Summer is in full swing here in Germany, the nights are getting shorter and the days longer. And when I say longer I mean *way* longer. As it happens this week was the longest day of the year. The Summer Solstice, on June 21st, meant an amazing 18 hours of sunlight here in Central Europe. The sun does not even think of setting until 10:30pm, seriously. Check out this video I took, 9pm outside and you’d think it was noon.
Having such long days like this really changes things around. I can come home from work late, nap, have dinner and still go running with the sun up. No wonder restaurants in Europe close from 2 to 6pm. With the sun up and about till all hours of the night this means people are up and about till all hours, and those people want to eat. You close up shop at 9pm and you’ll lose 50% of your business that day.
I actually set my phone alarm earlier this month to remind me to eat dinner at all. With the sun beaming outside, it’s hard to think you need to stop to eat the final meal of the night. And forget going to bed on time. At least twice this week, Rachel and I have been caught dumbfounded as we glanced over at the wall clock and saw that it was after 10pm. We get up at 6am, 10pm is supposed to be wind down time, and here we are still outside throwing the tennis ball for Ally.
Check out this photo from our trip to Oslo, Norway last month. Yep, 10:15 PM and the street lights are not on. Now, Oslo is still several hours north of us, but you get an idea of why Europeans are such night owls. This is also a cultural thing as well. Rachel took a trip to Madrid two summers ago with her sister, and she remarked that drinking espressos at 10pm was a daily occurrence for Spaniards, wow. Ernest Hemingway once said that “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.”
Of course, what goes up must come down. As we learned last December, the winter days in Europe can be dark and cold. You go to work in darkness, and you return from work in darkness. Having the sun down by 4:30pm makes for a very long night, but all the more reason to take advantage of all the sun we have now. It’s actually interesting to hear people talk about what they are going to do after work. Typically, you would say things like “grab a quick meal,” or “see a movie.” Here in Europe, there is still plenty of time after 4pm to bike for a few hours, go volksmarching, or even go picnic by the river.
However, with the Summer Solstice just past we had better get to the getting. Doing the math there is a *6 hour* swing in the amount of sunlight we get as we approach the Winter Solstice in December. That is an hour less of sunshine each day, every month that goes by, yikes. In Alaska, where they have a whopping 16.5 hour swing, they see the sunset times drop by 38 minutes *every* week. Rachel and I were in Anchorage for 2 weeks a few years back and we saw a full one hour drop in the sunset time just during our brief visit. No wonder Doctors prescribe tanning booths for medicinal purposes out there.
So, with the summer sun hanging high in the European sky, what better way to see the countryside than with a good old fashioned road trip. As my current job duties puts me in a quasi-manager role of all of the computer trainers in the hospital’s outlying (i.e. remote) health clinics, part of my role is to do site visits. I show up every now and then, poke my nose around a little, shake some hands, and move on. Now, as outlying clinics relating to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center stretch from upper Belgium down to Northern Italy, this gives me quite a footprint to travel around.
Well, having swung past the local clinics (i.e. still in the same country) already, it was suggested I check out our facilities in Belgium. We’ve got some big plans for that clinic later this summer, and there will be a new Command coming in, so it seemed an appropriate time to lay eyes on the place, and to get out of Germany for a few hours.
Dr Walker, a colleague of mine from the hospital, and all around fun guy to have around, joined me on the drive. We’d be passing past France, up through Luxembourg and finally into Belgium into the town of Mons. Even in good conditions we were looking at about 3.5 hours each way, not including the site visit itself. And, we were planning to run the trip all in one day. Should be an adventure.
Heading out early, we were well into Belgium before running into our first bit of local Belgian culture, …rain. Yes, Belgium has a very wet climate, averaging 19 rainy days every month. Yah, welcome to the Seattle of Europe. I do have to give them credit for one of the more amusing, if not honest, traffic signs I’ve ever seen. Too funny.
Arriving in Mons, I really began to appreciate the size and scale of the military base that the SHAPE Army Health Clinic sits on. It really stretched out for miles. More importantly, I began to appreciate the logistical challenges of working here, because, after all, this was not a US military base, it was a NATO base. In fact, this was not just any base it was NATO’s headquarters. The facility, SHAPE, is actually an acronym. It stands for Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe.
Yes, SHAPE is a collection of 28 countries. Each devoted to protecting one another, and the world at large against armed conflict from non-NATO members. First founded after WWII, it wasn’t until the Korean War that SHAPE was formed. And, interestingly, while NATO found its roots in the post-WWII upheaval, the the real purpose of SHAPE was to contain communism. After North Korea’s attack on the South, many people wondered how, and where, such fireworks could pop off again. The general consensus, at the time, was that it would be in those Democracy-meets-Communism borders of the world. And no bigger such border existed than in Europe.
And while many think that the days of NATO, and equally SHAPE, are past, I would direct your attention to the heavy NATO activities occurring as we speak in Libya, and peace keeping missions the world round. There is also frequent criticism that NATO is nothing more than a puppet of US forces. And while I would argue that NATO has often proven fierily independent of US goals and objectives, the military arm of NATO, however, is clearly American driven.
The Supreme Allied Commander Europe, aka SACEUR, here at SHAPE is American, and, in fact, has *always* been American. There have been 16 SACUERS in SHAPE history, and they have all been US military. So, sure NATO can claim its international un-bias all they want, but there is little doubt who controls the bombs, bullets and bayonets ‘round here, and that is Uncle Sam.
Interestingly though, being a US Army employee doesn’t carry any weight trying to get into SHAPE. My government ID card was as good as Blockbuster ID trying to get onto the grounds of this facility. We had to have authorization ahead of time, and be greeted, photographed and escorted by a badge-carrying SHAPE employee during our stay. We also had to leave our car off post, and walk on. Checkpoint Charlie had nothing on this place.
SHAPE itself was a menagerie of military uniforms, accents and world flags. Obviously, working on an Army post I see US camo’s all the time. But to see so many international camouflage uniforms was fascinating. In any group of soldiers I could count 5 or 6 six different countries.
And the SHAPE Army Health Clinic was just as diverse. They actually decorated the hallways with iconic images of whatever nationality of doctors worked there. I saw an Italian office of doctors right next to a Turkish office, across the hallway from a Canadian group. It all depended on the nationality of the patient that walked through the door, Greeks to the right, American’s go straight, and French make a left at the end of the hallway. Fascinating. World Cup time must be a riot in this place, …literally.
Trying to set up a clinical workflow, let alone any sort of clinical computer systems in this place will be a true challenge, and one that my team will be looking forward to in the months to come. For now, it was enough for us to just walk around and try and take it all in. The myriad of languages, and dialects occurring all around us was breathtaking. This clinic has to be one of the most unique medical facilities in the world. You know those Sci-Fi movies where you go into an Intergalactic Bar? Well, take that and try and perform healthcare in those circumstances and you’ll see what the staff of SHAPE Army Health Clinic deal with every day. God bless those receptionists, they know more languages than C3PO.
Our trip to the melting pot of the world complete, Dr Walker and I hopped back in the car and began our long drive back to Southern Germany, arriving there about 16 hours after we had left.
And yes, the sun was still up.
Till next week blogfans, where we will do it all over again.
This time I’ll be heading down to Northern Italy to check out the Venetian suburbs of Vicenza. There I’ll visit the Vicenza Army Health Clinic to see how they practice medicine in the land of sun and pasta.