Wednesday, August 22, 2007

WWI military road

Isonso Front

Kanal on the Soča River, destroyed in WWI

WWI bunker

WWI litter - cans and tins

Modrejce military cemetary 2,750 soldiers buried in 550 graves

I am magnetically drawn to WWI battlegrounds. They pull me despite the resistance of my pacifist heart. I have no idea why the hillsides, where blood watered the soil, have an inexplicable fascination to me. I am attracted to the art, architecture, clothing and music of the time around the turn of the 20th century, but why places of war?

WWI lives here in the conscious of the people. The war was horrendous, and all around this area there are daily reminders of the horror. Soldier cemeteries, the grass cut and graves aged but not abused in any way, showing the 90-year-old respect for the dead even if he was an enemy.

There are many places where litter of war can still be found on the hillsides. Along our hikes are foundations of stone buildings smothered with moss, walking paths that were once military roads, and sometimes rusted metal plates, tin cans, or other mysterious metal objects are found lying where dropped 9 decades ago. There is surprising peace. The energy is not one of absolute despair, but of acceptance that the sacrifice was not in vane. The ground is carpeted with creeping myrtle, ivy or long arched feathery grass as if someone planted ground cover to hide the memory. 90-year-old trees tower above, shading the forest floor preventing choking undergrowth and scrub bushes. Fresh blood pink cyclamen dribble at the edge of the paths beside pure white rocks that jut from the ground as uncut memorials for those who have fallen. And it is silent. Only a few bird motifs, but no rustlings of ground squirrels or mice break the white noise of the Soča River below. A place where I can sit in absolute complete stillness.

WWI began at the end of the colonization of the world. Places were spoken for and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Italy and Germany found themselves without colonies to compare to Great Britian, France and Russia. Europe was divided in two; Austria and Germany with great interest in the Balkans and Russia, England and France giving support to the Balkans to keep the Germanic influence at bay. When Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the Austrian hier to the throne, was shot by a Bosnian revolutionary youth in Sarajevo 28 June, 1914 the tensions could no longer be kept under control and the world exploded. War broke out in the late summer of1914 with the Austian ultimatum to Serbia, the German declaration of war on Russia and France, and the British declaration of war on Germany. Italy promised neutrality in 1914, but when Britan and France promised Italy, if victorious, the territories of Tyrol, the city of Trieste [Trst] the provinces of Gorizia [Gorica] and Gradisca [Gradiška], the basin of Tarvisio [Trbiž], part of the Duchy of Carniola extending the watershed, the Istrian peninsula, some o f the Croatian islands and a share of territories in Asia Minor and Africa, they saw hope for expansion and declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire 23 May 1915. The United States joined the war in 1917 and after the death of 10 million youth it was finally ended 11 November, 1918. Insanity had become governmental policy.

The mountainous border between the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy is the land of the Slovenes where war dominated their world for 29 months. All equipment had to be hauled by men, mules or dogs up switch back roads newly cut into the face of the mountains. Kitchens, milking parlors, butcheries, hospitals, tanneries, laundries, gardens, barracks, and stables were built of local stone. All that the soldiers needed had to be brought by foot, or made in army villages of huts clinging to mountains sides. All supplies brought up the mountain were made from metal; canteens, digging tools, lanterns, repair tools, cooking supplies, guns, coffee mills, cannons, cheese graters, steel beams, generators, explosives, lights. Water collected from rain and snow was stored in wooden barrels and left to fester in hot weather. Men were dressed in heavy wool uniforms, their legs wrapped in layers against rain, snow and ice, cleats were attached to the bottom of their boots with leather straps for traction on ice and snow. Wool capes covered their shoulders and nothing dried once it was wet.

1916 was the worse winter of the century and millions of men were stranded high in the mountains in snow over a meter deep. Tunnels were dug as protective trenches in the snow, like igloos. The soldiers hid themselves in arched snow caves with windows for shooting the enemy and dodging icicles caused by the heat of their bodies. ''It was so cold that fifty men from the entire battalion had to descend from the mountain due to frozen feet... I stayed in a trench for 24 hours, crouching among dead bodies, ours and those of the enemy. The stink was unbearable, and to tip it all, we had to resist a fierce attack by the enemy, which we repelled. A lot of our comrades died because they were hit in the head when they rose over the bulwark to shoot... The rations were scarce, consisting mainly of bread, cold boiled meat of lean taste! Water is brought in skins; it is very scarce and stinking ''( from diary of Virgilio Bonamore 2 August 1915 on Mt. Batognica from display in the Kobarid WWI Museum.) ''The trenches were an unfathomable maze of headquarters, food deposities and arsenals, first-aid posts, kitchens, artillery bases and emplacements for other weapons, deep shelters, loop holes, enlarged sites from which grenades were launched, observation posts etc.; in them there centred the life and the warfare, the sleep and the rest, the death the sorrows and sufferings as well as the modest joys of the soldiers existance.'' (Svoljšak, Petra; The Front on Soča; Ljubljana: Cankarjeva založba, 2002) “My heart breaks at the sight of these men in the prime of their youth who were mangled by shells, and many will perish for the sacred and rightful cause about which most of them have not the slightest idea.” (Gregorio Soldani 2 November, 1915.)

I spent over 2 weeks this summer in the Kobarid area where 11 offensives in the Soča [Isonso] River Valley were fought. Now the roads and paths tread by the soldiers are the trails of vacationing hikers. Trenches, bunkers, observation points and buildings are attractions of the historically curious. Kobarid has a wonderful small museum, not colored with national politics, that tells the story of the lives of the young men. The museum walls are cluttered with photos of everyday life on the mountain slopes and other events worth documenting. Post cards that had been printed and sent showing the devistation of towns tell the tales of the locals trying to survive in the midst of chaos. Ancient church records were destroyed with the churches and the towns that housed them, so the birth and death history of families was lost forever and when the war was finished the people had to rebuild their lives from the rubble of a world gone mad. The town of Šempeter, where we live, was flattened and all the buildings where we shop and drink coffee were rebuilt from the remains. Sveta Gora where I sing every Sunday was devistated because of it's strategic location on top of the mountain, but was rebuilt by the Italians in the original style. The presence of the power to survive, the will to carry on is evident in the buildings we see every day.

WWI trenches and stairs to and from trench

Charnel House 7,014 Italian soldiers buried here

WWI military road now hiking trail

Friday, August 03, 2007

Jelly fish

Šežana coast

Coast near Umag


In the Sea
Veli Ločinj
By the sea, by the sea, by the beautiful sea,
You and I, you and I, oh how happy we’ll be…

This summer I am spending some extended time on the Croatian coast along the Adriatic Sea. Within an hour we can drive by car to Croatia. If we time it just right and take the back roads we avoid the crush of traffic escaping the heat and the long lines at the border. The Croatians seem to resist welcoming the most common visitors from Italy, Slovenia, Austria, Germany and even as far as the Netherlands by making the summer tourist queue into one line to pass through the border. It almost seems as though they are saying, “What are you doing? Why don’t you just stay at home?” It is a forced cultural lesson. No one at the crossing gates is in a hurry. They seem to insist that we all start behaving like good Mediterranean residents and live life at a calmer pace. The roads are single lanes leading to and from the border, and the only travelers who are able to go quickly to the coast are the motorcycles that squeeze down the solid line between cars where there is dangerously not enough room. The car travelers must form a slow train to their holiday spot and there is no point in becoming anxious.

All along the Croatian coast, villages that were once supported by fishing or grazing animals are now swarming with tourists from all over the world. Hotels, resorts and summer homes of bright colors rest along side stone walls that once kept sheep from wandering. Medieval villages birth kitschy tourist shops selling things made from shells from every stone doorway. Captains of fishing boats are now tour guides to the islands and beaches. Single-family homes are being built to include rooms to rent or apartments in neighborhoods where each house posts a sign “Soba, Camera, Zimmer, Rooms” The tourist season is six months and the rest of the year is preparation for the tourists.

The economy appears to be thriving, but the attitude projected by the wait-staff in cafés and restaurants demonstrates the love hate relationship found in so many tourist areas. When I worked in Estes Park, Colorado we hated to see the tourists come. They were demanding, disrespectful, rude and often unpleasant. They were there to have a good time without concern for those who provide services. The students in Amish country in Holmes County, OH used to call the gawking aging bus tours “terrorists”. Yet like these places in the US, undoubtedly the life on the Croatian coast would be too quieter with out the tourists, and no one would have enough work to be able to live there. The tourists come for peace, relaxation, old charm, water and sun, but after dark the sound of disco throbs in the air, the beaches are packed with people, the old villages are decorated with flashing neon lights, the sea is being over fished and too much sun gives you skin cancer. Maybe tourism is not as good as it seems. I wonder if these villages will be deserted like Route 66, once the fickle tourist industry chooses a “new hot” spot; leaving deserted hotels and resorts.

In our part of Slovenia the world runs down to a halting pace in July and August. Shops and restaurants close down for the holidays, the library has shortened hours and even the health clinic in our neighborhood is closed. The streets are quiet and the pace is slow to accommodate the heat. Everyone I know goes to the sea. They take the 20-minute drive to Sistiana for an evening swim or they find a favorite spot on the Croatian coast and return year after year with friends and family spending all day in the water and roasting in the sun. The sent of fresh grilled fish, bought from the door to door fish monger, seasoned with sprigs of rosemary plucked from the yard, and smoked with fresh bay leaves cut from the hedge, peppers the air. Children play after-dark games while parents chat over a glass of wine. The world is relaxed. The Croatian coast resonates summer pleasures.

The coast was bare until after the war; no houses, no hotels, only fishing villages. Like Primorska, Italians following WWI, occupied the Istrian peninsula. Slovenes who were willing to change their names and speak only Italian were relocated here to work the land. They all seemed to have lived comfortably along side the Croatians and most signs are still written in Croatian and Italian. After WWII this coast belonged to Jugoslavia and many Slovenes bought small parcels of land for seaside cottages. Made by hand of Istrian stone, the houses were modest get away places that provided leisure, known before only to the aristocracy. Now, blurring historical class distinctions, the 20th century workers were provided holidays as their rights along with jobs, education and health care and they too spent the summer at the seaside.

Nothing grew on the cliffs over looking the sea. All building materials, and plantings had to be brought from elsewhere. Families spent every weekend creating by hand summer retreats to be enjoyed for generations. Originally there was no electricity or water supplied; cisterns were built under the houses for collecting rainwater and the glow of oil lamps lit the houses after dark. Concrete docks used mostly for sunbathing were built in the middle of the night during a full moon. Bags of cement were hauled down the cliff along with fresh water for mixing. When the tide was at its lowest the men stirred from sleep and poured cement in already constructed frames until the sea water returned to the shore. The docks are more like concrete platforms of varied heights jutting along the bottom of the cliffs, some have stairs into the water, metal cups for inserting umbrellas, others have cement seats formed for sun bathing and platforms for diving. There are no signs of private property or barriers to keep people from the houses further up the hill from enjoying the sea, it seems to be public land for all to share. The cottages are close together, but made private with 50-year-old pine trees and towering hedges. Now in the time of abundance, modest cottages are being replaced by enormous elaborate all season homes or rental apartments.

The sun is so beastly hot that I go swimming just to cool down. Never have I experienced anything so marvelous! The sea temperature is 25° [77°] and with the heat index of 41° [105°] the experience was amazingly refreshing. I have been swimming in salt water in Maine where it is too cold to stay long in the water, in Florida and Georgia where the waves are too strong to do anything but play, and in Oregon where I was certain I would get frost bite from putting my big toe in the water. But this water was luscious and so amazingly salty. It is difficult to swim because the sea seems to throw me out. I am so buoyant that instead of cutting through the water with my front crawl I bounce across the surface skimming like skipping stones. But to float is like lying in bed stretched out on top, toes pointed, legs spread, paddling with fin shaped hands lying for hours on top of the water. The density of the saline solution causes me to want to curl in a fetal position, slow down my breathing and revert to prenatal quiet. But all around are tanned little bottoms gallop along the shore in and out of the water wearing floating devices and clutching beach balls. Topless moms are sunning all possible bosom styles and grandmas wear the same bikini from the “itsy bitsy teeny-weeny” years, but to less affect.

I can stand erect in the water, arms hanging at my side, feet flat as if solid with only my head above the surface. The breaststroke seems impossible because the frog kick raises me up arching my back and throwing my feet out of the water. It is easier to walk in the water using the breaststroke with my hands but an upright walking motion with my feet. Swimming is not strenuous; it’s like walking on water. The quiet of the sea makes it possible to defy gravity.

I had fish tanks as a child, and now I think if I ever settle down in just one place again I will get a cat to snuggle on my lap, a dog to play Frisbee in the yard and an aquarium filled with fish of magnificent colors to watch swim around and around. I put on a snorkel mask and below me is a mystery. I am trying to not use trite overused phrases to describe things, but there is no other way to say that below the surface of the water is another world. A social structure is created by the diamond shaped shimmering schools of fish, crabs crawling over each other, sea cucumbers that must have inspired Jaba the Hut from Star Wars, and zillions of things camouflaged from me. Large stones litter the sea floor, blocks and pillars that I imagine are Roman are decorated with mollusks, mustard gold sponges. Only the fear that my back would get too burned in the sun pulls me from the vision of wonder in the sea.

My imagination that the pillars could be Roman is possible. The Istrian peninsula like all of this area was settled during the Roman Empire, but the sea rubble could be from the marauders who followed the Romans; the Goths, the Lombards, the Frankish kingdom [789], the dukes of Carinthia, Merano, Bavaria, the patriach of Aquileia, the Republic of Venice [1267], Napoleon, Austrian Empire, Italians, Nazis, Jugoslavs or simply rubble from the massive amounts of modern construction. I prefer to think that an ancient roman constuction crew littered a rejected stone and it has been home to sea creatures for centuries.

Piran, Slovenija from Croatia
Novigrad Sunset