Friday, July 29, 2011

What do I even do all day?

Good question! Every day, I usually wake up between 7:30 and 8 in my tiny little room at the weber hotel here in Mannheim. I'll postpone getting out of bed as long as possible and then go down to breakfast (which is automatically getting paid for so I feel obligated to eat it.).
Don't be fooled, it's smaller than it looks.
Many different cheeses.
At 8:30 Ladell Heath (the deployment coordinator for CTC) picks up everyone to go to work at Coleman barracks a couple miles away.
Thanks for schlepping us around, Ladell
Work, sweet work...
In case you forget whose fire escape this is.
We spend the morning training in the training room and then go to the DFAC (Dining facility) for lunch which costs $4.25. This includes everything - basically like in a college dining hall.
See our rag-tag bunch of trainees in the training room.
Devin, deciding to get the ice cream for dessert.
So something the DFAC has that I find fascinating is the POW/MIA table. It's constantly set for one on a raised platform and everything on the table is meant to be symbolic of something involved with the experience of being a POW/MIA (Prisoner of war/missing in action). For instance, the slice of lemon on the plate represents the bitterness of their experience, and the salt on the table represents the tears of their loved ones... it's really powerful and a constant reminder that while we are in a peaceful place here in Germany, it's still very much a part of the military.
The caption below the silhouette of the POW says "you are not forgotten"
Some time between 4 and 5pm we leave. I've started going to the gym on base when I can and then walking the little over a mile back to the weber hotel. Home sweet home! In the evenings I spend time in the lobby where we get internet (no internet in the rooms), and find someone also with ctc to go to dinner with. There are a bunch of places that are the standard places to go for us around here. There are Italian, Turkish, and German places all nearby.

And that's basically what I do every day. All of this I wrote while Shakira lounge musak is playing over the hotel lobby speakers.
The hotel lobby.
The Hotel Lobby Soundtrack:

This weekend I think the plan is to take another day trip like we did last weekend.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Hiking in Heidelberg

For Saturday, I and four other trainees from CTC decided to go visit Heidelberg. We met in the morning, took the tram to the Mannheim train station, 15 or so minutes on the train to get to Heidelberg! Can you believe it? Figured out how to take public transportation to the old town. Did that.

Now our goal was to visit the famous Heidelberger Schloss (schloss means castle). The problem was that it was a bit of a hike halfway up a mountain to get to it. 
View of the castle from the old town.
So we hiked it.
The steep hill to get to the top.
We got up there and saw a pretty awesome castle. It was half destroyed in 1620 and several times since then so it's got this cool half-ruins sort of feel to it. The weather was nice, everything was going pretty good. There was a little museum and a great view of the entire city.

After coming back down from the mountain we strolled around the old town for a while and window shopped at all of the little tourist-y vendors around a big church. We found a restaurant and had a late German lunch on the river that goes through Heidelberg,  which is a tributary to the Rhein (which flows through Mannheim, have I mentioned that?).

Since I was going to spend this weekend in Brussels, but then those plans fell through I was able to meet up with my airplane friend, Emily (who was going to be in Heidelberg the whole week). As we check out the pedestrian bridge near our restaurant, I see a large group of student-aged people coming along and then she was right there with that group! So we met up earlier than our original plan. She had said that I should explore the hauprtstrasse and that we would meet up and go on the philosopherweg. I had no idea what any of this meant so I just went to the castle and checked out the bridge.

Emily is a part of this program called RISE. I'm sure it stands for something, but I am sick of Acronyms, so what it is is this program that offers internships to students all over the world studying sciences in the effort to try to get them to move to Germany for to get their Post-Secondary degrees. They were all fun people she was with. Problem was, they all wanted to go up to the castle! I didn't mind going up again, after all, it wasn't that hard. Then I found out what Philosopherweg was. It's a promenade along the opposite bank of the river's mountain called "holy mountain". It has paths all over it that lead to the top. And we were going to hike it...
View from the castle of the bridge where we ran into each other with the holy mountain presiding over the picture. See that little break in the treeline at the top there? That's where we're headed.
The half-liter beer that I had ordered at lunch was already disagreeing with me a bit, but I suppose that was just too darn bad. It wasn't so terribly hard a hike, and I enjoyed it a lot, but it was still a sweaty and tiring mess. At the top there is this ancient guard's tower with some great views of Heidelberg along the way. Then between the two summits of the holy mountain there is a WWII era amphitheater used by the Nazis. It was all an overgrown mess... take a look:
Seig How! ...are we all going to get down from this amphitheater in the mountains!?
Then at the second summit of the holy mountain we saw some ruins of an ancient monastery (probably has something to do with why the mountain is called holy). Between the amphitheater and the guard's tower there is this little mountain-top restaurant/beer gaarten. The group ate there. I had kaesespaetzle (cheese noodles - varying shaped noodles with cheese and onions - it was great!) at Emily's insistent suggestion.

Waldschenke apparently means "gift of the forest" This was supposed to be a candid, but Alex caught on.
We hiked down the mountain (by this time it's getting dark) and made it down to the river. At the bridge we all split up. Took the train to Mannheim myself and got back around midnight.
Emily Hart, Heidelberg's biggest fan. Josh Kramer's legs' worst fan!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Mannheim Jewish Community

Since I was free, I decided to visit the Mannheim Synagogue. I was expecting the experience to mirror my other experiences with Synagogues in Europe. A small, aging congregation of Russians who had moved once the USSR broke up, or the few remnants of pre-WWII communities. I was pleasantly surprised when I found a new building (the website says it was built in 1987, not that I don't trust it, it's just all in German and thought I'd make that distinction), with about 100 worshipers with the average age far below 50! 
The Building
It appears as though I came on a special night. I arrived towards the end of Mincha and was struck by the number of people there were and especially by the number of people under the age of 20 and then also the number of people under the age of 6 all running/crawling around under the seats of parents/grandparents.
It was separate seating for women in the balcony and on the sides, but no mechitzah!
I don't have any fancy clothes here at all, so it felt like I was getting some glares, but that could have just been in my head as many other men my age were dressed in jeans/tshirts with writing on them while I was wearing khakis and a polo.

Before Kabalat Shabbat a girl approached the bima, sang a bit of the shema, and gave a speech. My German isn't so good, but it's not so bad either and I gathered that it was her Bat Mitzvah and that she loved her sister. parents, and grandparents - basically the same as every bat mitzvah speech. She said the final prayer about approaching the ark in the hopes of living a life of mitzvot and such in Hebrew, German, and then Russian. It was very nice.

If that wasn't enough, what I assume was all of the religious school of the synagogue came forward and led Kabalat Shabat with the cantor. That was also very nice. Then the Rabbi came forward and gave a sermon that I could neither hear nor understand, except when he said that hannah's - the bat mitzvah girl's - name was an acronym (like I didn't hear enough of them already!) khet for the challah on shabbat. Nun for the nerot of shabbat. And hay for hashem.

The announcements at the end of the services were made by a woman in German., but then in Hebrew when she addressed the two groups of Israeli students that they were also hosting. So between the Bat mitzvah, the Hebrew school presentation, and the student groups, it may not have been the standard shabbat in Mannheim.

There was a dinner laid out, but I was too afraid that it was only meant for the student groups and the bat mitzvah party, and also that I wouldn't be able to communicate with anyone at the dinner, that I just left. If I make it back and there's a dinner I'll stay next time. Until then, it was a surprisingly sweet experience and not bitter-sweet like the other European Synagogues I've visited.
This is what the dinner set-up looked like... maybe next time!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Military Mindset

Right, so now I'm back in Mannheim. Back to the good ol' Weber hotel (pronounced veber). Today I had my first actual day of training and I understood hardly a word of it. Likely because I didn't go through the regular orientation like everyone else did. I'm supposed to do that another day. 

Let me fill you in on some of the cool things we did at Grafenwoehr, where I got my TSIRT (Theater Specific Individual Readiness Training) Certification so I can go downrange. Most of the training was highly boring. A lot of first aid and IED (Improvised Explosive Device) training that hardly applies to anyone like me who is not allowed to leave the FOB (Forward Operating Base). By the way, did you know there are a lot of ACRONYMs in the army? Yeah, Abbreviated Coded Rendition Of Name Yielding Meanings are extremely common here!
We also got a history of the goings on of the conflicts in Afghanistan and the reasons for the way the military is doing things the way they're currently doing them. That was pretty informative and reassuring, just to know that they have a better idea of how to fight the insurgency now than they did before.

That night we stayed at the nicer hotel in the base at Grafenwoehr, and I saw a commercial that really struck me. Imagine a gruff looking cowboy moseying up to a saloon and drawing his six-shooter. He then proceeds to shoot off of the hitching post, a line of energy drinks. Finally large words flash across the screen - "Drop the Energy Drink! Reach for a Water!" with military logos all across the bottom of the screen. Apparently energy drinks are so popular (and unhealthy) that they produce commercials for not drinking them geared for the soldiers. What a concept!

The last thing we did was the MRAP rollover test. The MRAP family of vehicles has replaced the humvee as the primary vehicle used in Afghanistan and everyone going "downrange" has to do this test. Here's a video of the MRAP rollover training.
Here's me with all the gear on, ready to roll-over.

Tonight we went to this little Italian restaurant (owned and run by Italians) around the corner. They didn't seem to be busy and were happy to have us as customers, but they forgot my Tagliatelle Salmone so it came late and they felt bad so we got free house-made limoncello (lemon liqueur). Then we went further around the corner and had gelato. Italian night in Mannheim. 


Monday, July 18, 2011

Surprise! Army Training!

OK. Up to speed: I flew from Cleveland to New York on Friday (after having seen Harry Potter the previous night at midnight) and had a long layover waiting for my Singapore Airlines flight to Frankfurt. Quick shout-out to Emily Hart who is currently the very best complete stranger I've ever met before/during a flight or otherwise. We became friends. Singapore Airlines is famed for their service and it didn't disappoint. They had a great selection of movies and gave us this little tube of toothpaste that was picture-worthy.
Told you it was picture worthy.
Got to the meeting point, made arrangements to meet with Emily and her Chemistry studying friends to meet in Heidelberg for trivia Monday night which sounded awesome because I love trivia night! Took the shuttle to Mannheim where I checked into the hotel. 

Now up until this point I was nervous about arriving on Saturday and planning on starting my training on Monday because I didn't think I would know anyone or meet anyone. Ladell Heath (the deployment coordinator) told me the others would be around the hotel looking out for me but that's no guarantee. Anyway, they were in the lobby and two of them were just then going for a walk to see some of Mannheim. I was given a chance to ask them some of my questions about what their lives in training have been like and stuff like that. We made tentative plans to see HP7.5 the next day because I'll see it again, what they hell, right? 

The hotel isn't much. It's like a small dorm room although I hear that other rooms are nicer than mine is. After a little bit of sightseeing I get back to the hotel and fall asleep really early, probably doing more harm than good to my sleep-schedule. The next morning I check out the breakfast included with the hotel and it's pretty nice and European. Lots of sliced meats and cheeses. The milk was considerably cold which was a concern because in Europe they don't have cold things as much as I'd like. I run into some more people working for CTC and we make plans to meet in the lobby around noon to go to see the special Harry Potter showing in English.

Now for the surprise. We're all meeting in the lobby, right? Two large groups. One of the groups is heading out to Harry Potter, the other group is all packed up and ready to go to IRT training which is this mandatory training for anyone going "downrange". It's in this base across Germany and you dress up in protective gear and do a hike and a Humvee flip-test which is where they flip over a humvee while you're in it (but not while it's on the road it's attached to this big machine). They are all ready to go to IRT and we are all about to leave for HP. Enter Ladell Heath who I had not met up with until this point. He asks if everyone is ready to go to IRT and they say yes. He reads off a list of names and then says "...and Josh". Me: "What?" Ladell: "Yeah, you're going too." In 25 minutes I was back in the lobby checked out of my room, all packed up again and ready to go to Grafenwoehr, where there is a large US military post. 

After a few hours of driving (half of which time I'm still reeling from being squeezed into the training last minute) we arrived yesterday evening to the post and checked into this little hotel they have in the base. It's much much nicer than the one in Mannheim, I guess they know what Americans expect in a hotel and try to cater to that here. This morning we registered for the training and today and tomorrow we take a bunch of classes and do the physical portion of the training. I still haven't even gone into the CTC office!

Sorry I can't make it to trivia, Emily!

Friday, July 15, 2011


Quick background: About a month ago (after being unemployed for a couple of months), I responded to a job posting online that said they needed staff to work for Central Texas College. The location of the job was listed as Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait (I later found out that the other possible locations could've included Kosovo, Qatar, and Bahrain). I figured, "ehhh, I like to travel..." and applied. Later that week I was having a phone interview with a man in Germany named Abraham who told me that this wasn't a guarantee but that he "felt very confident that I would be offered a job".

So now, tomorrow, I'm leaving for my big adventure. I'm spending about three weeks in Mannheim, Germany training for the job and for the daily operation of living on a base and then August 3rd I'm slated to deploy to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. It's a base of 30,000 NATO forces and civilian support personnel. That's where I'll be spending the following six months.

So what's the job? I'll be an Army Learning Center Operator (ALCO). As an ALCO, I am there to support troops wishing to take classes while they are serving in the military. I'll be part librarian, part computer lab proctor, and part academic adviser. I'll be working about 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I'm excited and a little nervous. I hope to keep people updated on the general goings on during this experience through this blog. Whenever I update it, I will post to facebook so look out for it there.

I'm pretty excited! I realize this is crazy, isolating, and generally unheard of within the circles of practically everyone I know, but I'm doing it. It's only for six months. I feel like I could do anything for six months.

Adventure is out there!