoying delicious tapas, Rioja wine and live Spanish guitar, we headed to the Kurhaus and Casino.

Although it was a slow night at the casino, it was fun to experience the sophisticated beauty of the building and enjoy a cocktail. It was the perfect finale to a perfect trip. Although the four of us hadn't had the chance to spend too much time together before this trip, we ended up having the most amazing time and I can't wait for many more opportunities to enjoy each other's company in the future. It's always a gift when you the husbands of two friends can mesh so well together.
Thank you so much, Polkas, for coming to visit and being such wonderful travel partners. We hope you'll come again!