Everything Is Completely Normal Here, Thank You Very Much

greetings from sunny gitmo!

classic beach lifestyle?

bring your flip-flops…and your unlawful combatants, too

Welcome back to the Odyssey, now entering its third month here in the everyday suburbia of Guantánamo Bay. Gitmo has turned out to be a bit of an absurdist paradise, 47 square miles of cognitive dissonance, where you can start the day by attending a military commission for the notorious “9/11 Five,” break for some Taco Bell down at the local bowling alley for lunch, and wrap your day up with some “Classic Beach Lifestyle,” as the adjacent t-shirt suggests, indulging in a little leisurely beachcombing beneath the razor wire of the Camp Delta detention center. “Bring Your Flip Flops,” for sure, but mind the concertina, all the same.

which way to the top of the  mark?

you can practically see the cable cars!

Given the notoriety of Gitmo since 9/11, we can all be forgiven for visualizing it as a grim dungeon peopled exclusively by cackling CIA agents in rubber gloves and executioner’s hoods. So, it can be rather jarring when you first pull up to your sparkling new duplex in the Nob Hill subdivision and are greeted by smiling neighbors bearing plates of cookies, gaggles of apple-cheeked children curious about new potential playmates, and, naturally, a lovely view of the distant Sierra Maestra mountains, a view that is only briefly interrupted by a US guard tower on the perimeter fence and its Cuban counterpart somewhat further in the distance.

mind the land mines!

well, hello, gorgeous! revolution over yet?

The surreal sensations continue more or less everywhere you go. Turn right instead of left when leaving our subdivision and you find yourself jogging along a lovely country road through the coral tideflats. Gaze left and let your eyes linger on the lovely white cranes and graceful herons searching for their evening meal in the sun-shot, pink-hued gloaming of another lazy, Caribbean sunset.

not nearly as much fun as camp winnipesaukee

not nearly as much fun as camp winnipesaukee

Gaze right and let your eyes recoil at the rusting bands of razor wire, overgrown with scrub grass and, naturally, the faded and deteriorating remnants of Camp X-Ray in the chain-linked distance. Yes, that Camp X-Ray. The one that earned Gitmo the nastier sides of its reputation in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Still right there, just a mile or so from Nob Hill, as you can see there at right.

If you keep going past Camp X-Ray, you eventually come to the Northeast Gate between GTMO and Cuba proper. I mean, you would get there, if you were brave foolhardy enough to go past all the signs telling you not to go any further and you somehow managed to ignore the armed Marines waving their hands for you to stop. And the gunfire. And the anti-tank Czech hedgehog structures straddling the road at strategic choke points. Not that I’ve, err, tried this or anything. Cue nervous laughter and sheepish shuffling of feet.

You’re never going to get there, dude

Just as well – aside from the monthly meeting between the US and Cuban border guards, the Northeast Gate’s been closed since the revolution. Not that any of that stops the occasional gaggle of grandmas visiting the base from pushing a stroller down that road, past Nob Hill, past those warning signs, and into the waiting klieg lights of the Marine Corp Security Force Company. Sorry, grandma – it’s the enhanced interrogation techniques for you.

tell me more about that cognitive dissonance thing

This fundamental incongruity between expectations and how the place actually presents itself is probably what you notice most about Guantanamo Bay. It’s absolutely jarring in many respects, whether it’s:

  • anyone seen a barge around here?

    the new patio furniture is here! the new patio furniture is here!

    The endearingly prosaic announcements on the reader board outside the commissary (“Patio Furniture Has Arrived!”).

  • of course there's an irish pub in gitmo...it's gitmo!

    of course there’s an irish pub in gitmo…it’s gitmo!

    The fact that there really is a credible attempt at an Irish pub here. It’s possibly the only Irish pub in the world staffed exclusively by Jamaicans, but that’s something that works entirely in its favor. Honestly, I can’t think of a single service in the world that would not be improved by being staffed exclusively by Jamaicans.

    Case in point – it’s not easy to find the phone number of anything here, even though the phone numbers are all only 4-5 digits long. So, we constantly find ourselves dialing Directory Assistance, something I haven’t done since, like, 1985. Anyway, after I thank the laid back Jamaican who’s given me whatever number I need this time, he always closes with a lilting, “Coooool, mon.” Man, I live for that. I call directory assistance three times a day just because I crave that kind of reassurance. Sure, I’ve got worries about my 401k and credible doubts about my ability to parent a teenager, but everything is cooool, mon. I gotta get a recording of that guy. And start writing down the phone numbers he tells me.

  • just like home!

    welcome to springfield, cuba

    The overarching sensation that much of the base presents as nothing more than your classic American suburb, plucked out of the midwest and plunked down on the dry side of your average Caribbean island. I mean, so long as your version of the “average” Caribbean island has been avowedly socialist since its revolution in the fifties, was the target of a failed invasion sponsored by the CIA in ’61, very nearly housed Russian-sourced nuclear weapons in ’62, and, since 9/11, has been the site of the world’s most notorious prison. In that case, yeah, totally average.

There is, of course, a method to the figurative madness here and it’s got everything to do with keeping literal madness at bay for those stationed here.

don’t you mean keeping it “at guantanamo bay”?

No, I don’t. Not even I would stoop to that pun. Which is why it’s fortunate that I’ve got a handy, imaginary “alternative me” making the really bad puns in headings like that one up there. Thanks, buddy.

you’re welcome!

(there is no barge)

could be worse — it could be on the barge

Guantanamo Bay is probably not the easiest duty station in the world. It’s isolated, it’s hot, it’s completely shut off from the outside world (only six flights per month!), and you almost never get new patio furniture. The grocery store suffers from occasional stocking issues. The internet arrives via satellite for most of the base and is two-tin-cans-and-a-string slow. Regular cell phones do not work. Anything you order over the internet arrives via a semi-mythical barge that is purported to arrive in GTMO once every two weeks. No one has ever actually seen this barge. Some believe the barge exists, if only because Amazon Prime orders eventually do arrive, sometimes as quickly as two weeks after the initial order.

Regular Amazon orders of the non-Prime variety? Yup – still on the barge, waiting to be delivered by the ubiquitous base iguanas and their perpetual bad attitudes. There’s a popular bumper sticker here that reads, “My other car is on the barge,” which I’m starting to think is just base code for “My other car was stolen by iguanas.” Very slowly, as you can see in that picture down below.

no neck and bad as hell

iguana delivery — when it really doesn’t matter when (or whether) you get it

 slow amazon deliveries? however do you endure, my good man?

In the greater scheme of things, most of these GTMO peccadilloes play as minor annoyances and, in some cases, are actually kind of nice. For example, it’s a semi-refreshing experiment to see how much your daily life revolved around obsessively checking email and the web when you can no longer readily do either of those things. Turns out I used to like to read and play guitar, Kristanne could bake bread from scratch, and both kids were accomplished belly dancers. Who knew?

if this were on the real nob hill, it would be worth ten billion dollars

at home in nob hill with the heatons

Still, the aggregate of these Gitmo Gotchyas (not a trademark…yet) can start to weigh on you, which is why the Department of Defense has put a whole lot of effort into making you feel like you never left Anytown, USA. Take for example, our particular suburb of Nob Hill. We live in an as-new, 3BR duplex, complete with a garage and a white picket-fenced backyard that make it feel every bit the averaged and idealized version of the American home. Even the attention paid to the standard American practice of giving subdivisions wildly optimistic names completely at odds with their surroundings helps you feel at home a bit. Sure, “Nob Hill,” Guantanamo Bay, has about as much to do with the real Nob Hill in San Francisco as “Cabernet Ridge” in Stockton has to do with vineyards or “Serenity Shores at Fulton Ranch” has to do with, well, much of anything at all, but that just adds to the Americanizing effect. Don’t I sound soothed?

since 1994, baby!

hey, they were expecting us!

This is not to say we don’t love it here in Nob Hill. Quite the contrary, in fact. Not only did our house come with the perfect graffiti pre-carved into its backyard banyan tree, as you can see there at left, but it also has a seemingly endless supply of waving neighbors, hard-playing kids, and the we’re-all-in-this-together spirit that comes when you actually are all in this together. Plus, it’s all free. Yup – free! The home maintenance plan is excellent, too – you call and they come over to fix it, no charge. I much prefer this to my standard, stateside home maintenance plan, which I typically start with twelve trips to the hardware store, continue by screwing up the job in increasingly inventive and ever more expensive ways, and wrap the whole thing up by paying someone else to fix what I broke. Did I mention I’m not very handy?

So, yes, I’d most definitely like to take this opportunity to thank you, the American taxpayer, for all of this. Yes, you, the one muttering under your breath, angrily stamping your feet, and looking for new federal bird sanctuaries in Oregon to commandeer. Thanks, bro! I’m just going to have another sip of this free mint julep here on my air-conditioned back porch and check my portfolio while the government unclogs my toilet and massages my back.


normal rockwell approved

helpful teenager or armed seditionist? you be the judge.

Taunting armed seditionists is much easier from Guantanamo Bay than in person, I find. If it makes you feel any better, I did have to pay my son to mow the lawn after he threatened to take over the downstairs laundry room while armed with Nerf guns. Armed insurrection has been a new hobby of his since we arrived here.

on a good day, i can even run from one end to the other

the ping-pong tables are on the other side of the curtain. really!

It’s not just the housing and maintenance that’s free, either. Gym? Free. Open 24×7, too, with two full basketball courts (one featured there at right), racquetball, enough free weights to make Jack LaLanne blush, and every aerobic machine under the sun. Electricity, gas, and water? So free it would give your average extortionary PG&E exec the full-on heebie-conniptions.

you could pee forever in this pool and never get caught

very large and very free

Swimming pool? Free. It’s also huge, uncrowded, and equipped with some fairly epic slides, the likes of which would make a stateside personal injury lawyer salivate, as you can see there at left. Golf course? Free, though you do have to pay to rent a cart (and trust me, Cuba’s standard face-melting temperatures will make you want to rent the cart. Plus, no sales tax!).

stupid little mosquito...all your friends are dead

kristanne relaxes after massacring a few dozen skeeters at the lyceum

First-run movies? Free, and delivered to TEAM GTMO (check the sign in the background of the picture at right) in a charming outdoor theater somewhat ambitiously referred to as “The Lyceum.”

One of the great things about the outdoor movies here, besides being free, is that, if the movie stinks, you can always pass the time stargazing at the incredible Caribbean night skies and/or waging a ceaseless battle against fist-sized mosquitoes bent on malarial destruction. That’s usually an “and” situation, by the way, and not an “and/or.” That’s Kristanne there at right, flexing her way through her usual post-mosquito-massacre trash talk and taunt session, featuring lots of aggressive posturing and classic lines adapted from past adventures, such as, “Stupid little mosquito – all your friends are dead.”  They say Gitmo changes people, but I was really hoping they didn’t mean my wife. And rebel son.

tastes pretty good, actually.

…if only the beer were.

Beer? Not free, alas. It also occasionally comes with the reminder that neither is freedom, as you can see there at left. Somebody’s gotta pay the bill somewhere down the line, I suppose, starting with me, who has to face the horror of a single, solitary grocery store stocked nearly exclusively with mass-produced domestic lagers, full of rice, gingerbread, and other things that have no business being in beer. It’s an Anheuser-Busch hell here in GTMO, I tell you, and I am barely holding on. Somebody get me Directory Assistance on the line, stat.
Coo-o-o-o-oool, mahhn.

hmm…sounds like someone might have nothing to lose but his chains

welcome to the jungle

where the “c” definitely does not stand for “communism”

The massive irony of all this free stuff, of course, is that we are living on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Station, a place that from the late ’50s to the collapse of the Soviet Union, was seen primarily as yet another Cold War domino, a staunch-but-lonely bulwark against the otherwise unchecked flow of creeping communism across our embattled US borders. A capitalist thumb in the eye of Fidel Castro, if you will. A beacon of democracy and freedom amidst the roiling waters of failed banana republic socialism, for crying out loud. All that, and here we are enjoying the fruits of the most enjoyably socialist lifestyle I’ve ever experienced (and, mind you, I’ve lived in both France and pre-1989 Poland, two places that occupy rather opposite ends of my highly subjective Enjoyable Socialism Spectrum). Heck, I may even invite Bernie Sanders to come on down, don the highly reflective waistbelt we’re all required to wear when outdoors after dark, and go for a little jog – it’s that enjoyably socialist, my friends.

Probably the best part of the GTMO lifestyle, though, is how it wholeheartedly embraces and actualizes one of the tenets of socialism that is not often delivered in practice – the part where everyone takes responsibility for what’s around them and works together towards a common good. Everywhere you go on base, there are people working. Soldiers working at their jobs. Soldiers cleaning up the base. Jamaican and Filipino workers keeping the base operating. Civilians working on lucrative contracts for Halliburton-like conglomerates making major, tax-free bank.


hey, that’s “Mr. Smarty Pants of the Week” to you, pallie

There’s really not anyone here who isn’t supposed to be here for some reason or another, except for, well, me. And frankly, after being crowned “Smarty Pants of the Week,” I’m pretty sure I’m newly in charge of Smartass Responses to the public library’s weekly trivia question on Facebook. Hey, you gotta start somewhere (and you might as well get two MWR GTMO Community Library bookmarks and a pack of “Nerds” for your trouble). Maybe if I win two weeks in a row, I’ll get some patio furniture. The dream lives on.

what’s up with the patio furniture obsession, weirdo?

That’s it for this week on The Odyssey. I still hold out high hopes for someday being able to write shorter, more frequent entries, same as I do for a successful Van Halen reunion with David Lee Roth and the return of my hair. In other words, don’t hold your breath, y’all. And, if you do, be sure to call Gitmo Directory Assistance right after. He’ll make you feel better right away.
Coo-o-o-o-oool, mahhn.

you wanted us on that wall

We’ve been hearing the whispers for some time now — we’re too old. Too slow. Boring and sedate. Out of touch with today’s now generation. And it’s not just our own children saying those things any more, either — literally both of the years since we left France, we’ve received, like, two emails saying we were “no longer very Extreme at all” and “barely even telecommuters.” And, though I must say that it seems extremely suspicious that both of those emails came from addresses like “definitelynotkristanne@officeodyssey.com” and “oppositeofyourwife@gmail.com,” the point is, nonetheless, well-taken — we needed a pick-me-up. The ol’ proverbial shot in the arm, adrenaline-wise. We needed questionable interrogation tactics, extra-legal status, and a locked-down environment so notorious for these things that it has become synonymous with them, the world over.

aw, i bet you say that to all the detainees

you wanted us on that wall; you got us on that wall

Yep. We needed Gitmo.

laying it on a bit thick here, aren’t you?

billy joel is the antichrist

from germany to california to…cuba?

Well, “needed” might be phrasing it a bit too affirmationally. We didn’t really need Guantanamo Bay so much as we might be willing to accept it in a pinch. You know, if, like, we couldn’t get the visas for the Russian steppes, Bangladeshi slums, or, uh, Stockton, a city that exists expressly to be derided in comparisons like this one.

The lesson here, as always, is to be exceedingly careful with what you’re willing to accept in a pinch. Some things, as it turns out, pinch back. For those of you who are subtext-challenged, I’m referring here to Guantanamo Bay and not those hale and hearty movers hefting Kristanne’s well-traveled childhood piano into a moving truck and sending it on its merry way to Cuba in that picture up there. Those guys, in their identical hoodies, SF Giants caps, Doc Martens shorts, and high-top sneakers, are actually cloned from top-notch moving-man DNA in a test-tube in an undisclosed location in the Salinas Valley and do an excellent job, if I do say so myself.

I do believe I digress. Sorry. It’s a reflex.

so is acid reflux. pal

someday we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny

u-haul..and haul…and haul…

The back story here is that the Heaton family had already been navigating a fairly epic season of stakes-pulling before the prospect of Cuba even appeared in our headlights like a sun-addled deer with a deathwish. Way back in the dimly recalled days of, err, mid-August, a combination of job uncertainty in Nevada City and exciting opportunities on the coast had us lighting out for Santa Cruz on notice so short that some of our neighbors only realized we were gone several weeks later during one of my some seventy-six thousand U-Haul trips back and forth to get our myriad belongings packed, transported, and/or stored so that renters could take occupancy.

santa cruz does not suck

…you can see why we would want to get the heck out of here

It didn’t seem real at the time and in some ways, it still doesn’t. Perhaps that initial sense of unreality, of being loosed from one’s longtime moorings in Nevada City made it easier to accept what came next. Or, perhaps, as one friend put it, “What the hell is wrong with you?” Thanks, Mom. That helps. Because what came next, after a mere three months in Santa Cruz, was, of course, Cuba.

wait – guantanamo bay is in cuba?

Well, not really Cuba, per se, so much as <salsa>¡la Bahía de Guantánamo, el puerto mas rico del mundo!</salsa>. Is the Spanish and salsa music helping sell it? Does it seem more exotic now? Are you picturing me wiggling my hips in exaggerated Latin dance fashion while you read this? Hmm. Perhaps your browser doesn’t support the <salsa> tag. Or perhaps you’re still mentally reeling from picturing the 48-year-old bald, white guy with the exaggerated Latin hip action. Either way, let’s just be blunt here and break this the heck on down — we were going to (insert expletive here) Gitmo.

As any jihadist worth his 72 virgins will tell you, it’s a long road to Gitmo. For us, the road started several ago when Kristanne first started getting qualified to teach for the Department of Defense Dependents Schools (DoDDS). These are American schools for the children of service people stationed on overseas military bases, of which the US has more than a few. When you submit an application to teach at these schools, you can check the boxes of all the schools where you would accept a teaching position. If you are offered a job at one of the schools whose box you checked and you do not accept, well, it’s black ball time for you, Charlie — you head to the back of the line for any future openings, you definitely do not pass go, and a small army of gnomes with Dick Cheney grimace faces come out and kick you repeatedly in the tuchus while shaking their tiny, gnarled fists at you. The DoDDS employment process is actually a bit surreal.

good luck, buddy

fuhgeddaboutit —  it’s the dick cheney-faced gnomes for you, sluggo

So, there’s some game theory at work in the application process. Some cold-blooded calculus. As a new teacher, your odds of magically being offered a position at the gloriously scenic middle school in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, pictured there at right, high in the Bavarian Alps, are not particularly good. Sure, check that box, buy that Powerball ticket, but don’t react in slackjawed bewilderment when you somehow don’t get that gig. No, my young, would-be DoDDS padwan, your game will be played out among those cellar-dwelling checkboxes down there at the bottom end of the form. Your game will play out in a toxic, sell-your-soul-at-the-crossroads contest of How Low Will You Go? Would you accept…Bahrain? How about Guam? What Faustian bargain is a bridge too far for you? It feels a bit like one of those Japanese TV game shows that trade in mockery and public humiliation, except in this one, you don’t get stripped to your underwear, doused in whipped cream, and faceslapped with Kobe beefsteaks. No, you just have to go to Gitmo. So, I guess the comparison is not entirely without its parallels.

because irish people hate socialism

no guinness for you, Fidel!

Once you’ve held your nose and checked the box of the school you least want but will perhaps grudgingly tolerate, it’s a Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man truism that, of course, that’s the school that will offer you a job. Which is exactly what happened a mere three months into our move to Santa Cruz — the good folks at WT Sampson High School in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, came calling, offering Kristanne a job teaching all manner of different social studies, up to and including Advanced Socialist Taunting Studies, a course that requires all of the students to wear t-shirts like the one pictured there at left. Incidentally, I can’t wait to buy both this t-shirt and the one from Radio GTMO with the “Rockin’ in Fidel’s Backyard” slogan, both of which are actual, real things.

So, in situations like this, when presented with life-changing opportunities, with — if you will — two roads clearly diverging in Robert Frost’s proverbial yellow wood, I find that it’s best practice to sit quietly and reflect. To ponder what might be the best course of action for heart, soul, family, and, yes, pocketbook. Where will our loftiest aspirations be realized? Where will our noblest purposes be served? What is the sound of one hand clapping and can one hear it in Gitmo?

it's a road...who cares who's travelling it?!

robert frost, robert schmrost

real fuel-injected, stepping out over the line

you can see why we didn’t get the toyota sienna

But that’s just me. Kristanne, on the other hand, packs the dang car, slaps a homemade officeodyssey.com bumper sticker on the tailgate, and pretty much just gits ‘er done. Okay, then. Enough navel-gazing. Let’s go to Gitmo and do some Naval-gazing instead!

OH, ferchrissakes…Really?

I do believe the classic Office Odyssey rules still apply and I am allowed at least one wince-worthy pun per episode. It’s in my contract and everything. And, honestly, with Guantanamo Bay being a US Naval Station, any reader who’s even remotely been paying attention for the last, uh, 15 years KNEW I was going to make the whole “navel/naval” pun earlier rather than later. You’re welcome. You are now free to read on, pun-free, for the remainder of the installment.

alright, get on with it then, chuckletrousers

Truthfully, there was not much reflection that needed to be done. Living overseas, especially in a DoDDS environment has been a goal of ours for years. So, even though Guantanamo Bay was not our first choice of schools, it was still incredibly attractive. It’s sort of like that old “Shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars” adage, except in this case, you share the stars with terrorists in orange jumpsuits on hunger strikes. I may need a better adage here.

cool, bro

i do solemnly swear, dude

In the days and weeks (and weeks) to come, we kept checking in with one another. Were we sure this was the right move? Were we still excited at the prospect instead of filled with the nameless dread that accompanies tax audits, executions, and Billy Joel albums? In every case, the answer was a resounding Yes. And so as the weeks wore on and the forms were filled out, signed, notarized, and scanned, one by one in their uncounted hundreds, our resolve stayed firm. We are, after all, savvy veterans of the French bureaucracy — we know from forms. Incidentally, if you ever need to take an oath in front of a notary like Kristanne is doing there at left, I highly recommend doing it in Santa Cruz. There’s nothing quite like the hilarity of swearing to “defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and then have the notary respond in his best surfer drawl, “Cool, dude.” Cool, indeed, dude. Cool, indeed.

Even the torturous moving process, coming so soon on the heels of our last move from Nevada City to Santa Cruz, found us undaunted, mainly because those aforementioned, lab-born moving dudes pictured near the top of this post did all of it for us. Seriously. All of it. I may never purchase another roll of tape for the rest of my life.

earbuds, headphones, whatchya got?

riding in cars with cats is fun! especially in the central valley, the place where fun went to die

No, the only thing that daunted us were our dang cats, both of whom had to ride in cat carriers in our car all the way from San Francisco to LA, a trip they’d be only too happy to recount for you in excruciating, yowl-ridden detail, if only they weren’t so scarred from the subsequent flights from LA to Atlanta, from Atlanta to Norfolk, and, finally, from Norfolk to Cuba.

all flights should take place between 9:00 AM and 7:00 PM

you know what makes showing up at the airport at 3:30 AM better? cats. that’s what.


Fortunately for us, we were spared the bulk of their endless litany of complaint because they spent the majority of their time down in baggage, a place where I firmly believe they actually have a great time, sipping on catnip martinis and chasing designer laser pointer dots. It’s like a secret kitty club down there, right? Sadly, I was disabused of this rosy perception when some overly strict interpretations of what constitutes a legal cat carrier resulted in both cats needing to occupy a single carrier, on our laps, for the last two legs of the trip. Hell hath no fury like a pet-owning airline agent who’s apparently never seen a duct-taped cardboard box with punched airholes before. Sheesh — it’s a classic.

why would someone ever keep a cat?

happy place…peaceful blue…happy place

So, yeah, for those two legs of the trip, we were treated to a solid four hours of KCAT, the radio station that plays All Cat Complaints, All The Time. At top volume. On repeat. Fortunately, it was a tolerant bunch on our flight, from the GIs and base employees heading back “home” to GTMO after Christmas holidays in the states, all the way to the representatives of the “Toes in the Sand” production company, heading to the island from their Florida headquarters to produce the New Years Eve “Headbanger’s Ball” concert taking place over at the Tiki Bar in a couple days. Gitmo is pretty much full of these hilarious contrasts that sound like you’re inventing them from whole cloth…so much so, in fact, that you start to take it for granted. In this case, our new eyes definitely registered the visually amusing juxtaposition of shorn-headed, heavily-muscled GIs and bearded, headbanging music-bizzers. I like to think that we helped bring these disparate groups together by uniting them in their shared hatred of both us and our furshlugginer cats. It’s just a service we provide.

good morning, cuba!

just like in all the al-Qaeda postcards!

Mercifully for all of us, though, Guantanamo Bay eventually appeared out our unblackened airplane windows, unmistakable in shape yet surprising in size, as you might be able to make out there at right. This is a complicated way of saying that I knew what it was, but it was bigger than I expected. Did I mention I get paid by the word?

The base actually straddles the bay, with the airstrip on the western (leeward) side and most of the base facilities on the eastern (windward) side. When you land, the first thing you notice is that it’s a bit barren here in Guantanamo Bay. It’s in the rain shadow of the Sierra Maestra, a mountain range that sucks up the vast majority of the incoming moisture, so much so that it includes honest-to-goodness, UNESCO-rated rain forests, none of which we can visit unless we brave the minefield outside the perimeter fence. So far, Kristanne has nixed that approach, but I’m working on her. Further bulletins as events warrant. Perhaps we’ll achieve my long-term family goal of becoming a bona-fide International Incident. Dream big, I always say.

and herve villechaize!

wait, I was told ricardo montalban would be here…

Once you’re off the airplane, things take a bit of a summer campy turn, so long as your summer camps were proctored by serious-faced young men and women carrying automatic weapons. There’s no need to get your bags, or anything — those are all ferried across to the windward side for you, where you’ll be able to pick them up in a couple hours. Nah, just get on the big yellow schoolbus with everybody else for the five-minute ride to the ferry landing. Then, take the ferry across to the windward side, where everyone’s parked their cars for two weeks with the windows open and the keys inside to await their return. Seriously — would you steal a car in Gitmo? There’s a fence. And that minefield again. And, believe it or not, a somewhat visible security presence. Because, you know — Gitmo?

With two and a half days of bleary-eyed travel in our rearview mirror, much of these first impressions hazed their way across our consciousness like shared hallucinations. Was that really a giant iguana on the side of the road? Was there really a big McDonalds in “downtown” Gitmo? Was our new, government-issued house really in a suburban development somewhat optimistically named “Nob Hill”? Would the cats’ apparently bionic voiceboxes ever give out? Yup, yup, yup, and no, not now, not ever.

nuttier than...

post-xmas sale: how many fruitcakes did they expect Gitmo resident to actually bake?

Kristanne’s new principal kindly loaned us a car so we could get around base for our first couple days. Although exhausted upon arrival, we decided to head on down to the Naval Exchange to buy a few necessaries. The Naval Exhange — the “NEX”  or commissary in the local parlance — is the end-all and be-all of local commerce. The good news about the NEX is that if it doesn’t have what you need, you really don’t need to go anywhere else looking for it, mainly because there is no “anywhere else.” The bad news, of course, is that it occasionally doesn’t have what you need. And it also carries discount fruitcake baking supplies, as you can see there at right — strike two.

But in all fairness, for being the size it is, the NEX does a remarkably good Target impersonation, carrying a good selection of groceries, clothing, hardware, consumer electronics, and fatigues. What, you’ve never been to Target fatigues section?  You can also get your hair cut, rent a car, buy a Subway sandwich, take out a small business loan, or take your choice of a wide variety of Gitmo-themed shot glasses, many of which feature the inimitable “It don’t git mo better than this” tag line. Needless to say, I bought thirty of these. You all now know what you’re getting for Christmas.

Life on a military base is going to be an educational process for this family of civilians, many of which I’ll elaborate on in future installments. Although Kristanne has a leg up on the rest of us by virtue of her childhood years growing up around different overseas US military installations, even she is a little rusty and occasionally forgets which flag to face when which trumpet piece is playing over the loudspeakers that blanket the base. For me, I’m never more than one boneheaded blunder from permanent base exile. That’s actually not all that much different than how I live my life stateside, so I’m somewhat used to it. I did get an object lesson on this topic during our first NEX trip, though. When we pulled up, I was happy to see that there was a prime parking spot waiting for me right in front of the door. Owing to my inheritance of excellent parking luck from my father-in-law, Calvin, this did not particularly surprise me, so I rolled right in, cocksure of my rightful role in the parking universe.

stars and stripes forever

I’m a big fan of the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard…does that count?

Yeah. Not so much in GTMO. Here in GTMO, we’ve finally found the place where Calvin’s enviable powers no longer apply. Here in GTMO, you need stars on your shoulderboards if you’re going to park in front of pretty much anything except your own house, a lesson Kristanne and the kids were only too happy to point out with a sassy display of wagged fingers and much neener-neener-neenering. Sigh. I’m totally going to get kicked out of this place.

That’s it for this installment from Nob Hill in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, or, as we like to call it, “home.” Now that we’ve got you up to date with where we are and why, I have high hopes for shorter, more frequent installments as we get up to speed with island life, Gitmo style. See you next time on the Odyssey!

france: there’s a form for that

Unauthorized Burgundian Lounging

Burgundian Lounging: Better Get a Permit

Living in France requires an occasionally stunning amount of paperwork, with untold registrations, validations, and certifications, all signed, countersigned, and filed in triplicate with the proper authorities, of which there are many. No matter what it is that you want to do — skydive, tiger fight, eat breakfast — the likelihood is that you’re going to need to fill out a form or two before you can do it. You might have to do it in someone’s presence. You might have to receive a registered letter at your purported address. You might even need to get screened for tuberculosis or sing a credible version of la Marseillaise (true on the former; not so much on the latter…yet).

We were hipped to this early and often during our stay here, starting with our first abortive attempts to open a checking account. In the US, opening a bank account requires little more than ten bucks and a pulse. You’re in and out with a checkbook, 30-year mortgage, and home equity line in under 20 minutes, possibly with a free toaster for your troubles. Not so much in France. Instead, you start with polite letters of introduction indicating your interest, after which you are granted an audience some several weeks in the future. This is despite the fact that the relevant bank official’s calendar is completely open that afternoon and every afternoon between then and the proposed appointment two weeks hence. That’s just how it’s done – it wouldn’t be proper to rush into these things. No, no…it’s far better to have a certain seductive quality to your bank account opening, unfolding tantalizingly over time. Watching your debts accumulate and struggling with your inability to acquire electricity, power, and cell phone service without a checking account only adds to the sweet suffering.

Dancing Without a License

Dancing In Public: Not Without a License

When the day of the appointment finally arrives, there are many pleasantries and bon mots exchanged, with small gifts for your children and discussions of vacation plans future and past. Then, you limber up your wrists with some light calisthenics and start signing stuff. Lots of stuff. Stuff you didn’t even know existed, with promises and waivers and sheafs and reams of paper. You get insurance you didn’t you know you needed…at least two kinds. You actually do need it, you’ll find out, when it comes time to enroll the kids in school. Our initial appointment took two hours and a box of Bic’s best.

Once you finally wrap up the initial appointment, you’re given to understand that a registered letter will be sent to your address. There’s no telling when it might come exactly…sometime in the next 10 days or so. Your account will not be valid until such time as that registered letter reaches you, is signed by you, and makes its way back to the bank. If you miss the registered letter, the whole cycle starts anew, except with much disappointed tongue-clucking from your bank representative and an admonition that one should always be at the house to receive the registered letter and more discussion of vacation plans and in-person bank visits. I’ve spent more time in bank offices during this year in France than I have in the previous 10 in the USA. I feel like I should have a little parting gift for my bank representative, Madame Revelen, who, in all seriousness, is a charming soul, always quick to comment on our improving French language skills during our many visits over the months. Did I mention that she went to Senegal for vacation this year? It’s true. Had a great time, too. And, yes, her husband’s health is improving…it’s kind of you to ask.

We went through this fun little registered-letter rigamaboogie two times before the hotel manager at the residence hotel where we were staying just up and signed the thing for us (it has to be done in the postman’s presence) with an illegible symbol of some sort. That was enough to get us back on Madame Revelen’s calendar for the long-awaited closing, the day when the registered letter would attest to our physical presence-hood and enable us to get an ATM card, a checkbook, and a standing monthly lunch appointment with Madame Revelen herself.

Unapproved Dessert Sharing

Sharing Desserts: Requires Form

Having a checking account is not a trivial thing in France. As I alluded to earlier, you cannot really live here without one – the fondness for all things paper creates a steady stream of check writing. For example, Quinn was in a fencing program this year. Rather than pay for the whole thing up front, the standard practice was to write five checks and give them all to them at the start of the program. Then, they’d cash them as the months went on, most likely after calling Madame Revelen to confirm that we were who we said we were and not a family of dastardly fencing-program thieves, bent on cheating the sabermaster. We did the same for Kinsey’s basketball program, Quinn’s baseball program, our French lessons…on and on in a ceaseless orgy of furious check-writing, until I finally learned how to spell all the numbers in French when written in longhand. “Ceaseless orgy” may be pushing it, but you get the picture.

On the day of what we foolishly thought might be our last appointment with Madame Revelen, we practiced up our best French greetings, debated and agreed that we wouldn’t faire les bisous with her (the French cheek kiss exchange), and showed up five minutes early to ensure there were no mishaps. All-too-predictably, an easy 40 minutes of fresh paperwork ensued, followed by the moment of truth – the validation of our signature on the registered letter.

With a dramatic flourish, Madame Revelen unsheathed the signed registered letter from her daunting hillock of materials. Donning her reading glasses, she held it up to the light, probing its authenticity for any crannies of doubt, turning it this way and now that. She may have bitten it once. Then, with an approving nod of her head, she gave us the coveted, “Eez good,” snapped her fingers twice, and we were in. Strobe lights flashed, a disco ball descended from the ceiling, and fresh flutes of champagne found their way to our hands. The lights dimmed, and Madame Revelen presented our checkbook and ATM cards, beguilingly perched on a crimson, velveteen pillow. Clearly, this was the France we’d been missing!

So much paperwork, they tick themselves off

Properly Permitted Photo

Properly Permitted Photo

It’s not as if the French aren’t self-aware about this excessive administration syndrome – heck, the only thing they love more than filling out forms is complaining about having to do it. It’s practically a national sport, with entire television channels given over to titanic tantrums and tirades chastising the powers that be for being so, well, French. And, yes, it’s fairly certain that you need to fill out several forms to participate in those forums, but, as always, you’re encouraged to kvetch about it the entire time.

We were reminded of this Phrench Phenomenon a few weeks ago when our fifteenth anniversary rolled around. Neither the lunch reservations nor the exchange of gifts required any sort of paperwork, though perhaps they should have, given that the hostess at the restaurant checking our reservation straightfacedly misheard my pronunciation of “Monsieur Heaton” as “Monsieur Chicken,” occasioning no small amount of barely stifled guffaws from Kristanne. Turns out people who grew up with the last name of “Bohner” have a rather schadenfreudesque outlook on embarrassing mispronunciations of other people’s last names. Fair enough. Mr. Chicken gets it.

Don't Worry: She's Licensed for That

Don’t Worry: She’s Licensed for That

What did require a license, however, was golfing. Frankly, we should have seen this one coming, given that every other sport in France labors under an unrelenting set of exacting tests and achievements designed to chart your progress towards presumed perfection. We saw this with skiing, with the six or seven different levels kids pass through on their way to the coveted Etoile d’Or (“Gold Star”). Quinn had a similar system with fencing, as did Kristanne and I with our mastery of the French language (we topped out at the “Tin Asterisk of Slightly Less Embarrassing Accents”…not bad!). So, yeah, of course golf requires a license and naturally there are tests you can pass to document your knowledge and skills, progressing through different colors of “Flagstick” badges that you can wear on your lapel as you play or just perhaps point to and make “neener, neener, neener” noises when confronted with someone whose flagstick badge is not quite up to your own level. Maybe that’s just me.

Lucky for us, the license wasn’t hard to get – in our case, it cost the usual embarrassment of some bad French, which we are quite used to by now, thank you very much, plus five euros each, and, naturally enough, a couple forms wherein we declared our vitals and our non-intention to do the game of golf any harm, now or in the foreseeable future. Easy-peasy and good enough for a lovely nine holes in the sun.

And that seemed to be the end of it, until just last week when our official French Federation of Golf licenses arrived in the mail, complete with that snazzy “Mr. Chicken” logo in the middle. Still not sure how they found out about that. Kristanne may be taking the schadenfreude a little too schadenfar.

Mr. Chicken Loves Golf

You can’t imagine how exciting this is. Not only are we now fully licensed to play anywhere in France (and any countries with exchange policies and similarly fussy attitudes towards requiring licenses to play golf), but we also get discounts on rental cars, Ryder Cup gear, and bank accounts with Société Générale bank…as if Madame Revelen would ever allow that or forgive us for trying to leave the family there at BNP Paribas. Yep, it’s all looking pretty good for us now. Just have to get one more form filled out by my doctor and submitted to my club for it to be all official-like, as you can see in that picture below. And, of course, there’ll also be the forms needed to secure and undertake a doctor’s appointment. After that, it may be time for Mr. Chicken to take his bad French skills on one of those TV shows and unleash a few pent-up demons. With Madame Revelen’s approval, of course.

It's Blurred Because I Cannot Have My French Golfing Identity Compromised

It’s Blurred Because I Cannot Have My French Golfing Identity Compromised

what’s going on?

Kind of you to ask, and as you might expect, it involves filling out forms and checking off boxes. We’re solidly in the end-game here in Grenoble, packing up the apartment, filling out the customs forms at the post office, filling out the end of service forms with the gas, electric, water, internet, and TV companies. I think even my one-time nemesis, the baker, is hoping to get some sort of quick certificate of departure out of me, no doubt as proof to the government that his pain au chocolate sales are about to decline precipitously, entitling him to a short-term support payment from the Aid to Bakers with Dependent Families fund.

We’re also saying our goodbyes, and trying to get our heads around starting an old life anew. It’s a surreal feeling, but there’s so much to do, there’s not a lot of time to process any of it. We’ll be here in Grenoble through 7/19, after which, we’ll spend 6-7 days wending our way over to London for a quick visit with the Travelator before heading back to San Francisco on 7/30. Full circle. Hopefully, there will be time to add a few entries along the way!

See you next time…on the Odyssey!


captains outrageous

Up on a Plane, at 8mphAfter ten hard-charging, pile-driving, train-feng-shui-ignoring days on the road in Italy and Provence, your Extreme Telecommuters were a well-oiled, performance-tuned, fire-snorting beast of a sightseeing machine. We could knock out a UNESCO site in the morning, blaze through a Plux Beaux Village in the afternoon, and complete a week’s worth of grocery shopping in the 90 seconds before the local Carrefour grocery store closed for the evening, leaving a trail of stunned clerks drooling in slack-jawed amazement in our wake.

With that level of performance at our beck and call, it was a bit of a shame that the whole experience had to be put out to pasture for a week, temporarily mothballed and otherwise back-burnered while the kids went back to “school” and I did my “job.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who will remark on this, but there’s an almost eerie resonance here with the career arc of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Yes, that Michael Jordan. Ah – so you see it, too. Almost Exactly Like ThatYep, it’s almost exactly like that time His Airness abruptly retired from basketball in order to play baseball, doing it when he was at the absolute apex of his career, coming off his third consecutive championship, and still able to dominate legions of would-be contenders effortlessly. As you can see in the picture, there are some strong parallels between Air Jordan in a baseball uniform and, say, Air Calvin & Rosalie taking the kids to the library in Grenoble instead of taking them competitive bodysurfing in Cannes. Fish out of water, all of them.

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laying touristic waste with les beaux-parents

 (road trip with the in-laws)

Oh, A Grand Canal, Indeed

Catch-up time here on the Odyssey, as we attempt to process and distill the last – ahem – two months worth of hijinks into one neat package, suitable for rapid digestion, like a little Extreme Telecommuting power pellet.



Roll up for the Mystery TourI must warn you, however – things are about to get a bit addled heresabouts. Scattered, even. Today’s Odyssey forecast is calling for non-linear flows, unexplained narrative gaps, jarring transitions, and a face-melting pace, possibly not suitable for those with weak stomachs or a predisposition to vertigo. There’s also a strong chance of multiple forays into the downright nonsensical as we blaze a heroic swath through Italy and France with Kristanne’s parents, Calvin & Rosalie…who, frankly, should really have known better by now. More on that later. For now, lace ‘em up, strap ‘em on, and step into that not-at-all foreboding doorway there at the left – it’s time to hop on the Tilt-an-Odyssey with les beaux-parents!

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we’ll always have paris, unless dad screws it up

A Night at the OperaTravel’s a humbler. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, that you know which train leaves from which platform, which color gas pump dispenses diesel, and which cheek to lead with when doling out the compulsory French air kisses, well, that’s when some random grandma in the post office slaps you in the grill for playing Post Office. Sorry, ma’am – thought I knew you.

Of course, I’m speaking metaphorically here, though lord knows I’ve regularly made an ass of myself with the whole air kissing thing. You really are supposed to lead with different cheeks depending on where you are in the country, though it’s important to remember that they are always face cheeks (and no, I haven’t made that particular mistake yet, though I sense the reader’s lack of confidence here).

Fontenayyyyy....hohhhhhh....hayyyyyI’m never sure how well I need to know someone before I throw down with les bisous (French for the aforementioned air-kissies; apparently passing acquaintances work if you haven’t seen them for a couple weeks), how much lip contact you make on ye olde cheek (zip, zilch, nada), and how loud a smack you’re supposed to make when getting smoochy with the atmosphere (apparently not the Miss Piggy-esque lip fart I’ve been known to blast into unsuspecting ears). Throw in my lack of confidence on the question of cheek contact and you’ll understand why most social situations find me quavering under the buffet table, rocking back and forth while hugging my knees. Continue reading