Monthly Archives: June 2009

New Faces

We’ve seen some new faces around recently. Some Estonians (they wear the German camoflage pattern in desert colors) and Lithuanians arrived a few weeks ago. Both units include a few women officers. I think I spotted at least one Italian, and the French seem to have acquired some desert-tone camoflage. Fortunately, everyone sports their national flag on the left shoulder, often with the country name as well.

At dinner last night, whilest standing in line at the British dining facility’s Curry Bar, I spotted a half-dozen troops from Jordan, sporting spiffy new fatigues in an entirely new (and very nice looking) desert digital pattern.

Also, there’s a new shop on the Boardwalk – it sells and rents bicycles. Now that all the main streets are paved, we’re seeing more bikes around.

Fathers Day

We don’t bury our fallen here in Afghanistan. There are no wide fields of white markers, row on row in their thousands, as there are in Normandy, or the Phillippines, here.
And since we do not bury our dead here, we do not have funerals here.

But we do mark their passing. The brief ritual is known as a Ramp Ceremony.

Ramps, for those of you who haven’t worked at airfields, are the broad expanses of concrete where airplanes park, or roll out to the taxiway enroute to the runway for takeoff. I suppose it’s a holdover from the days of the PanAm Clippers, when there really was a sloping ramp from the hanger down to the water where the flying boats take off.

At any rate, several thousand of us, formed up by national group (and uniform — all the civilians were squirreled away behind the senior officers) to mark the passing of two US soldiers killed by a roadside bomb this week. We milled around out front for quite a while, until there was a break in the runway traffic, and finally the gate was opened and we were called in.

Each nation formed up in their units. The Canadians were wearing their berets for the occasion. The Australian infantry were wearing their famous bush hats. The American army made a long, long group. The desert boots we wear all have rubber soles, so there was not the “sound of marching” I recalled from officer training, that slap of shoeleather on pavement.

Just these large, silent groups forming up, and moving off to take their positions in the gathering twilight. We formed up on either side of the C-17 cargo plane (from McCord AFB, near us in Tacoma WA). If you can imagine a couple of football fields joined together at the end zones, filled with troops standing shoulder to shoulder, leaving an aisle down the middle, that would be close.

The color guard comes down the aisle, and the chaplain commends the fallen to God’s care with brief words. The pallbearers come down the aisle, carrying their comrades one by one up the loading ramp into the cargo hold.

As the cargo door closes with a whine of hydraulics, the bugler sounds the sweet, sad notes of Taps.

And we send them home. So think of them, and their widows and their sons and their daughters, this Fathers Day.

Shipmates

As I was finishing up my dinner at the American dining facility last night, I noticed a woman sitting at the next table over. She was wearing the fairly new Navy PT shirt (bright yellow with reflective lettering, they’re really hard to miss) and on the table next to her tray there sat … a Kindle!

Here I was, thinking I had the only one in all of Afghanistan.

So I went over to introduce myself. Turns out, she’s a Navy LCDR Medical Corps, runs the oncology clinic at Bethesda, has been here in country four months, and leaves in a few days. She originally had a Kindle1, but when the new one came out, she bought a Kindle2 (same model I have) and her husband now has the 1. She’s been attached to the Army medical facility here, one of the many thousands of Navy personnel used as “Individual Augmentees” to help out the Army manpower shortage. We shared some Navy stories, some Afghanistan stories, and some Kindle stories.

Shipmates indeed!

Before Vienna Recedes Too Far …

… into the rear view mirror, I wanted to share a few final thoughts on that trip.

I must say, the independent trip went much better than I anticipated. The last time I did an extended independent trip, in 1983 through Japan, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore, it was really a lot of hard work. I had a heavy bag with me, I stayed in the downtown Sheratons (except in Japan, where the local AmEx set me up), and relied on the local Gray Line for tours.

This time, I had a light bag (small bag packed so full I couldn’t do any shopping – it was the carryon bag from coming in to Kandahar), I made the hotel arrangements on the Web from Rick Steves’ suggestions, and I made my own “tours” with his information. I also enjoyed the pleasent change from the long monologues by the Grand Circle tour guides: they seem to be more interested in cramming me full of information. I must admit, it does mean one must do one’s study-up homework in advance, but it’s an enjoyable price to pay for gaining some control over one’s own pace. I’d rather just relax and enjoy where it is that I am. 

One favorable feature of the earlier trip that I encountered again is the ease with which locals will strike up a conversation with you, if you’re travelling alone. That happened a number of times, eventhough I did not have time to thoroughly brush up the German due to my Kandahar schedule. So the local facility with English was a great help. And those bits of personal contact were a great plus for the trip.

I used several different guidebooks in preparation: Rick Steves’ Vienna and Tirol, DK Eyewitness Vienna, and the Cultural History of Vienna from Blue Guides. All of them were useful, and had good points. But no guidebook – none, zero, nada – is a substitute for the trip itself! So I look forward to my return visit.

Back in the Saddle

Oh the Austria trip was a nice break, but I’m back in the saddle here in Kandahar. It’s been a busy week here – many of my routine activities were rescheduled from the break, so there was much catching up to do.

Actually, I was able to do something yesterday I haven’t been able to do since I left home: pet a dog. Yes, something that simple! These were working dogs (off-duty) located at one of the compounds I was visiting. German Shepard mixes, I think. Very sweet, and eager to be petted. The Turkish gentleman who was accompanying me was terribly anxious about them, however, and asked for the handler to hold them back so he could pass safely. I guess there really is some distinct cultural anxiety about dogs in this part of the world (remember those Abu Graib photos?); perhaps its due to bad experiences with feral dog packs.

At any rate, it was an educational experience.

Sydney, are you listening?

A Day Without Music is Also Impossible in Wien

I had planned for Friday to be a very active day, but I had little idea how very active it would actually turn out to be. After surveying the outer bits yesterday, this was the day to focus on the inner part of the city, the Old Town. And I was trying to see the things I don’t expect to see when I return in November: churches etc.

So I started with the main cathedral, the StephensDom. Very interesting carvings inside, and you can actually tell where the altar is (unlike Westminster). Next up: the Peterskirche, where I paused long enough to realize they were too far into the daily Mass for me to see much without disturbing the congregation. Later in the day I found the Augustinerkirche (parish church of the Hapsburgs, attached to the winter palace and has one dramatic feature, the tomb of Maria Christina) and the Karlskirche (which I did not get inside, due to the 6 euro entry fee for the 15 minutes I was trying to squeeze it in; so, Steph, it’s on the list for November, I’m afraid).

Lunch at an outdoor cafe (lovely sunny spring day) on the Graben (pedestrian shopping street) for people-watching. Picked up the Lippizaner tickets for later since I was right there anyhow. Gee, I wonder if there’s room in the first afternoon Opera House tour? Yes, there was! Got to know a nice NZ couple while we waited. I was really surprised at the comparisons with Seattle’s McCaw Hall: Vienna has 1000 fewer seats (the audience area struck me as really small – it’s quite shallow along the long axis, they called it “horseshoe-shaped”), with SRO for 500. The stage(s) were huge … you can almost fit the Prater ferris wheel on the main stage, it’s so tall. And I think 50 meters deep … the four stage platforms slide around and can be interchanged: main stage, back stage, (under?) stage 30 feet down, and a lateral stage. Over 300 performances a year, and no two operas are repeated on consecutive evenings. They were busily setting up for Lucia that night … over 300 workers on stage.

After the operahouse tour, I went over to pick up my Boys Choir tickets. This performance was at the Brahms Hall at the Musik Verein (I think the Philharmonic performs in the main hall here). This hall seated perhaps 300, under a glittering gilded Baroque ceiling. I was anticipating something with just the boys, light and frothy. And so indeed the first half of the concert was (about 16 boys). Then, after the interval, was added about 16-piece chamber orchestra and a dozen adult male vocalists. They performed the entire Verdi Gloria (all 12 movements) and several portions of one of the Haydn masses. Splendid stuff!

I just had time after the concert to grab yet another Wurtzelstand on my way to the Lippizaners. They started with the youngest horses, doing basic steps. Then they brought out the pros … goodness there’s a huge difference in the musculature (several hundred pounds worth!). Very nice show, I really enjoyed it.

As it happens, on my way back afterwards, my timing it extraordinarly good. This is the one night of the year … the “Long Night of the Churches” (and you can paste that address line into translate.google.com)… every Christian church in town, in fact most in the whole country, participate. So, in Vienna, over 130 churches: music until midnight. It’s a little like “First Night Goes to Church” except there’s no entry fee. I had been seeing the banners on almost every church I passed, all week long. In Vienna, where this started, it’s been an annual event for five years running, with crowds over 120,000. So I got back to the Peterskirche, and found a seat, and let all that carved and gilded Rococco splendor just sink in. And back to the StephansDom too. And I would have also made it to Saint Ruperts, but I just gave out of gas at that point. What a night! What a day!

Streetcar Named Huh?

The clever Viennese never ripped out their streetcars and what’s more they have 24-hour passes that cover all forms of urban transport for 5 €. Tram 1 includes half the Ringstrasse on its route. Tram 2 includes the other half. One must change trams. If one is glancing at one’s guidebook at an inopportune moment, however, one gets to ride to the end of the line, thereby seeing how the rest of the city looks. I have this down to a fine art by now, having practiced this little manuever twice (both trams!).

As it turns out, I didn’t need these high falutin’ new transit skills to make my way out to Schönbrunn Palace in the afternoon (summer palace on the outskirts of town). Folks, Versailles is full of replicas and replacements. The Hapsburgs never suffered a revolution — they just went away quietly, leavig everything behind. And it’s all still there. So this palace is full of the real McCoy stuff. Amazing.

I came out here because the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra is doing their annual free summer concert on the palace grounds. Last year 80,000 attended; this year 100,000 are expected. I was early enough to snag a park bench, and spent the evening making friends with the young local couple sharing the bench with me. Yes, they really do waltz in the aisles. It was great fun!

To support this big crowd, there were a number of diesel-powered portable generators, and rows of porta-potties.  Just. Like. Kandahar… ugh!