A Reunion in Rome

The young man in the picture is Brother Santiago Mejia Rojas, and I’ve known him since he was 12 years old. He is now 27, living at a seminary in Rome and in his fifth year of studying for the priesthood with an order called The Legionaries of Christ. Because of Santiago, my time in that amazing city will always stand as one of the most special segments of this trip.

After our relaxing week in Tuscany, Tom and Peggy Briggs and I arrived in Rome via the fast train from Florence, zipping through the Italian countryside at 140 mph. The following day we discovered the ease of the metro system in Rome; there are two lines, the A line and the B line, and they intersect at Termini, and that’s all you need to know. We changed lines, got off at the Circo Massimo station and walked across the street to the very disappointing Circus Maximus.

Circus Maximus is the old Ben Hur racetrack, where more than a quarter of a million Romans used to attend a day of racing. I was here in 1966 and recall it being a well-defined track with manicured infield and viewing areas, with lots of classical statuary, but it has deteriorated badly since. It reflects the challenge of a city that has huge financial difficulties but is still obligated to maintain so many historical treasures. They should bring back Saturday chariot races, that would being in some revenue.

We walked around Palatine Hill and ended up on Via Imperiali, the main artery between Piazza Venezia and the Colosseum. The road was built by Mussolini in an effort to connect his office at Venezia to the symbols of ancient Roman power. It runs over the top of the ruins of various Roman forums, and excavation is ongoing on both sides of the road and also underneath it.

We stopped and looked at some of the Forum ruins, and walked past the street performers toward the Colosseum. On a wall there was a depiction of the growth of the Roman Empire, very enlightening; at its height during its first 200 years, it encompassed most of Europe including England, an entire band across northern Africa, a great deal of what is now the Middle East, and into Asia.

Lines to enter the Colosseum were long, so we signed up for a tour and got in immediately. It’s wooden floor and so much of the marble structure were used to build the Vatican and many of the 900+ churches in Rome, but it’s fun to try and envision the way it once was, its floor in place and all the sub-chambers underneath for animals and gladiators, with complete walls and seating. Of course you rarely see a photo of the Colosseum that doesn’t include the dramatic, almost iconic view where the top two levels have been sliced off. It seated 50,000 people, each with a ticket and a numbered seat.

In 80 A.D. it opened with 100 consecutive days of events, during which 9000 wild animals were killed. Given that there were 70 such amphitheaters throughout the Empire and that these “games” went on for 400 years, it’s no wonder that lions, tigers and leopards all ultimately faced extinction. The animal hunting was in the morning – with the emperor often joining in with bow and arrow, from the safety of the Royal Box – and the gladiator battles and the human bloodshed were in the afternoon. Lunchtime usually included executions. You just can’t get quality entertainment like that anymore.

We ended the day by going to St. Peter in Chains, the church where the chains St. Peter wore are displayed, as is Michelangelo’s majestic statue of Moses, every bit as powerful as his statue of David in Florence.

The next day we met Santiago at 12:30 at the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square. I hadn’t seen him in three or four years, and he looked terrific, healthy and happy. He took us to the restaurant where the current Pope liked to have lunch when he was a Cardinal, and after lunch, while Tom and Peggy joined a tour, we went to the Vatican Museum. There was a long line to get in, and we had time to catch up.

Having known him through his teens, it was wonderful to witness his transformation into a young man committed to his spirituality and his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and also, as I would learn throughout the afternoon, a student with great knowledge and passion for art, religion and philosophy.

Standing in line we had a chance to talk about many issues, and I learned a lot about the church that was comforting. I asked Santiago about creationism versus evolution, and how the church could deny the science. “We don’t, we think rather in terms of creationism and evolution,” he said. “We just believe that at some point in that process God touched man and gave him a soul, on a totally spiritual level, something impossible to ‘evolve’ from the material, from nature; man’s capacity to reflect, his conscience, his ability to reason, all the elements that separate him from every other species: his human soul. Human beings are both spiritual and material, not as two separate compound ‘things’ but rather one whole being, by no means an animal and by no means an angel … human.”

He talked a lot about the balance of faith and reason, and said that many of the stories in the Bible are parables for teaching, especially in the book of Genesis. The Old and New Testaments are historical documents, yes, but also a treasure of human learning and reason. It was reassuring to have a young man so passionate about his calling to the priesthood say that the reality of the Garden of Eden and the serpent and apple isn’t as important as its effectiveness as a tool for teaching about temptation and sin and man’s inherent choice between good and evil. That choice is a highlight of man’s liberty, he said, something animals don’t have and angels wish they did.

Walking through the many galleries of the Vatican Museum, Santiago indicated that all art since the end of the Roman Empire encompasses religion, especially Christianity, and that was hard to dispute that looking at this collection. Most impressive were the enormous tapestries, some covering an entire wall, woven by nuns with painstaking detail. And there was even a room of contemporary art, including a couple of works by Salvador Dali. Not sure I saw the theology in those.

Everything in the Vatican Museum is prelude to the Sistine Chapel. In a courtyard there are multiple stations with photographs of the ceiling and paintings, where tour guides line their charges in front to explain the images in great detail. Santiago showed me a few of the nuances of the ceiling … where Michelangelo added his own face, for example. My favorite story involved a Cardinal who complained to the Pope about the nudity in Michelangelo’s work, so the artist put this guy’s face on Minos, the Lord of the Underworld, consigning the Cardinal to hell. Fun stuff.

Of course the ceiling of the Chapel is best known for the moment of creation. God has his left arm around a woman and left hand on the shoulder of a young boy; there are several interpretations, the most obvious being that this is Mary and Jesus. His right hand is strong, extended, his finger about to touch Adam’s, whose hand is limp, awaiting God’s gift of life. It had new meaning based on our conversation earlier, now representing the moment that God gave Man a soul.

While I was taking in the ceiling, standing in the very room where Cardinals gather to select a new Pope, Santiago was talking to a guard, and eventually he beckoned me behind a security rope and into an anteroom. It was just the two of us. The room had a small couch, a desk and chair, a staircase descending a few feet to a door, and a larger one spiraling upward.

“This is the Room of Tears,” Santiago told me. “After the college of Cardinals elect a new Pope, he has the choice to accept or reject the election. If he accepts, he comes immediately in here, where he prays and is usually overcome with emotion; thus the name. Then he goes down into the room behind that door and changes into the white vestment of the Holy Father. Finally, the other stairs take him up through the Vatican buildings to the balcony where he greets the masses.” It was an honor to be in that room.

We went outside and grabbed an ice cream, and then headed to St. Peter’s Basilica. Earlier in the day the line had wrapped around St. Peter’s Square and doubled back, but 40 minutes before closing there was no line and we walked right in. Santiago did a wonderful job hitting the highlights in the limited time we had.

One of the twelve apostles, Peter, or Simon Peter, is regarded as the first Bishop of Rome, and consequently the first Pope, and was also the first of the apostles to recognize Christ’s true identity; in nearly every image of St. Peter he is holding a key, symbolizing Christ entrusting him with the keys to heaven. Peter was crucified under orders from the Emperor Nero, and at his request he and the cross were upside down because he didn’t feel he deserved to die in the same manner as Jesus. The crucifixion took place near an ancient Egyptian obelisk that now stands in St. Peter’s Square.

To the right as you enter St. Peter’s is Michelangelo’s Pieta, the only work he ever signed and an extraordinary statue of Christ, after the crucifixion, sprawled across Mary’s lap. Santiago pointed out that Mary would be enormous if she stood up, but that from our angle the proportion between the figures is perfect. Such was Michelangelo’s genius.

The church is full of stunning paintings that are not paintings at all. Every one of them is a mosaic painstakingly made from pieces almost too small to discern up close. The dimensions of the building are staggering and impossible to comprehend from the ground until you are told that the distance between the floor and the top of the dome would accommodate two Statue of Liberties, on top of one another.

The remains of St. Peter are directly under the center point of the dome and the massive and stunning canopy over the Papal alter. That the remains were actually his was a matter of speculation for hundreds of years, but an excavation begun in 1939 yielded enough proof that the Pope made it official in 1950. At least 125 Popes are buried in St. Peter’s, and some of them are visible and incredibly well preserved in a condition called “incorruptible.” There are scientific theories for this based on things like exposure to oxygen, and there are theological theories that Saints bodies don’t decay in a mortal way. Whichever, it’s very dramatic, if a bit unsettling.

We had far too little time in St. Peter’s, Santiago and I. He’ll be in Rome less than another year before he gets reassigned for a three-year internship, so I likely won’t get back there with him as a guide, but I would love to return and spend a day in the Basilica with someone who knows the story behind every detail. Is there another building in the world as beautiful? The Taj Mahal? I’ll see that in January, but I don’t see how it can compare. There is a reason Emerson called St. Peter’s “an ornament of the earth.”

My final day in Rome I went back to St. Peter’s Square for the Pope’s weekly General Assembly. This is not a religious service, it’s more an opportunity for the Pope to connect to and deliver a message to the masses. It was a perfect day, and a very festive environment. The Pope arrives in the Popemobile, circling the square and waving to everyone before being driving up to the platform in front of the Basilica, and if you can’t see him you can follow him on the big screens. During the proceedings over the next 90 minutes or different groups from different countries, many of them adorned in matching hats or scarves or t-shirts, are recognized in their native language, and they erupt with great cheering. There was one group from Germany that apparently thought they were at a soccer match, but it was all fun and celebratory, and of course emotional for many who had traveled a long way for this opportunity.

Finally, I made my way across the Tiber River to the Pantheon, which is a very old church with a hole in the ceiling, but after St. Peter’s I didn’t see a reason to linger. That evening I had dinner with Santiago and his friend Brother John, from Pennsylvania, a terrific guy who is less than two years from being ordained, and John told me the most interesting thing about the Pantheon.

“The Romans were smart”, he said. ”They didn’t try to force their religious beliefs on the countries and peoples that they conquered. And the Pantheon was the place where they put different artifacts and religious icons so visitors from other parts of the Empire could worship as they preferred.” In essence, the Pantheon was the first non-denominational church.

I hated for that dinner to end, as much as I enjoyed talking to those guys. But I left comfortable in knowing that my young friend Santiago has found contentment and happiness, and is so passionate about his studies and so committed to his calling. He is going to positively impact many, many lives as he moves along this path that he has chosen. He certainly impacted mine.

 

Advertisements
Categories: Uncategorized

Return to Tuscany

I was hoping that brief segments of this trip would be borderline decadent; my week in Florence with the McCullaghs probably qualified and so did my recent return to Tuscany, at least gastronomically. Tom and Peggy Briggs and I were honored to be the guest of Ricky and Nancy Richardson, old friends from college; Tom, Ricky and I were fraternity brothers.  As I mentioned in a previous post the Richardsons were supposed to have been on the sailing trip in Croatia but Ricky suffered severe burns in June when he incurred the wrath of a stone pizza oven, and he has to avoid sunlight for a while. He has some nasty patches on his forearms from adopting a fighter’s stance again the fireball, but as you can see from the picture his face is 100% healed and he looks 32 again.

The Richardsons have fractional ownership in a beautiful home in a development called Castello di Casole. Development is hardly the right word. It is a sprawling 4,200-acre estate of vineyards and olive groves where Bronze Age settlements date to 3000 B.C. The hotel that serves as the estate’s centerpiece and overlooks the property is a castle from the 10th century that was renovated in the 18th.

The property was acquired by Colorado-based Timbers Resorts in 2005, and the company is gradually adding villas around the hotel and renovating a select number of the old farmhouses and stables on the property into magnificent homes. It is spectacular, and as long as the government remains as opposed to development as it has been recently, it’s difficult to imagine anything else quite like this. (Check out www.castellodicasole.com and for more information contact the lovely Jennifer Young at jyoung@castellodicasole.com.)

The Richardson’s home, Pulcinello, sits on a hillside just below the town of Mensano. In Tuscany, it seems that every hill of substance has a medieval town on top of it, with newer homes and shops and offices just below and gorgeous rolling hills of vineyards and other agriculture in the valleys between. Mensano is small and usually quiet. “Nancy and I will walk up here for dinner,” Ricky said, “and often we’re the only people on the street.” That wasn’t the case on the day we arrived.

We got there for the final stages of Festa Della Vendemmia, a weekend celebration that happens only once every two years. For a small fee you get a glass and stroll through town sampling local wines, which is great fun, and the place was just rocking, wall-to-wall people. Ricky is a gregarious lad who seems to know everyone, and many people who hadn’t seen him since his accident were so happy to run into him, touching his face, elated at his recovery.

And that was the week, basically: driving through breathtaking countryside; walking the streets of fascinating old cities and towns; wine, food and friendship, in ample doses. We had amazing pizza at La Pergola, in Radicondoli. We had a very special evening at the home of a wonderful, hardworking guy named Varno, who makes outstanding wine, runs an agricultural-themed B&B, and on rare occasions cooks for his friends. Ricky is a friend.

We had lunch in Panzano, home of Dario Ceccini, Italy’s most famous butcher and a huge television personality; the day we went to his shop he was holding court for a group of Norwegian tourists. His American wife translated for him, but one joke he managed in English. “Today’s question” he said, holding up a huge piece of meat, “To beef, or not to beef.” The following day Tom, Peggy and I drove to San Gimignano, famous for its many medieval towers that make it look like a massive Stonehenge from a distance.

We spent a rainy afternoon in Siena; there is a great cathedral there, nice shops and we had yet another terrific lunch, but the most interesting thing about Siena is the huge Piazza del Campo, where twice each summer they hold a horse race called Il Palio. It dates from the Middle Ages when bullfighting, boxing and other games were held in the Piazza. When the Grand Duke of Tuscany outlawed bullfighting they started racing buffalo, then donkeys, and finally horses, with the “modern” Palio starting in 1656.

A thick layer of dirt is brought in to cover the perimeter of the piazza (the gray part in the photo), they pack 40,000 people in the middle, and the ten horses representing 10 of the 17 contrades, or city wards, run three laps of a dangerous course that rises and descends and features a couple of 90-degree turns. Horses are selected in a lottery that may or may not be rigged. Contrades will do anything to keep their rivals from winning, and bribes and doping are rampant. But the real fun starts with the race, as jockeys can whip other horses and hit other riders, and they often fall off since they are riding bareback, but it doesn’t matter, the horse crossing the line first wins even if it is jockeyless. It sounds like 90 seconds of mayhem in the middle of a rollicking good party.

On our final day there we visited Fontodi, one of the better local wineries. The harvest had ended just the previous day and everyone was suitably relaxed. The Chianti that is produced in Tuscany is made primarily from a grape called Sangiovese, and it is so much better than I remember from the past, when it came in those squatty, straw-covered bottles called fiascos that always ended up as candle holders. In quality and certainly value, the wines we had in Italy compare favorably with any.

So that was Tuscany. As I said, borderline decadent, but 100% fantastic, thanks to the Richardsons.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Pearl of the Adriatic

On the final day of our Croatian sailing trip we headed down the coast to the city of Dubrovnik, a place the rest of my mates had visited previously but one that would be totally new to me. We by-passed the entrance to the river that went inland toward our marina and continued south to check out the great fortress of Old Town from the water, the historical heart of Dubrovnik, one of the great walled Medieval cities in the world.

The city was originally thought to have been founded by refugees in the 7th century, but recent research and excavations indicate that the Greeks were there much earlier. It spent a time under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, and after the Crusades was under the sovereignty of Venice. A fire destroyed most of the city in 1296 but a vibrant new urban plan emerged from that, and Dubrovnik was a free state and a thriving leader in maritime trade until decimated by earthquake in 1667. It was rebuilt once again, and quickly regained its economic footing.

Following World War I Dubrovnik was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; during World War II it was part of the Nazi Independent State of Croatia, and was occupied by Italian and German armies. After the war it and the rest of Croatia became part of communist Yugoslavia, along with Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia, Kosovo and Montenegro.

In 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia, triggering the Homeland War that lasted four years. Dubrovnik was first attacked on October 1, 1991 by Serbian and Montenegrin forces led by the Yugoslav National Army.

There are multiple theories about the reasons behind the war, one of them – inevitably – being that it was based on religion; Croatia is 98% Catholic, Serbia is predominantly Eastern Orthodox and Bosnia is mostly Muslim. The war in Bosnia might have been based in religious conflict, but in Croatia it really seems to have been about Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic wanting to deliver on his plan for a “Greater Serbia”, a return to an Empire as powerful as it was in the 14th century before the Ottoman invasion. The break-up of Yugoslavia gave him the opportunity to try and capture Dubrovnik, either to hold it for ransom or use it as a stronghold to move north and usurp the strategically and aesthetically valuable Adriatic coastline of Croatia. It was nothing but a land grab.

On our free day before leaving Croatia, Tom and Peggy Briggs, Ricky and Nancy Richardson and I took the tram from just outside Old Town Dubrovnik to the top of Mt. Srd to the northeast, where there is a War Museum in the remains of Fort Imperial, which was built in the early 1800s. The view from the top is striking. Down the hill to the southwest is the Old Town and the homes surrounding it, the cruise ships, the luxury hotels on the coast and the impossibly blue Adriatic. Out the back is a barren, grassy plain leading to mountains of rock from where Milosevic’s minions launched their attacks.

Like all of Croatia, Dubrovnik was at a huge disadvantage in a wartime situation because of a weak military, no trained militia and a lack of support from the outside. When it was initially attacked, Dubrovnik’s total forces consisted of 200 active and 300 reserve policemen. Nevertheless, with the city already blockaded from the sea, Ft. Imperial remained safe and repelled the attempt to enclose Dubrovnik from the hillside above it. On Dec. 6, 1991, when a second wave of attacks began, a force of 31 men retreated to the fort and successfully defended it. I mentioned to Tom that it reminded me of the Alamo. “Yeah,” he said, “except for the ‘successfully defended’ part.”

As the war continued there were sporadic attacks on Dubrovnik, and in May and June of 1992 heavy artillery rained down on the 100-foot high walls of Old Town that were built to repel arrows and spears. That finally woke up the outside world, and the media attention led to U.N. involvement and sanctions that ultimately helped to end the attacks on Dubrovnik and force the lifting of the blockade.

More than 450 cultural monuments were damaged, and restoration that has cost $35 million to date is ongoing; pockets of untouched destruction were clearly visible. But none of that dampens the energy that emanates from Old Town these days. Within those massive walls is a vibrant and somewhat mystifying blend of residential life and relentless tourism.

Buses and cruise ships dump tens of thousands of visitors into the main corridors and narrow alleyways of Old Town, and the artisan stands of bygone eras have been replaced by souvenir shops, ice cream vendors and overpriced restaurants and bars. But if you venture out into the side streets it starts to feel more authentic, and as you climb up to the wall and walk the perimeter of the entire enclosed area you see a school and small backyards and laundry hanging out, and you get a glimpse into the life of Old Town’s 2000 permanent residents who have clearly adjusted to the parade of foreigners just meters away from their kitchen windows.

On a bright, warm day it is a startlingly beautiful place, a union of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture; of salt air and simmering garlic; of the native and the naive. I’d have preferred a week there rather than a day and a half. Next time.

Categories: Uncategorized

Discovering Croatia

It’s only within the past eight years or so that I started to hear good things about Croatia, how it was developing economically, about golf courses being built there and tourism increasing, about how beautiful the water is and how good the boating.  My old college friend Tom Briggs came back from a sailing trip there raving about the little towns where he tied up and the people and the experience, and Croatia immediately became a priority.

Croatia has a long, complicated history: the establishment of Greek colonies on some of the coastal islands; inclusion in the Roman Empire just after the birth of Christ; occupation by Croat invaders in the 7th century, the Republic of Venice in the 1400s and the Ottoman Empire following that. After World War II it became part of the “single-party Socialist federal unit of Yugoslavia”, but as Communism deteriorated Croatia laid the foundations of autonomy. It’s war against aggressors from Serbia and Montenegro, led by the Yugoslav National Army, went from 1991-1995 and ended with victory and complete independence.

Today, despite about 25% unemployment, Croatia’s economy is relatively vibrant and much of that is due to tourism, which accounts for 20% of its GNP. It’s among the top 20 tourism destinations in the world now and its popularity is growing, understandably. Trogir, Hvar, Korcula, Mljet, Dubrovnik … the coastal towns and islands of the Adriatic in southern Croatia are beautiful and historic. I’m sure there is a lot you miss by hugging the coastline in a 44-foot sailboat, but in terms of scenery and serenity it is incomparable. I hope some of the photographs do it justice.

I was on this eight-day cruise with Tom Briggs and his wife Peggy, and Denny and Cindy Schuler, a couple from Oregon and California that the Briggs’ had met on a previous sailing trip. Denny is a retired college football coach, having plied his trade at USC, Cal and Oregon among others, and he had great stories about neurotic coaches and recruiting escapades. (He had Tom Brady signed and sealed for Cal, for example, but agreed to let him make a token visit to Michigan for family reasons, and of course Brady ended up going there, almost costing Denny his job.) I was invited on this trip because another college friend, Ricky Richardson, suffered a horrific accident at his vacation home in Tuscany when his forno, a stone outdoor oven, exploded when he was preparing to make pizza, and he suffered second-degree burns on his face and arms. Ricky and his wife Nancy joined us for dinner a couple of times along the route and he’s fine, looking good, just not permitted to get any sun for a while. Far be it from me not to capitalize on a friend’s misfortune.

Our itinerary took us from Primosten, just north of the city of Split, down the coast to Dubrovnik. It was wonderful to pull into one marina after another and not hear anyone speaking English as a native language. Obviously most people were local and speaking Croatian, but we heard a lot of German and French, and all the Scandinavian languages. In one marina we met some Norwegians who told us they were part of a flotilla of seven boats with 55 people. In another we tied up next to a boat of very sturdy women from Finland.

Cruising the cobalt blue Adriatic, the hillsides rise up from the shore, green with terraces of grape vineyards or olive groves, but ultimately rocky even at this low altitude. There are little villages intermittently tucked into a crease in the mountainside that almost seem inaccessible, and you wonder about the people who live there, how they sustain themselves. Each village has a church that one assumes is the centerpiece of life in the community, and each must surely have a school. There are no docks on the rocky coastline, no boats, so apparently they don’t fish. I would like to have met some of these folks to learn about their lives.

On the third night we stayed on the island of Hvar. We couldn’t get a spot at the marina in the town of Hvar so tied up at a commercial marina a couple of miles away, and took a water taxi over for dinner. Hvar is one of so many old medieval towns in Croatia, where the old stone walls and streets mix so magically with the modern shops and restaurants. The horseshoe of action around the harbor is apparently where Prince Harry likes to go on occasion to let his hair down away from the paparazzi. We opted for a quiet dinner and an early return to the boat.

The next night we were on the island of Korcula, birthplace of Marco Polo, and Ricky and Nancy took a ferry over and joined us for an unusual dinner. Those who wanted fish were told if we waited eight minutes a fresh catch would be up from the boat, and about 20 minutes later they brought a beautiful five-pound St. Pierre to our table for approval. Although the other four had finished dinner well before we were served, Nancy, Ricky and I enjoyed an incredibly delicious meal that might have been happily meandering through the Adriatic 90 minutes earlier.

A few days later, after a brief morning on the water, we tied up to a mooring ball in a gorgeous little harbor at the island of Mljet (meal-yet). Most of the island is a national park, and we took a van to the interior and a boat to an island that features a 12th century monastery in the middle of a salt-water lake, and from there we boated to a smaller lake where we did some hiking and biking. Another perfect day in a magical place.

We started out the next morning with a good wind and were sailing along nicely at six knots when the wind suddenly died, and rather than tie up at another island we decided to motor all the way to Dubrovnik to have some extra time there; Dubrovnik is extraordinary, and I’ll share thoughts and pictures about it in the next post. But the cruise down the coast was hard to beat, filled as it was with sunshine and scenery, great food and friendship; it left me excited about the day that I return.

Categories: Uncategorized

La Magia di Firenze

I was in Florence once before, when I was young and stupid. I feel fortunate to have a chance to return with a greater appreciation for magic that the city has to offer.

I’m here with my good friends Leo and Penny McCullagh, eating too much and drinking great wine, putting on all the weight I lost in Africa and having a rocking good time driving these insanely narrow, stone-walled medieval streets that are two-way, but wide enough for about a car and a half. Fortunately, many people here drive what appears to be half a car.

We spent the early part of the trip exploring some of the outlying areas and enjoying the wonderful scenery; the quaint villages with their terracotta roof lines, the walled remnants of the middle ages, the distant landscapes dominated by rows of the tall, slender Cypress trees that seem so uniquely Italian. We found an amazing old medieval fortress town called Montefioralle, overlooking Greve in Chianti, and were so taken with its charm, its narrow cobblestone roads and high stone walls that we returned a second time just to have lunch at Taverna del Guerrino, down some steps that have probably been there 1000 years and onto a terrace overlooking the gorgeous rolling hills and vineyards of the Chianti region.

Curiously, in the countryside between Florence and Chianti we saw quite a few “working girls” on the side of the road, sitting in folding chairs, talking on cell phones, waiting for business. We had to wonder: Who would their clients be, exactly, at 11:00 a.m. on a Monday morning?

On the way back from Chianti the second time we stopped at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, a lovely and beautifully maintained tribute to the American soldiers who died while taking Tuscany from the Germans in July and August of 1944, en route to liberating Italy in May of the following year. There are 4,398 headstones in the cemetery, with another 1,409 soldiers missing in action honored as well. After being here as well as the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, I have to pay tribute to the American Battle Monuments Commission for the job they do maintaining many dozens of monuments and cemeteries around the world.

The highlight of the week, though, was spending time in Centro di Firenze, the heart of the magnificent city of Florence. Like so many places outside the U.S. it’s difficult to comprehend the shear volume of history encompassed in the streets and the walls; anything built after 1700 is concerned “modern”. The city was founded by the Romans 59 years before the birth of Christ as a kind of retirement community for veteran soldiers. The current Piazza della Repubblica, which according to our guide Samuele serves as “the living room of Florence”, was once the site of the Roman forum. On the day we were there a stage was being constructed for an upcoming concert by Iggy Pop to commemorate the first anniversary of the local Hard Rock Café. How times have changed in a mere 2000 years.

Florence was conquered by Charlemagne in 774, and by the 1300s was one of the three largest cities in the world, along with London and Rome. In the 1700s it was briefly part of Austria, it was taken over by the French army for a time, and then it became the capital of the new kingdom of Italy from 1865-1870. It was also occupied by those pesky Germans for a while in the 1940s.

Eclectically European though it might be, more than anything Florence is known for being the birthplace of the Renaissance (1401-1510) and home to some of mankind’s greatest works of art and architecture. And also literature; Dante was born and lived in Florence.

Samuele took us first to the Basilica Santa Maria del Fiore, known colloquially as Il Duomo. It is huge, visible from almost everywhere in the city; its dome is the highest point in Florence, and its bell tower the third highest. It was built on the site of an earlier cathedral from the 5th century that was deteriorating with age and was not big enough to handle the growing population.

Il Duomo was begun when the Pope came to place the first stone in September, 1296, and although functional it wasn’t truly completed until 1436, when the massive dome was added. In front of the church is a large baptismal, necessary because at the time, unbaptized people where not allowed in the cathedral. The gold door of the baptismal was so sublime and beautifully detailed that Michelangelo himself called it “The Gateway to Paradise.”

Inside, the cathedral is somewhat disappointing. There are no pews, just a huge open area with an elaborate marble floor. There are two things of interest in the interior: a very unique clock that is based on sunset being 12:00, and the dome itself, on which is the largest fresco surface in the world. The painting is called “The Final Judgment”, and it is six times larger than the Sistine Chapel.

The church had been built with a hole where the dome would go, since no one could figure out how to safely engineer something that big. So they held a contest in 1418 and awarded the job in 1420 to a young architect named Filippo Brunelleschi, who finished in 1436 and destroyed all his notes, so no one is quite sure how he did it. The dome weighs 13,000 tons and still stands as the largest brick dome in the world, so well done, Filippo.

Samuele showed us the street where Dante might or might not have been born. In any case, they have constructed a fake house in his honor, “so at least everyone comes here and talks about him,” Samuele said. “You have to realize that Dante is to Italy what Shakespeare was to England. He created our language.” At the time Dante was writing The Divine Comedy, people were rebelling against Latin, and he was the first to write in the new Florentine language, which gave birth to Italian.

We stood on some church steps and Samuele pointed out an architectural cornucopia covering 1000 years: Medieval, gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, neo-gothic, mannerism, neo-classical, and 20th century, all visible from one street corner. Pretty amazing. And below us were Roman ruins going back another 1000 years or so that can never be excavated.

Probably nothing in Florence is as enduring as Ponte Vecchio, “Old Bridge”, which spans the narrowest part of the Arno River. The bridge’s history extends back into Roman times but first appears in a document in 996; it was swept away in 1117, rebuilt and lost again to flood in 1333, and rebuilt yet again in 1345. It was the only bridge in the city not destroyed by the Germans in 1944, allegedly because of an express order from Hitler.

The bridge has always hosted shops, butchers initially, but now overpriced jewelers and art dealers and souvenir merchants populate the bridge, catering to the tourists.  You don’t even sense you are on a bridge until it opens up at the center, where, on a fence surrounding a statue, lovers have placed padlocks and thrown the key into the river as a symbol of their unbreakable bond.

Nearby is one of the oldest art museums in the Western World, the Galleria degli Uffizi. It was initially an office building for the legendary Medici family, who ran the town for a long time in the 16th century. The Medicis archived some artwork they had collected or commissioned (or stolen) in the office building, and as the collection grew the building became more museum than offices, and once the house of Medici was extinguished it became open to visitors by request, and finally open to the public in 1765. We moved through quickly, dodging the large groups of Japanese but stopping to admire many incredible paintings such as Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus.

The highlight of any artistic perusal of Florence is Michelangelo’s magnificent statue of David. Once the powerful Medici family was overcome and sent into exile, its enemies commissioned the statue to symbolize the death of the “Goliath” and the threat to civil liberties by powerful rival city-states. (Years later, when the Medicis came back into power and after the statue had been damaged by lightning and a bench thrown out of a window, they had it repaired to demonstrate that their love of art was greater than their animosity.)

Michelangelo started the statue in 1501 at the age of 26, using a suspect block of marble that had been sitting around for 25 years exposed to the elements. Three years later he completed it and spent the rest of his days depressed because he believed he could never equal it. When average life expectancy is 45 you can just take early retirement at 29, but then Mike defied all the actuarial tables by living to age 89.

In 1873, the 17-foot David was moved to the Academia del Bella Arti over the course of ten days. You can’t take photos of the statue now, but a replica stands at the original site in the Piazza della Signoria, an amazing open forum of art that includes a number of original statues including The Rape of the Sabine Women.

With a sling over his left shoulder and down his back to the rock in his right hand, and with a “man, that dude is huge!” look in his eyes, most agree the work portrays David just before his battle with Goliath. We know how that turned out. David has been the hero of the underdog ever since, and thanks to Michelangelo’s genius has inspired Florentine visitors for more than 500 years.

Categories: Uncategorized

Mauthausen

Prior to and during World War II there were 23 primary concentration camps throughout Germany and German-occupied Europe. While names like Auschwitz and Dachau evoke immediate emotional responses, one of the worst was Mauthausen, a Grade III camp in northern Austria, the designation being given to only the toughest and most fearsome prisons for “the incorrigible enemies of the Reich”.  Mauthausen was known within the SS  by its code name of Knochenmuhle: “The Bone Grinder”.

The site was chosen because of its proximity to granite quarries and because it was just 12 miles from Linz, where Adolph Hitler went to high school. (The fact that he was actually born in Austria seems to get overlooked, which is just fine with Austrians). It sits atop a hill, its foreboding stone walls and barbed wire in stark contrast to the lovely riverfront town of Mauthausen that it overlooks in one direction, and the beautiful rolling hills and farmland that extend in the other.

Mauthausen was a moneymaker, a commercial enterprise that was actually founded by a private company to be an economic engine for the Reich. Slave labor from the camp was used in quarries, arms and munitions factories, mines and many other labor-intensive endeavors, but quarries in particular because of the great number of construction projects in and around Nazi Germany.  At one point as many as 45 different companies were benefiting from the labor pool provided by Mauthausen. When Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of all concentration camps, would visit the camp he would inspect only the work areas, focusing on the business of inhumanity rather than the inhumanity itself.

_______________________

In 1938 prisoners were brought from Dachau to start building the camp at Mauthausen, and the first inhabitants were “incorrigible law offenders”, those who had committed a crime, real or perceived, including many who had already completed their sentences. In 1939 new “detainees” were largely political prisoners, German, Austrian and Czech socialists, communists, anarchists and homosexuals, and in early 1940 many Polish artists, scientists, teachers and professors were added to the mix. The camp developed a reputation as being home to the intelligentsia.

By 1942 the largest population in the camp was Russian, the second largest Spanish. Spanish Republicans had fled to the north after Franco got elected, and were captured when Germany invaded France. Russian and Jewish prisoners received the worst treatment, German and Austrian the best.

There was one serious escape attempt that was documented in a film that is shown in the Visitor Center.  The SS was particularly hard on the Russian prisoners, who were housed in Block 20. They spent from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day, regardless of weather, standing outside in the yard (20 degrees below zero is not uncommon here in the winter). At night they slept on the floor if they could find space, or on top of each other. If it rained and an SS officer was visiting, the Russian prisoners were called upon to form a human carpet in the mud so the officer wouldn’t soil his boots.

On February 2, 1945, the Russian prisoners executed an elaborate escape plan that included diversions, short-circuiting the electrified barbed wire, and forming human ladders. Many were shot and killed within meters of the outer wall but many made it into town, where they were hunted down and shot, and stacked like a cord of wood in the town square. Townspeople suspected of harboring escapees were killed also, but many of them continued to do it still.

By one account inmates at Mauthausen were killed by 65 different methods, from being injected with gasoline to hanging to having pieces of their brain removed. But the overriding strategy at the camp was Vernichtung durch arbeit: Extermination through Labor.

Perhaps nothing terrified the prisoners more than the “Staircase of Death”, which led from the quarry below back up to the camp. It was an immense, wide stone pathway totaling 186 stairs, on which prisoners would be required to carry huge stones weighing over 100 lbs. after a day of toiling in the quarry with no food or water. Some collapsed and died, others fell over backwards triggering a horrifying domino effect with men and stones tumbling down the stairs. Those who couldn’t make it to the top were brought to the cliff overlooking the quarry and given a choice of being shot or pushing a fellow inmate to his death.

This is an excerpt from the confession of Franz Ziereis, the Commander of the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, taken after he had been shot and wounded by American troops trying to escape following the liberation of the camp:

Himmler gave the order to load a 45 kilo stone on an inmate’s back and make him run around with it until he fell dead. Himmler ordered us to establish a penal labor company according to this system. The inmates had to haul stones until they collapsed, then they were shot and their record was annotated “Trying to escape”. Others were driven into a fence made of charged high-tension wire. Others were literally torn to pieces by the dog named “Lord” belonging to the camp commander Bachmeyer who sicced it on the inmates. On 30 April 43, inmates of the camp office were ordered to assemble the court yard. There they were shot like wild animals by SS Oberscharfuehrer Niedermeyer and the Gestapoagent Polaska. Altogether, as far as I know, 65,000 inmates were murdered in Mauthausen. In most cases, I myself took part in the executions. 

Ziereis’ estimate is low. Some reports claim that up to 250,000 prisoners died at Mauthausen, but around 150,000 seems to be a more accepted number. What is known is that of the 320,000 people imprisoned there, only 80,000 survived.

On the day I visited Mauthausen there were very few other visitors. I stood in the large open courtyard inside the main gate, alone with the spectral images in my mind of the more than 300,000 men who were incarcerated here, their average weight 85 pounds, their spirit diminished daily by the sadistic imagination of their captors.

The remaining barracks were on my left, buildings that were designed to house 300 inmates, two to a bed, but that toward the end of the war held 2000. To the right was the Wailing Wall, where prisoners were first stripped of their clothes and their dignity, and beyond that, buildings that housed the laundry and the kitchen. Beneath those, in the basement, were the horrific remnants of true evil: the gas chamber, the ovens, the hanging room, the dismemberment room.

In April, 1945, knowing that the war was coming to its inevitable conclusion, the SS ramped up and killed 10,000 prisoners, including 200 Austrian resistance fighters who died during the final use of the gas chamber on April 28. The camp was liberated on May 5, 1945, by the 41st Reconnaissance Squadron of the 11th Armored Division of the 3rd U.S Army. Most of the SS had fled and the prison was being run by elderly firefighters from Vienna, but the remaining 30 SS members were killed by the prisoners. The Americans buried 1200 people the first day and 300 per day for weeks afterward. Mauthausen was the last of the Nazi concentration camps to be liberated.

Maybe 10% of the original camp still stands. The majority of it was dismantled after it was liberated, including most of the barracks and all of the SS living and administration buildings. On the site of the former SS buildings stands a Memorial Park that was begun in 1949. It contains dramatic monuments donated to the site by various nations and groups who lost native sons and daughters at Mauthausen.

I found the Memorial Park to be full of hope. Part of it, I think, is the variety of messages from so many nations that had been impacted, and the creative and thoughtful way they were expressed. The French monument is a sculptural tribute to liberty, and the Slovenian is a statue of a human skeleton reaching to heaven.  The Italian monument is a wall that features scores of smaller tributes to individuals lost at Mauthausen. And the most dramatic and impactful of all is the Israeli monument, which in part features a huge Minora of twisted metal framed against the verdant farmlands to the west. To me, the Memorial Park represented decency and civility, and it conveyed the feeling that we are all linked by an abhorrence of these atrocities and a fundamental belief in the goodness of man.

Categories: Uncategorized

Salzburg: Part Eins

Meandering

Home base on and off until the end of the year is a comfortable one-room apartment in Salzburg, Austria, a city chosen because of its central European location and because everyone who has been here seems to fall in love with it.

The drive here from Normandy took three days, one gorgeous day across northern France and two dreary, foggy days down to Lake Geneva and then up through Zurich and Munich to Salzburg. I drove through some of the most magnificent scenery on this planet and couldn’t see any of it. But you still manage to learn a few things along the way.

  • Wind power is big over here. Approaching the airport in Amsterdam you see many of the enormous wind turbines, and many more on the highway south of the city, and through Belgium and France as well, usually four to ten at a time. (South of Amsterdam there is an old-fashioned Dutch windmill next to the highway, maybe a quarter mile from one of the huge turbines … the juxtaposition would have made a great picture.) Donald Trump is suing half of Scotland because of plans to put some of these things off the coast where he’s building a golf course, but they really are quite beautiful, sleekly elegant, a functional sculpture. And they do it the right way here, with small groupings and considerable distance between them so they’re not oppressive or overwhelming. I don’t know if they’re efficient, but they sure are striking. The German-speaking countries, curiously, seem to prefer large solar farms.
  •  I drove the entire width of France, from Normandy to Strasbourg, without seeing one marked police car.
  • But I did see one in Vevey, Switzerland, and the officer was very understanding that I was going the wrong way on a one-way street. I’d done the same thing in Strasbourg and almost got whacked by a streetcar. The downtown areas in these old cities are lovely, but narrow and confusing. Strasbourg, by the way, is a beautiful city, deserving of more than a 12-hour visit. I took a nice walk down the Rue du 22 Novembre, a curious name, and a Google search seems to indicate (it’s in French) that it’s a significant date from 1918. Of course that date has a different meaning in the U.S.
  • Until just a few years ago all new homes built in Switzerland were required to have an air raid shelter. After a great dinner with Susan Kaye and her son in her home overlooking Lake Geneva (Susan and her boyfriend Jan are renting my house in Florida for a year), she showed me the room in her basement with a vault-like door and room for 24 people. If the word went out she would have one day to get the pool table out and provisions and 24 little beds in. “It’s Swiss paranoia,” Susan explained. “When you’ve never taken sides, you don’t know who to trust!”
  • In the U.S. we make a big deal at state lines, but I drove from Holland into Belgium, France, Switzerland and Germany with never any indication that a border had been crossed. There ain’t no sign in Lichtenstein. Entering Austria there is a tasteful marker saying “Republik of Osterreich”, but that’s it. This might be a “One Europe” statement, but I think they’re missing an opportunity. How about: “You Have Entered Switzerland, and Your Speed is Being Timed With Unparalleled Precision”. Or just “Welcome to France, Home of the Croissant”. Is that too much to ask?

The Hills Are Alive

The film The Sound of Music came out in 1965 and eventually replaced Gone With the Wind as the top-grossing movie of all time. It takes place in Salzburg, and my apartment has a DVD of the film, so I watched it when I first arrived. I hadn’t seen it in many years but it really does hold up; the music and the story are wonderful.

Even though the it’s set here and was partially filmed here, it was another ten or 12 years before Salzburg itself discovered the movie, and you get the sense it has never been fully embraced. Nevertheless, entrepreneurs decided to capitalize on the film’s enduring popularity by giving tours of some of the locations used in production, and today, you see Sound of Music tour buses and vans throughout the city. It seems every non-Salzburger has either just done the tour or is planning to.

With a few exceptions the exterior shots were done in Salzburg and the interiors in London studios. The hillside in the opening scene where Julie Andrews twirls and sings the title song is now a housing development, and is many kilometers from Salzburg. “If Maria had run back to the convent from there,” said Bruno, our guide, “she’d still be running.” The actual Nonnburg Abbey was built around 700, rebuilt in 1400 after a fire, and was the site of the real wedding between Maria and Captain von Trapp in 1927. It sits today in a place of prominence overlooking Old Town Salzburg.

I was joined by George and Mary Sacks, a great couple from Boca Raton, Florida, and the tour was fun and provided insight into the city as well as the production sites. We saw the garden where some of the “Do, Re, Mi” number was filmed; the building across the lake where the exterior scenes at the Captain’s mansion were staged; the gazebo featured in several of the love scenes (the movie company donated it to the city); and the highlight, the magnificent Parish Church of St. Michael in Mondsee, where the wedding was filmed, one of the few indoor venues in Austria chosen to be in the film. It was easy to see why.

Up Close and Personal with Austrian Health Care

Republicans in the United States would find the health care system in Austria uncomfortably socialistic. It’s a fairly simple two-tiered system through which most people – with a small contribution from their paycheck – receive publicly funded health care and then have the option to purchase supplementary private health insurance, which is affordable for the middle class and provides access to higher-priced doctors and private hospital rooms.

So the government gives you a coach ticket, and you can upgrade to business class if you choose. It seems to work well, as Austria is among the world’s top ten rated systems in the most recent World Health Organization rankings. “But it’s not like it used to be,” Bruno, the Sound of Music guide told us, “before the European Union.” He felt that money that used to go into health care is now propping up struggling European economies. But others disagree, and believe the system is as good as it’s ever been.

Being but a stranger in this land, a foreigner with a credit card, I can’t testify to coverage provided by the system, but from my recent experience with knee surgery I can certainly comment on its efficiency. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

This all happened on a Tuesday: At 9:30 a.m. I received an email from Gabi Frost, my landlord, recommending a local orthopedic partnership. At 11:30 I walked in and asked for an appointment, and was told to come back at 2:00. I returned at 1:45, was in the doctor’s office at 1:50, on the examination table at 1:55, and by 2:00 had an appointment for an MRI as soon as I could get there. I walked 15 minutes to a facility that features one of only two open MRI machines in Austria. By 3:00 I was walking back to the doctor’s with the MRI disk, and by 3:20 was in his office looking at my “miniskusruptur” on his computer. The meniscus was torn and starting to impact the surrounding cartilage. It needed to be scoped.

So, in less than two hours I had met two doctors who had been recommended that morning, got the knee examined, had an MRI, reviewed it with the doctor and decided on surgery. I’d suspected this would be necessary ever since descending Kilimanjaro and being prepared mentally made the decision easier, but still, the speed with which it all happened was remarkable. We scheduled the surgery for Friday morning, at a nearby private hospital.

The “Privatklinik Wherle” looked more like a boutique hotel. It was a yellow, three-story building with white columns and an ornamental railing on a second floor balcony, big trees in the yard, all surrounded by a white fence.  Inside, the décor was a bit more Hospital Traditional, but still very nice, serene, and amazingly empty; I saw one other patient all day. There was a spacious coffee shop on the third floor with a view of the dramatic Untersberg, the peak that is the opening scenic shot in The Sound of Music. (Bruno had told us that “Unter” is Celtic for mountain, and “Berg” is German for mountain. So the name of this mountain is Mountain Mountain).

I took pictures of everyone I came in contact with: Dani at admission, who was once an au pair in Miami; Robert, who took my information; Sabine, who patiently guided me everywhere; Margit with the chest x-ray, Judith with the EKG. I had a great talk with Eugene, the anesthesiologist, who had worked for a number of years in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. These were all wonderful people who obviously loved their jobs, and they certainly made the day comfortable, even fun. (I brought the camera into the operating room, and you see the result at the bottom … I have no idea who took that picture).

The surgeon was Dr. Harald Kiss, a 40ish, athletic guy who bikes a lot and once had ACL surgery because of a ski accident. I asked him early on if he had ever done this before. “A thousand times,” he said patiently. “And I assisted on this procedure maybe 400 times before I did it myself. Today, you assist 30 times and then you can do it.”

Time will tell, but Dr. Kiss seemed like the right guy for the job. And he did come up with one of my favorite all-time lines. Five days after the surgery I told him the knee felt fine. “This is the danger time,” he said. “You start feeling good and thinking you can be normal. Keep using the sticks (crutches). And ….“ He wanted to tell me not to overdo it, and searched for right words in English.

“And don’t crash the world,” he said.

Not for a while, Doc. But as I head off to Italy and Croatia I am looking forward to being more mobile when I return in a month for Salzburg: Part Zwei.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Normandy

This was a day I had been looking forward to since I started planning this trip: the American WWII landing sites in Normandy and the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach.

I was fortunate to have a terrific guide in Mr. Julian (Jules) Vernon, a former mechanic from Brighton, England, who in his spare time restored WWII jeeps, guns, and even tank parts. He vacationed in the Normandy area several times, fell in love with it, moved there and has been conducting tours for six years. He served in the Royal Navy and was also in the Army Reserves. He is incredibly knowledgeable and equally enthusiastic. I also had three delightful tour partners: Kevin and Pam, brother and sister from Oregon and Pennsylvania, respectively – he did one tour in Vietnam – and another Jules, a 20-year-old Aussie from Melbourne who broke off from some friends to feed his curiosity about war history.

We started in the famous town of Sainte Mere-Eglise, which was such a critical spot for the back-end support of the evacuation from Utah Beach. Walking around the town there are macabre vestiges of war throughout the village … ricochet marks on fences, bullet holes in walls, chucks of missing brick.

On the night of the invasion, tracer fire had ignited the roof of a house just east of the square (a museum is on that spot today). The church bell was rung and townsfolk came out and formed a bucket brigade while the Germans supervised, sleepy and amused. Our planes, flying somewhat blind from all the smoke generated by the bombing of German bunkers along the coast, mistakenly believed the fire was a signal and headed that way, and 600 feet above the ground the paratroopers jumped into a town that was all alight and where all the Germans were awake.

One paratrooper, John Marvin Steele, got his chute hung up in the steeple of the Catholic Church in the center of town, and the incident was made famous in the epic movie The Longest Day. Red Buttons played Steele, who survived, was taken prisoner and later escaped. There is a torn parachute and a dummy of a shoulder hanging from the steeple now, but the truth is that Steele dangled from a spire on the opposite side of the church. And it was on that side that the more interesting story evolved.

Another paratrooper named Ken Russell got hung up also, on a fence lower down the church wall As he tried to cut himself loose he saw one of his buddies, John Ray, fifty yards to the left in the church courtyard, also trying to extricate himself from his chute lines. Russell watched in horror as a German soldier calmly walked up to Ray and shot him multiple times in the stomach and chest from point-blank range.

The German then saw Russell hanging from the church, and again, calmly strolled over in front of him, raised his gun … and dropped to the ground dead. He had taken a bullet to the head from the gun of John Ray who, on one knee, the life draining out of him, had managed to unholster his pistol and through the fog and the smoke get off a one in a million shot. Russell looked at his watch the moment it happened: it was 1:35 a.m.

In June of 2004, 60 years later, Russell and his wife returned to Sainte Mere-Eglise, where he was feted and welcomed as a hero, with the big celebration of course on the 6th. A weary Russell went to bed early, and the next morning his wife found he had passed away during the night. Later that day the coroner determined that the time of death was 1:35 a.m., 60 years to the minute after John Ray’s dying shot had given Russell another 60 years of life.

“In all the years since the war, when they’ve returned to France, the paratroopers have been like movie stars,” said Jules. “They get mobbed wherever they go, you can’t get near them.” And because of them, by 4:30 a.m. the town belonged to the good guys and the road from Utah Beach was open.

We went down to Utah Beach – “The Forgotten Beach”, Jules calls it – and it was all so pastoral, and the beach so wide. A local stable was working out trotters on the firm sand down by the water. The beach is three miles long and is the western-most of the five beaches used in the Operation Overload invasion; Omaha is the next beach to the east, followed by Juno, Gold and Sword Beaches, which were the primary landing sites for British and Commonwealth troops.

Utah was a late addition to the invasion plan when additional landing craft became available. German resistance was minimal because of effective pre-invasion bombing, and the U.S. 4th infantry division, despite landing in the wrong place, suffered relatively few casualties in capturing the beach. The paratroopers lost 60% of their numbers but still did a masterful job of sealing off the back end and clearing the roads from the beach. In all, 23,250 troops and 1700 vehicles, including almost all of the DD “swimming” tanks, landed safely on Utah Beach.

We stopped at Pointe du Hoc, a strategically critical beachhead jutting out between Utah and Omaha Beaches. German artillery sites (using French guns) could have reached both, but three Ranger divisions landed on the beach, ascended the cliffs and took the point.  Allied forces blew up a massive ammunitions bunker, and enormous pieces of the concrete roof of that bunker, weighing between 8 and 20 tons each, lie strewn about the area today.

Jules couldn’t hide his respect for the great German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, who Hitler brought in to assess the coastal defenses. The “Desert Fox” added three major elements. First, he flooded all the fields leading away from the beaches, as well as the lowlands near the beaches. As a consequence many of our paratroopers drowned as soon as they landed, wearing 250 pounds of gear in water six or seven feet deep; also, our troops heading inland from the beaches were totally without cover on the roads between the flooded fields.

Second, Rommel buried 4.5 million mines, which on occasion are still being found. (It was ironic timing when hours after my Normandy tour I read on the internet that construction workers at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam had discovered an active World War Two bomb, forcing part of the airport to be closed.)

Finally, Rommel had added the infamous “Czech Hedgehogs”, the famous wooden fence-like structures that were encased in concrete and designed to rip the treads off the tanks and the undercarriage of other vehicles. Rommel called his fields of mines and hedgehogs “Devil’s Gardens.

Omaha Beach was a vacation destination for the French before the war, and it is again, and as Kevin, Pam, Jules and I gathered around the other Jules to watch him diagram the battle in the sand, sunbathers wandered by, some curious, some irritated. The beach is 4 ½ miles long, but the striking thing is the tide: there is an 800 meter difference – half a mile – between low and high tide.

Nothing went as planned that day. Tanks, jeeps and halftracks were lost in the deep water, men going down with them. Engineers landed in the wrong plan without their equipment. Because of the smoke and chaos, bombing intended to take out the German’s beach bunkers happened too far to the south and killed mostly cows. Paratroopers landing in the flooded fields either drowned or had to abandon most of their gear to survive. Communication was almost nonexistent, leadership almost impossible. In the first minute of the invasion, 64,000 German bullets riddled the beach, and there was no relief.

But a larger second wave stretched out along a greater portion of the beach was joined by Rangers who had been successful at Pointe du Hoc, and together they managed to secure two small areas that allowed troops to start working inland to join other forces. It was tenuous, but the inland access held, ultimately determining the outcome of the Battle of Normandy and, according to Jules, the war itself. “If we’d lost at Normandy, Truman would have had to drop the atomic bomb on Berlin,” he said. More than 4500 Americans were killed and wounded that first day, and the Battle of Normandy continued for another three and a half months.

What was most striking was the massive scope of the invasion. You watch Saving Private Ryan or a History Channel documentary and it’s all so compressed, just a little slice of beach here, a small road leading through a village there.

But when you stand on Utah or Omaha Beach and look for miles to your left and right; when you see a point of land that is 10 miles away and know that four more landing sites are on the other side of it; when you look out to sea and try to comprehend that there were more than 1000 Navy vessels out there; when you drive along a road for miles inland and know that there were dozens of roads like this with GIs fighting their way to the next village, and the next; when you learn that for every man in combat, four more were required in support roles; only then does the magnificent scale of it all truly sink in.  

Our final and most emotional stop was the American Cemetery, so beautifully maintained on a piece of American soil on the bluff above Omaha Beach and the English Channel. There are 9300 G.I.s buried there, and the crosses seem to extend into infinity.

I randomly chose four crosses and wrote down the names: Louis L. Bertoline, a sergeant from Michigan; Willis G. Peele, a first sergeant from North Carolina; Rocco J. Calvino, a pfc. from New York; and Anton L. Nunnikhoven, a staff sergeant from Mississippi. I hoped that when I had a chance to google them I’d find a robust backstory for at least one of them, but I didn’t, and of course that’s the heartbreak of it. Looking across acres of monuments you realize that most of them honor kids who joined the service right out of high school. They never had time to build a life.

Categories: Uncategorized

A Conversation in Bruges

On the way driving from Amsterdam to Normandy I stopped for the night in Bruges, Belgium, for two reasons. One, my European friends Jan and Susan, who are renting my house, recommended it, describing it as a beautiful old medieval town really worth visiting. Two, a few years ago I saw a quirky British movie called In Bruges, about a couple of hit men waiting in the town for their next assignments. I really liked the movie, and the scenery was gorgeous.

So after two days of brutal travel and an hour lost in the streets of Antwerp, I arrived in Bruges in plenty of time to walk around and take a few pictures. In Africa it was completely dark by 6:30, but here I had at least two additional hours of daylight. It’s a city of canals, one of several that lay claim to being the “Venice of the North.” I walked along the water and watched the people biking on the cobblestone streets, families, couples, kids.

Bruges is as old as it is beautiful. Somewhere there are ruins of fortresses built in the first century. The Romans were here in the fourth century and the Vikings tried to take over in the ninth. The city charter was signed on July 27, 1128, and 100 years later Bruges was the main link for trade to the Mediterranean, leading one historian to call it the “chief commercial city in the world.”

It was still light at 8:00 and I stopped for a glass of wine at the not-so-old de Schiller, “restaurant and bistro since 1983”, and people watched. It was a beautiful night. I mentioned to my waiter how clean everything looked despite its age. “Nothing here is old, it’s all been redone many times,” he said. “This is not an authentic city.”

Mr. Chamber of Commerce moved on to another table before I could mention that without refurbishment, the city would be very authentic rubble by now.

There was a gentleman by himself at the table next to me, 50ish, thick and swarthy; I figured him as Greek. After my glass of wine arrived I caught his eye.

“How are you this evening,” I asked?

“I am well thank you. And you?”

“Just fine, thanks.”

“And what is your news?”

“Excuse me?”

“Tell me some news.”

Greek was wrong … his accent was definitely Eastern European.

“Well, yesterday morning I was in Tanzania, and this morning I was in Dubai, and this evening I am in Bruges, having a glass of wine in this café’ and talking to you. Does that qualify as news?”

“No. But it is somewhat interesting. Am I to understand that you traveled from Africa to Europe by way of Dubai? Intentionally?”

I had to laugh at that. “Yeah, well, it must have been cheaper or something. In any case it gave me a chance to find one place on this planet I never want to return to.”

“Ah, you were not seduced by Dubai’s opulence! Are you American?”

“I am.”

“I generally don’t like Americans,’ he said, very matter-of-factly.

“You think we’re all loud and obnoxious.”

“That goes without saying.” He smiled for the first time. “No, my problem is this. You have everything, and you want more. You are …” he reached for the word … “greedy. And yet you waste so much. The world is melting all around you and yet you care nothing about the environment. And,” he said, his voice getting just a bit more intense, “you kill each other randomly and your solution to that is to defend yourself with more guns! You are such an immature people.”

I sensed he was looking for an argument. But there was also a twinkle in his eye.

“Why are you such cowboys?” he asked. “Why so many guns?”

“I suppose part of it’s historical, the Wild West culture, the way it’s always been,” I said. “But now it’s more about money, and the power that money buys you in Washington. But I disagree with you about the environment, most of us do care and do believe dramatic steps need to be taken.”

“And yet they are not.” The words hung there for a few seconds.

“I know,” I said. “We seem to be having leadership issues in America these days.”

We talked amiably for a while longer. He’s a professor from Poland on holiday with friends who went sightseeing elsewhere for the day. He was a good guy, really, with strong opinions about a place I love and miss. But walking home I couldn’t help but wonder what America will be like when it has buildings that are 1000 years old.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Masters of Bagamoyo

My guide Peter and I stopped for tea at a biker joint in the middle of the desert in Nowhere, South Africa, and were chatting with the wizened proprietor behind the bar. He asked me where I was going next and when I told him he became very animated.

“Ah, Bagamoyo! I love that town, so much history and interesting art and culture. I worked in Dar-es-Salaam for several years but would escape up to Bagamoyo as often as I could.” It was a ringing endorsement from an unexpected source, and Bagamoyo has proven to be all he said and more.

It’s Tanzania’s oldest town, officially founded in the late 1700s, but there are ruins of a mosque that date back to the 1200s. It was the original capital of German East Africa and a leading port for trade, a place where explorers geared up before heading to the interior of Africa in search of the source of the Nile, and where traders paused before taking ivory or slaves from the interior to Zanzibar. “Bwaga-moyo” means “lay down your heart,” which lends itself to multiple interpretations, but the one most embraced is “lay down your load” in honor of the porters who had labored so hard to get there. 

There are some 40,000 people living in Bagamoyo. It’s a fascinating mixture of cultures courtesy of Arab and Indian traders, German colonialists, Christian mercenaries and tribal Africans. It was once a great port, but no longer; while the southern tip of Zanzibar is directly off the coast of Bagamoyo, to get there by either boat or plane you have to drive south to Dar-es-Salaam before heading north again to Stone Town. But it appears that’s about to change. Ambitious plans are underway to expand the port, build an airport and upgrade the rail facility, all because “Dar” has become so congested as to be nearly unnavigable. There are only a few paved roads in Bagamoyo, but that will likely not be the case in a few years time.

That’s progress one supposes, and it will enhance the quality of life for many people here, but it’s disappointing also, because Bagamoyo’s charm is in its lack of pretention. There are a few cars, a few more trucks and of course the dala dalas – the public transport buses – but many more bicycles and motorbikes and three-wheeled bajaji on the dusty, sandy streets. Especially Chinese-made motorcycles. At many street corners there will be five or six of them, the guys just hanging out, and initially I assumed it was evidence of a high unemployment rate or some rite of passage, but in fact these are Bagamoyo’s taxis, and for 1000 Tanzanian shillings, about 62 cents, they will take you anywhere in town.

There is a wonderful beach and one or two decent beach hotels; a thriving fish market; a boat-building business that turns out the traditional sailing “dhows”; the oldest mosque and oldest Catholic church in Tanzania; a large, walled-in soccer field where we saw a fight break out between a fan and a game referee — in the middle of the game; a few government buildings and many shops. But what makes Bagamoyo special are the people, their smiles and their spirit and their stories.

And more than anything this is an artist’s community, with an art college, an art market in the center of town that is everyone’s favorite place to hang out, and smaller art shops and galleries/studios/huts everywhere. The artists themselves are some of the most engaging people you could ever meet, and here are some of my favorites.

Idd Mnyamili

His smile lights up the art market and beyond. Some people call him “Obama” because of that smile, others call him “Mchena”, because they think he has Chinese eyes. But most call him Idd, pronounced Idi, like Idi Amin. He explained to me that his first name has something to do with the end of Ramadan and the opportunity to eat again, but he really isn’t sure why his father gave it to him.

He used to hang around the market when he was in school and he picked up some skills, and after his schooling he started painting full time, at first for a Rastafarian who had a shop nearby but who moved to Germany with his new wife, and now at the art market. His English is better than most of the guys, thanks to a former Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteer who taught him two years ago.

Idd was born in Bagamoyo and when I asked about his childhood he would only say “it was not a good life.” His father goes to the beach now and buys fish from the fishermen, takes them home and fries them up, and takes the fried fish to sell at the market. His mother sells charcoal. When I bought a painting from him one day he was pleased he could now take his parents some rice, and his father some malaria medicine. His father cares for a young albino boy who was abandoned by his mother, a subject that almost brings Idd to tears.

His dream, he says, is to “be a good painter, and to help people. You can’t live life just for money, then what do people say about you when you die? I want to help orphans, help make the new generation better.” I asked Idd to make a painting for me that depicted my first two weeks in Tanzania and included Kilimanjaro, Maasai warriors, an Acacia tree and some giraffes. When I told him I wanted Maasai and giraffes in the same painting he started laughing.

“What’s so funny? Everywhere you look in the market there are paintings of Maasai and of giraffes.”

“But not together,” he said. “They have never been together in the same painting.”

I wasn’t an easy client. The guys tend to paint Kilimanjaro with a flat top, and while it may appear that way from some angles the Kilimanjaro I know has two peaks with a crater in the middle, and I wanted some elevation changes around the summit. Also, their acacia trees are skimpy; I was looking for one with a larger canopy at the top and smaller ones at descending levels.

Idd nailed it, and I think he was happy so have branched out a bit. I asked him what everyone thinks of having Maasai and giraffes in the same painting. “Everyone likes it very much,” he said, with that killer smile and maybe a touch of pride.

The Zawose Family 

If you Wikipedia “Bagamoyo” and scroll way down you’ll find that the only “Notable Inhabitant” listed is Hukwe Zawose, which is remarkable in that the current president of Tanzania is from Bagamoyo. But Zawose, the former patriarch of a musical family renowned internationally for their interpretations of traditional African music, would certainly qualify as being more respected, if not more notable.

Hukwe died in 2003, shortly after traveling with Peter Gabriel on his “Growing Up” tour. He was a master of the maremba, or the thumb piano, and appeared at music festivals all over the world. Since his death the family carries on the musical traditions he embraced, and even appeared in a film called “Throw Down Your Heart,” about American banjo player Bela Fleck and his travels through Africa.

We first met the Zawose’s at home, in their family compound where they have a stage for rehearsals and a number of homes and almost as many children as chickens. Victor was our charming and animated host, introducing the instruments and the family members. It’s an exceptionally happy place and it was privilege to be there and to meet many of them and have them perform a couple of numbers. They make many of their own instruments and I bought a small maremba and one of their CDs.

That night we went to a club called The Eagle’s Nest and the Zawose’s performed for real, with their unbridled passion and their authentic costumes made of goatskins and porcupine quills and headdresses of ostrich feathers. The women in particular are charismatic as they strut across the stage pounding furiously on drums squeezed between their legs, simultaneously dancing, banging, singing, laughing and making me wonder what I was doing over here working for an organization trying to empower Tanzanian women. The Zawose women are seriously empowered.

Check out the Zawoses on youtube, and if you want to book them for a gig (they would love to come to America!) you can get in touch with Victor at vlolinga@yahoo.com.

Siasa Kondo Sultani Biki

For two weeks I knew him as Biki, and when he wrote down his full name I asked why people call him only by his last. “I was born in 1967, very political. My first name given me by white people, so I use only on passport.”

Kondo is his father’s name; Sultani is his grandfather’s, and sometimes he uses that. “I’ll call you Sultan from now on,” I said. “You know what a Sultan is?”

“Like king?” He doesn’t smile much, but his eyes do.

He was born in Dar-es-Salaam and still lives there with his second wife, a tailor. His first wife, the mother of his eight-year-old daughter, died from a brain tumor. He commutes between Dar, Zanzibar and the Bagamoyo art market, where we met the first time I sat in on the artists’ afternoon English class. He was struggling and when I asked him the problem he just said: “Eyes.” It occurred to me that these guys have likely never had an eye exam much less anything corrective. I brought him an old pair of reading glasses the next day and they seemed to help.

Biki is 45, older than the other artists, and he teaches different techniques to many of them. He studied from three different teachers in Zanzibar and consequently has a unique mixture of styles. “I teach here, Dar-es-Salaam, Zanzibar. I teach white people and black people. I like to do both, to teach and to paint.” He signs his paintings “Prof. Biki.”

He has traveled to Malawi, Mozambique and Swaziland to try and sell his paintings, having luck only in Malawi. “My dream is to sell my paintings in Europe, and Asia. I need money for education of my daughter. She is in government school now, not good. But high school is much money.”

He has a fondness for beach scenes, with boats and fishermen and palm trees and colorful skies; it seems to fit with his placid and kind demeanor. That purple painting in his photograph is mine now.

Sadick Omary, Jimmy Chang Chuu, Aron Mkongwe, John Shoghollo

Down the road from the art market is a small shop where the power is out, not from some Tanzanian infrastructure issue as is often the case but because the bill hasn’t been paid. But the lads are unfazed. Their artwork lines the wall across the street, and they hang their t-shirts and clothing in the sun and work at tables in front of the store. Who needs power?

Besides, says Jimmy Chung Chuu, whose grandfather was Chinese: “The festival is coming in September, we will sell many t-shirts and paintings and then will pay the bill.”

These guys all came through the art college and stayed in Bagamoyo. “More tourists here than Dar,” says Jimmy. “Dar is too crowded, busy. Here we have our shop and people walk by, stop and look, come back, maybe buy. It is better here.”

They do it all: paintings, clothing and wonderful hand-made note cards. Sadick came up with a unique “I love Bagamoyo” logo and now you see his t-shirts all over town. He’s working on one for Tanzania, which should expand his reach.

John Shoghollo was a teacher of the other three at the art college, and now seems to be kind of a partner in the store. He does Dali-esque paintings of elephants and tusks and hunters that reflect how he feels about the ivory trade and the senseless killing of elephants that still goes on. “You should do one of these with rhino,” I told him. And maybe throw in a few Maasai.

Saidi Mbungu 

Saidi is a product of the art culture in Bagamoyo, having attended the art college here, and after that taught carving and painting, but his calling at the moment is AMAP, a school that started out as the African Modern Art Program but is now educating younger kids in academics at a level most families have to pay for.

He is from Dar-es-Salaam and started his career as a cartoonist for a newspaper there, but came to Bagamoyo in 1999 for one year of schooling. A British benefactor invited him to the UK twice, and the second time he stayed in Wales for three months where he participated in a Festival of African Art.

But his dream was to have a place where young artists from 17 to 22 could work together and learn, and exhibit their work, the concept being that they would stay for three years and then leave to become teachers themselves. It worked well at first but they wanted to be paid and fed, “and I had nothing to give them, so they moved on.”

Over time he developed the idea for the African Modern Art Program, which has evolved into a school for 85 kids ages 4-10. They pay nothing. Saidi covers their supplies and uniforms and pays the teachers, mostly from donations. His wife, Pili, is a seamstress with a shop nearby and she donates 10% of her profits to AMAP. The school opened this year and already he has been able to send 45 kids on to primary school. The school is in a crumbling building with no electricity or plumbing. The walls are decaying rapidly and some young ROTC cadets from our volunteer team worked for two weeks patching them with concrete so they wouldn’t cave in and could be painted white to keep the room from being more dungeon than classroom. “It’s like building a vertical sidewalk,” one of them said. But the room is white now, and brighter, and soon will have the alphabet and numbers added to its perimeter.

Between raising money and carving, painting and cartooning, and teaching the kids art one day a week and older kids in the evening, Saidi has managed to finish a book that he hopes to get published so the proceeds can go to AMAP. It has nothing to do with either art or education. He writes – with great passion I can only assume from our conversations – about governmental corruption in east Africa, how the leaders care only about lining their own pockets and their big cars and houses.

“We have so much security with the police and the army and still people bring in cocaine and guns,” he says. “Why do you think that is? If we don’t get leaders who care about the people, in the future it will be ‘janga’ … disaster.” He’s trying to get some financial support to get the book translated from Swalihi to English, and then published.

Political corruption is a very common topic of conversation here, as elsewhere in Africa. They call Jakaya Mrisho Kikuete of Tanzania “The Flying President” because he jets around the world to this event and that and is never here. A few people from the government have been fired recently for corruption but that’s seen as token, and nothing really changes. The walls in Saidi’s school continue to crumble, and he continues to do everything he can to keep them upright and to raise money and keep the kids in class, three to a desk.

Below: Crazy Drummer and Nyolla

Categories: Uncategorized

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.