Monday, March 31, 2014

Reading up…

Since Bill and I don't have any big vacations planned right now, I've been reading a book written by a travel writer.  Having grown up in the 80s, of course I knew him better as an actor.  Andrew McCarthy was adorable in the early 80s, with his sensitive, pensive persona.  Now he writes travel articles for National Geographic.

I think I found out about his book, The Longest Way Home: One Man's Quest for the Courage to Settle Down,
 on CNN in 2012.  I've had it on my Kindle for ages and just started reading it last week.  He's a surprisingly good writer, the same way Rob Lowe is.  Actually, I think I like Andrew McCarthy's writing more.  He seems less Hollywood… plus, he reminds me of one of my best friends.

One thing Andrew McCarthy wrote about that kind of interests me is a cruise down the Amazon on a somewhat new luxury ship.  Or, at least I think that's the one he was on, based on his description of it.  I don't remember him expressly identifying it.  It could have been this ship, too...  The book is not so much about Andrew's travels as it is about how travel has changed him and his life.  

I had read about Aqua Expeditions a couple of months ago and it seemed like a once in a lifetime experience that I would love.  Granted, getting to Iquitos is a bit of a challenge, plus you have to worry about things like malaria and mosquitos.  It still looks very interesting, though, and you can do a week or just a few days.  I think I would enjoy seeing howler monkeys and pink dolphins.  I don't know when we'll be able to do another amazing trip.  I hope it will be sooner rather than later, but realistically, we have to find Bill a good job and settle somewhere.  And then he needs vacation time, which will take some time to build up.

A year ago, I was sure we would stay in San Antonio.  Now I'm not so sure.  At this point, none of the jobs Bill has applied for are in Texas.  It's very likely my next hotel stay will be on the way to yet another new city.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Our afternoon at Big Hops Gastropub, San Antonio, Texas...

Bill decided he wanted to go out for lunch today, so off we went to the brand new Big Hops Gastropub.  Prior to opening the Gastropub, Big Hops was known as a "growler station".  You could go there and fill up on exotic craft beers.  Bill heard about them opening a restaurant and decided we needed to check it out.

First impressions…  We seated ourselves at a table and I immediately noticed the great music.  They were playing classic rock, which goes great with American craft beers.  Everything here in is on draft and from the USA.  But don't come here looking for Lone Star or Shiner Bock.  These beers come from smaller breweries.

Bill checks out the computer monitor for beer choices.  There are two of them on the walls.  Some say they are hard to read, but we didn't have any trouble.

The menu.

A shot of the beer menu on the wall.

My first beer.  This was a Schwarzbier from Live Oak Brewery.  Quite nice!  I like the little beer keg glass, too.

Caedmon's Ale from BS Brewing for Bill...

The waitress talked us into these insanely delicious Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Curds.  They were $10, served with house made ranch dressing.  Sinful and addictive as hell.  We did bring about a third of them home.

Bill's Korean BBQ served on a steam bun.  It had cucumbers and pickled cabbage.  He liked it.

My Tinga… Basically chicken in a spicy sauce with onions, cheese, tostadas, and a side of sour cream. I couldn't eat all of this.  It was very spicy and I had filled up on the curds.

Bill's Odell 90 Schilling Scotch Ale.  He wasn't that impressed with this...

Prairie Ale's Vanilla Noir… $10, served in a snifter, and 12.5% ABV.  Positively awesome!  I am loving Oklahoma's Prairie Ales.

Someone got cute in the ladies room…  Not me.

My third beer… a Deschutes Black Butte Porter.  This was a nice way to cap off our first trip to Big Hops.

We left with two 32 ounce growlers.  

Enjoying the Stone right now…  We spent about $100, including the two 32 ounce growlers, lunch, and lots o' beer.

All in all, we really enjoyed visiting Big Hops.  We had a good server who knew the menu and the beers very well.  She was laid back and not stressed and I was impressed that she knew about Prairie Ale's Bomb, which is fucking fantastic.  The atmosphere was not all that exciting, but I did like the beers on offer and the music-- nice mix of heavy metal and classic rock with a few TVs showing sports.  The food is good, but be warned that there's not anything on the menu that is vegan friendly.  Vegetarians might also be challenged.  Big Hops doesn't take American Express and is discontinuing a couple of items on the menu.  Still, I think in time, this is going to be a very happening place in San Antonio.  I bet we'll be back.

An awesome book about what it's like to be a waiter on a cruise ship...

I read and loved this book by Brian D. Bruns, who has the distinction of being one of the only Americans to ever work a full contract waiting tables on a Carnival Cruise ship.  What one will do for love is always surprising!

Ever wonder what it's like to work as a waiter on a cruise ship?

 Mar 28, 2011 (Updated Apr 20, 2011)
Review by    is a Top Reviewer on Epinions in Books
Rated a Very Helpful Review

    Pros:Very well-written and funny.  Offers a unique perspective of a truly thankless job.

    Cons:May be a little insulting to some Americans, especially if they cruise Carnival.

    The Bottom Line:You may never look at cruising in quite the same way again.

    So, a couple of days ago, I reviewed a book by Jay Herring called The Truth About Cruise Ships.  I was so interested in reading about Herring's experiences fixing computers for Carnival Cruise Lines that I decided to look for a similar book.  That's when I found Brian Bruns' 2008 memoir Cruise Confidential: A Hit Below the Waterline.  Like Jay Herring, Brian Bruns is an American who worked for Carnival Cruise Lines.  Unlike Jay Herring, Bruns was not hired to be an officer on a cruise ship.  In fact, as of 2008, Brian Bruns has the distinction of being the first and perhaps the only American in Carnival Cruise Lines' history to last an entire eight month contract working as a crew member in the dining room.  Having had some experience with restaurant work myself, I was pretty curious about Bruns' experiences, which I could only imagine were mostly insane.  Naturally, I had to download the book on my Kindle and once I started reading, I couldn't put it down.

    Why Brian Bruns submitted to the torture of waiting tables for Carnival...  

    People do strange things for money.  And there are plenty of hardworking folks from all corners of the world who would love to work on a cruise ship.  The work is extremely intense and the living conditions are difficult, but the money can be very good for people who hail from some of the poorer countries in the world.  By contrast, most Americans would find cruise ship pay to be too low, especially for the vast amount of work staff members must do and the long hours they are expected to be on the job.  Consequently, people who hail from "first world" countries like the United States usually have a tough time of cruise ship life and don't stick around for long.  

    Brian Bruns decided to work for Carnival for reasons other than money.  He chose to work for Carnival, and specifically in food service, because of his Romanian girlfriend, Bianca, who was a head waitress.  Bruns was madly in love with Bianca and never hid the fact that he wanted to be with her.  So as a man in his late 20s who had already been married, divorced, and had started and lost his own company, Bruns felt ready to accept the Carnival challenge.  He'd had years of experience working in fine dining and was young and healthy.  The lure of the seas beckoned him.  And when he was interviewed for the job, Carnival promised that he would be working his way up to management...  a promise that turned out to be as empty as Bruns' stomach apparently often was.

    Hindsight is 20/20 

    Off Bruns went to "Carnival College", an intense training program for new hires in food and beverage.  He spent a month among other Carnival employees from all over the world learning all about serving Americans on cruise ships.  He aced the training and was sent to the Conquest, which was where his beloved Bianca worked.  But Bruns soon found his new job to be so intense and all encompassing that he never got to spend any time with Bianca.  In fact, Bruns' experiences gave him an inside view of just how political and crazy working on a cruise line can be, especially if you're an American.

    My thoughts

    I really enjoyed Cruise Confidential.  In fact, for many reasons, I think it's superior to Jay Herring's book,The Truth About Cruise Ships.  First of all, Brian Bruns is a much better writer than Jay Herring is.  He's very funny and engaging and has a real knack for dialogue.  I got a great sense of who he was as well as his co-workers.  Jay Herring is a competent writer, but Brian Bruns is a very talented writer, and that makes a huge difference.

    Second of all, while Herring had some wild stories about fixing computers for staff members, Bruns had some wild stories about the passengers, as well as the Carnival staff members' attitudes about the passengers.  As the lone American working in food and beverage, Bruns' co-workers often forgot about his nationality and were very candid about their opinions of Americans.  Let's just say, they often weren't very flattering and, from what I could tell by Bruns' stories, I could definitely see where they came from.  Of course, having worked in a restaurant or two myself, I have plenty of my own stories about obnoxious customers, most of whom were American, but a few of which were not.  But my stories pale miserably in comparison to the stories Bruns relates about Carnival Cruise Lines' dining rooms.  Yikes!

    I think Brun's experiences working in food and beverage made for much more compelling reading than Herring's experiences fixing computers, particularly since his experiences were so unique.  Besides getting a different view of Americans, Bruns also learned a whole lot about other people from around the world and passes that knowledge on to his readers.

    Finally, I admire Bruns' spunk and apparently, so did the people he worked with.  He had a lot of friends, probably owing to his marvelous sense of humor and ability to keep cool in a crisis.  In one section, he relates the story of a morbidly obese family from Alabama who nearly drove him and his female Romanian assistant (not Bianca) crazy with their insane food orders.  The Romanian waitress had referred to overweight Americans as "cow-people".  She stereotypically pointed out that Americans were too fat, too stupid, and too nice, and in order to satisfy them, all you had to do was give them food.  While I know that the Romanian waitress's categorization was not entirely accurate, I could see it as accurate given the fact that she was working for Carnival, which tends to be one of the cheapest cruise lines out there and perhaps attracts the less cultured segment of American society.  Anyway, this morbidly obese family was so heavy that four out of the six of them had to use scooters to get around because they couldn't walk.  They had no qualms about ordering several entrees each.  I am no skinny mini myself, but I can't even fathom eating that much.  Having waited tables and knowing how hectic and dangerous it can be, I cringed for the the poor Romanian waitress in Bruns' story as she dealt with that disastrous group as I cheered for Bruns as he handled the situation when it really went south.


    If you've ever been curious about what it's like to work on a cruise ship and why it's so important to tip the staff, I definitely think Cruise Confidential is worthwhile reading.  Brian Bruns had me captivated from page one and I literally had a hard time putting his book down once I started reading it.  Five stars from me!

    For more information:

    Edited to add: This review is for the first of four books in a series.  I have read and enjoyed all four!  

    Wednesday, March 19, 2014

    And finally, how my late beagle Flea helped break down barriers in Germany...

    We lost our beagle, Flea, in November 2009, right after we moved back to the States from Germany.  While we lived in Germany, Flea ended up being both a hinderance and a help to us.  Most of the adults didn't like him because he was really loud and obnoxious.  Kids loved him, though, and he did help break the ice between us and our German neighbors.

    Flea, canine ambassador, helps us break cultural barriers in Germany!

    Sep 12, 2008 (Updated May 9, 2012)

    The Bottom Line If you live in a German neighborhood, it's good to have dogs.

    It's hard to believe that on September 17, 2008, my husband Bill and I will have been living near Stuttgart, Germany for an entire year. The time has gone by fast and, after just a little bit of a culture shock and six weeks spent in a hotel, I find that I actually really love living here.

    Bill and I have been very lucky since we arrived in Germany. First off, we didn't get stuck living in a stairwell apartment on any of the local military installations. Bill is an Army officer and, as such, is subject to strict rules regarding housing. The biggest rule is that if there is housing available on a military installation, the servicemember must accept it unless he or she has a very compelling reason not to. As it turned out, when we first arrived in Germany, a lot of the housing was being renovated or was otherwise occupied. That meant that we were allowed to live in German housing on the economy. We ended up finding a huge house in a charming little town about twenty miles south of Stuttgart. The area is beautiful and authentic. Better yet, we have quiet and privacy.

    A lot of people prefer the stairwell apartments on post because they are convenient. After all, people who live in those quarters are surrounded by their fellow Americans. Work, school, and shopping are closeby and the area is certainly secure, since armed guards man the entrances. If Bill and I had children, perhaps living on post would have been worthwhile for us. However, living off post and out in the country has turned out to be great... mainly because after ten months, I'm finally starting to get to know and like my German neighbors!

    Even though Bill and I first moved into our house in November 2007, it's only been very recently that we've started talking with our next door neighbors. Their household consists of an older couple and their daughter, her husband, and their adorable little two year old boy. When we first moved into our house, I immediately sensed that the family patriarch next door didn't trust us. He seemed to gaze at our unkempt lawn with contempt, while his lawn and garden were kept pristine. Once, when my dogs were barking at him through the window, I saw him yelling back at them... of course, I couldn't hear what he was saying because he was in his glass enclosed patio area. Even if I could hear him, I wouldn't have been able to understand him. But his facial expressions and body language said a lot.

    Ironically, it was our dogs that eventually got us talking to each other. My older dog, Flea, is a beagle who sort of behaves like a little canine ambassador. He loves children of all ages and is especially enchanted by little ones. The little boy next door, an adorable tyke with blond curls, is certainly worthy of enchantment. Every time we took Flea outside and he heard the little boy, Flea would start to whine. The little boy seemed equally intrigued by Flea and MacGregor (my other beagle). He would stand at the edge of his lawn and gaze at the dogs as if he longed to pet them.

    One day, Flea saw the boy and let out a pained, eager yelp, which made the boy's parents laugh. Bill took the dogs to the edge of the lawn and starting using his very basic German skills. It turned out the younger couple spoke some English. They chatted for a bit while Flea eyed the two year old, who shyly backed away. But it wasn't long before the boy finally started to pet Flea, who was as gentle as a lamb.

    After that, I noticed the family was a lot friendlier. We would trade "Guten Morgens" in the mornings and wave cordially. Flea would continue to fret whenever the boy was outside, amusing everybody.
    One day a few weeks ago, the boy's mother stood at the edge of our yards with a small bucket and asked me in German if we liked raspberries. Apparently, they'd had a bumper crop! With that invitation, Flea dragged me over to where she was standing, eager to visit with her little boy, who was hiding behind her. She apologized for her English skills, which I thought were pretty darn good. We ended up chatting for awhile and she confessed that her son had developed a fascination for dogs.

    A couple of weeks later, when Flea demanded to have a chat with the toddler next door, the boy's mother said that she and her husband had bought the boy a toy dog. He had named it Flea and slept with it every night! Also, the boy had taken to using the word English word "dog" instead of the German word, "hund". We both had a big laugh when I asked her if she knew what the word "flea" means in English. I soon found myself describing what a flea is and telling her that Flea's rescuer had been the one to name him! Her little boy presented me with a little branch full of cherry tomatoes he'd helped his dad grow in their green house. The boy's mom said she hoped they were sweet enough.

    The other night, Bill was working late and I found myself chatting with the neighbors again. The family patriarch had joined us. I was a little worried about how he would react to Flea and MacGregor being nearby, since they had seemed to annoy him when we first moved in. But when Flea went up to him, he seemed happy to give him lots of attention. Apparently, he'd had dogs as a boy, though he was not familiar with beagles... for which I finally learned the German word. I haven't seen many beagles in Germany and have actually been stopped a couple of times by neighbors who have asked me if Flea and MacGregor are beagles. I get the feeling they aren't common here, though people seem to think they're pretty cute. On the other hand, I'm not sure that many Germans understand that beagles bay when they get on a scent. I've gotten a lot of surprised and annoyed looks at times...

    Since we've been in Germany, my dogs have helped me break the ice with my German neighbors all around. I also get the feeling that they provide some entertainment for the local children. A couple of months ago, we were victims of repeated "ding dong ditching". A local prankster would ring our doorbell in the early evening, then run away. Of course, it would get the dogs going, which I'm sure was the purpose for the prank. We ended up disconnecting all of our doorbells. In a way, that's not a bad thing. Most of the people who ring our doorbell nowadays are people trying to sell something... including religion.

    It's true that getting our dogs to Germany and taking care of them here has been, in some ways, a challenge. And goodness knows we'd be able to travel more if we didn't have our dogs to consider. On the other hand, I doubt I'd be getting to know the neighbors if it weren't for Flea and his affection for kids. I think having our dogs is going to really enrich this whole international experience for us. And MacGregor, as shy as he can be, is even getting in on the act!

    MacGregor is looking at the camera while Flea looks off to the side...

    The German trash system...

    I wrote this two weeks after I posted about our first two months in Germany.  I was feeling a little flummoxed about the way things are done in Deutschland.  I'm not sure I ever did quite get the hang of the trash system.

    Five trashy things in Germany I haven't yet figured out…

    Nov 30, 2007 (Updated Dec 3, 2007)

    The Bottom Line Someday, before we go back to the States, I hope I will have mastered the rubbish system here in Germany.

    My husband Bill and I have now been living in Germany for about ten weeks. During that time, our bodies have become accustomed to the new time zone. Our eyes have become used to the new landscape, which actually looks a lot like the beautiful Shenandoah Valley in Virginia, where my family is from. Our intestines have gotten acclimated to the new water and food. I know this is TMI, but I, for one, have only suffered from a truly nasty case of traveller's diarrhea once since our arrival. Wish I could say that about my time in Armenia about ten years ago.

    Anyway, I think Bill and I have gotten used to a lot of things in Germany. Unfortunately, there are still a few things we haven't yet gotten the hang of...

    5. Our compost heap- It seems that many of our German neighbors are fond of composting their natural waste. It makes sense and of course, makes for some great topsoil for the spring. We have a compost heap in our back yard. I sort of get the concept of it. It looks like a tall wooden crate/box divided into two parts and surrounded by chicken wire. Bill says we're supposed to put natural waste like leaves, rotten fruits and vegetables, coffee grounds, grass clippings, and animal excrement on the heap. Then, on a regular basis, we're supposed to rotate the heap so that the stuff turns into nice soil. Well, suffice it to say, our heap is a mess. It's not entirely our fault. It was a mess when we moved in. We thought we'd be living in an apartment when we moved here, so we didn't bring our garden tools and haven't gotten around to buying new ones yet. Consequently, the compost heap is close to overflowing and I'm really missing our good old fashioned trash compactor.

    4. The concept of residual waste- Here in Germany, trash must be separated into several different categories. That's different than how it is in the United States, where we have big bins to put all of our trash and a separate container for all recyclables. Our landlord was kind enough to tell Bill where he needed to go to get our container for so-called "residual waste" after he paid about ten euro for a sticker from the local government. Bill came back with a short, squatty little plastic container that looks like it can handle about twelve liters of "residual waste". He put the government sticker on the little trash can said the container was given to us based on the needs of our landlord's family over the years. At first, I was pretty perplexed, but then I realized the little can was only for "residual waste", and not for paper, natural garbage, plastic, metal, or glass. Apparently there aren't too many things that really qualify as "residual waste" and that's why the can is so small. The only problem is, I haven't yet figured out exactly what residual waste is if it's not any of the aforementioned things.

    3. The trash schedule- Back home, our trash was picked up on Mondays and Thursdays. The truck picked up bulk items and recyclables as well as regular trash on Mondays, while Thursdays were just for regular trash. Frankly, we didn't really need to have our trash picked up so often. Here in our little German town, however, different kinds of trash are picked up on different days. One day, only paper can be collected. Another day, it's residual waste. Another day, it's plastic and metal. And God help you if you screw up and put the wrong type of trash out on the wrong day. That's a big no no!

    2. Bulk items and packaging our trash- Bill and I moved into our house about a month ago and our stuff was packed in lots and lots of cardboard boxes. It took about a week to unpack everything. Thank God we didn't bring all of our stuff. After we were done, we were left with plenty of flattened boxes. Our landlord told us that we could order bulk items to be picked up. Bill noticed that people would leave their cardboard boxes out when it was time for paper to be picked up, but never a big pile like what we have. And I wonder, if I put out my paper, is it okay to put it in a plastic sack? Or will I get yelled at in German for that?

    1. The Gelbe Sack- For some reason, when it's time to pack up our plastic and metal trash, it's all supposed to go in a special yellow plastic sack called the Gelbe Sack. The Gelbe Sack looks like a thin yellow Hefty bag. We load all of qualifying trash into the bag and set it out for the trash collectors on the appointed date set on a special calendar. I wonder why plastic and metal gets a special sack, but other types of trash don't. It seems like it would make life easier for us idiots who need special help to figure out the trash situation here in Germany. I also wonder what I'm supposed to do with trash that qualifies as paper and plastic. What about those cartons that are mostly made of paper but have a plastic spout? Or worse, what if they're made of paper and foil and have a plastic spout? Which trash container should something like that go in? Or is that residual waste?

    After a few trial and error missions, we did finally figure out what to do with our glass and plastic bottles. Racks of bottles can be taken to local stores, where they get fed into a machine that spits out a receipt. The receipt can be used against the deposit for a new rack of bottles of beer, soda, water, or what have you. It's actually pretty cool. Turning in our bottles reminds me of dumping out spare change at the CoinStar. The machine senses how many bottles there are, what they're made of, and gives you a chit accordingly. For loose bottles and containers, there's a neighborhood place where glass bottles can be dropped off. The drop off bin requires people to separate the glass by color. But since dropping off glass bottles can be noisy, it's not supposed to be done during German quiet hours or on Sundays. We haven't yet found the drop off in our neighborhood, but when we do, I hope it's at an appropriate time of day!

    Bill and I talked to our landlord about our confusion last week. He took us out to dinner at a charming restaurant in Tubingen, which is the city closest to where we live. The landlord chuckled and said that Germans separate all of their garbage, but no one knows if it actually gets recycled or someone just burns it. I thought that was a pretty funny comment.

    As for now, I told Bill that we need to come up with some sort of system. We've got a bunch of different trash bags in our house and two big trash cans. Stuff gets all intermingled and when it's time to take out the trash, it's a big mess. We need one of those compartmentalized bins that will make it easier to separate everything. As it is right this moment, I'm up to @ss in different kinds of rubbish and it's making me feel like garbage!

    Another view from our yard…  I really miss Germany!

    Our first two months in Germany...

    I wrote this two months after we moved to Germany in 2007.  As it is a personal essay about our lives overseas, it seems fitting to repost it here before Epinions goes away forever.  Hope you enjoy… and I hope I can write about a new travel experience sooner rather than later.

    Our first two months in Germany...

    Nov 16, 2007 (Updated Nov 17, 2007)

    The Bottom Line Every new country brings with it a wealth of different experiences, good and bad.

    Today is a very important day for me and my husband, Bill. First of all, today is our fifth wedding anniversary. That's right. Five years ago today, it was a rainy Saturday morning and Bill and I took the plunge into holy matrimony on the campus of Virginia Military Institute. I re-entered life as a military dependent and Bill gave marriage another try. Happy anniversary, Bill. You are the love I never thought I'd find.

    Today is also an important day because it happens to mark the end of our second month in Stuttgart, Germany. I am not a stranger to living life abroad. Before I lived in Germany, I also lived in England and the Republic of Armenia. Granted, I lived in England as a small child; my first memories are of my dad's swan song as an Air Force lieutenant colonel based at Mildenhall Air Force Base. I lived in Armenia as a Peace Corps Volunteer, where I tried to work to better other peoples' lives while I tried to better my own. And now, I'm living in Germany as my husband's spouse. I don't have any specific purpose for being here, other than to be a family member.

    Because I had both lived abroad before and traveled through Germany, I thought I would have some idea of what to expect. But the truth is, every country is different, and with every different country one experiences, a certain amount of adjustment is to be expected. It seems to me that no matter how much I prepare for that initial culture shock, it still happens.

    We left the United States on September 16th. It was just me and Bill and our two beagles, Flea and MacGregor. I was worried about flying with the dogs, but they probably handled the flight better than I did. We landed at the big airport in Frankfurt in mid morning. I was tired, hungry, and cranky. I was not able to sleep on the flight thanks to the seat kicker sitting behind me and the reclining dude sitting in front of me. I was also not able to stomach the airline cuisine served on United Airlines.

    Once we got off the airplane, our first concern was finding Flea and MacGregor. Bill approached an airport official to find out where the oversized baggage was being offloaded. He needn't have bothered. As it turned out, all we needed to do was follow the sound of Flea's incessant howling, which could be heard all through the baggage claim. We found our two dogs being watched over by a couple of confused looking Germans who welcomed us to take the dogs out of their custody.

    A very efficient veterinary inspector came over to check the dogs' paperwork and make sure they were microchipped. We passed inspection, but she admonished us to get bigger carriers for our dogs if we planned to fly them back to the U.S. As we soon found out, Germans love their animals, especially dogs. As long as they're well-behaved, that is.

    Bill had gone to get us a rental car and I was left with a mountain of luggage and the two dogs. Flea was pitching a big fit about being in his carrier. MacGregor, by contrast, was happy as a clam in his little portable den. He was able to watch the world go by at a safe distance. Flea was howling up a storm, causing people to give me looks that ranged from the quizzical to the annoyed. At first, I thought it would be more practical to keep the dogs in their crates so that I could keep my hands free. But Flea was so upset that I finally pulled him out of the carrier and put him on his leash. He searched the crowds of people, looking for Bill and howling only slightly less. A couple of intrepid Germans tried to converse with me about the dogs, but alas, I don't speak the language. Thank God MacGregor was laid back in the airport.

    It wasn't long before Bill and I were ready to head south toward Stuttgart. I was plenty happy to let Bill tackle driving on the autobahn. By the time we started the trip to Stuttgart, my body was starting to give in to the need for sleep. I sat in the front seat of our rented minivan and dozed, alternately trying to get a radio station I liked. I chose a station that seemed okay and dozed off for a few minutes, only to wake up with an annoyed start.

    "Every song on this station sounds like a Mentos commercial!" I snapped, as I searched for a station that would play American classic rock. Those who like German pop music, please forgive me for my initial violent reaction. Bear in mind, at this point I was sleep deprived, hungry, and decidedly irritable. We hadn't had a chance to get a snack in the airport because we were in a hurry to put an end to Flea's concert in the baggage claim. Peppy German pop music was the last thing I wanted to hear at that point.

    We finally got to the Stuttgart area, but Bill got lost trying to find Patch Barracks, which is where our sponsor's wife was supposed to meet us. When we did finally find the post, we found that our sponsor's wife had stood us up. It wasn't really her fault. We were a little later than we expected to be, mainly because we were looking for Vaihingen and it turns out there are a couple of places called Vaihingen near Stuttgart. Bill went to the military police checkpoint and called someone from his new office, who helped us find the Marriott hotel.

    Flea and MacGregor were well received at the Marriott. One elderly gentleman seemed particularly enchanted with Flea. He stroked him over and over again, giving him lots of affection. We spent less than 24 hours at the Marriott, but it was long enough for us to find out that finding housing in the Stuttgart area can be quite a challenge for many people. I spoke to one lady who said she'd been housed in that hotel for over five weeks.

    The next day, we moved into a German hotel, run by an affable man of Albanian descent who had grown up in Montenegro. The staff was a lot of fun to watch because they behaved like a big dysfunctional family. The Hotel Vaihinger Hof is very popular with Americans because it's very close to Patch Barracks and relatively cheap. My initial reaction to the hotel was not a favorable one, but it grew on me quickly, mainly because I liked the staff. There was a young guy who worked there as a handyman who loved both of our dogs, even MacGregor, who is very shy and will rarely let strangers pet him. The handyman was also very fond of hanging out in the hotel restaurant and drinking a lot of the excellent German draft beer. Luckily, he was a friendly and funny drunk.

    Bill and I spent six weeks at the Vaihinger Hof and over the course of those weeks, we witnessed a wide variety of guests. The most exciting ones would have to be the Polish professional cycling team who stayed an entire week. They pretty much took over the hotel and its parking lot, setting up a training area where they practiced riding on stationary bicycles. We could tell the Polish cyclists were stressing out the innkeeper because they were dumping strange chemicals into the drainage system and using up a lot of water and electricity.

    I overheard the maid complaining about one room getting really trashed because a couple of the cyclists had indulged in too much alcohol. It wasn't long before I learned the word --krank-- the German word for sick. The maid used it several times as she spoke emphatically and publicly about the trashed room. The cyclists also left evidence of being krank in the hotel's parking lot... Unfortunately, I had to restrain Flea and MacGregor from trying to help clean up the mess.

    A couple of weeks after that, I became krank myself with my first nasty cold/flu. The hotel staff was very nice to me. The maid, who spoke no English, would ask me every morning how I was. One night, the restaurant staff put together a huge tray of food for us when Bill went down to ask them if he could get some food to take to me. I was too sick to eat in the restaurant. Flea and MacGregor were plenty excited that they could share our scraps. They're still not civil enough to go to restaurants with us.

    There was another American family staying at the hotel with us. They had been in the hotel since August. At this writing, that same family is still living at the Vaihinger Hof. They have found a house, but it's not available until the first of the year. The wife in this family is a dentist by training, but now spends her days homeschooling her three kids in the three hotel rooms allocated to them. We both commiserated. Sometimes living in a hotel can make one feel a bit like a refugee.

    Bill and I spent a lot of time watching international CNN at first, but for some reason, we lost CNN about halfway through our stay. Flipping through the German stations on our TV, we noticed a few familiar American shows dubbed into German, as well as some German shows that seemed to be based on American concepts. For instance, we found a German version of America's Got Talent. We also found a fascinating German reality show called Our New Life, which featured stories about German families who moved to other countries. And we became fans of the German version of the game show, Cash Cab, which is called Quiz Taxi here. Watching German TV is not a bad way to pick up a few words of German here and there.

    When it comes to finding a home, Bill and I have been luckier than some of our American colleagues. With the help of the extremely overworked and understaffed housing office at Panzer Barracks, we managed to find a beautiful home in the little town of Ammerbuch-Pfaffingen. Bill signed the lease in mid October, but we could not move in until the first of November. In accordance with German law, our new home had to be painted before we could take possession of it. By the end of October, Bill and I had found several favorite restaurants in the vicinity of the Vaihinger Hof.

    We would often go to a lovely restaurant called Pizzeria Michelle when we were in the mood for good Italian food. As far as we could tell, the place was run by an Italian family. There was one lovely lady who served us every time we ate there. It was this lady who introduced me to the wonders of panna cotta, a dessert I had never experienced before we came to Germany.

    We also found a great Greek place, where the owner would always greet us with a hearty Guten Abend! when we'd come in for an evening meal. The first time we ate there, I ordered an expensive fish dish. It seemed that not many people ordered this particular fish. We waited a long time the entree to come out, but when it finally did, I was very impressed. The owner brought it out, showing it off to a few other patrons as he brought it to our table with much fanfare. The fish had been slowly grilled whole and was accented with a delicious balsamic vinegar sauce. It was a wonderful treat. We would visit that restaurant again several times and each time, I'd order a different fish dish, satisfying my cravings for delights from the water.

    And yes, we had a favorite German restaurant, too, where I enjoyed wonderful duck adorned with mandarin oranges and sauteed vegetables. We quaffed fantastic dunkelweizen beer, while Bill enjoyed his tender sauerbraten. We ate some good food in October, but to be honest, Bill and I got pretty sick of eating in restaurants. We both like to cook and neither of us needs the extra calories that come from restaurant meals.

    Now, we're living in our house. Our landlord is a very nice guy who speaks English beautifully. I can stand on our deck and look out over a vast field. To the east, there's a big hill with a church atop it. To the south, there's another hill where horses graze. I can see a riding school from my windows, which is bittersweet sight for me, since I spent my childhood riding horses and haven't been in the saddle on a consistent basis since 1990.

    At this point, we're still trying to figure out the trash system and get used to driving in Germany. I'm sure I'll have a lot to say in the coming weeks about our cross-cultural experiences. For now, it's just interesting to take in all of the different sights and sounds of our host country... and marvel at the fact that there's already snow on the ground in November!

    The view from our backyard in Germany.  Wurmlinger Chapel is on the hill.

    Monday, March 17, 2014

    And a follow up...

    More on the Mad Scientist!

    A lesson in communication

    May 1, 2009

    The Bottom Line Sometimes it doesn't take language fluency to catch the drift of a conversation.

    A couple of weeks ago, my husband Bill and I visited Agais, our favorite Greek restaurant, for a bite to eat. Bill was fresh from a business trip to Latvia and it was cold and rainy outside. Neither of us felt like cooking and knew the proprietor of the restaurant, a man I affectionately refer to as "The Mad Scientist", would welcome our business.

    When we arrived at Agais, we found that our favorite booth was occupied. Luckily, the folks who had been sitting there were paying their bill and about to leave. While they were gathering their things, Bill and I took a seat at the next table. There was a large, noisy party of six Germans, three men and three ladies, seated at a table that was perpendicular to it.

    The Mad Scientist was very happy to see us and quickly cleared the booth for us. He brought out our usual glasses of red wine, perfect for such a chilly, wet evening. While we looked at the menu, I noticed that the large party had gotten louder. Aside from Bill and me, this party was the only other one in the restaurant. And they certainly behaved as if they were the only ones in the room. One man, sitting at the end of the table, seemed to be holding court. I don't speak German, but I heard him loudly mention the word "Schweiz" several times in a mocking tone accompanied by gestures. I got the feeling he was making fun of the Swiss and not in a good natured way.

    Bill and I chatted quietly over gyros and red wine while the folks at the other table kept sneaking glances at us. The ladies' laughter had grown ever more shrill as they continued to drink wine and chatter. I noticed that The Mad Scientist was playing different music, as well-- not his usual Greek party music, but some kind of live recording. I liked the change, but noticed the large party loudly protested when The Mad Scientist made a move to switch it.

    As I watched and listened to the group, I got the feeling that they were trying very hard to look like they were having a good time. They ordered more drinks and dessert, laughed boisterously and spoke in tones that suggested they were having the time of their lives. And yet, underneath their conspicuous show of merriment there seemed to be a subtle veneer of hostility, especially from the guy who had been making fun of the Swiss. He got up to smoke a cigarette and I noticed that the tension in the room had lessened a bit. Still, it seemed like there was an undercurrent of rudeness that was hard to ignore, not just toward us, but among the group members.

    Finally, the group paid their bill and got up to leave. When they were gone, The Mad Scientist came out of his kitchen chuckling. He looked at me and Bill and asked, "Do you understand German?"

    Bill speaks a little German, but sadly I don't.

    "Do you know why those people are here in Entringen?" he asked us.

    We said we didn't.

    He was still chuckling as he said, "Those people are here for marriage counseling. They're taking a class here as a last resort effort to save their marriages." The proprietor, who recently starting renting out an apartment above his restaurant, indicated that one of the couples was staying there and the group had been eating in his restaurant regularly. I certainly didn't know that the little town of Entringen had a marriage counselor that would merit a retreat.

    Suddenly, I started to understand why the room seemed so tense. I said, "That guy at the end of the table... he seemed to be making jokes at everyone else's expense." I didn't add that I had a feeling he'd been making fun of me and Bill, too.

    And The Mad Scientist laughed and said, "Oh yeah! He's the worst off of all of them."

    Then he smiled and said, "You know, I can tell that you and Bill don't have those problems." He gave Bill a fond look and said, "He has a big heart! I can tell that you two love each other."

    I heartily agreed with that, of course. Besides love for each other, we also have mutual respect. From what I could observe, even with my limited German skills, mutual respect was something that was lacking in the group who shared the atmosphere at Agais with us that night. Nevertheless, it was one of the more interesting experiences we've had since we moved to Germany!

    Remembering The Mad Scientist...

    I wrote the following piece in 2008, when I was living in Germany with Bill.  I loved visiting a little Greek restaurant called Agais in the town close to where we lived.  We never knew the proprietor's name, but referred to him as The Mad Scientist.  I was just missing that place right now and decided I'd better preserve my memories of it here on my travel blog…

    Our favorite neighborhood haunt...

    Sep 17, 2008

    One thing my husband Bill and I have noticed since moving to Germany exactly one year ago today, is that there are a huge number of Greek restaurants. When we lived stateside, we never ate Greek food, aside from the occasional fast food gyro. Here in Germany, I can think of at least four Greek restaurants within ten miles of our house. All of them are run by Greek natives, who serve fabulous Greek dishes with much fanfare. Since we've been in Germany, I have learned to love t'zatziki, a wonderful sauce made with yogurt and cucumbers. I have never liked yogurt much, but since moving to Germany, I have learned to love it with gyros. Sometimes, I actually get a craving for it, which means Bill has to take me out to our favorite Greek place.
    One night last fall, when neither Bill nor I felt like cooking, we decided to go out to dinner. The first place we tried was the Buffalo Bill Saloon, which is an American Old West restaurant located very close to where we live. But when we walked into the place, it was packed! We weren't in the mood for a crowd, so I suggested we try the little Greek place in next town, Entringen. Entringen is about two kilometers from Pfaffingen and we have to drive through it every time we want to go to Stuttgart. I had easily noticed Agais, the little Greek place, because it's on the main drag. Bill was agreeable to my suggestion, so we went to Agais and were delighted when we found it a lot less crowded than the Buffalo Bill Saloon.

    We walked into the restaurant. The lights were on, but no one seemed to be home! But then a older man with curly black hair and a ready smile came out to greet us. He directed us to choose a table, which we did. I started talking to Bill and the man looked at me curiously. He started speaking to me in a strange language. There was a moment of confusion, then the man realized that we were English speakers and spoke English to us. He said when we first walked in, he thought I was Greek! That really surprised me, of course, because I have very Celtic features.

    He handed us surprisingly detailed and comprehensive menus in German, then struck up a conversation. It turned out the man was Greek, but had spent many years in Canada working as an engineer. His first wife was German and she had brought him to Germany. He second wife is also German and they had decided to open the Greek place for his retirement years. We had a wonderful evening and I remember telling the man that since we lived fairly closeby, we would probably become regulars. And he smiled at me and said, "You should."

    A couple of months went by before we ventured back to Agais. When we walked into the restaurant, the Greek proprietor greeted us with a big smile and a hearty welcome. He invited us to sit down. I decided to have gyros for the first time in my life. I immediately noticed that Agais was a little different than some of the other places Bill and I frequented. For one thing, the owner always brings out a basket of bread for us. The meals are very substantial and usually include a salad. At the end of the meal, he brings out pistachio nuts and ouzo, as well as eucalyptus bon bons with the check.

    I also noticed that the owner always offers to make things just the way we want them. On our first visit, he noticed that I didn't eat a lot of the cabbage in my salad. I told him that I can't eat cabbage without creating a giant windstorm. So now he goes easy on the cabbage in my salad. I had a similar first response to t'zatziki, but have since learned to enjoy that with relish. He also knows what kind of wine we like. We sit down and he asks us if we want our usual Athos... a very tasty dry red that has the uncanny knack of putting Bill to sleep. Sometimes, especially in the summer when it's hot, I can be talked into enjoying a glass of chilled white retsina.

    I've noticed that while Agais is never packed, there are a number of loyal customers who seem to love the charming Greek proprietor. I've watched him negotiate with patrons over catering, chatting with them over pistachio nuts and ouzo as they settle on menus and the price. I've watched him teach his teenage son about the business, a young man who looks a whole lot like his father, complete with curly black hair.

    Our favorite Greek restaurant owner also likes to talk to us about politics. One night, he quipped that the American presidential race was quite exciting. Then, he added with a grin, that if Obama gets elected, he's liable to be shot! Bill and I exchanged nervous glances at this prediction, which gave us an interesting insight as to how some Europeans must look at Americans. I don't think he was serious... at least I hope he wasn't!

    On another night, we were the only customers until another couple entered. They sat down at a table near ours. The whole evening, the male half of the couple was speaking excellent German and the Greek proprietor was responding in kind. Then, just as we were about to pay the check and leave, the proprietor heard the man speaking English to his companion. It turned out they were Canadians. They were equally surprised to find out that Bill and I were Americans. We all had a good laugh as we realized that none of us were natives of Deustchland.

    Agais has also turned out to be a great place to take guests. When my friend Elaine and her husband came to visit, we decided to go out to dinner. Elaine is a strict vegetarian, though her husband doesn't mind eating meat. We went to Agais and the proprietor showed us out to his terrace, which was charmingly laid out with large tables. Elaine explained her aversion to eating meat and our favorite Greek restauranteur steered her toward the available meat free entrees. She ended up having a delicious tomato rice dish with feta cheese, while the rest of us had gyros. My friend was very impressed by Agais... and it occurred to me that this was not the kind of experience we would have in a typical American restaurant. In most American places, the emphasis is less on making sure people have a good time and more on getting them in and out, so as to increase profits. It's rare to become very friendly with restaurant owners, save for places in small towns.

    The last time we were at Agais, it was the first night it was open after the owner's annual three week vacation. We were the first ones there, of course, because as typical Americans, we eat early. By the end of the evening, several other local German families had joined us. It was pretty clear that Bill and I weren't the only ones missing Agais. The place will never be a tourist draw, and that's a good thing.

    Over the past year, Agais has become a place where Bill and I enjoy good food, good wine, and interesting conversation. It's also been a place where we learn about Greek and German culture. In fact, Bill has even asked our favorite Greek restaurant proprietor, whose name we have yet to learn, what places we should see when we finally make it to Greece. He's happy to tell us as he takes our orders and always seems genuinely glad to see us whenever we need to satisfy our cravings for Greek food. It's one of many things I will miss when it's time to go back to America.

    Sunday, March 16, 2014

    Our trip to Blue Star Brewing Company in San Antonio...

    If you read today's Overeducated Housewife post, you know that last night Bill and I met up with one of Bill's former co-workers and his wife.  Bill and I had been wanting to try Blue Star Brewing Company near downtown San Antonio.  A friend of ours from Houston who is into craft beers kept telling us to try it.  So we finally took the plunge last night…

    This is a photo of the front of the restaurant…

    Blue Star Brewing is in a small artsy community.  I noticed a couple of other bars/restaurants nearby and art galleries.  We didn't take the time to go exploring, since our companions were going to be joining us.  Upon entering the restaurant, we were asked if we preferred indoor or outdoor seating.  Since it was a beautiful evening, we opted to sit outside.  We sat at a picnic table with a nice view of the Riverwalk. 

    The menu.

    We perused the menu while we waited for our friends.  There were several tempting looking dishes being offered.  Blue Star has a number of burgers that are made with bison and beef.  They have salads, barbecue, some Tex/Mex inspired dishes, and other comfort foods.  

    A Raspberry Geyser

    The first beer I tried was the very refreshing and somewhat low boozed Raspberry Geyser.  It had 3.8% ABV.  This beer is no doubt popular with the ladies as it doesn't taste much like beer.  It's more like a Belgian lambic.  I found it very refreshing and it was probably my favorite beer of all those I tried last night.  The waitress did offer to bring me a taste before I ordered, but I decided I'd take a chance.

    Bill's Flying Pig Extra Pale Ale was a hit.  It was crisp, refreshing, and hoppy.

    Our friends arrived as we were enjoying the first round.  We ordered hummus to snack on while we decided on dinner.  The hummus was good, but the bread was a little hard.  I was worried about eating too much of it because I just had a crown prep done and didn't want to break my temporary crown… or any teeth!  More veggies would have been nice, since there was a lot of hummus, but not much to eat it with.

    My second beer.  This was called Close Encounter.  It's a sour beer made with prunes and tamarind.  Bill was put off by the prunes, but it was a nice beer that came in at 4.8% ABV.  I would have liked a bigger glass.  A snifter is fine with a really strong beer that knocks you on your ass, but this didn't seem to warrant the small glass it came in.

    I had fish and chips.  The fries were good-- garlicky with just enough salt.  The fish was fine, though it doesn't rival anything you'd find in England.  It arrived to me a little cool, as if it had sat for a bit.

    Bill enjoyed his pulled pork sandwich.  I didn't taste it.  

    I also tried the Texican lager, but forgot to take a photo of it.  That's just as well, since I thought it was the least interesting of all the beers I tried.  It arrived to my table with almost no head and was a bit on the watery side.  At 4% ABV, it's not too strong… but I didn't think the flavor was all that inspiring.  It makes for a nice hot weather beer, though.  It will probably rehydrate you better than a boozier beer will.  

    The stout was yummy!

    I wasn't so put off by the Texican to skip trying the Spire Stout with dessert.  This stout went very well with the chocolate cake.  In fact, I probably should have just had two stouts and skipped the cake.  It wasn't all that great.  Bill had the cheesecake, though, which was nice.  It wasn't too sweet or super heavy, which made it pleasant on a warm March evening.  In all, the bill for Bill and me came to about $83 before the tip.

    A couple of quick shots of the inside of the restaurant.  I was trying not to be too conspicuous.

    The bar area looked inviting.  

    I enjoyed the snarky signs posted around Blue Star's parking area.  You can park yourself or use the complimentary valet.  We used the valet.

    Blue Star rents bikes or you can take one of the ones the city rents.  I'm impressed with San Antonio for copying Europe and offering public bikes.  I would have probably enjoyed a Riverwalk stroll too, if we hadn't already been out for a few hours and our two dogs didn't need a pee break.

    When we got home, there was a big truck parked outside our house.  Not two minutes after we entered our dwelling, the doorbell rang.  It was two Hispanic guys who were probably looking for the previous tenants.  They weren't threatening.  Probably were hoping for a crash pad.  It made Bill nervous, though.  

    All in all, last night was a lot of fun.  I'd go back to Blue Star Brewery, though there are other craft brewers whose beers have impressed me more.  Also, while service was friendly and accurate, it was a bit on the slow side.  But we weren't in a hurry and we weren't rushed, so I can overlook that for a Saturday evening.

    Want to retire overseas?

    I published this book review in 2012 and given that Bill and I are  hoping to move abroad again, I figure I ought to repost it here before I lose it.  Kathleen Peddicord has also spent lots of time living abroad and published a very helpful book for people who want to retire overseas.  If you are dreaming of a home in another country, give it a look!

    Tomorrow, I will post some fresh content and a review.  Bill and I enjoyed a fun evening out with old friends and I have lots of pictures.

    Been thinking about retiring overseas? Have I got a book for you!

     Jun 3, 2012 (Updated Jun 8, 2012)
    Review by    is a Top Reviewer on Epinions in Books
    Rated a Very Helpful Review

      Pros:Well-written, encouraging, enthusiastic book about retiring overseas.

      Cons:Book's information is more broad than deep.  Will eventually be dated.

      The Bottom Line:We're not quite ready to retire overseas, but this book has enhanced our dreams about it!

      My husband Bill and I have both been fortunate enough to experience living overseas.  Bill has lived in Germany twice, courtesy of the U.S. Army.  I have lived in Germany, England, and Armenia, courtesy of the Army, Air Force, and the Peace Corps respectively.  For many reasons, we both love being expats.  We both love to travel and enjoy the challenges that come from living in a different country.  We love seeing new things and meeting different kinds of people.  And we both have a strong case of wanderlust, even though neither of us thinks the moving process is any fun.

      Lately, Bill and I have gotten hooked on the HGTV show House Hunters International, a television program about American couples who are looking to buy housing in different countries.  Every week, there's an episode or two about a couple making a new start in a new place and shopping for that all important first thing-- a home!  In the spirit of that show, I started looking for books about retiring overseas and ran across How to Retire Overseas: Everything You Need to Know to Live Well (for Less) Abroad.  Published byKathleen Peddicord in 2010, this book, available in both print and Kindle editions, is all about how to retire overseas.

      What would motivate a person to leave the good old USA?Some Americans can't even fathom the idea of moving abroad.  Their minds immediately start reflecting on the logistical difficulties of such a plan.  Many people wonder how they will get along not knowing the local language or being far away from family and friends.  However, as Peddicord points out, there are plenty of good reasons to retire overseas.  First and foremost is the fact that the dollar goes a lot further in many parts of the world than it does here at home.  Less expensive medical and dental care alone is one good reason some people opt to move abroad.  In some areas, a Social Security check is enough to provide for food, housing, medical care, and even household help.

      Many people move abroad because their employment requires it.  Indeed, Peddicord initially moved from Maryland to Waterford, Ireland because her employer wanted her in Ireland.  That was her first experience living abroad and she had the usual hiccups getting used to the Irish way of life.  Then she was moved to Paris, France, where she and her family had to adapt once again.  And then the family moved yet again, this time to Panama City, Panama, where evidently, they still live.

      What subjects does this book cover?In her confident, conversational writing style, Kathleen Peddicord lists some of her top picks for Americans wanting to live abroad.  All of the places she and her family have lived make the list, probably because she knows intimately what it's like to move to those countries.  Peddicord also includes other countries she hasn't lived in.  She gives her reasons for each suggestion, along with warnings about pitfalls that may pop up along the way.

      Peddicord even includes a handy chart at the back of the book, showing approximately how much her suggested countries would cost per month and what expenses the money would go to.   She also includes a Frequently Asked Questions section with top questions posed by would-be overseas retirees.


      One thing I noticed when I was reading this book is that it's largely based on Peddicord's own experiences.  Therefore, a lot of her information is a bit biased.  I didn't get the sense that she interviewed a lot of people to get a broader perspective.  Moreover, this book is probably best suited for people who are just starting to think about moving overseas for retirement.  Peddicord's tone is very enthusiastic and encouraging, but I don't think this book goes into quite enough detail for people who have really narrowed down their choices and are about to take the plunge.


      I enjoyed reading Kathleen Peddicord's book, How to Retire Overseas.  I think it's best used as a first book for getting a general idea about what moving abroad entails.  Then, if Peddicord has sold you on the idea of leaving the US in favor of another country, look for other, more detailed resources to make the move actually happen.  Also, any information you get from this book should be verified by resources that are frequently and easily updated.  Books have a way of quickly becoming dated.

      For more information:

      Thursday, March 13, 2014

      A review of Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union

      Here's another review of a book about the death of the Soviet empire…  Conor O'Clery looks at the last day of the Soviet Union.

      A look at the day the Soviet Union died...

      Jun 19, 2013 (Updated Jun 21, 2013)

      Review by knotheadusc in Books

      Rated a Very Helpful Review

      Pros:Very interesting, well-reseached, and factual account of the fall of the Soviet Union.

      The Bottom Line:This is a great look at the last day of the Soviet Union.

      I'm pretty fascinated by the former Soviet Union. Ever since I found out about the Soviet Union as a grade school kid, I've enjoyed studying it. I also lived in the Republic of Armenia, which was one of the Soviet Union's fifteen republics, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. I well remember the 1990s and, in particular, that time in August 1991 when there was a political coup that seemed to accelerate the Soviet Union's downward spiral into eventual oblivion. That's why I read Conor O'Clery's 2011 book Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union

      Who is Conor O'Clery? 

      It's pretty clear that with a name like Conor O'Clery, this author isn't Russian. Actually, O'Clery lived and worked in the Soviet Union during its final days as an award winning journalist for the Irish Times. He's worked as a journalist for over thirty years and covered stories all over the world. He's also got some family connections to Russia, having married a Russian born Armenian woman.

      The Last Day of the Soviet Union

      Having been a teenager when Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union, I vaguely remember hearing about the concepts of glasnost and perestroika. O'Clery writes about what led up to the fall of the Soviet Union, providing exhaustive commentary about Mikahil Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin and their respective political careers. According to O'Clery, Gorbachev had a lot to do with Yeltsin's entry into politics, having brought him in to clean up the ministry of construction. They came from very different worlds, though, and did not like each other, but Yeltsin got things done. When the Soviet Union ended on December 25, 1991, it was Yeltsin who was poised to lead the country first post Soviet times.

      When Gorbachev was forced to resign the presidency of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin wasted no time in taking over and re-launching Russia. O'Clery goes into great detail in his writing about how Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, were treated in the days after Gorbachev left office. They were quickly evicted from their home and given no professional courtesies whatsoever. O'Clery provides some juicy details of the ways Gorbachev was humiliated as he left power. It was payback, though... because Yeltsin was similarly humiliated when Gorbachev had his time in the sun.

      As O'Clery points out, Gorbachev had introduced the concepts of perestroika and glasnost; he had been a polished politician who had won over the likes of Margaret Thatcher and George H.W. Bush. But it was Yeltsin who led Russia under those concepts... and he did so despite being alcoholic and unhealthy.

      O'Clery does a great job detailing the history of these two men who were from different worlds and had very different personalities. This book is factual, but reads a lot like a political thriller. O'Clery has a way of making the people involved come alive and, for me, it was especially interesting reading because I remember these men so well. O'Clery offers some insight into how Soviet and Russian government work.

      I was riveted as I read about the colonels who were tasked with carrying the briefcase that had the power to launch nuclear war. Remembering the 1980s, I recall how people often talked or even joked about the "red button" and how if either the American or Soviet president pushed it, there would be war that would end the world as we know it. Conor O'Clery explains the truth behind that little briefcase that was always in the possession of the man in charge. O'Clery also offers some astute commentary on the reactions of the world leaders of the time, including George H.W. Bush.

      This book is a look at one day. But it's also a look at what led up to that one day when the Soviet Union fell to pieces. If you were around during that time or are interested in Russia or the former Soviet Union, The Last Day of the Soviet Union is an excellent read.


      This book was a challenge to read, but that doesn't mean I didn't enjoy it or learn from it. I was young when the Soviet Union fell apart and I saw firsthand what happened in the earliest years after it dissolved. When I lived in Armenia, people were still recovering from the massive changes. A lot of things were still done in a very Soviet way. Indeed, O'Clery writes about how American business leaders and politicians swarmed to Russia and the former Soviet Republics after the Soviet Union fell apart. They were there to offer advice and, of course, make money. In those days, Russia was in very bad shape. As I read O'Clery's account, I found myself nodding a lot.

      I would definitely recommend The Last Day of the Soviet Union to anyone who is interested. I found it a good, entertaining, exciting and useful book to read.

      Purchase Moscow, December 25, 1991: The Last Day of the Soviet Union