Budapest

10 - 15 May 1996

Fri 10 May

Up at 0700. Eat in a huge, well-supplied mess tent. Finance and inprocessing open at 0900. They cut off the rear of the inprocessing line and send us to finance only to call us back at 0945. It's gray, misty and cool but nobody minds. I inprocess, then return to finance and get $100 in Hungarian forints. Then I hit the PX, get some new socks and black boot polish (unavailable in Bosnia! This is the first I've seen anywhere.) We wait around and get a departure brief. A pretty but very prim lieutenant warns us of the rip-off clubs where patrons get to buy girls a drink for $60. As our pass guidebook says "these are not places where you can refuse to pay." Her tone of voice is half disgust at the antics of troops on pass and maybe just a wee bit of envy. We're finally out at 1130. As one of the senior NCO's I get to be bus NCOIC, the duties consisting of taking headcount.

Hungary is very modern compared to Bosnia. Many homes have attractive geometric designs cast in the masonry walls. There are long row houses joined to sheds and barns, often with attractive latticework or arches. Sharp-peaked gambrel roofs with dormers are common, too. There are bright yellow canola seed fields. Rolling hills alternate with flat plains; it reminds me a lot of Ohio. The large farms here and in Croatia are in sharp contrast to Bosnia. We reach Lake Balaton and follow it most of its length, but never close enough to get a picture. At the eastern end we pick up a freeway to Budapest. Coming from Bosnia to Hungary is like coming from darkness into light. The sun breaks out. Just before Budapest we see steep bare rocky hills (overgrazed and deforested). We reach the hotel at 1400. There are troops stationed here who coordinate all the pass business (war is hell!) I was slated to share a room with Antone but manage to swap for a single instead - room 102. I place a call to Shawn. Today is my 49th birthday - happy birthday to me. Five years ago I spent my birthday dodging milling Kurds and falling pallets in a drop zone; this has way less adrenaline but is a lot more pleasant. On May 18 I learn that I got another birthday present; the President signed the order mobilizing our replacements today!

At 1600 I take the pass shuttle to the Castle district. I check out the Mathias Church (and find out about a Mozart Mass to be held on Sunday), then walk out on the Fisherman's Bastion for a view of the Danube. It's sunny, and the river makes a great curving sweep below. Just across is the gloriously over-decorated Parliament building. Budapest is a gorgeous city. (Just a bit less than a year before, we worked an exercise in Germany, and several of us took advantage of the down time at the end to get in a day trip to Paris. In just under a year I got to see both Budapest and Paris, and Budapest is more beautiful. Like Paris it is a very ancient city but most of its charm dates from the 18th and 19th centuries.) I walk over to Buda Castle, then catch the shuttle back at 1930. My room has - wonder of wonders - a bathtub, and I soak off April's grunge in it. I hit the sack at 2100. Most of the rest of our guys, I'm sure, are doing the party scene.

Sat 11 May

Up at 0745. Breakfast Buffet at the Grand Hotel (I found out later I'm not supposed to be here but no harm done). Our hotels are on Margisziget (Margaret's Island) in the middle of the Danube, as delightful a setting as you could imagine. Our own hotel has bicycles for guests, and I get one. We are supposed to travel in pairs at all times but I haven't been more than 20 feet from another soldier in four months and I intend to get some privacy. I ride out the north end of the island and over to the Buda (west) side. I stop by the Roman amphitheater and pass by an open market. then I cross the Chain Bridge and head to the Western Railway Station (all places I knew to visit from the shuttle loop yesterday.) I stop at the MacDonald's in the station but they are out of beverages! They do have a little orange juice left, so I settle for that. Then I stop by the Parliament building. I head back to the south end of the island and get back to the hotel at 1130.

Budapest is a very friendly city. English is widely spoken and if you speak German too (I do) you can go just about anywhere. I am amazed at the amount of Russian I see; the attitude seems to be "that was then, this is now, and they're customers." It's another contrast to Bosnia, where Russian was required in school and most people forgot it as soon as they could. Interesting movie poster: "Braveheart" is "A Rettentenleten" in Hungarian, and French star Sophie Marceau gets equal billing with Mel Gibson.

In the afternoon I do a foot loop from the castle to the Academy of Sciences, St. Stephen's Basilica, and the Synagogue. The Synagogue is the largest functioning synagogue in Europe but closed (it's Saturday). There are lots of grave markers dated 1945 plus a roll of martyrs visible through the fence. Sobering - how do you deal with half a million of your friends and relatives being killed? A reminder of how fragile our own good fortune is. There is a street named after Raoul Wallenberg in Pest and a monument in Buda, both too far out of the way for me to visit. (Wallenberg was the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews, then vanished into the Soviet Gulag.) From the Synagogue I walk down to the big market building, then back to Vaci Utca to catch the shuttle.

Thunderstorms in the evening. TV has some weird stuff: a German strong man competition, lots of US shows dubbed in German plus Wheel of Fortune in Hungarian. I take another bath; this time I soak off March's dirt.

Sun 12 May

Up at 0730, catch the breakfast buffet, then take the first shuttle to the Castle to catch the last half of the Mozart Mass at Matyas Cathedral. Tremendously moving. I can remember the 1956 uprising and the long imprisonment of Cardinal Mindzenty; if anybody has a right to celebrate, Hungarians do (and I never would have believed that I would one day visit Budapest while in the Army!) Then I take the shuttle over to Vaci Utca, photograph the Vigado (an ornate theater), then revisit the Synagogue. It's under construction but what is visible is lovely. From the outside it looks more like a mosque than a synagogue. There is a Holocaust museum and a memorial in the back. From there I hike back down to Freedom Square and visit the Soviet war memorial. This has to be one of the few places still showing Soviet insignia. There are lots of fresh wreaths with the Russian tri-color bunting (they may stop being Soviet but they'll never stop being Russian.) I catch the shuttle to Heroes' Square, visit the nearby park and the castle. A lot of the most picturesque things in Budapest, like the Fisherman's Bastion and this castle, are only a century old, built for the 1000th anniversary of Hungarian nationhood. I get back to the hotel about 1600, and go climb the water tower in the park, but the stairs are not open all the way to the top. I go back to the hotel and take advantage of the coffee and cake hour, then relax in the room. The idea of leaving is melancholy.

The girls in Budapest are proud of what they have and like to show it. The rule for young lovers seems to be "don't frighten the horses."

Thunderstorms again this evening. Like every evening, I wash my shirt and take a bath. Off comes February's dirt. (A little of January's dirt comes off to reveal skin. My God, I'm white! Maybe that's the secret to good race relations at 4/12 - we're all gray!).

Mon 13 May

Up at 0730, check out at 0850. We form up at 1000. I'm bus NCOIC again. We pull out at 1100 and go to Erszebet Square. I go over to the Synagogue a couple of blocks away and buy a Sabbath cloth for Shawn, then head down to Vaci Utca to do some souvenir shopping. I spend all my forints and put about $100 on the Visa card. My nightmare vision is my wife loose on Vaci Utca with a credit card; the handicrafts are stupendous. There's also a South American Indian troupe performing and selling recordings; I saw the same bunch last year in Heidelberg. Departure is delayed by one guy who tried to get permission from his unit to stay longer; I don't know if he did. We leave at 1600, just as the rain begins, and retrace our route to Taszar. Our driver gets lost in Kaposvar and takes us into Taszar the long way around. I relax all evening and dump a pocketful of excess change at the PX, for which they were grateful. To bed at 2100.

Tues 14 May

Up at 0730. We gather in the assembly tent at 0930 and move out about 1000. We pick up water and MRE's at the edge of the airfield. There are old MIG's with new fin flashes (no red star) on the flight line (if you'd told me I'd ever drive down the flight line of a Hungarian Air Force Base I'd have said you were crazy.) We drive through rolling hills, then it gets quite hilly just north of Pecs. Light rain off and on most of the day. From Pecs on, there are rolling fields and flat plains. There's a long line of cars at the border of Croatia, and we get to the rest stop about 1700 and wait an hour. The crossing to Brcko is smooth. Back into full battle rattle. We bypass Gradacac and come straight into Tuzla from the north, passing big coal strip mines on the way. One had a classic slump in a tailings pile. The scenery is pretty and very hilly. We get in to Tuzla Main at 2100 and are assigned to the tent for 2BCT. Poor sleeping - lots of noise and returning R and R troops not in a mood to sleep. Rain heavy at night.

Wed 15 May

Up at 0400. Board buses at 0500, out at 0530. We get to the BSA in the rain; it's very muddy. It pours while we're having chow. We get our weapons and ammo from the arms room. The sergeant is one of those rare folks here who is both good at his job and genuinely nice to deal with. We board the trucks for the 2BCT area at 0800. We move. We wait. Several times. Finally we move outside the lodgment area and wait some more. We take an hour to form up. Finally we move out. We get to Demi at 1100, just as pouring rain hits. We eat lunch and I call Shawn. She's coping with a broken water pipe, fixing Chris's collapsed ceiling, and fighting off an insurance cancellation. We call Chief Black, who tells us a convoy is coming later, so we wait. The convoy arrives at 1430. While we're waiting for it to depart, another alert is called so we run to the TOC bunker. We finally leave about 1530, riding in the back of an open 5-ton in pleasant sun. We get in at 1600. There is an XO meeting scheduled in our office for 1830-1945; I promise to tidy up but the room is in good shape and there's not much to do. I write some post cards. Scott and Roger come in from the field at 2045. I get to bed at 2130.

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Last update 23 Apr 1997