Change Your Liking

Today I got an email from the uncle my cousins and I have called Uncle Doughnut since I was young. I can’t say he’s my favorite uncle mostly because I don’t have favorite uncles or aunts, but he was always the cool uncle. Still is. He is still a bachelor, buys top of the line toys (like cameras, electronics, appliances, etc.), always got us great Christmas gifts whether as individuals or as a group, and on Saturday mornings he brought Krispy Kreme doughnuts. For lunch he brought Desportes’s french bread because when we hung out at Mama and Daddy Byrd’s we usually had some meal that went well with bread. My memory is fuzzy on when, but at some point in the 70s he went to the Canary Islands to live for a while. This was a few years before Aunt Maggie and Uncle Scotty took off sailing on the Robin for 30 years but I fondly recall each week when we found out there was a new post card with a picture of where he or they were or what they had seen. One of those cool Uncle Doughnut gifts was a 12 volume set atlas. Two volumes were the United States, but the other ten were the rest of the world.

I never modeled my life after Uncle Doughnut, but to this very day no matter how full I am there is still room for hot Krispy Kreme doughnuts (and peach cobbler but that’s another story), and I love bread. There is a soft spot between my breastbone and my belt line for them. My affinity for these aren’t all because of him, but no doubt he had an impact.

Back to today’s email. It included a link to a 60 Minutes clip about Rick Steves. I had never heard of Rick or his brand of travel books. Then again, until I got here I’d never heard of Rothenburg and didn’t know why my Introduction to Bavaria instructor mentioned that all Americans want to go there. But Rick’s explanation of why Americans should see Europe resonates with me. It resonates because even before I heard him say it, it is my own.

Early on he says that if when you travel the experience isn’t to your liking, change your liking. At about 3:50 in the video it gets really good, and at 4:30 the hook was set. I stopped watching news on the television back in the 90s but I knew 1) the question she was about to ask, and 2) his answer at 4:30. This is why I wanted to move my family to Europe, to get them out of the country to see what the rest of the world is and how it works.

I saw part of the world from inside a tour bus with tinted windows. The buses were an armoured SUV and an MRAP. The windows were bulletproof. But the view was eye-opening enough that I realized that I wouldn’t be a good father if I didn’t show my daughters that despite the fact I wanted to put them on a pedestal they would never change the lightbulb by standing still and waiting for the world to revolve around them.

Rick’s reasons repeat themselves. Last week I mentioned to some Germans I work with that as Americans we are arrogantly ethnocentric. Just today I told some other Germans I was glad to be in this country because they have common sense. At the Nuremberg Zoo (Tiergarten Nuremberg) Saturday Ginger and I both saw and commented on things we’d never see in the states. Some pansy would sue because they stubbed their toe on an uneven sidewalk or missing bollard. It was excessive that my daughter jumped the fence to join the llamas in their compound but here, unlike America (more specifically Norte Americano for my Bolivian friend), they don’t protect us from ourselves. The insanity that is the norm that causes us to not know which bathroom to pee in just doesn’t manifest itself here. The reasons TO travel continue to reassert themselves as we DO travel. They are underlined, quotated, highlighted, parenthesized, capital lettered, and away from everything else on the other side. Constantly.

Byrd Boys love Biloxi. I am a fifth generation Biloxian, and all my uncles on the Byrd side spent the majority of their life either in Biloxi or right next door (one lived in Ocean Springs, the town where Biloxi was founded in 1699, another story for another time). I never imagined living anywhere else, and once I left I never imagined living there again. Before I left I saw the first two volumes. I’ve seen a lot of the United States and love it almost as much as Biloxi. The more I see of the other ten volumes of this giant world the more I realize how small it is. Taking my family out into the great big world is going to show them how small it is, too. Uncle Laurence didn’t make me want to leave to see the world, but he did remind me why I did. Rick Steves reminded me why. We both are doing our part in our own way to make an impact on American narrow-mindedness.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

-Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad

Fair warning world, the Byrd’s are loose.

P.S. Neither Dad, Mom, nor my Mother-in-law can blame Uncle Laurence, Aunt Maggie, or Uncle Scotty for causing me to move my wife and their grandchildren 5000 miles away. At least until they’ve come for their first visit and seen the Achtung, the Complicated, the Proper, and the Lovable Chaos for themselves. For my part I can’t wait to meet the later or show the former.

Free at Last!

Americans in general are more cognizant of their freedom. We’re taught at an early age freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press and the Bill of Rights. If we’re lucky we learn what that means, otherwise those of us who did learn are subjected to mislead “I’m offended” quotes on Facebook. I will admit though that knowing there is a Bill of Rights is more important than knowing the 3rd keeps us from having to quarter soldiers.

Few things are more American than the thrill of the open road. The freedom to move about the country and the countryside is ingrained in us. Especially in the South. Where there are fewer big cities, things are spread out, and we talk of how long between places is in minutes rather than miles. Getting your driver’s license in the South used to be a rite of passage. My daughters didn’t seem to revere it as much as I did, but then again I got mine even earlier than they did.

The Mississippi I grew up in gave licenses to 15 year olds. That is insane, but so is our love of cars. I once joked that we have a 0.95 driver to vehicle ratio in Alabama. No one called me on it so that means either they didn’t catch it or they agreed. Point is we love our cars and the freedom they bring us.

So yesterday mine arrived.

I went down before they opened to start the paperwork to pick up my Smokeswagen TDLie. Fresh off the boat and delivered to me covered in frost and ice, but it was my car. Not a rental, not a borrowed ride, not the government-owned vehicles I’ve been riding and driving in, my car. My little slice of what I brought from America.

After patiently completing the paperwork I finally got to drive off in my own vehicle with a grin splitting my face from ear to ear. People that know me know I smile a lot. This smile was bigger than that. It was bigger than getting my first car, bigger than buying my first car, bigger than driving my first Porsche, bigger than big with elation to boot.

It seems like it should be such a small thing, yet in the land outside my comfort bubble it is a sign that things will return, they’ll bounce back, and I will survive because I am free at last to do what I want, when I want, without having to walk or wait for the bus or someone else.

Next up, finding a house.

It’s too late now, Baby!

Today was my first solo trip to Wiesbaden. Quick recap, we flew from Mobile to Frankfurt from 10-11 Jan, stayed in Wiesbaden for a few days, then on 20 Jan my new boss came and picked Ginger, Lizi, Faith, and I up and brought us to our new temporary home in Grafenwohr. While there we’ve made a few quick trips, none too far. Ginger went to the Czech Republic to have her nails done (a story all to itself), and I’ve made a few work trips. This is the second time in two weeks that I’ve been in Wiesbaden overnight for work but my last jaunt was like my other quick trips around the country so far with someone else. Whether I drove or they drove, I was not alone.

I wasn’t nervous, but I woke up nearly two hours before the alarm went off and couldn’t get back to sleep. Last night I had arranged to meet up with two friends for lunch. We had met in Kansas City five months ago right about the time I was interviewing and contemplating taking this job. Again, a story for another time. Since the week before we had gotten stuck in a stau (I have got to figure out how to put umlauts in here) near Wurzburg I was afraid I might not make it on time. As a safety measure I decided to take off early to insure timely arrival.

At 0630 I rolled out of the house for about a three and half hour drive. I skipped breakfast thinking I would drive right by the McDonald’s in downtown Grafenwohr. Instead, the GPS told me to turn left instead of right at the first light. Last week Peter mentioned that we could go clockwise or counterclockwise, so I decided to go with the GPS and turned left. There was no McDonald’s for two hours.

When handheld and dash-mounted GPS units became popular I resisted the urge. It was hard because as a former surveyor and someone who played with the technology long before it became feasible for mass consumption this was harder than one might think. But it was mainly driven by the desire that I did NOT want to become one of those people who turned just because the machine told me to. Flashback to this morning, I turned early. No problem, I was headed on the autobahn in the wrong direction (though not counter to traffic so I was safe). My previous training told me to go down an exit, turnaround, and come back. Sure maybe it was 12 km, but I was good. Until I got there. My instinct said turn left, my GPS said right. I didn’t go with my gut. I took the road less traveled.

Needless to say, it did not lead me back to the autobahn.

On my previous drive by idiot box experience back in the early 2000s the machine thought I was an 18 wheeler and took me a long way out of the way to turn around. Thinking that might still be the case I pulled over, turned around and sat perpendicular to the road I had just come from. Twice. Neither time helped.
So I drove through some gorgeous country, quaint towns, tight roads, switchbacks, and did I mention it was snowing? Had I not been worried about the fact that I had no clue where I was I could have enjoyed myself. The views were spectacular.

After about 2 hours I finally got back on the autobahn headed towards Wurzburg and feeling comfortable. I made it past the construction and the grosse stau from last week without incident when the GPS unit started telling me to get off at the next exit. I made my way to the side but thought that since there was no big diversion it must be thinking I was on a side street instead of the autobahn. So I ignored it. And found why it tried to direct me off the road.

I used the left lane and passed up a mile or so of traffic stopped in the right lane until I finally got stopped myself. This was worse than last week. I put it in park. People don’t get out of their cars on the autobahn. Today they did. Normally I’m the first to jump out. Having never met a stranger I talk to folks stuck in traffic. But I only do that when they speak English it seems. I couldn’t even tell what they were saying because they spoke in German.

After about 15 minutes I heard a helicopter. Quick aside here. When I was studying for my license they told me that ADAC in this country was similar to AAA in the states. Similar, but like all things German (except the wine), better. This time they mean it. If you’re on a bus trip and the bus breaks down ADAC will come pick you up and take you to a hotel until they fix the bus. Back to today, another difference from AAA, the helicopter was an ADAC helicopter. It was a very nice helicopter, more like Blue Thunder than TJ’s in Magnum PI—nice chopper. Soon I noticed the traffic on the other side of the road was stopped, I guess so the chopper could land.

After about 25 minutes I heard the lady behind me talking loud and saw two guys ahead and to the right of me run around their car like a Chinese fire drill. Two cars ahead someone turned off onto the embankment. I followed.

Now this is the kind of thing I might have done in the States. I don’t know if it was a road, some kind of access, or just the first vehicle melted the snow and drove over the mud to get to the parallel road that was 250 meters away. Either way I got back on track.

It was Level of Service A the rest of the way, to through, and past Frankfurt. I was doing 150 entering some tunnels they built just for noise control. Not walls, not noise attenuation, freaking tunnels, giant tunnels to keep the noise down. In Frankfurt they do have some runways/taxiways over the road, but these tunnels are for noise. One other thing I try not to do here is convert my speed into miles, what’s the point? The limits are given in kph, and I’d rather think I’m going 50 through town than 31. But 150 is still fast. That’s keep the radar detector on and look out for cops hidden behind the trees fast. They use speed cameras here, but that’s a different story. I don’t know how to spot them yet, but they haven’t spotted me either so it’s a draw.

Once I got to Wiesbaden, I didn’t have the address of where we were meeting for lunch, rather I had the address of the District Office so I was a little concerned about how to find where I was going. On the plus side, I was right on time so I called one of the guys I was meeting who wasn’t far behind me. Then, when I got lost, I talked him through how to find me and I followed him the rest of the way in.
All in all, an adventure packed day. I’m still not sure why they’ve trusted me with the ability to create my own travel plans or drive my government vehicle all over the countryside, but it’s too late now, Baby! Watch out Deutschland, I’m going to be alles uber.

 

Yeah, it’d make a better ending to say the name of the song, but that’s in bad taste in this country. I’m slow but trainable.

Still There?

For those who don’t know, most of my family and I have moved to Grafenwöhr, Germany. So today (18 Feb) I finally felt completely overwhelmed. A real “WTF am I doing?” moment. Bordering on panic attack overwhelm.

Maybe it was the stress of having lived in 5 different hotel rooms over the last 45 days. Maybe it was not having viewed a single new place to live yet. Maybe it is the lack of a vehicle to drive around in. Maybe it was the whole 5100 miles from home in a new continent. But maybe it was just the third meeting in which I was the only non-German speaking person and EVERYTHING was being discussed in German.
For some time now I’ve been thinking about re-naming my blog. Over the weekend the inspiration of what to call it hit me: Outside the Comfort Bubble. I am so far outside my comfort bubble it isn’t funny. Today was just a massive exclamation and emphasis of that point.

It’s also an odd point because I started blogging not only because I wanted to write but because I had time on my hands. What I was doing at work at the time was easy. I was on cruise control. My blogging started to taper off when I reached into the unknown. Or as a friend, fellow engineer, and blogger would say I began to stretch myself. Even my writing began to taper off as I further reached with my deployment to Afghanistan. Since arriving in Germany just over a month ago the desire to write, to point out my observations, and just plain express myself has been building but that step outside the comfort zone is overwhelming. I am a sponge soaking in new information and trying to find a way to process it.

There’s the new location, new roads, new rules of the road for driving, new language, new staff, new support staff, new standard operating procedures, almost none of the things that I have taken for granted remain. I remain the most humble person you will ever meet, yet I was good at what I did. In taking this new job and moving most of my family I said, “I got this, watch and see.” Since arriving, I have gone from “WTF!” to “WTF?” What have I done? This is going to be a challenge. This is going to be harder than it already has been. I see that now.

At the end of the day on the way home I heard on the radio Tubthumping. Now it isn’t that I’m a big Chumbawumba fan, but something about the lyrics resonated with my eternally optimistic side. No, it isn’t that I was concocting a session wherein I alternated whiskey drink, vodka drink, lager drink, and cider drink. It is the reminder that I get knocked down, but I get up again. You’re never gonna keep me down.

It will be a few days before I fix the blogpage. It may be a few days before I post anything else as well. But it’s coming. I am reminding myself as I recently did my oldest daughter of my favorite piece of kitsch hanging in the Biloxi Hard Rock. It is a signed drum head from Alex Van Halen that reads, “Fall down 7 times, stand up 8!”

Our Day of Infamy

What follows is an account of what I was doing on this day fourteen years ago. It is predominantly a re-post from a few years ago but this day will always hold more significance for me because I spent the last two 11 Septembers in Afghanistan. I didn’t go there because of today, but if it hadn’t been for this day I wouldn’t have been there.

On this day most of us remember where we were when we still had a World Trade Center in New York, New York (the town so nice, they named it twice).

For my part, I was going in to work late because I had something to deliver for work in downtown Birmingham. I was going to give my brother-in-law a ride to his condo in Dirt Pile (known to everyone besides he and I as a little burg named Mountain Brook). I stopped at my normal gas station, a Jet Station. You cannot make up the good stuff.

When I went in to pay the clerk told me that an airplane had flown into the World Trade Center. Now this did not concern me one little bit. NOT IN THE LEAST! Because I am a Civil Engineer, at the time I was still in school, in fact, I was taking my Structural Steel class. But I wasn’t worried because I know that skyscrapers are designed to withstand an airline collision. Of course, that design is predicated on the fact that the pilot realizes he’s headed for a building and is attempting to avoid it. The Empire State Building was hit by a B-25 in 1945. It is, to my knowledge, the highest fire that has ever been successfully put out. But when the pilot realized a collision was unavoidable he was still trying to avoid it.

Getting back into the truck we continued on and heard that the second tower was hit. Immediately I realized, the first plane wasn’t trying to miss and we were in for a bad day. Modern sky scrapers are not made to hold the weight of the floors above them. The floors are designed to hold up the weight of the floor, the weight is then transferred down. It is a fascinating concept that is a part of the reason I never wanted to be a structural engineer, however, no engineer can ever look at a structure without thinking load transfer ever.

As the radio told us the second tower was hit I turned to my brother-in-law and said, “Johnny, some country just used to exist.” I was as positive of that then as I am now.