Sunday, August 28, 2011

Gettin' 'Donked in Budapest

We arrived in Budapest on Saturday morning and did a bunch of touring both morning and afternoon.  This morning, we debarked from MS Avalon Tranquility and played tourist again, spending the morning in the "Secret Hospital and Nuclear Bunker."  Cool place, very dank Cold War-ish, very eerie.

After heading back to the hotel to check into our room (Jeannie did an amazing job, we're in a room on the "Executive Floor" of the Budapest Hilton with a majestic ... no other word will suffice ... view of the Danube), we headed out to check out the old city of Buda.  Jeannie had this great idea about touring the Budavári Palota, or Royal Palace.


Little did she know (well, neither did I) that the Budapest Sörfesztival, or Beer Festival, was in its fourth and final day on the palace grounds.  Tell me, dear readers, where else could you attend a beer festival in a palace built on top of Roman ruins?  In Budapest on the last weekend of August, that's where!

Okay, short story long, we spent a few hours at the festival, first off listening to a Joe Cocker cover band (yeah, go figure, a Hungarian Joe Cocker, but it worked) while drinking pints of local brew.  We strolled the castle/museum grounds a bit, then sat to listen to more Joe Cocker.  They closed their set, natch, with A Little Help From My Friends.  And during this set, I switched from Hungarian lager to Delirium Tremens, a très potent Belgian ale, aptly symbolized by a pink elephant.  Jeannie stuck with Hungarian brews as I resisted the ale-inspired urge to do a really bad air guitar while, in my mind, reliving Joe's Woodstock performance.  After they wrapped up their set, I moved on to Corsendonk, another fine Belgian ale, although not quite as ass-kicking as the Delirium Tremens.  What's wrong with me, I asked, as I went through a Hungarian beerfest drinking Belgian brews.

Caution, cheesy product placement follows:

Oh well, not a problem, as the next band took up the stage.  Mild local headbangers with sax and violin thrown in for good measure.  After a few of their tunes, we popped smoke and headed for the gate, before I did more Belgians and needed to be carried back to the hotel.  We did, however, escape with some cool souvenir mugs.

I should note at this point that I'm ecstatic to be back in an Internet-friendly zone.  For seven days, although we had a marvelous cruise on the Avalon Tranquility, the connectivity, in a word, sucked,  I can now do more than glare at the laptop as an e-mail takes forever to load.

Sunday, August 21, 2011


Well, good tourists that we are, we traipsed all over Nuremberg over the past 24 hours or so.  We did the highlights of the imperial castle last night before enjoying the repast over which I waxed eloquent in yesterday's post.  Today, after a walking tour of the Altstadt, we hopped a bus out to the complex where the nazis used to hold their annual party gatherings.  This was Triumph of the Will in full 1:1 scale.  After doing the interactive museum part, we strolled around the grounds.  The congress hall was empty, unfinished, huge, massive, and utterly underwhelming as architecture goes.  The Teutonic boys get no points for imaginative or inspiring buildings.  Another part of the complex serves as the home of the Nuremberg Symphony.  And the vast open areas are now used for recreation.  And a site for the carnival that's setting up.

Having skipped lunch, we arrived in the main market area of the Altstadt, and I was hungry.  So hungry, in fact, that I did the unthinkable.  I are sushi from a vendor in a trailer in the market area.  Yeah, I know, many of you shudder at the idea of Korean sushi.  How about Korean sushi (I know it was Korean because they also sold kimchi) made in the heart of Germany?  I played it safe with a California-esque roll.  How badly can you screw up cucumber, avocado and fake crabmeat?  So, having set my expectations very low, I was in fact pleasantly surprised.  While certainly not the best sushi I've ever had, it was also far from the worst.

To make up for that, we hit a wurst place for dinner.  It's been peddling sausage in one location or another since 1419, so I figured it ought to be decent.  So we had plates of little Nuremberg bratwurst (little bigger than American breakfast sausages) with sauerkraut and potato salad.  Again, we went down the path of hearty German food rather than haute cuisine, but we left happy and well-fed.

Tomorrow, we tour the rest of the castle, then board the cruise ship.  Can't wait!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Gong Show Redux

Yesterday, we checked out of Heidelburg and hit the road for Nuremburg.  Three hours on a train (well, actually, two trains, as we had to change trains in Stuttgart), and we arrived at Nuremburg's Hauptbahnhof.  After checking into the hotel, we did a quick familiarization tour of the Altstadt.  We eventually made our way to a nearby restaurant for dinner, where I had a delicious hunk of oh-so-tender roast pork shoulder, and Jeanne had a local traditional dish, a cold platter of meat, cheese and vegetables that, to my untrained eye, seemed to have an awful lot of radishes on it.

But, as good as the food was, it wasn't the high point of our dining experience.  No, my friends, it was the entertainment.  Because we were treated to a Bavarian duet on guitar and accordion doing medleys of popular tunes.  Imagine, if you will or, dare I say, if you can), Somewhere Over the Rainbow performed on an accordion with Teutonic flair.  Their rendition of the Beatles' Yesterday was equally touching.

Reach back into your history lessons and recall that this part of Germany was to the Nazis what Helmand Province is to the Taliban ... a spiritual heartland.  So it was that, after a few tunes a la accordion, I felt like getting up and marching around, singing the Horst Wessel Lied.  It was scary, trying to keep from channeling my inner Dr. Strangelove as I drank pints of pilsner and fantasized about crushing democracies everywhere.

And now the really scary part ... every neo-Nazi nimrod who Googles certain search phrases is going to get pointed to this blog.

Just before sitting down to write this, I downloaded 116 photos from my digital camera.  So, as soon as I sift through them, I'll start posting pics of the trip.  Promise!

Friday, August 19, 2011

One Journey Ends, A New One Begins

Yesterday, Wednesday morning, I awoke in Heidelburg, Germany.  At times this goal seemed so distant, so remote, and then it fell into place.  After two days in Qatar, I got shepherded to Doha International by the good folks at Log2020, who escorts me and a couple fellow travelers up until the security checkpoint.

I spent a couple hours waiting ... I seemed to do a lot of that ... which I spent reading (Defend the Realm, if anyone is interested), people-watching, and of course spending a couple bucks in the duty-free.  Finally, I rode the shuttle bus to Qatari Air flight 27, an Airbus 330, settled into a none-too-comfortable seat, and watched the sea of humanity flow past me.  As they closed the door, I breathed a heavy sigh of relief ... no one sitting next to me!  As the Kool-Aid guy says, "Oh yeaaaahhhh!"

I reached Frankfurt around 7AM on Tuesday and, after clearing customs, found a place to check my luggage rather than do a bag-drag during my five-hour wait.  Several cups of coffee later, and after numerous circuits of the airport, Jeanne's ETA got very close.  I retrieved my bags, donned the t-shirt I'd bought just for the occasion (reading "Here I am ... what were your other two wishes?"), which drew a couple bemused looks, and waited.  Patiently at first, then a little less so.  It seemed, at least to me in my anxious state, that it was taking waaaaaay to long for her flight's luggage to drop to the carousel.  But finally, she emerged, and my face lit up.  After a few hugs and kisses that, surprisingly, didn't earn us any "Get a room!" comments, I gave her the single long-stemmed red rose I'd gotten, and we worked our way to the bahnhof to catch our train to Heidelburg.

Thirty minutes to Mannheim, a frenzied rush to make our connection at another track, then fifteen minutes and we found ourselves at Heidelburg Hauptbahnhof (main train station).  A brief cab ride took us to the Arthotel, a curious blend of old and new sitting in the heart of the Old Town, or Altstadt.  In fact, our room quite literally straddles both parts of the hotel.  Half of the room is 200 years old, the other half a mere seven.

Dinner on that first night was at a restaurant called Simplicissimus, a short walk from the hotel.  The "lovely terrace" so lovingly described in the Michelin Guide (Simplicissimus is an "also-ran," not rating a Michelin star) was full, so we ate inside.  It was a revelation.  After six months of eating food that tasted like ass, everything that came to the table was bursting with flavor.  From the glass of champagne and amuse bouche to the warm lobster salad, chanterelle soup, beef tournedos, and apricot sorbet, I felt my taste buds re-awakening.

Wednesday, we toured the Schloss (castle), which involved a funicular ride in both directions.  I took it all in like a little kid, running to the front of the car to watch the ride up and down the mountain.  While Jeannie had some doubts about "urban myths" arising during the tour guide's narration, I took it all in like a good tourist.

That evening, we did a 180 from the previous evening's haute cuisine and hit Zum Roten Ochsen, described in the Green Guide as having "stick to your ribs" German fare.  The wild boar with spaetzle and "egg mushroom" sauce (the egg mushrooms looked and tasted a whole lot like the chanterelles of the previous evening) was rib-sticking and utterly delicious. But pity my poor bride ... the dish also came with sautéed red cabbage.

With each meal here, I am reminded of how deprived my taste buds have been for the past six months.  I find myself asking what this flavor or that spice is.  Eating will be a bit more of a chore until my palate reconnects with reality, with cooks who actually strive to impart flavor into what they put on a plate.

Finally, this evening, we hit the hotel restaurant.  And what a treat it was.  When I saw the list of chanterelle-laden dishes on the daily menu, I knew it must be mushroom-harvesting season here.  Cream of chanterelle soup (topped with deep-fried dumplings wrapped around a pork filling) topped the menu.  We may have missed the asparagus festival by a couple months, but apparently are in the midst of a fungus mania.  Lucky me!

So here I sit, late on a Thursday night, writing about my culinary exploits after being separated from the love of my life for six months.  Hey, she's taking it in stride, why can't you?  I knew I'd miss her, and I did, and the reunion was wonderful.

But I didn't realize how badly my palate had been trashed by six months of DFAC fare.  Learning anew what things are supposed to taste like is a revelation.

Next stop ... Nuremburg.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Drawing First Beer

So here I sit, Monday morning in Doha.  I just put the wraps on a deployment tradition, having drunk my last MOAC.  I doubt I'll be able ti find a morning caffeine jolt like that back home.

Yesterday was a red-letter day.  Sitting in the back of a Ford Exploder, I got a whirlwind tour of downtown Doha.  I tried, without much success, to hang out the window and snap some photos while my driver, a DIA colleague of old, drive like a man possessed as he dodged the local drivers, who make Neapolitans seem tame and traffic-law-abiding.

Later that evening, I divested myself of two duffel bags of gear I'd been issued, including gas mask, first aid kit, and all the chem gear and protective clothing which never even got unpacked, much less used.

After that, time for dinner.  And my first beer in six months.  Yes, Virginia, there's beer to be found in the Middle East, and in the middle of Ramadan, no less!  The various eateries (not the DFAC) here at Camp As Sayliyah (CAS) serve up beer and wine, limited to three drinks per 24-hour period.  The stifling heat killed most of my appetite, so I opted for an appetizer portion of lumpia and washed it down with a pint of Stella Artois. Not too shabby.  And in a very short time, I'll be sampling a fine variety of German lagers and pilsners.  Life is good.

Later today, I do my post-deployment medical evaluation and psychological screening.  That's it, sports fans, until the van come to pick me up and whisk me away to Doha International.

But don't despair, Wirehead Jack isn't ready to go inter hibernation.  There's still post-deployment vacation and other post-deployment re-integration topics for me to ramble about, so I'll keep this blog running for a while yet.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Road

I continue my journey home.  After a ten-hour delay, I finally hopped a C-17 Saturday night, and departed Bagram shortly after midnight.  After a three-and-a-half hour flight, and accounting for the time zone shift, we landed around 2AM.  After doing the immigration processing and clearing Qatari customs not once, but twice (once shortly after getting off the plane, the second time leaving Al Udeid Airbase), I got to my transient quarters around 4AM and immediately collapsed.

After a couple hours of shuteye, I dragged myself into a vertical position and wandered around a bit.  The quarters are rather Spartan "cells" with three beds per room, with four or five rows of about thirty rooms each inside a vast warehouse.  The most immediate change I noticed was the humidity.  It's easily as hot here as at BAF, but the humidity is way up there, so it's a sticky heat.  I suffered though it long enough to find the Green Beans coffee shop, where I indulged in my morning MOAC.  And a big-ass sugar donut, my first such indulgence in nearly six months.  Nothing like a massive cafeine ingestion to make you feel human again.

Maybe tomorrow morning I'll hit the DFAC and grab my last meaningful Ramadan Trifecta breakfast sandwich.

Tonight, I get to turn in all my gear, then do medical and psych out-processing tomorrow.  Other than that, I'm on my own.  Not that there's a whole lot to do here.  Got a couple co-workers to look up, maybe go out on the town for a bite to eat tonight.  Otherwise, I begin the decompression process so I can be feeling a bit more relaxed and able to enjoy my post-deployment vacation.

Friday, August 12, 2011

I’m Outta Here!

Early this evening, I indulged in my final BAF Surf & Turf night.  After dinner, a postprandial cigar with the boys.  I broke out the really good stuff, the top-shelf Padrons.

Tomorrow morning, I get to load my bags onto a C-17 and head out for Qatar.  There, I’ll out-process and then fly to Frankfurt for my post-deployment vacation.

My friends know I’m a geek for old rock music.  If I knew the intelligence business as well as I know my arcane rock lyrics, I’d probably be occupying the Director’s office at CIA right now.

But I don’t.  So I’ll stick to my music.  A stanza from The Ballad of Dwight Fry, from Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death LP, is running through my head:  “I was gone for all those days, but I was not all alone … I made friends with a lot of people in the danger zone.”

It wasn’t much of a danger zone here, what with the DFAC being a bigger and more persistent hazard than Taliban rockets, but I did make a lot of friends here, professionals with whom I’d gladly serve were I to head off to another war zone (which is highly unlikely, but that’s a subject for another post).

I’d like to take this opportunity to deliver a special tip of the hat to Brian (my former boss in Kabul), Spence-oire, Carmelita, Dirty Red, and a couple fine Army NCOs who demonstrated singular professionalism and leadership.  It’s been great, guys!

But I can’t end on a maudlin note, so …pop quiz time … without Googling it, who was Dwight Fry?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Things I’ve Been Grateful For

No man is an island, contrary to Paul Simon’s plaintive assertions.  No man stands alone.  The past six months would have been a grinding existence, mere subsistence, had it not been for the support I’ve received.

When I arrived in-theater, I got thrown into the deep end of the pool.  No time to get settled in or acclimatized, I got off the plane in KAIA and got to work.  Within days of taking over as chief of the IJC Knowledge Management Cell, I found myself getting my ass chewed by an O-6 for the first time in 30 years.  Not since I was on the bridge of a warship, as a young Lieutenant and Officer of the Deck, had I so incurred the wrath of a senior officer.  It was a tough slog and a steep learning curve, but folks like John D. and Kathryn and Keon helped me keep my head above water and my spirits out of the dumper.

At Bagram, I inherited a similarly capable and professional crew.  A singularly shit-hot team, folks who will gladly work outside their comfort zone and do what it takes to accomplish the mission.  They talk a lot of smack and engage in the silliest antics (At this point, your honor, I’d like to submit Exhibit A, the female cartoon character mud wrestling debate.).  But when work needs to get done, be it a new installation or O&M, they’re on it, working until the problem is fixed.  I’d be proud to serve with them again … just not in Afghanistan.

Most important, my bride.  She’s borne the burden of separation like a real trooper.  Didn’t grouse or complain.  Kept the household running like a fine Swiss watch.  Juggled work and the EYC board and racing a J/24 without once dropping a ball.  Completely redid the master bath all by herself.  Kept the Black Beast running (despite her initial aversion to driving a car so big and unwieldy).  Did all the research and made all the reservations for our post-deployment vacation.  Humored me and all my silly requests for things to include in CARE packages.  Did everything in her power to keep my morale up, including sending batch upon batch of marvelous cookies.

One last item.  A year ago, given my back problems, I never would have thought I’d be capable of deploying.  Thanks to a miraculous and minimally-invasive procedure performed last August at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, I’ve been physically able to perform everything I’ve need to do.  I’ve been able to scurry about with 40 pounds of body armor with no ill effects.  I’ve been able to stay active and lose weight.  All because a very skilled neurosurgeon gave me the Bionic Back.  Thanks, Doc!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Readjustment to life in CONUS has been problematic at time for our troops.  The stresses of combat and life on the edge can make it tough to transition to life with the wife and kids, and PTSD can make things downright unbearable for some.  Having spent six months in the rear with the gear, not having toted a gun and chased bad guys, I don’t foresee having massive readjustment issues when I redeploy.  However, I suspect I’ll have a few small issues to cope with.

Things I’ll have trouble adjusting to:
  • Holding a conversation without dropping the F-bomb
  • Holding a conversation not laced with acronyms and jargon
  • Paying for a bottle of water
  • Commuting to the DIAC
  • Wearing a suit and tie instead of cargo pants, boots and a polo shirt
  • Beltway REMFs who don’t understand that DIA is a Combat Support Agency
  • Weekends off

But on the plus side, there are many things I’m eagerly anticipating.  They can be roughly categorized as family, friends, and creature comforts.

Things I’m really looking forward to: (except for #1, in no particular order)
  • Curling up with my beloved
  • Brewing a pot of Ethiopian Sidamo to start the morning
  • Steak, medium-rare
  • Craft-brewed beer
  • Sushi
  • Taking the Black Beast onto US 50 and winding it up to just under the State Troopers’ radar threshold
  • Trimming a jib
  • Hanging out and holding court at Davidus
  • Brunello di Montalcino
  • Draper’s Little Puff (I already have my ticket reserved!)
  • The Oyster Riot
  • Weekends off