A visit to little America– Ramstein Air Force Base…

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Bill and I have now lived in our house for almost seven weeks.  We’re mostly settled, although until today, there were still a few things that needed to find homes.  Bill had some text books from his latest master’s degree program that had nowhere to go, and the small collection of actual books I have in Germany had taken up all of the space on the one bookshelf I had allotted to our shared office.

I always buy cookbooks at Christmas, but only a few of them get much action in the kitchen.  The matching bookshelf to the one in our office was, until today, located in our dining room.  It was holding all of the cookbooks we never use.  This past year, because I bought a couple of extra books, there were a few cookbooks that needed a home.  Also, we had some kitchen gadgets that needed storage.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been looking for a nice bookshelf for the downstairs.  What I found on the local Amazon site wasn’t thrilling me, and I found nothing at all at the Wiesbaden AAFES.  German mod style doesn’t excite me, either.

Then I realized that Bill’s desk chair would probably scratch the brand new flooring in our office if I didn’t find him a rug.  Our Wiesbaden AAFES does not have a Turkish rug guy like Stuttgart has (and I’m actually pretty happy with the rugs we bought in Stuttgart in November– they’re much nicer than the ones I bought a few years ago).  I thought maybe Ramstein would have a permanent rug guy at their PX, the way Heidelberg used to and Stuttgart still does.

Finally, I realized that my skin is no longer taking makeup like it used to.  I have dry skin and when I apply makeup, it collects in my pores and makes me look even freakier than ever.  I need to start using primer under foundation so it doesn’t get all cakey and gross looking.  That meant a trip to the Lancome counter was in order.

Chili’s was also on the agenda…

With all of these items on my list, plus the prospect of getting some Southwestern Egg Rolls at Chili’s, I told Bill maybe we should go to Ramstein to see what was at the huge PX/BX there.  We now live about 80 minutes from Ramstein, quite a bit closer than we did when we were in Stuttgart.  Bill hates going there, but conceded that maybe it would be a good idea to see what the largest AAFES in Europe has to offer.

Ramstein’s Exchange is absolutely humongous.  It was opened on September 23, 2009, which was just one week after we left Germany the first time we lived here.  At the time it was opened, it was the largest AAFES in the world.  I would not be surprised if it still is.  It’s enormous, especially compared to every other AAFES I’ve ever seen.

By the way, we never did visit Ramstein during our first Stuttgart tour.  Our first time visiting Ramstein was in 2012, when we took our very first Space A hop from Baltimore.  We flew in and out of Ramstein on that trip, as well as the Space A trip we took in 2014 to Germany and France.  I remember sitting at the bar in the now defunct Chili’s Too at the AAFES mall, talking to a soldier who had basically been forced to move from England to Germany due to mental health issues.  It was an interesting and disturbing conversation.  I wonder how that guy is doing and hope he’s okay.

During our 2014 visit, I recall being sad to be leaving Germany to go back to Texas, where Bill would then retire.  I was worried about what would come next.  We didn’t know at the time that we’d be moving back to Germany just weeks after that trip; we’d taken our vacation thinking it might be our last chance to enjoy Europe before Bill left the Army.  Little did we know…

I remember visiting the PX during one or both of those Space A trips, but we didn’t buy anything there, since we were not stationed in Europe at the time.  Back then, I noticed that half of the shops were vacant.

The next time we visited Ramstein was in June 2017, on our way to Belgium.  We stopped by to gas up the car and had horrible burgers from Johnny Rocket’s.  I didn’t go inside the mall because we had our dogs with us.

The vast food court at Ramstein.  It’s probably got twice as many vendors as other AAFES food courts have.  They had Chinese food and even Anthony’s Pizza, which used to have a location at Patch Barracks when we lived in Germany the first time.  Anthony’s is long gone from Stuttgart, but Ramstein still has one, along with a Pizza Hut Express.  There’s also a Ramstein “Hofbrau” restaurant that looked somewhat lame, but probably has good food.

I had to take a picture of the tiny sewing/knitting area.  When I was growing up, AAFES had a decent sized sewing section, but not so much anymore.  I don’t sew or do needle crafts, but my mom owned her own business selling knitting and needlepoint supplies.  She taught many people how to knit.  I was not among them.

Spotted at the Birkenstock Outlet…  I think they’re pretty tacky, but I’m sure someone else loves them.  My dad, rest his soul, would probably wear these.  I noticed all of the store space was taken at Ramstein.  I don’t think I saw a single vacant space yesterday.  

Bill makes it a point to avoid Ramstein when he can help it.  He says it’s too much like being back in the States.  After today’s visit, I’m inclined to agree.  It’s a shock to go to that base and see just how much American stuff is there.  It really does feel like “home”.  As crowded as our local AAFES can get on the weekends, the one at Ramstein kind of puts it to shame.  It’s just huge– it looks like a legitimate American style mall.  And besides the Exchange, there’s also a Birkenstock Outlet, a spa, a Swarovski store, and several fast food joints in the food court I’ve not seen in other places.

So… today, we went to AAFES at Ramstein, braving the nasty January rainy weather.  I found the primer for my face.  Then, we located a bookshelf for the cookbooks.  I looked at the rugs offered by the Turkish rug guy, who appeared to have a temporary station under the escalators, but he didn’t have what I needed.  The rugs were either the wrong color or size, or they were way too expensive.  I found one really nice looking rug that would have worked for the area next to our bed that needs protection from our dogs’ toenails (they take flying leaps onto the bed, and that can cause scratches).  It was priced at 1149 euros, which is way more than I wanted to spend on a rug that shares living space with dogs.

Bill’s area sporting AAFES’ finest…  I probably wouldn’t have bought it under normal circumstances, but it works for now.

I did, however, find a rather psychedelic looking tie-dyed looking rug that would do the trick for Bill’s office chair.  It was tucked away among a pile of cheap rugs at the Exchange and came a bit closer to matching the colors in the much nicer Oriental rug on my side of the office.  Next time we visit Stuttgart, we’ll hit up the rug guy on Panzer.  Hopefully, he’ll still be there.

After we shopped– and Bill traded gossip with a former co-worker he ran into who now works at Ramstein– we went to Chili’s.  The Chili’s Too we visited at the PX in 2014 is now a Macaroni Grill.  It’s just as well that the Chili’s Too was closed, since I don’t remember liking it much when we visited in 2014.  The bartender had pissed me off for some reason.  Fortunately, my memory fails me now.  Also, I recall that location only had a limited menu.

The Chili’s we went to today offers the whole menu.  To get to Chili’s, we had to drive to the Enlisted Club on Lawn Road.  It’s right next to the bowling alley.  When we arrived at the restaurant, which is in a building that also hosts a P.F. Chang’s, we were confronted by a crowd of people waiting to be seated.

I noticed a rather strange, sour aroma in the air that made me wonder if we should abandon our plans to get Southwestern Eggrolls and go somewhere else.  But the hostess said the wait was only ten minutes, so we stuck it out.

Bill checks out the well-used menu.  I found a piece of a straw wrapper in mine. 

The noise level in the Chili’s was really high.  I felt a little like I was having lunch in an elementary school cafeteria.  Babies were shrieking; toddlers were crying; kids were yelling; and adults were talking very loudly.  I had forgotten how loud Americans can be in groups.  I don’t say this to be disparaging.  It’s just that I’ve noticed that since we’ve lived in Germany, Bill and I find ourselves speaking in lower voices when we’re in public.  I think it’s partly because we don’t want to be too obviously American.  I guess I paid close attention to all of those AFN OPSEC PSAs I used to see when I was in the Peace Corps in Armenia.

Anyway, it was extremely loud in there and very busy.  I certainly wasn’t expecting it to be a quiet lunch, but there was definitely a lot more noise than I’m used to or had anticipated.  But then, we were there in the afternoon, which is probably prime nap time for a lot of young kids.  Some of them really sounded like it was time to nap.

I took this message to heart…

 

Although the ear splitting din in the restaurant sorely tempted me to get a Margarita, I decided to have a beer.  Good thing I did, too, because our food got to us before our beers did.  And when they arrived, they had, as my Irish friend Chris would say, “shitty wee heads” on them.  Quite disappointing.

We decided to split the “Ultimate Dipper”, which is a platter of fried stuff… but it includes Southwestern Eggrolls, which is really all I wanted, anyway.  Besides the eggrolls, you get Honey-Chipotle Chicken Crispers, Crispy Cheddar Bites, Signature Wings, and (Regular) Chicken Crispers.  You also get six “dips”– basically different salad dressings like honey mustard, blue cheese, avocado ranch, and ancho chili ranch.  Oh, and there are also a few celery stalks for all you health nuts out there.  The two kinds of Chicken Crispers, by the way, weren’t really like each other.  One was like beer battered chicken and the other was like crispy chicken drenched in sweet, spicy maple syrup.  It wasn’t unlike General Tsao’s Chicken.

I’m glad we shared this.  We didn’t finish it.  Chili’s also offers fajitas, burgers, ribs, soups, and Tex Mex stuff, as well as steaks, salads, and at least one pasta dish.  I mainly go there for eggrolls.

I think the waitress was surprised to see we didn’t need any refills on the “dips”.  Neither of us likes to use a lot of condiments.  A little dab’ll do ya.

Our waitress was very friendly.  I have no complaints at all about her service, especially since the place was a bit of a zoo.  For some reason, it took awhile to get our beers, so she brought us water in the meantime, which I appreciated.  It was even still tap water, like you get in the States (although I like mine fizzy).  However, I was kind of disappointed in the appetizer.  The Cheddar Bites tasted like they’d been sitting awhile, and didn’t taste that good.  Actually, the whole thing looked a little wilted and tired, like it wasn’t quite as fresh as it should have been.  It reminded me of something I might extract from a box that came from the frozen food aisle at the commissary.

Also, I was a bit grossed out by the ladies room.  At least one of the bathroom stalls had a broken lock, and another had the remnants of someone’s dump on the toilet seat.  It didn’t exactly make me feel better after eating all that fried stuff.

Still, I did get my Southwestern Eggroll fix, which was really all I wanted.  It was also a pretty cheap lunch.  I think we paid about $26 and still had leftovers.  And after that trip to Ramstein, I feel pretty certain I won’t need to visit again for awhile.  In fact, it was kind of like a vaccine against visiting the States.  It’s been four years since I last set foot in America.  I don’t know when I’ll be going back, but I think I’m definitely content to stay in Germany for now.

I’m sort of kidding.  There are certainly good restaurants in the States, and I do still have many friends and loved ones there.  But every once in awhile, it’s good to be reminded why one should savor their time abroad.  I remember missing Germany something terrible when we moved in 2009.  I pined for it for five years, even though some good things happened during those five years away.  I know not everyone feels this way.  Some people cannot wait to move back to the States.  Me?  I think I love Europe.  It really suits me.  And while Chili’s is okay for the occasional Southwestern Eggroll, I think I’ll stick to European restaurants for now…  There will surely come a day when I’ll be missing them again, too.

And now, perhaps it’s time for a Margarita in my nice, quiet, dining room.

Back to America…

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Our flight from Rota was pretty awesome.  It was very smooth and I was able to sleep for a good part of it, despite lying on the floor and being a bit cold.  We landed at Whiteman Air Force Base at about 9:00 in the morning.  It was absolutely FRIGID there.  The temperature was about one degree and the wind was blowing like crazy.  We were on the plane as the load masters removed the chains and cables from the helicopters, so it was cold as hell.  An airman came on the plane to clear us through customs.  It was a very laid back interview and the guy who did it was quite cool (in a good way).

A bus was waiting to take us to “base ops”, which is a very small lounge with TVs and couches.  Someone in charge at the base explained to us that there was no support for Space A people and taxis were not allowed on the base, so we might have to walk to the front gate, which is not close to base ops.  It was also freezing!

Fortunately, the guy who drove the bus was available to give us a lift to the visitor’s center by the gate.  Bill and I and the Seabee called Enterprise and they picked us up, not realizing that there were three of us going instead of two.  For some reason, the sales agent from Enterprise had a driver, so we all had to squeeze into the car for the twelve mile ride to Warrensburg, Missouri.  We got our rental cars and said our goodbyes.  The Seabee was planning to drive to Virginia, while Bill and I planned to get a commercial flight out of Kansas City, Missouri.

I had booked us a room at the Embassy Suites at the airport because after some cursory research, it was clear that trying to get home on Friday would cost significantly more and wear us out.  As it was, we were already pretty tired and needed to sleep.

Bill started the 90 minute drive and we stopped in Independence, Missouri for a bite to eat at a place called The Corner Cafe.  The parking lot was absolutely full of cars and it was barely 11:00am.  I figured that was a sign the food was going to be good.  I had never heard of this place, but it’s obviously a chain in Missouri.  We walked into the place and it kind of made me think it was what you’d get if a Perkins and a Cracker Barrel mated.  The menu was full of comfort food and there were a lot of pies.  The clientele appeared to consist of a lot of people with walkers, blue hair, and oxygen support.

 

Lunch!

We bought this to go and ended up eating it for dinner.

The food was indeed quite good.  We were hungry and I was ready for something comforting.  I had fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and some surprisingly good green beans.  The meal also came with a roll.  Bill had a sandwich and fries.  Walking into the restroom, I could hear the 50s era rock and roll playing.  I took note of the toilet and realized that this was the kind of place that served food that led to taking a big dump.  I saw evidence of that…  ’nuff said.

I had to take a photo of this huge American flag on our way to Kansas City.

Bill after we checked in at about 1:00pm.

A folksy note left for hotel guests…

One thing I noticed about Missouri is that everybody seems really down home and “folksy”.  Another thing I noticed is that obesity is a significant issue there.  I mean, I am by no means thin, but I was feeling almost petite in The Corner Cafe, the hotel, and even at the airport.  I saw a lot of people using canes, walkers, and oxygen, too.

Anyway, when we got to our hotel room, I took a shower and started watching college gymnastics.  Bill went to bed.  I joined him about an hour later and promptly fell asleep.  The bed in our room was surprisingly and delightfully comfortable.  We slept through the manager’s reception and didn’t feel like going out for dinner, so we ate the pie we got to go at The Corner Cafe.  Then we went back to bed and slept until about 5:00 Saturday morning.

Bill was fretting a bit about what he was going to do with the rental car.  It turned out it wasn’t an issue.  We ran into another guy, obviously military, who told us he works in Hawaii.  We found the rental car facility and got the shuttle to the terminal driven by a kindly older gentleman named John who was very chipper, especially for the time of day it was.

We went to get our boarding passes and drop our luggage.  Since Bill is active duty military, he can check two bags for free on Delta.  So we checked in and it turned out our flight was so packed that we were assigned seats at the gate.  The agent who helped us then said that only Bill was entitled to get free bags.  Bill said he knew, but since he’s allowed two bags, he claimed mine as his.  I’m not sure why this was an issue for the agent.  I mean, in his shoes, wouldn’t she do the same thing?  Who wants to pay $30 a bag?  She let it go and then asked us to take the shoulder straps off the bags.

Our bags dropped, we headed toward security, where I noted that I had been pre-selected for “pre-check”.  That meant I wouldn’t have to remove my shoes or jacket, nor did I have to pull out my electronics for security, as long as I made it through the metal detector.  Well, I was wearing two jackets because it was so goddamn cold outside.  I took one off and left the other one on.  It had a metal zipper, so I set off the metal detector.  So then a member of the security force came over to escort me to get my hands swabbed.

I initially thought these people were TSA, but it turns out the Kansas City airport is one of the few airports that doesn’t have official TSA people on the payroll.  Instead, they have a private security force that follows the same procedures as TSA does.  Anyway, the young woman who was to swab my hands came over and asked me to go with her.  I reached for my stuff and she said that she had to carry it.  I still had my passport and boarding pass in my hands and set it down while she prepared to test my hands for nitrates.  Her machine wasn’t working, so another security person had to do the test.  I went to grab my passport and boarding pass and she said she had to take them.  We went to another testing site and the guy swabbed my hands.  Naturally, I came up clean.  The experience made me think it would have been much easier to just go through the regular screening.

We ended up getting seated in the exit row at the ass of the plane.  A very sunny flight attendant confirmed we were willing and able to help the crew if we should crash.  The flight was basically very pleasant, until we were about to land.  I had left my purse on the floor for the entire flight because I couldn’t hear the announcements very well where we were sitting.  It turns out that if you sit in the exit row, you have to put all your stuff in the overhead bin.  A different flight attendant came over and asked me if she could put my purse in the bin.  I said, “If you must.”

I really wasn’t bitchy about it.  My voice was matter-of-fact.  I know they have their rules.  However, the damn purse was on the floor for the entire flight and no one said anything and I honestly didn’t hear them say that it had to be in the bin.  I had put it under my seat when we ascended.  So then the flight attendant said in a preachy voice (as if talking to a child), “I must because you are sitting in the exit row!” Fine.  The explanation wasn’t necessary, really, and I could have done without the holier than thou tone.

The other flight attendant who had been so nice made an impression on me.  I actually went to Delta’s Web site and sent a note complimenting her.  I had made a note of her name and wrote that I hoped they’d let her know that a passenger had appreciated her very pleasant personality.  Maybe random praise will help her get a promotion.

We were supposed to have a two hour layover in Atlanta.  Bill and I decided to have lunch at the Sweetwater Tavern.  Sweetwater is a craft beer made in the Atlanta area.  We used to drink it a lot when we lived near Atlanta.  The waitress ended up chatting with Bill about home brewing, which Bill started doing in earnest when we lived in Georgia.  We gave her some tips and it turned out the guy sitting near us was also a home brewer.  It was kind of neat being around all the beer geeks.

We left the tavern with a few minutes to go before we were supposed to board our flight.  It looked like we were going to get home early.  But then, just after Bill called the kennel to let them know, we got word that the plane we were supposed to board had a maintenance issue.  Once again, we were going to be delayed.

So then Bill struck up a conversation with a guy who turned out to be a lawyer in San Antonio.  Bill is taking a computer law class, so they had something to chat about.  I sat there and played with my phone.

Naturally, the plane was packed.  It was a very obnoxious flight and we were in the second to the last row, so there was a parade of people passing to go to the bathroom.  Some Army guy reclined in my lap and there were conversations so loud I could hear them through my noise canceling headphones.  That flight could not have ended soon enough.  And then, once it did, it took awhile to get our bags.  Mine came out quickly, but Bill’s took much longer.

When we got to the parking lot, we couldn’t find the damn car…  And then the road we needed to get on to get to Camp Bow Wow was under construction, forcing us to take a detour.  But we did finally get there and the boys were delighted to see us!  I even filmed our reunion.  There wasn’t any barking or howling, but there was a lot of kissing, tail wagging, and genuine happiness at being sprung from the joint.

Arran welcomes Bill home.

It always takes me days to get everything back to normal after a trip.  However, I always learn a lot when we travel.  This trip was no exception.  I think my next post will be about all the new things I know, now that I’ve gone to Spain and Portugal!

Flight time!

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Thursday, it became clear that we had some options for getting out of Spain.  Rota was offering two flights that would work for us.  One had a “showtime” of 00:10 very early Friday morning.  The other had a showtime of 5:55am.  Of course, I was inclined to choose the later flight.  Both were supposed to stop in Bangor, Maine and Warrensburg, Missouri.  The earlier flight had a final destination of Travis Air Force Base in California.  The other had a final destination of Charleston, South Carolina.  Bill and I ended up in Charleston the last time we did a Space A flight.  Of course, at that time, we were living in North Carolina.  Landing in South Carolina wasn’t such a great thing, though, since we left our car at BWI in Baltimore.  We ended up having to fly from Charleston to DC, where we took a series of subways and buses to get to the airport.  Yes, we could have flown directly to Baltimore from Charleston, but that would have required going on Southwest Airlines and I preferred not to do that.

Now that we live in Texas, we figured it was better for us to go to Missouri.  Stupidly, we figured we could get a direct flight from Kansas City, Missouri, since we had done it before.  Of course, that was in 2007 on a now defunct/merged airline.  But we didn’t know Thursday what we know now, which was that in order to get to Texas, we’d end up going through Atlanta again.

Anyway, Bill walked to the terminal to speak to the Space A folks.  He was told that the earlier flight was going to originate in Spain.  That meant that they might skip the Bangor stop.  The later flight was originating in Turkey, so that meant the crew would need to rest.  We’d end up overnighting in Bangor and probably trying to get commercial flights from there.  We decided to go for the earlier flight.

It almost looks like you could swim…

In the meantime, we had Thursday to kill in Rota.  We walked more around the town and went back down to the beach area.  The weather was pretty good and it was almost warm enough to take off our coats.

We stopped at a cafe and had a nice lunch.  I had ham croquettes and Bill had beef with Pedro Ximenez sauce.  I later learned that Pedro Ximenez refers to a sweet type of grape used to make wine.  Again, the area we were in is noted for its sherry.  Sure enough, the beef had a sweet sauce with raisins in it.  We both enjoyed a couple of beers before we walked back to the base to rest up for the evening.  I had to pee like a racehorse by the time we got to the gate, so we stopped at Baskin Robbins to see if they had a restroom.  They didn’t, but we got some ice cream anyway.

We walked to our room and I took a nap while Bill washed clothes.  While I don’t really enjoy military lodging, I can’t deny that having washing machines available is a huge plus.  It really cut down on the wash I’d have to do when we got home.

At about 11:00 or so, we checked out of the hotel.  We thought we were going to have to walk to the terminal, but it turned out taxis can get on base.  One picked us up and delivered us to the almost deserted terminal.  Bill noticed an older couple sitting near the sign up area.  He noted that those same folks were there earlier in the day and perhaps either declined to fly out or weren’t able to.

There were fifteen seats available on our flight and only seven people claimed them.  One was a dad with his three kids, all heading to California.  There was Bill and me and a guy who was a Seabee.  His wife was in the Navy and stationed at Rota, while he was the equivalent of a Naval Reservist.  He had to go to Virginia to drill.  The elderly couple seemed interested in our flight until they were told we wouldn’t be stopping in Bangor after all.  I’m guessing they must have stayed in the terminal for the next flight.  If so, that’s a long ass time to sit around an airport.  The Rota terminal offers free WiFi, though, so that’s one way to pass the time.

In any case, the flight was free, save for the $12 Bill paid for two boxes of food.  We didn’t even have to do that, really, since we were provided with snacks that were pretty generous.  They also gave us blankets and pillows, which was a good thing.  It got a bit cold on the plane.  I also had my own blanket and pillow and was actually able to sleep for a few hours on the floor.  I almost never sleep on planes.

The box of food.

We were on a C17, which is a huge Air Force plane that usually carries cargo.  We flew on one on our last hop back to the USA.  That time, the cargo was “hazardous”… probably ammunition or the like.  This time, we flew back to America with two big Apache helicopters!  There were two female senior airmen who were the “loadmasters” and they were very professional.  I enjoyed the safety briefing one of them gave us about what to do if the aircraft depressurized.  We put in ear plugs because those planes are not as insulated as passenger planes are and they are very loud.  I also had Bose noise canceling headphones, which were a Godsend.

This is the plane we were on last time we went Space A… very similar to the one we got in Rota.

 

As far as I’m concerned, flying on Air Force planes is the best way to travel.  A lot of times, you sit along the side of the plane, so no one reclines in your lap.  The crew is very laid back.  No one cares if you listen to your iPod or play with your iPad as you take off.  When the plane is in the air, you can lie down on the floor and sleep if you want to.  Some people even bring sleeping bags or air mattresses.  Baggage limits are liberal and you don’t have to pay for them.  The food is usually pretty good or at least edible and doesn’t stink.  And you get to fly home with helicopters!  I love it!

Inside the aircraft!

I got a kick out of these ads, obviously targeting Americans…

Adios Espana!