Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hooch Heaven

After the hundredth time I got the “oh Paris, that must have been wonderful” line when chatting with my new colleagues (most of whom are angling to go TO Paris) I gave up explaining why, as lovely as Paris is, I cut that tour short by a year to take on this assignment, but plan to subject you, faithful reader, to my thoughts on why hooch living is so much nicer than residing in the city of lights.
First – according to the font of all knowledge (Wikipedia) a “hooch” is Vietnam War era military slang for a thatched hut, OR military slang for a temporary shelter made from a poncho or tarp.

The Hippie Era Hooch

Here, the term is usually applied to living quarters constructed from shipping containers which are laid out in an orderly grid pattern to make a hooch village. The container is often divided into two or more segments, doors are installed, and water and electricity (to power the AC/heater thank heavens) is run into them.  Prefab fixtures are dropped in along with one or more bunkbeds, and if you are fortunate enough, a desk, a chair, a bureau and maybe even some lockers are added and voila, home sweet home. They are a ritzier version of many 3rd world roadside stores that operate out of shipping containers (no AC).

Often, these portable homes are stacked on one another and stairs are added (a hooch town).  These configurations can grow to include office hooches, or meeting/gym/cafeteria hooches where containers are combined to offer a communal space. As construction of more traditional apartments (if rocket resistant structures with sniper nests are deemed “normal”) struggles to keep up with staffing Embassy Kabul has become a hooch municipality – with several connected hooch villages and at least two hooch towns.  I was initially impressed with our hooch collection, but as I had the chance to visit some US military bases and the ISAF headquarters (International Security Assistance Force, a.k.a. the coalition) I soon realized that downtown Kabul is nothing short of a hooch megalopolis.  How a landlocked country a thousand miles or so from the sea, got so many containers is a mystery to me – but I’m finding out and buying stock in them the next time we decide to set up a portable city in some troubled country.

Anyhow, since the routine here seems to be work, work out, talk about work, repeat – the ups and downs of hooch living are often debated, and small differences in hooch design, maintenance or location acquire significance.  As for me, I’m in the hooch honeymoon period, particularly as I happen not to have a hooch-mate at the moment to offend with my failings in hooch etiquette.

Coming from Paris, where my family and I enjoyed a beautiful and spacious apartment in a very posh neighborhood with world-class wine, cheese and bread shops within a hundred meters I was very excited to embark on a kind of lodging cleansing ritual here, which I hope will allow me to again live contentedly within my actual means as a low-level bureaucrat in Washington DC.

I am in hooch heaven here, with a cozy little box that offers amenities far beyond what Paris had to offer. To wit:

Firstly, the temperature is perfect, because unlike Paris, which still runs its charming apartments on soviet-style heating and cooling technology (and by cooling I mean opening the windows), my small hooch is quickly brought to the perfect temperature with the flick of a switch and turn of a dial. 

Secondly, there is no dragging kids, bags, dogs, groceries or anything else up endless steps because the elevator is either to small to fit the average visiting U.S. relative, or is out of order, because the blacksmith who makes the parts for the elevator built 100 years ago is taking his 8 weeks of mandatory vacation. (Sorry my Parisian friends, but you know it’s true)

Thirdly, the sink, shower and TOILET are all where they are supposed to be, by which I mean within easy stumbling distance, not a quarter mile down the hall past the sleeping children.

Fourthly, my hooch has no sleeping (or not sleeping) children…  Just kidding guys, wanted to check if you’re reading.

Finally, and most importantly, my hooch combines fashion with function, and while I enjoyed the ornate (but non-functional) fireplaces we had in Paris, the fashionable AND functional brown barriers (the ones that could save my life) are my decoration of choice.

This link is to the best photo I’ve seen of the hooch village I am living in – and comes to you courtesy of Representative Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

My camera capabilities are currently impaired, but I have a picture of my last hooch habitation on a French base in N’Djamena Chad where I was helping coordinate the departure of American citizens.  It almost passes for my current hooch (Kabul furniture is nicer, but lacks fancy drapes...) , suggesting that either hooch architecture is universal, or our good friends knew we’d be most comfortable in these accommodations.  (I should note in all seriousness that the French authorities were incredibly generous in their support both to the diplomats they housed and the many Americans they evacuated from the country during a rebel assault on the city).
New Age Hooch
(minus weapon and clutter - really Mom)

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