As I begin this letter, I'm sitting in the Omaha airport waiting for my plane...a bit longer than expected on the wait. I should expect travel delays during the holiday season but this is self-inflicted...I helped relieve Delta of $200.00 in travel vouchers for two hours of waiting / three in total time...back up to my old tricks. I can live with the delay...gives me time to start on my Yuletide greetings.
Another year passes...eh...time for another mass mailing. As I left you in the last Christmas letter, I was living in Tunisia and planning to spend my holidays in London...this is where life got really interesting. No, about the only change from my 1997 trip and the 2001/02 one was a major drop in temperature...summer vs. winter. I met my goal...a bit of civilization in a non-Muslim country...shopping, theater, movies, restaurants...some tourism action but not much...here's where life started getting weird...The boss called…you're heading to Israel.
Less than 48 hours after the call, my roommate and I were headed to Tel Aviv. Thanks to foggy skies and a half-day transit strike in Italy, we got pushed back five hours on the first flight which resulted into our connecting flight landing eleven hours late...03:00.
If I didn't get my 330-day tax exemption in Tunis, I'd hoped to visit my sister in Saudi. If you have an Israeli passport stamp, you can't get into Saudi Arabia. Israel, however, will grant your request of stamping a piece of paper in lieu of your passport. I'd hoped that they would do this. Coming into Tel Aviv at 03:00, I was either half awake or half asleep depending upon your perspective on life. Hearing the click of the passport being stamped, I was fully awake. Now, you can't just go to the embassy and get a new passport. New passports, since 9/11, have special printing they can't do at an embassy. You have to send it to DC to get a new one…not an easy task when you're abroad. Saudi was out but luckily; I got the 330 in Tunis…major financial bonus.
Our mission in Israel was business but we did quite a bit of sightseeing as well. The first Saturday off, (the typical Israeli workweek starts on Sunday through noon Friday) we heeded all warnings and headed to Jerusalem. It was calm and there were lots of tourist buses so we knew there would be no problems with security. You can catch all twelve pages of photos by clicking here. We saw the Garden of Olives and the Church of Gethsemane, Mary's tomb, the old city, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the room where Jesus and the Apostles had the Last Supper, and where Jesus taught the Our Father. Although I was a bit nervous, we traveled on to Bethlehem to see the birthplace of Jesus. We had an Arab tour guide who knew his way past the checkpoints and we never felt in danger.
During this trip, I was in total awe...dumbstruck. You could have spoken my name and I wouldn't have heard it. A lifetime of sitting in church and a dozen years of Catechism listening to stories of the Bible was now in front of my own two eyes. The Muslims say a prayer made during their Hajj to Mecca is worth 750,000 prayers said elsewhere. Mom says I now have a protective blessing from God. I don't know about that but I do know I had an experience I soon won't forget.
The next weekend we traveled north near Lebanon to Haifa and Caesarea. In Haifa, we saw the temple of the B'hai religion. Built into the hillside, the garden and temple bisect the entire city. The entire arrangement of fountains, retaining walls, sidewalks, flowers, plants, grass, and trees is a spectacular highlight to the trip. I could not begin to describe the tranquility.
Next stop was Caesarea for the Roman Amphitheater and the Crusades.
As reported in the media, security is something the Israelis take very seriously. Even our rental car had a code to enter before it would start. When was the last time you went through a metal detector before entering a shopping center? Soldiers would walk into restaurants carrying military rifles. Where I come from, folks would get a bit squeamish looking for the door but nobody gave them a second look.
Israeli males and females, with the exception of the men in black...the extreme fundamentalists, are required to give two years of military duty. During times of relative peace, the young Israelis see this as party time.
Both the Israeli and the Arab see the fighting in a sense of hopelessness that the fighting and even their own government is out of the control. They see the US as the only power that can bring peace.
The fiscal impact is phenomenal. Palestinians couldn't cross the border to work so they had no money. Israelis didn't go out at nights so restaurants, bars, and stores were closing their doors permanently on a regular basis. Our tour guide told us that the hotels were telling their patrons to avoid Bethlehem. During what would be a normal day, Bethlehem would see thousands of tourists. Late in the afternoon, we were numbers 7 and 8.
We stayed in a resort hotel right on the Mediterranean Sea. The place needed a remodel ten years ago. My room was on the first floor (second level) with two floors above. Somehow, rain still managed to leak on my bed. The hotel finally got a clue when a chunk of ceiling plaster fell to the floor.
The vast variety of ethnic cuisine coupled with my roommate's knowledge of Tel Aviv made eating a pleasure. We rarely ate in the same establishment twice.
I think the most astounding fact I learned about Israel is their religious tolerance...even for those associated with trying to put the Jews in the extinct category. I saw so many mosques while I was in Israel. Even one of the quarters of the old city is Muslim.
Anybody remember the story of the Israeli embassy photos and me? Read the 94 Christmas letter on the web site to get educated. It's time to bring it full circle. First of all, this chapter evolves around the American Embassy in Tel Aviv. Second, according to those in the know, namely government paranoids in charge of the paranoia, it's legal to take photos of any American government facility anywhere...but apparently not in Israel. One of the guys who'd done work there before asked for some. Knowing that it was legal, I said I'd try. Before I could aim the camera, the plainclothes guard said "no photos". "But I'm an American" (sound familiar?). "Doesn't matter!" No arrests...no incidents. I could have gone out to the beach to get the photo but I didn't want to push it.
During my two weeks there, our partners made me three offers to go to work for them. I have a security clearance to worry about and I'm loyal to my current employer so I told them that if they could swing it so that I could get the same signature on my check as before, I would. On the day they said I could return to Tunisia, they hired a consultant to do my job so I guess they withdrew their offer. In all seriousness, I wouldn't think twice about living there if my work was away from the West Bank and I was working for an American company. Away from the West Bank, where all the "fun" stuff is, you could be totally oblivious to the fun stuff if you ignored the headlines too.
We were sitting at a restaurant on the boardwalk enjoying the gorgeous sunny day and the scenery and the thought struck me...my friends think I'm dodging bullets. No, no incidents took place. Even in the US, we know of certain areas of town that maybe or may not be OK during the day but are definitely not OK at night. Yet there are areas where we know are safe nights or days. Such is the case of Israel. You'll know right away if you're in an area where you shouldn't be. Learn those areas and your problems will be few. To totally dismiss Israel as a total war zone based upon inflated media reports is just plain wrong.
For those that don't know, in simple terms, I'm a construction engineer who specializes in making bar charts. Usually, the company brings me in to do the legal / big money stuff. It was quite a difficult process trying to explain this to the security folks at the Tel Aviv airport...especially to someone who has to translate everything I say into Hebrew. Between the cat and mouse game of twenty questions (guess who the mouse was?)...each question asked three more times making it the new 60+ question version and the item by item, inch by inch, full scale search of all my possessions and my person, I killed a whole 45 minutes entertaining the cat. My roommate, a Brit, left two days before I and got to play double Jeopardy for 90 minutes. I admit that the guys had primed me for this rigid interrogation...they play no favorites...everybody gets the third degree! I didn't sleep the whole night before fretting about this (remember Turkey and Jamaica?). I had to snicker when these Einsteins squeezed my toothpaste and...SURPRISE!!! Toothpaste blew out of the top of the tube...what morons! Everyone should play this game at least once in their lifetime! By the time they did the body search and were confident that I had no explosives in my socks, they gave me an escort to the airport counter (another brand of incompetent) and through the security checkout. At the top of the stairs...I encountered another security checkpoint where they were proud to tell me that my shoes contained no explosives. Thank God! I was so worried! I now sleep better at night knowing this. Guess I have some radical with bombs in his shoes as now my shoes have tested negative twice! I could have saved them the hassles...ask my boss and he'll confirm there are no explosives in my shoes...or any other part of me.
For the record, I wasn't hiding anything from the Israeli security folks but they seemed to infer that I was. The guys at work coached me saying to answer the question like you would a lawyer in court...nothing less or more than the answer required...don't volunteer anything...I can do that! I've played word games with the best of them.
Aid, the second one, held two months after the first, gave us a three-day weekend. It seemed a shame to spend a long weekend doing the same old thing so I broke out the travel dreams and came upon Rome on the suggestion of my roommate. The cost of the trip was obscenely low and everything was relatively inexpensive when compared to my other European travels. I had a week to get things back to normal before jumping on a plane to Rome. I booked the whole trip on the Internet...flight and hotel...a first for me. I booked the London hotel on the Net. This is the first time I've done both. Italy's national carrier, Alitalia, is either right on or really far off. They screwed up the flight from Tunis to Milan...sending us to Rome and giving as an eleven hour delay during my flight to Tel Aviv. Here it was only an hour.
Hotels booked on the net are spotty. In both times, I booked four-star hotels. The one I stay at in London would get 2.5 max in my opinion. To their credit, Expedia told me it was under renovation but it was the lack of class and poor furnishings that should have been renovated years ago. My room in Rome was a bit smaller but far better worthy of its' four stars. Even if you book a chain hotel room, you cannot be assured of its' quality.
Travel around Rome was easy with the train and the subway. I did a lot of walking too. Having spent the year before in Tunis and before that, China, I was pretty much "templed out" in Israel. I trudged on to some of the more popular spots in Rome. I never used the taxis. I'm told it's not a thing for the weak of heart. Like Israel and unlike Tunis, you hit the crosswalk and the cars come to a halt. It's an admirable feature I rarely see...not even in the US. In Tunis, they rarely if ever look before crossing the road...generally at an angle with their back facing the oncoming traffic...no road sense. I'm told having no road sense is common in Arab nations.
When people estimate travel times or businesses advertise them, I usually double them just to be safe. As an exception to my rule, my hotel was a five-minute walk to the Vatican and ten minutes to the subway. I dropped by St. Peters Basilica on my first night there. I was there every day sightseeing or for Mass. Saturday, I attended a Mass in Italian...nope...only speak a few words but I did manage to follow along, as the structure is the same as English. The Mass on Sunday (Italian...no, I'm not one of those geniuses who can learn a language overnight) preceded the weekly blessing by the Pope. I'm told that he stayed out longer than usual for the unusually large crowd...a lot of youth groups in attendance. My impromptu interpreter didn't catch the message of February 24, 2002 so if anybody out there did, please let me know. No, I wasn't there on Wednesday for the audience with the Pope.
The other popular spots were the Forum and the Coliseum. I saw the Pantheon and the Spanish Steps. Walking anywhere in Rome, you're bound to stumble in to dozens of historic monuments...click a picture, look it up, and move on...been there, done that...templed out!
One of the best things about Rome are the many sidewalk eateries. If you're tired, hungry, or just want to hang, the next on is less than five minutes away. Stop by for the gelati (Italian ice cream), pastries, or a cappuccino, pizza, spaghetti...whatever.
An interesting story I can only now tell you. I called home from my hotel room in Tel Aviv…talking to Ma. She knew I was going to Rome but she commented that she didn't have time to send me some rosaries so I could have them blessed by the Pope during his weekly Sunday blessing. I was laughing inside. I was already a step ahead of her. In Bethlehem, I'd purchased as souvenirs, several wooden rosaries that contained water from the river Jordan as well as a wood covered Bible among other items from a gift shop a stone's throw away from the birthplace of Jesus. The Pope was going to get his seal of approval on them even before I talked to Ma. I had a priest from the Vatican bless these items as well as the Pope. Question to Ma…Don't you think you couldn't buy a Rosary in Rome?
After about a month of changing move dates, I finally left Tunis at the end of July for a week in Omaha where I did the usual post-project maintenance and new computer build...not much time for anything else. We turned over the Tunisian Embassy to the Owner in late October.
Since the beginning of August, I've called Birmingham Alabama my home. I'm living in a company furnished apartment and driving rental cars and a pick-up furnished by the company. Since it has a small gym, I've become a recluse barely leaving the complex except for work. Other than working in exotic locales, I'd consider myself plenty boring.
The company brought me here to help with job proposals...some cost estimating but mostly...construction scheduling. Through a gross miscommunication, I thought I was bound for our new project in Abuja, Nigeria but that fell through...at least for now...no disappointment here other than having to endure the hazards of working in a politically correct home office. Working in the home office also means less hours to work...no Saturday hours either.
We've had folks in Nigeria since October of this year. If you didn't know it, Abuja was supposed to host the Miss World Contest. The locals rioted to protest recent editorial comments of a local newspaper that wrote that the Prophet Mohammed would approve of the Miss World candidates…100 or so died in the riots. Our folks said you wouldn't have known what happened unless they heard it from us stateside folk. Before the rioting, candidates were dropping out to protest the unrelated stonings of two local women but the riots were the final blow. The contest was moved to London.
My mother summed up both visits from my Saudi sis and me...we dump our luggage all over the basement living room and bedroom until the very last hour before we leave. We buy new stuff and trash the old...empty packages and clothes varying in states of cleanliness are everywhere. Yes...any reference to tornados passing through or WWIII are applicable. Since I've been in the US for four months, my apartment has become my latest distribution center / DMZ.
I've done some traveling since I arrived in Birmingham. First destination was a car trip to Virginia. I visited old friends and discovered that my passion for longer road trips just died...too many accumulated frequent flier miles.
I used some of those flier miles flying to Miami to visit a friend. We hit the sites around Miami and drove down to Key West for the day.
The company decided they wanted to replenish those consumed miles sending me back to Tunisia to accompany construction materials that needed to beat the Fedex dude. International Fedex deliveries don't go over night unless you charter the entire plane under the guise of diplomatic material or you take it in your luggage...we opted for the latter using me as the pack mule. My trip was hastily arranged on Monday to leave on Thursday. Then the schedule was rearranged on Tuesday to leave that Tuesday...in less than an hour. I arrived the next day, stayed two more, and left on Saturday. Jet lag stayed longer than I was gone...and I didn't get even a two-bit tour. Overall, from a personal standpoint, I wasn't happy about going for personal reasons I don't care to divulge. I'd become brainwashed by the media into believing some of the garbage they're pushing on the news circuit. Having gone and gotten reacquainted to my friends, I've become a larger cynic about the American based media…don't believe everything you read and hear on TV folks! The folks our media has made to be villains may not be villains…most are family folks with the same wants and needs you and I have. Yes, there are bad apples everywhere…even here.
I spent Turkey day at home with the family...the first Thanksgiving I haven't worked in six years. The next day, I went to see my alma mater cap off a miserable season in flaming defeat. No, I didn't get to spend much time at home for Thanksgiving…long story I'd rather not get into right now.
I did see one Braves baseball game. The better bet in Birmingham is the Barons...Birmingham's minor league baseball club...closer and cheaper...saw several of their games. Musical entertainment in Birmingham is either feast or famine...too many shows or nothing. I dumped more than a c-note on two tickets only to get stood up. I traded two tickets for one and twenty bucks. I figured out that if you're willing to take a chance, you can buy concert tickets at fire sale prices. I did just that for the next show...somebody gave me a ticket to the show...my new concert plan...scalp the scalpers! I haven't tested that plan yet...I was given my next tickets by someone in the office. So far, I've seen Tom Petty, Jackson Browne, Alan Jackson, 38 Special, and Lynyrd Skynyrd...just three shows!
Driving overseas brings a whole new meaning to what we learned about defensive driving in driver's education. My worst fear in returning to the US is driving like I have to do while I'm overseas….no…I have to do it or I wouldn't go anywhere. Probably the biggest fear is thinking I'm in Jamaica and hopping into the car after a beer or two…they drive on the left side of the road in Jamaica. I've been pretty good at holding back but I do, however, catch myself making a mad dash for a parking spot to beat out someone else who's looking at the same spot. Recently, I saw someone I knew that must have been from an Arab country. They crossed the double yellow no passing markers, passed a dozen or more cars waiting for the left turn arrow, and drove to the front of the line…a typical Arab trait…knew they must have been from an Arab country. I'm unaccustomed to traffic jams. In Tunis, we were either waiting on the president's motorcade or his goats to cross…
When I returned to the US in August, I hadn't been home since June 2001. I knew I'd be in for some form of change that was related to the 9/11 incidents. Airline security seemed to be tight at first but really, hasn't changed much…that scares me! Overall, it seems to me that the people of the US seem more patriotic and unified than before. I'm not a flag waver but the unity is impressive.
Recently, Alabama and Auburn played in their annual slugfest football game, the infamous Iron Bowl. Nicknamed after the iron foundries that are in downtown Birmingham, the Iron Bowl has a rich history. I've never been to an Alabama or Auburn game. It's the hottest ticket in the state. Word had it that folks were asking $400 for a seat. Even when both sides aren't going to a bowl game and one side is totally outmatched; it's still a slugfest that commands the attention of the entire state. Either you route for Auburn OR Alabama…not both. Same goes for the entire season…Alabama OR Auburn…not both. When I first came to Birmingham in 1996, I arrived at the time when the Iron Bowl was being held in Birmingham. It was a wild, circus environment. The game is no longer held in Birmingham…rotated to the two schools in alternating seasons. The folks here in Birmingham, including myself, miss the days when it was here in Birmingham.
A friend of mine was anticipating her return to the US at the time I was about to go back. For her, she would be going months afterwards. She said the thing that she looks forward to most is going to the grocery store for one stop grocery shopping. It's ironic that this is the one thing at makes life in the US too easy to suit me.
On a similar note, an associate noticed that many of the international folks, such as me, have a tendency to gain a bit of girth upon returning to the US. We hit too many of those convenient fast food restaurants and convenience stores and the pounds just congregate. The first time I returned from long term overseas work I put on a sizeable chunk…I'd guess around 35 pounds. However, since June 2001, I lost a total of seventy pounds in about nine months so I'm working hard at not falling into the rut of gaining the weight back. I've put a scale in my bathroom that I check daily. It's a weekly battle that I seem to win around Thursday but lose on the weekend…idle time and holidays are a gluttonist's workshop. Overall, I'm doing pretty well but it is a constant struggle.
Several months ago, a friend and associate came to Tunisia to visit. We'd arranged to have dinner at a local restaurant with many of our crew who had worked with this person. The main topic of conversation was all of the travels each had done. While we hadn't been to lots of the places mentioned, we're captivated by the conversation and store the information for future reference. Everybody was talking about the exotic foods consumed at the many restaurants they'd eaten at over the years. Me, I'm a homebody when it comes to eating. Even though I may travel to exotic locales, I usually eat at home. I stick to that trend except for a couple of meals a week. They made me feel bad because I like to eat at home.
OK, the kinky part… A couple of weeks ago, we had our Christmas party at a swank country club near the office. I've either been at home or abroad during the Christmas party. It was a first for me. For years, I've searched for the old suit to no avail. It has to be in storage in Virginia…been there since 94. A coat and tie were required. By now, you might have guessed, I broke down and bought such attire…there are photos of me in a coat and tie. I got reacquainted with some associates I worked with in Jamaica. It was interesting seeing the spouses of the people I've worked with for eight years…another first.
Living in Birmingham hasn't been kind to the sinuses. In China and Tunisia, I got used to the dry climate. Here, the humidity changes with the dates on the calendar. I'm not a big consumer of aspirin…until I arrived here. I never thought Birmingham would have much of a winter. When I went home for Thanksgiving, I brought back my winter coat…hasn't stayed on the shelf.
How could another year go by without a plug for the email address (link left and above)…and…the web site http://www.blueloutimes.com? I have around 400 photos including those of Rome and Israel.
2001 was my twenty-year high school class reunion. My biggest fear is that I'd been living out of the US for so long…seven years (at the time) outside the contiguous US when you count Alaska. I'm not married…have no house. I don't own a car. In summation, I can't relate to the latest pop culture fad or most current events. A conversation with someone who can't relate to my life and I can't relate to theirs usually fizzles in about five minutes. No, for other reasons, I didn't go to my reunion but I find I have that same problem now that I've been back for nearly four months.
Overall, I'd have to say that 2002 was one of my best years considering I've been to both Holy Lands…not many folks can say they've been to one. I'll even get to go home for Christmas.
I was talking to my sister's boyfriend. He asked me what I was going to buy myself for Christmas...stumped me on this one. Well, I've been stateside for over four months now…my credit card bills will prove that I have been buying toys. I've been scratching my head on that one too. Toy management is something I take very seriously. Usually, I have a really good idea on the latest toy to buy but I've maxed out on MP3 jukeboxes my latest craze (I have four jukeboxes and one small player to take care of my 350 album collection...a full time offshoot of toy management)…and I've got a relatively new laptop…there is still time for inspiration though. Frankly, it's impossible to buy myself presents…or for anyone else to buy me things. Rule of thumb...it…has to either fit in a suitcase and survive the airlines or endure a slow boat to an exotic locale. I've applied that theory to my single status. Even if they were willing, a wife wouldn't fit in a suitcase nor survive a container...at least, not without a fight.
I'm happy to write that the entire family has entered the digital age. The folks finally have email. I tried to get to get them a PC but they resisted. They now have a computer that only does email...no pictures or programs but...it's a start. Send me a note and I'll send you their address.
Like this summer, when I head home for Christmas, I'll get to see 80% of the sisters...Saudi sis couldn't make it.
There weren't any big family events this year. Barb and Steve moved back to Chicago from the DC burbs. Lisa and Eddie are talking about drywall going up inside their house...been working on that sucker for three years. Gigi is balancing single parenthood, work, and school in hopes of becoming a graphic artist...illustrated her first magazine this year. Theresa changed jobs...not fond of my investing hero and fellow Husker...Warren Buffett. Michelle and Pat and company are doing well in Saudi although Americans aren't as welcome as they were before 9/11. Mom still works part-time while Dad fights retirement. I'm preparing myself for 2003. Yes, I cross that monumental threshold of the Big 4-0. Perhaps, someone can point out to me the origin of the related stress of turning 40.
For those that follow Mr. Ed, he's going to be a daddy next year…you draw your own conclusions.
Right now, I have no idea on how long I'll be here. We have good prospects of getting work in Jordan and East Timor (near Indonesia) but my only travel plans are going home for Christmas and New Years. Perhaps, I'll fit in a trip to the Big Easy early next year. We've booked a road to an NU bowl game in Shreveport, LA. Yes, it was a pathetic season but I've never been to one so what the hay!
To my regular email readers, I apologize for the repetition. To all, I apologize for the form letter but I'd like to think that my letters are read (or at least skimmed over) before they tossed. Finished the last one yet? Drop me a line.