Sunday, November 29, 2009

Enjoying the Simple Things in Life

After an activity filled 4-day weekend. I woke up early this morning, fixed myself a pot of coffee, and pretty much did nothing for the day. Well actually, I did a lot of things. I finished a load of laundry; I took a walk around downtown Wiesbaden and checked out the Christmas market; cooked a late lunch; brought a book to the Starbucks and lounged around for 2+ hours; and came back to my apartment late afternoon and took a nap. Just the fact that I was able to have the time to make a pot of coffee and sit down to enjoy it was enjoyable. I don’t remember the last time I took an afternoon nap. But they were just ordinary, simple things that I have taken for granted. Things I have not done too much of lately -- taking the time and enjoying the simple things in life.

Although it crept into my mind a couple of times, I did not show up at work at all this past four days. Thursday, I took an early morning drive to Luxembourg and got back to Wiesbaden by 9PM. Friday, I drove to Köln to see the Christmas markets and walked around the city center. Saturday, I drove along the Rhine River, on the western side, from Wiesbaden to Boppard; stopping along the way for coffee and lunch. Winding down the extended weekend, today I stuck around my apartment and walked around Wiesbaden. The weather has been miserable – gray skies, and on and off drizzle. But it did not take away from my enjoyment of the weekend.

The following are photos from this weekend:

Shots from Luxembourg City

Photos from the Luxembourg American WWII Cemetery and Memorial:

Memorial Chapel ceiling

Memorial Chapel

General Patton's grave site

Luxembourg American WWII Cemetery

Köln's Christmas Market and Cathedral:

At the Köln Christmas Market

Köln's Cathedral

At the Köln Christmas Market

At the Köln Christmas Market

Köln's Cathedral

At the Köln Christmas Market

At the Köln Christmas Market

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Day Trip to Luxembourg

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone!!!

I will be visiting Luxembourg on Thanksgiving day. I am driving my car to visit Luxembourg City. It should be about a 2.5 hour drive. I have been thru Luxembourg before driving from Germany to Belgium. It is such a small country that it is hard to notice you are there unless you are headed to its main and capital city of Luxembourg City. I may have been in Luxembourg’s highways for about 20 minutes on a weekend drive earlier this year from Germany to Belgium.

A friend from work, who has traveled with me on a few trips in western Europe has this rule about visiting other countries: It does not count as a visited country unless you stay in that country overnight, or you take a “dump” in that country. He ruled out eating the local food and drinking alcohol because that can be accomplished at an airport during a flight layover or at a highway rest stop while on a road trip. I assume, in my friend’s way of thinking. that if you do the second item on that rule, you’ve done enough in that country to count as a country visited. I have to say that of all the countries I have visited, I have stayed overnight in most of them. The exceptions have been Monaco – the two times I had been there while visiting the French Riviera, the hotel was in Nice; San Marino, home base was in Bologna; and Sweden, when we visited Malmo across the bridge from Copenhagen, Denmark where we were staying.

My friend’s plan is to visit all of the European Union nations using his rule. Most of the countries in Europe are so close together that you can easily do a day trip to a town or a city in a neighboring country. Using my friend’s logic, these types of visits may not count as visiting a new country. I beg to differ. My visit to Luxembourg City is a day trip – I am not staying overnight. I am checking off this trip as another country visited. But so as to not have this new country visit seem “questionable”, at least in the eyes of my friend, I will try my darnest to use the facilities in Luxembourg City or at a highway rest area.

I will update with pictures on a future posting on this blog -- Luxembourg travel photos, I mean.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Trip to Athens

The visit to Athens from 11 thru 15 November was superb. Weather was great – about 70 to 75 degrees F and blue skies; I even spent one day sightseeing wearing shorts. The food was okay, but the seafood was fresh and scrumptious. We had a chance to spend one day in the island Hydra, a 2 ½ hour ferry ride away. The highlight of the trip was walking around Athens and seeing the antiquities and ruins that date back to golden age of Greek civilization. To actually walk up the hill to Acropolis, see some of the ruins along the climb up, come upon the entrance to Acropolis, and then see the marvelous structures such as the Parthenon were breathtaking.

I had to think hard and go back to my college days at University of Washington when I was taking differential equations and physics classes to be able make out, letter by letter, signs posted in Greek without the Roman alphabet equivalent. For the most part, I was able to convert the Greek word to its Roman alphabet equivalent. There were a few Greek letters that I was not to remember easily. It was always a fun, if not challenging, exercise to convert the signs.

Many of the travel guides I had read recommend that two full days is sufficient to see the sights of Athens. It also mentions the pollution, noise, and filth of the city, but it also states that the conditions have improved as a result of the efforts made during the run-up to the 2004 Olympics, which Athens hosted. From what I saw, Athens was a tourist friendly, pedestrian friendly, and fairly clean. It has a good transportation system. We were able to get from the airport to the city center, and vice versa, by train without any problem. The Metro trains do get crowded because there are only three main lines. But the system is augmented by street level trams. We managed to use the Metro transportation system during the whole trip with relative ease. The metro trains and stations were fairly clean – not much graffiti or signs of vandalism in these areas. Two days may be enough to see the major sights if you start early in the morning and do your souvenir shopping at night. Although we hit the highlights, there were a few we did not get to see. Because we saw the antiquities and ruins first hand, we did not feel it was necessary to visit the museums. The new Acropolis Museum and the National Archaeological Museum would have been great to visit because they house many sculptures, relics, and artifacts that they want to protect from the elements. Many of these items are from the sites that we visited. If we had another day, it would probably have been to see the museums.

In general, the food was okay, not great. The seafood lunches at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant at the market in Piraeus and in the island of Hydra were magnificent – fresh and tasty. The beer and wine were not to the standards I had been accustomed to in Germany. The rest of our meals were hit and miss. As it was, we were able to spend a good 2 days in the city.

After we checked in to our hotel, we immediately took the subway to the heart of the city. It was about 6:00 PM, already dark. We were walking around the pedestrian and shopping area of the city, just below the Acropolis, from Syntagma Square to the Plaka District. It was during this walk that we saw our first glimpse of Acropolis, well lit on hillside not too far. Our first night, we got to see some of the shopping areas, the restaurant row, and on the way back to our hotel we saw the evzones (traditionally dressed military personnel) guarding the Tomb of Unknown Warrior in front of the Parliament Building. We were able to witness the changing of the guards the following night.

On our first full day, we started early with a visit of the Acropolis starting from the bottom of the hill, seeing ruins as the Theatre of Dionysus and Odeon of Herodus Atticus, and culminating at the top of the hill where the Parthenon and other equally impressive structures are located. The top of Acropolis affords a stunning panoramic view of the city and the sprawl beyond it. Parthenon proudly sits atop Acropolis serving as a beacon to the city down below. Parthenon was the finest temple in the ancient world. It was built 2500 years ago and what remains is still impressive to see. We proceeded to walk down Acropolis and continued walking to other sites such as the Hadrian Arch, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Roman Agora, the ancient Agora, Keramikos, and Hadrian’s Library.

Equally impressive as the sights we visited and commendable are the efforts by the Greek government to restore many of the ancient ruins site after many years of neglect. The preservation of these sites serves as a reminder and lasting legacy that Greece and specifically, Athens, was the center of arts, learning, and philosophy --- the cradle of western civilization.

We also had time to stop by Athens’ central market. It was later in the afternoon, so the meat market was in the process of closing down; most of the produce vendors were also gone for the day. Near the end of the first day, we were able to see the changing of the guards in front of the Parliament building. We found a restaurant, recommended by Rick Steves, for a tapas-like selection of food. Except for the fried sardines, the remaining dishes we had were bland. The highlight of the dinner was the ouzo we had at the end.

The next day we had the opportunity to scope out Piraeus, a port town outside of Athens, for half a day to see which of the island(s) near Athens would be most ideal to visit. After a short time of wandering around, we found the central market of Piraeus. We also found a restaurant at the market than from the outside, seemed like a dive. Fortunately, it was a place worth going to for a good, cheap and fresh seafood meal. After Piraeus, we continued on to the main site of the 2004 Summer Olympics. We went from the southwest outskirt of Athens to the eastern outskirts, using Athens’ Metro transport. The Olympic complex was great to look at – great architecture all done in white, nice modern looking structures, and a host of minor supporting structures such as covered entrance, walkways, open areas than complement the major structures. The area must have been impressive during the 2004 Olympics. I have seen pictures during the Olympics of tree-lined pedestrian thoroughfare and grassy open areas. Currently, there are not too many trees or grass growing around the compound. The area is currently lifeless – a few tourist here and there, security guards patrolling the whole compound, and some maintenance workers. I am not sure how often these sports venues are now used, but I doubt if these facilities are used more than a couple of times a year for their intended use.

Later that day, we visited the Ancient Agora, a big park like setting with lots of remarkable “ruins” sights. They closed fairly early at about 4:30PM. The rest of the second day was spent walking the pedestrian zone just outside and circling the Ancient Agora area. This area is not too far from the shopping areas and restaurant row. New housing and apartment buildings are nearby, and a host of restaurants and bars line the area overlooking the Ancient Agora and the Acropolis. This seemed like a good neighborhood, near the city center, to live in. This is also the area where we ate dinner. The restaurant was supposedly the place to eat good meat dishes. We waited until 7:30 PM for the restaurant to open. The food was much better than what we had the previous night.

The third day, we got up early to go back to Piraeus and board a ferry to the island of Hydra. The boat ride took about 2 ½ hours with a stop on the island of Poros to drop off and pick up passengers. This route probably is packed with people regularly during the summer sailings, but during the off season the boat is not as full. We had the island to ourselves – not too many tourist and most of the shops have closed for the season. For the most part, this was a good thing. We spent most of the morning walking all over the island. It was a good weather day, so there were lots of opportunities to take good photos of the sea, the marina, the narrow roads and alleys, whitewashed houses with brightly painted doors and windows, and other island sceneries. By chance, we were in Hydra when the island was honoring their patron saint. We saw a parade thru the main part of the island. The event seemed subdued; there was really not much of a celebration as compared to certain towns in Spain or Italy would do to honor their Catholic patron saint. In Hydra, we had an enjoyable lunch of seafood fare at one of the few restaurants still open this time of the year. We got back to Athens early in the evening, in time to do last minute souvenir shopping and find a restaurant for dinner.

All in all, the trip was successful. It was lower in the priority of places to visit. Because of the warmer climes, we opted for this trip. Higher on my list were London and Stockholm. It has been 11 years since I first visited London. I have never been to Stockholm. But I have no regrets with the Athens trip. It was definitely a worthwhile visit. Given the opportunity, I would probably visit Athens again.

The following are pictures from the Athens trip. More photos can be viewed from my flickr site.

Holding a giant-sized Greek flag at the Olympic Center:

In front of the Parthenon:

The Parthenon

A view of the Athens sprawl from the top of Acropolis:

View of Athen's sprawl

The Porch of the Caryatids:

The Porch of the Caryatids

The Temple of Olympian Zeus:

Temple of Olympian Zeus, Athens

The Temple of Hephaestus:

Temple of Hephaestus, Ancient Agora, Athens

At the Ancient Agora with a view of the Acropolis in the background:

View of Acropolis from the grounds of Ancient Agora

Fish at the market in Piraeus:

Fish at the market in Piraeus

The Agora at the Olympic Center:

The Agora, Olympic Center, Athens

The Velodrome at the Olympic Center:

Velodrome, Olympic Center, Athens

The Olympic Stadium:

Olympic Stadium, Athens

On the island of Hydra:


Isle of Hydra scenes:

red steps, Hydra

ship docked at Hydra

blue window and door, Hydra

ice cream shop wall display, Hydra

Hydra boat

plant pot, Hydra

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Greece is the Word

I am headed to Athens, Greece Wednesday morning with a friend from work. With the holiday on Wednesday, I decided to take Thursday and Friday off from work, and extend the vacation thru the weekend. I will be back to Wiesbaden late Sunday afternoon. Weather forecast for the next couple of days in Athens calls for some partly cloudy days and some sunny days, with temps in the low to mid 60's. This beats the weather we have been having in Wiesbaden -- cold and wet. Summer morphed into autumn this year fairly quickly. There was really no smooth transition or any type of Indian summer conditions. It started to get cold late September and it has continued with this type of weather consistently since then, with added drizzle of rain now and then. So warmer, and hopefully, dry weather will be a welcome relief.

I am looking forward to this five-day break, as well as the visit to the cradle of Western civilization and birthplace of democracy, as Athens is widely referred to. This will be my first time in Athens. We will spend most of the time in the city to visit the historical sites, but we have also planned day trip(s) outside the city.

Stay tuned for updates here, and photos thru my flickr account.

Monday, November 9, 2009

New Chapter

Well, I finally made my decision, after months of dilly-dallying. This past Sunday afternoon I showed up at work to finish contract modification paperwork for a couple of my projects. After I turned my computer on, I noticed an e-mail from the person who has been recruiting me to work in Kuwait or UAE, with the Corps of Engineer. He has been in contact since June of this year. I told him I couldn’t leave my current job until after the fiscal year end because of the workload. And also because of the new projects, I probably would not be able to leave until I was able to get these projects under way. He appreciated the fact that I was not willing to “bolt” out quickly from the amount of work that was ahead of me. He was patient. I received phone calls and e-mails after the fiscal year end to see if I was ready to move on. I asked him to give me about 4-6 weeks to mull the decision over, and then I will let him know.

That time has come – it has been almost six weeks since fiscal year end. So I sent him an e-mail reply yesterday that I was now ready to accept a position to work for him. I had told him that a start date of 18 or 25 January would work best for me since I had vacation planned for several weeks in December. Processing out of Germany, including moving out of the apartment and shipping of household goods and vehicle back to Seattle would take some time. Some of the benefits of this new position include provisions for a fully furnished villa/apartment and a four-wheel drive vehicle. So I would need to ship most of my belongings back to Seattle.

Very early on, I had told some of my colleagues at work about my impending plan. I had assumed it was going to be easy. It was not easy at all. I started listing the positives and negatives about my current position. The positives (living in Germany, decent pay, the people I work with, opportunity to explore more of Europe, free housing and most of housing expenses, etc.) outnumbered the negatives. But the negatives, although fewer in number, carried more significance. Workload was probably the single most significant factor. As a project manager, your responsibility starts from concept until completion of the project, in some cases, even after project construction has been completed. If you have too many projects, then you start prioritizing which issues need to be addressed first. It can reach a point where you are only spending time putting out fires. After you put a fire out, there are many more waiting to be put out. And this is how I felt that I was addressing my projects – not by choice, but by circumstance. The project manager is usually the person that gets contacted first when issues arise. And this is just for ongoing projects. You can add to that mix, the work required to have new projects awarded. Throughout the year, new projects will be assigned. This culminates into the multitude of new projects required to be awarded by fiscal year end.

At the same time, I was also listing the positives and negatives with the new position. You can safely assume that the positives prevailed. As I stated many times before, I am not quite ready to go back to the States. Kuwait will have to be the next chapter of my life – new land, new workplace, new work, and new people. I am looking forward to this next phase of my nomadic life.

In making my decision, I tried to get reassurances from family members and work colleagues that I was doing the right thing. I got the standard answer that only I know what is best for me and that they were willing to support me on any decision I make. As late as yesterday, I was still talking to several colleagues at work about my plan to move on. Monday morning, I talked to my immediate supervisor about my impending decision. He seemed to be very supportive and understood why I was planning such a move. I was able to catch my second-level supervisor later in the day (7PM at work) to let him know of my plans. He was also supportive of my decision. My second level supervisor was the person that selected me for a position in Bosnia to lead the efforts in closing the last major US base in Bosnia. He was also the one that personally requested me to help out his group at Installation Support Branch for year end projects three summers ago when I came back from Bosnia to the Engineering Branch. He later asked me if I wanted to move permanently to this group.

My supervisors probably had some inkling that I was thinking about changing jobs. Talking to them was a big load off my chest. I wasn’t even sure how I was going to approach them. Both were understanding. They indicated that they are sorry to see me go. One of them stated that working in Europe with the Corps of Engineer is a dynamic situation – people come and go. Both also indicated that if I were to change my mind, I would be welcomed back. Maybe it’s just the standard reply that supervisors give, but to me it meant a lot.

I would consider going back to Germany or other locations in Europe to work for the Corps again or another agency after I finish my stint in Kuwait. Working and living here has many advantages if you can find a position that is not overwhelming.

The position being offered to me is a project engineer position at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. It will be at the same level as my current position, but an increase in compensation. The project engineer position is also at a lower "food chain" than my current position as a project manager. But it's a position that I welcome right now because the responsibilites are much less. They offered me other positions that carry more responsibilities, but I told them that a project engineer position is exactly what I am looking for right now. The new position involves oversight of construction projects mainly in Kuwait. I will also have opportunity to oversee construction projects in other areas, such as Bahrain, Qatar, and UAE, as needed. I would be living in Kuwait City. Distance between Kuwait City and Arifjan is about 20 miles. As I stated earlier, I would be provided a fully furnished villa or an apartment. I would also be provided a vehicle for work and personal use. I will still have the opportunity to travel in Europe on my personal time because it still is fairly close and accessible by plane. Definitely, I will take advantage exploring travel destinations nearby such as the pyramids of Egypt, the fortress of Petra in Jordan, and sites in Turkey.

So the next step? The official offer should be arriving shortly. Between the acceptance of the offer and officially leaving Germany, there are a thousand things that would have to be done. Coupled with vacation I had planned for Seattle and the Philippines for the holiday, 18 or 25 January start date for my new job will be a challenging undertaking. We shall wait and see.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Siena and Jayan’s 1st Birthday Halloween Bash

Last Saturday, Jayan and Siena held a joint 1st birthday party at my house in Seattle. Siena is my great niece, and Jayan is my great nephew. Since it was held on 31 Oct, their birthday celebration was combined into a Halloween Bash. They turned my basement into a haunted house, and decorated the main floor nicely with Halloween theme. Looking at all the pictures and getting an update from my sister, the bash turned out successfully. I wish I could have been there to enjoy the celebration. Happy Birthday Siena and Jayan!!!

The following are a few pictures from the event. Pictures are obviously not mine, but uploaded from Alvie’s and Rena’s flickr pages.

The celebrants:

Little pink piglet Siena.

Little Monkey Jayan.

The decorations.

The party goers.

The farmers (Jay and Alvie) and their livestock (Jeremiah and Siena).

The baby monkey (Jayan) with his two bananas (Donna and Ron).

Mia with the birthday kids.