Touring The World War One Battlefield Of Isonzo

World War One, Isonzo
Sean McLachlan from public domain image. Original photographer unknown.

Like every other nation involved in World War I, Italy suffered terribly. It joined the war in 1915, throwing its lot in with the Allies against the Central Powers. Italy’s most immediate threat was its neighbor the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The border was mostly in the Alps and soldiers on both sides carved out ice caves from which to snipe at one another and used artillery to fire above each other’s positions in over to create avalanches. To this day, almost 100 years later, bodies of dead soldiers are being found frozen in the ice.

The most active part of the front was along the Isonzo river valley, the border between Italy and what is now Slovenia. For most of its length it cuts between steep mountains on either side.

I toured the Isonzo front with an organized bus tour from Gorizia. Without a car it’s the only way to quickly visit this long and rugged battlefield. Unfortunately, the pouring rain that had been plaguing northeast Italy and western Slovenia for the previous few days didn’t let up. In the higher latitudes it turned into a driving snow. This meant that except for a few glimpses of the terrain, the tour was pretty much a washout. At least we got an inkling of what it was like to have been stationed up here, and we did get to visit the excellent Kobarid Museum in Slovenia.

This is one of the best military history museums I’ve seen anywhere. While there are the usual flags and uniforms and weapons, the bulk of the exhibition is a vast collection of period photographs. These bring the visitor face to face with life on that terrible battlefield where half a million men lost their lives. Both armies are treated impartially and instead of glorification of the war there’s a frank, human look at the people involved.

%Slideshow-82%We get to see them at the front lines, perched high up on alpine peaks or hunkering down in trenches carved into snow and ice. A great amount of detail goes into how the vast armies were supplied, with displays on everything from cooking to handling horses. We also see the soldiers’ more relaxed moments, writing letters home or goofing around behind the lines.

There are some surprises too. One small display is dedicated to Ernest Hemingway, who was a Red Cross ambulance driver at the front and who fell in love with a nurse there. He used these experiences to write “A Farewell to Arms.”

The battles were mostly bloody stalemates, with the Italians making their only significant gains in the sixth battle when they took Gorizia. That was all undone in the 12th battle, better known as the Battle of Caporetto, when the Austro-Hungarians and their German allies shattered the Italian army. “Caporetto” has entered the Italian lexicon as a word signifying any horrible defeat, from a politician losing a landslide election to a football team getting spanked by their rivals.

The museum doesn’t shrink from the true face of war. In one grim display, we see photos of the dead lying unburied on the battlefield, and the grim portraits of some of the mutilated survivors. Some of these images are included at the end of the slideshow here, preceded by a warning. They are not easy to look at but I included them because I think it’s important for civilians to see what war really looks like.

Anyone with an interest in military history will want to see this museum. While visiting the remaining trenches and bunkers along the Isonzo front gives a feel for the terrain, a visit to the Kobarid Museum is essential for putting it all together and understanding the terrible waste of World War I.

Eurovision 2013: All Of Europe Under One Roof

eurovision
Alex Robertson Textor

Launched in 1956, Eurovision is a Europe-wide music competition held every May under the auspices of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU). Participating countries select their representative songs over the course of the preceding winter and spring. Some countries – like Sweden – make their selections via televised heats held over several consecutive weeks. Others – like the U.K. (this year, at least) – make their selections by internal committee.

Eurovision is a major event in Europe, with a remarkable 125 million viewers.

Nowadays, Eurovision lasts for almost an entire week. With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, there are now so many participating countries – 39 this year; even more in recent years – that two semi-finals are required to winnow down contestants to a manageable tally for the grand final. After semifinals on Tuesday and Thursday, this year’s final will be held later today in Malmö, Sweden. (Sweden won Eurovision last year, and with its win came the right to host this year’s contest.)Eurovision is not generally considered to be a showcase for serious music, and few global stars emerge from it. One very notable exception is ABBA, who turned their 1974 win with “Waterloo” into enormous international success. In lieu of musical seriousness, the event unleashes a kind low-impact skirmish of muted patriotisms and a massive gay following.

For many countries, participation in Eurovision is a rite of passage, a sign of progress. An Israeli friend once told me that in the late 1970s her family would dress up to watch Eurovision in their living room. This symbolic appeal of Eurovision remains especially strong in some Eastern European countries and the Caucasus today.

All members of the European Broadcasting Union can participate in Eurovision. This fact explains Israel‘s participation. Other EBU members beyond the borders of Europe include Morocco (who participated just once, in 1980) and several countries that have never participated: Algeria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia. True Eurovision nerds will tell you that Kazakhstan, Kosovo and Liechtenstein have all submitted applications for EBU membership.

So right, tonight. The odds have Denmark‘s Emmelie de Forest, Norway‘s Margaret Berger (with likely the strongest straight-up pop song, a little piece of driven magic titled “I Feed You My Love”), Ukraine‘s Zlata Ognevich, Azerbaijan‘s Farid Mammadov and Russia‘s Dina Garipova at the top of the pile.

In addition to these, Hungary, Romania and Greece have emerged as fan favorites. ByeAlex, the Hungarian entrant, sings a lush, quietly earnest song called “Kedvesem.” The singer looks like a quiet, earnest Mission District hipster; he distinguished himself in the press conference for the second semi-final winners on Thursday night by quoting Friedrich Nietzsche. Romania’s entry, sung by a countertenor opera singer named Cezar, is an instant Eurovision dance classic with a particularly over-the-top choreography. The Greek entry, by Koza Mostra featuring rebetiko singer Agathonas Iakovidis, combines folk, punk and rebetiko themes.

For those who follow Eurovision obsessively, the event itself is a kind of quasi-religious experience. The line between fandom and evangelism is imprecise for this tribe, many of whom attend Eurovision regularly. This week in Malmö, the Eurovision tribe is everywhere, sharing the gospel of playful but somehow meaningful pop music. The photo above, taken yesterday, gets at some of the gospel’s magic. It’s simple and interpersonal. Koza Mostra’s lead singer, Elias Kozas, has swapped flags with a German Eurovision fan. No negotiations. No conflict. No international frustrations. Just a snapshot of a moment within which flags don’t matter much.

Half The World Pedaled, Half To Go

Later this week, Vancouver firefighter and cancer survivor Rudy Pospisil will unpack his Giant Seek bicycle on the coast of Portugal, clip in and head for the Middle East. The road ahead stretches 9,000 miles, the distance between him and his goal of circumnavigating the globe on two wheels for charity. He knows he can do it, because he already has – between 2009 and 2012, he logged 9,000 miles completing the first half of his epic quest, surviving armed bandits, eating grass and riding one brutal 100-mile slog after another.

The 51-year-old’s day isn’t over after 10 hours on the bike. When he arrives at a destination, he’s often expected at a local fundraiser, has blogs to write and letters from cancer survivors to answer. This is Pospisil’s vacation – he takes off work six to eight weeks at a time to keep climbing this personal mountain, fighting a disease that has affected nearly every member of his family, including a dog.

Before his wheels started spinning in Europe, he talked to Gadling about Guinness Book of World Records requirements, why he’s not allowed to get a new bike and the trick to surviving machete-wielding bandits.

First, how is your health?
Health is good. I lose about 20 pounds on each ride, and I’m fit and trim from training before I go. But health can change the next day after a scan or blood test. You never know.

When you say circumnavigating the globe, what do you mean?
The Guinness people have rules that qualify as a true global circumnavigation. You must use the same bike, always go the same direction (I go west to east), cross the equator twice, travel at least 18,000 miles and cross two antipodal points (exact opposite points) on the earth.

One bike for 18,000 miles?
Yes. I have to get lots of repairs after and on each leg. I ship it, trusting a bike shop to accept it and assemble it. Another cost and logistics issue. Portugal customs just seized (their translation was “arrested”) my bike and equipment early this week. Wanted 600 euros, duties, import fees, “ransom,” etc. Then possibly more to process it. They wanted me to arrive in person to release it. It was unfounded, as the declaration stated it was “personal used items leaving the country.” They would not budge. I contacted my consulate and federal government in Ottawa. They then released by stuff. No apology.

Have you figured out what your antipodal points will be?
Portugal and New Zealand.

How does one apply for a Guinness world record?
You must provide passport stamps and pictures and video with you in them. I do that, plus Google Maps plots my GPS along the way. It won’t be a world record – only a record that I accomplished the global cycle and followed all the rules to qualify.

What kind of numbers have you logged?
Nine countries and 160,000 vertical feet of elevation. That’s enough to get to space, and halfway around the globe. I just can’t wait to get going again. It’s so hard to stop, go back to the fire station, then train all over again for the next leg.

Where have you been so far?
In 2009, I cycled from Munich to Budapest along the Danube River, through five countries, and started annual fundraisers in Prague and Budapest. In 2010, I cycled from Vancouver to Mexico along the Pacific coast. In Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, I met police and firefighters outside the city and rode into town together to a cancer fundraiser. In San Francisco I had a full police escort. They even stopped the traffic. In 2011 I was asked to circle Oahu with the Hawaiian Bicycle League to raise funds for a safer cycle network after an 18-year-old boy was killed by a hit-and-run driver. I stopped my global ride to go, and it was worth it. In 2012 I crossed the southern U.S. from San Diego to St. Petersburg, Florida. It was a complete adventure that included a robbery, a shooting, getting struck by a car and Mexican bandits that let me live because they like Canadians.

Um, what? How did you get entangled with them? And more importantly, untangled?
It happened near a town called Guadalupe. The town was a rundown place with closed-down stores. Everyone was looking at me, like the stranger that rides into town in a Western movie. About five miles outside of town, these two guys in a lowrider-type car pulled up beside me and offered to carry my saddlebags up the forthcoming hill. I politely declined and said that three police officers riding with me, about 3 miles back, would help me. This was BS, but they weren’t sure. They turned around, likely looking for the officers. I turned it on as fast as I could but there were no side roads – nowhere to hide, just desert and scrub. The lowrider shot past me about 15 minutes later and parked on the side of the road. One guy was waving a machete. They said they would now help me with the bags. I said that I could just give them my wallet instead and save them a lot of room. I have what I call a dummy wallet with an expired credit card and some bills, just for situations like this. I was remembering the turkey vultures all along these roads I had seen, eating dead carcasses, and wondered if I would be next. They saw my small fundraiser Canadian flag with the globe and bike pictured on it. They talked together about it for some time. They looked further through my bags and drove off, just like that. I guess they figured that I was okay to go. My second chance at life after cancer.

How often are you in danger?
Many times. I was hit by a car in central Oregon. Forced off the road by rednecks in Texas. Had my front tire shot out in L.A. – either they were a bad shot and completely missed me, or a great shot and hit the front tire rim. Cramped so bad in Hungary I could not move for 12 hours. I have a small rearview mirror that sticks out a few inches from my handlebar. Three have been clipped off by passing cars. And I have met many scorpions and rattlesnakes in the desert.

What happened in Hungary?
I was in the country and really pushing, trying to make it to Budapest. I was exhausted, out of water, dehydrated and kept getting slight cramps in my calves. So I stopped to rest my legs. I started cramping in my hamstrings and was rolling around on the ground in this field. It got so severe I could not do much other than lie there. I knew I had to get water. I started chewing on grass, hoping I could get some liquid out of it, but that only cramped up my stomach. I drifted in and out of sleep, or maybe consciousness, only waking to cramp up. I must have been there at least 12 hours, until the next morning. I managed to get on my bike and get to a farmhouse. They made me scrambled eggs. I think it was the best meal in my life.

What’s your average day?
Eat, sleep, ride. Eat, sleep, ride.

Very funny.
Usually I am up at sunrise. I try to cook a nutritional breakfast. I try to stop every two hours to stretch and maybe eat an energy bar. I need to try to shower and clean the bacteria and salt from my skin. If there is no water I use antiseptic wipes. If you leave the salt on the skin, it will be like sandpaper and rub you raw the next day; it’s so bad it has stopped Tour de France riders as a result of infection. Then it’s time to eat. You must try to ensure the proper percentage of fat, protein and carbohydrates, as that’s your fuel. It’s very hard to do this in desolate areas. I have dehydrated meals sometimes. I eat a lot, then after an hour or two I’m always hungry again. I sleep between five and eight hours a night.

And you’re alone?
Yes. It gets extremely lonely.

How do you occupy your mind?
I try to think that I am never alone. My nephew, who died at 15, and my dad, who died last year of cancer, are with me a lot of the time. I look for animals in the fields and hills. I think about my blog and what I will write that night. How I will answer emails I got from sick people who had some hard questions. Sometimes I think a long time about what I might eat that night. Sometimes I get really lonely and sad and just want to go home, especially if it’s my birthday or Thanksgiving. So I spend a lot of time on positive, happy thoughts, as sadness and negativity are very draining and defeating.

When you plot your route, what do you consider and what do you avoid?
You might not think this, but one of the biggest challenges is water. It’s heavy, and you can’t carry too much or not enough. You must know for sure where you can get more. If you make a mistake, you might get dehydrated, delirious and possibly die. Where I go there are usually no cellphones, cars or people for long stretches. In the deserts, I have encountered temperatures up to 120 degrees. I have been in sandstorms, thunderstorms, the edge of a hurricane and freezing temperatures. I find the desert the hardest, as I’m from Vancouver and we have streams and shade. Here, I could survive easily.

I don’t avoid hills or mountains. I avoid cities. A big city you’ve never been to is a real minefield. Texas was pretty bad with 85 mph speed limits and very aggressive drivers. In sections I had to go on the interstate. Blown tires and steel belt wires from tires caused numerous flats.

Tell me about your charity work on the road.
My goal was $50,000. I have raised just under $20,000 in Canada. I’m not sure how much has been raised in the other countries. I contact firefighters in cities ahead, or the area’s cancer agency. For example, in Switzerland I will cycle from Basel to Zurich with the Swiss Cancer Association and firefighters from Zurich. We will have an event in town where the mayor comes out, media, etc. I raise funds for their charity, The Race Against Cancer. I try to write a blog each day on firefightercycle.com. People follow me, as I have a GPS. I go on Vancouver radio shows each week, and sometimes newspaper reporters track me down. It’s very draining, writing each day after riding, answering letters (sometimes sad ones from cancer patients) or attending an event when all you want is a shower, a meal and to sleep.

Logistically, how do you arrange something like this?
Logistics is a huge job. I have to try to avoid cities but yet get to cities for fundraisers. I have to arrange fundraisers, try to find a deal on gear, flights, food, etc. It’s extremely expensive to do this, so I do what I can to economize. I wish I had a major sponsor. I have filmed the entire journey and have over 25 hours, some amazing footage. I’m hoping a producer might contact me to make a documentary. That would be huge for awareness and fundraising.

What were some places you’d bike again, and some places you hope to never see again – at least on a bike?
Cycling the Danube from Munich to Budapest was great. It was all on a trail, and there was plenty of food and water. The people were great. Mexico and the Texas border were terrible. There were people crossing into the U.S., border patrol chasing them day and night, and everyone seemed to carry a gun there. The heat was extreme, and west Texas was as barren as the moon.

What are some of the most cycling-friendly places you’ve been?
Western Europe, likely Hungary. There is a great cycling infrastructure in Europe. Cycle paths are built alongside roads to make it safe and get bikes away from cars. Also, there are not a lot of fences at the side of the roads, so you can go into a field and rest or camp and feel safe. The food is quite good and easy to come by.

How does a leg end? Do you have a traditional celebration?
The last leg ended at the Atlantic Ocean. I dumped in water and sand from the Pacific, then I jumped in and swam. I had an inflatable globe, added my website and sent it out to sea. Finishing a leg is usually quite emotional, as I have gone so far and had so many experiences and close calls. It all comes out. Sometimes I cry.

It’s one thing to start something epic with good intentions and some resources, but it’s quite another to finish it. Life tends to get in the way. What keeps you going?
I think of Terry Fox, who ran halfway across Canada, a marathon each day, on one leg. He died from cancer halfway through the journey. He grew up in my city and was my age. Rick Hansen pushed himself in a wheelchair around the world. But mostly it’s the letters from people telling me to keep going and the donations. Sometimes I find the poorest people give the most. A girl working at the counter in McDonald’s in Washington state donated $50 to the Cancer Society when I stopped there. That really inspires me.

A lot of people want to have an adventure, but they don’t know where to begin. How can someone take that first step?
So many people tell me that at events, “I wish I could do what you do.” Fact is you can. You don’t have to ride around the world. Join a charity and help them. It will grow on you, and you will meet the best people of society in these organizations and will just want to do more.

What is your ultimate goal?
That my global ride will inspire many other people to start fundraising efforts around the world. To get pharmaceutical companies to all try to work together and share information to find a cure rather than a profit. I am sure that within 10 years almost all cancers could be a treatable chronic illness, not a deadly disease with limited survival rates.

When do you expect to wrap up?
I may finish the global circumnavigation within 24 months, but I will never wrap up. I will still continue either by riding, giving talks or joining other ongoing efforts worldwide.

You can follow Pospisil’s progress through Europe to Iran and find his scheduled fundraisers on his website, firefightercycle.com.

[Photos courtesy Rudy Pospisil]

A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Coping With Loss Overseas

homer labrador retrieverCoping with a personal loss overseas in an alien culture without your normal support network can be one of the most challenging things about life in the Foreign Service or indeed any peripatetic international career. I’ve been blessed to reach age 40 without ever losing a close friend or relative.

But six years ago this spring, while living in Budapest, my wife and I lost a beloved pet, Homer, a Labrador retriever who died unexpectedly when he was just a year old (see photo). Those who have never had a dog they really loved won’t be able to grasp what a deep loss this was for us but it was by far the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my six years in the Foreign Service.

We got Homer while I was going through a difficult time coping with an illness and we quickly became inseparable. We didn’t have kids at the time, so Homer was our baby. We traveled with him, let him sleep at the foot of our bed, and spoiled him rotten with presents and treats. Every time I came home from work, he would be so deliriously happy that I often couldn’t wait to walk in the door.He was popular in our neighborhood in Washington, D.C., but when we moved to Budapest, he was like a rock star in our neighborhood, where everyone knew him by name and would linger at our gate for the chance to pet and hug him. We were the accredited diplomats, but he was the real cultural envoy.

We took him everywhere and one weekend while we were sitting in an outdoor restaurant at Lake Balaton, a few hours from our home, he started to have some sort of seizure at the table and within a minute or two, before we could get help, he was dead. He was just 14 months old and he died on the one-year anniversary of when we got him.

In the days to come, we consulted local vets to try to find out what happened. They concluded that his thymus ruptured, he went into shock and died. Just before he died, he was running around in the back yard of the restaurant, and we had thought that he swallowed something poisonous. If we had been in the U.S., we would have felt more confident that a restaurant wouldn’t have something toxic in the yard but in Hungary, we really had no clue.

I’m sure the vets in Hungary are just as good as the ones in the U.S., but at the time, we couldn’t help but wonder if their diagnosis was correct. We were at a loss to understand why our dog had died and having to try to make sense of it in an alien place was bewildering to say the least.

On my first day back at work, I was still grieving, and having to tell my co-workers what happened brought back all the emotions. I struggled to relay the news, which everyone had already heard through the grapevine, without crying. People were sympathetic but I couldn’t help but feel like no one had a clue what I was going through. I had been at post for only a few months and felt like no one knew me well enough to understand what a deep loss this was for me.

The worst part of going back to work was talking to my boss, who wasn’t an animal lover and clearly had no idea that I was grieving.

“Other than the canine misadventure,” he said, with a smile and a chuckle, “How was your weekend?”

lab retriever in waterCanine misadventure? I just looked at him puzzled, shocked really, at how he could consider our dog dying unexpectedly at a restaurant a “misadventure.” For us, it was a tragedy. Others have faced much bigger tragedies, but for us, it was a big loss nonetheless. I was speechless and had a sick feeling in my stomach. I had no idea if I wanted to cry or punch him and, to be honest, I was so shocked by his insensitivity, I don’t remember how or even if I responded.

My wife and I had each other to lean on and that’s more than single people have when they face a loss overseas. But my boss’s reaction drove home a point for me. I was in a place where no one, save my wife, really knew me or gave a damn about me. I needed a support network – my parents, my good friends and people who knew how much I loved Homer.

Many in the Foreign Service have suffered much more devastating losses than we did. And many are forced to decide if they can afford to fly home for funerals of friends or more distant relatives if they are in out of the way posts. Karen O’Neill DeThomas, for example, wrote a very moving story about the loss of her teenage daughter to meningitis, and after reading it, I felt like the pain we experienced was nothing compared to her loss. She said that her Foreign Service experience helped her cope with the tragedy and I think there’s something to that.

When you live overseas, whether in the Foreign Service or not, I think you are forced to become self sufficient in many ways and, if you spend time in developing countries, where there is poverty and suffering everywhere you look (Budapest certainly doesn’t qualify on that score), it can put your loss in perspective.

No matter where you live, the only thing that eases the pain of losing a loved one is time. When I think about Homer these days, I feel sad that my sons never got to meet him and that his life was cut so short. But I don’t focus on the tragic ending. I remember the joy he brought to us and others during his brief, but memorable life.

Read More From “A Traveler In The Foreign Service

[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]

Bizarre Carnival Celebrations You Haven’t Heard Of

It’s that time of year again, when thousands of dancers prepare to don feathers, beads, and sequins and parade down the streets to mark Carnival. And while big Carnival (or Mardi Gras, as it’s also known) celebrations such as the one in Rio de Janiero get plenty of press, there are lots of other festivals that are just as colorful and creative … and perhaps a little weird.

Wanna see men dressed up as frightening goats, watch devils prance through the streets, or have hundreds of mysteriously masked men throw fruit at you? Read on to learn about some of the world’s most interesting and bizarre Carnival celebrations – where you won’t find a sequined bikini to speak of.

The Carnival of Binche, Belgium

The Carnival of Binche, which takes place in a small town in Belgium, dates back to the 14th century. The festival is one of the oldest street carnivals in Europe and has been recognized by UNESCO for its cultural significance.

The main figures in Binche’s Carnival are known the Gilles (see photo above). These are a group of up to 1000 men who wear costumes featuring the colors of the Belgium flag, which are covered in mysterious crests, bells and tassels. The outfits are also stuffed with straw giving the men a linebacker-esque appearance. On their feet, the Gilles wear clunky wooden clogs, and on their faces, they sport peculiar wax masks, which boast curled moustaches and bulging green glasses. These masks get switched out later in the day for giant feathery hats made up of more than 350 ostrich feathers.

If you plan to be in the audience for the Carnival of Binche, watch out, because the Gilles carry baskets full of blood oranges that they throw at onlookers as they dance down the streets.

No one is entirely sure about the origins of the Gilles, but it’s believed the concept dates back to pagan times, when the Gilles would dance and stomp their wooden shoes to chase away winter. The masks are supposed to represent the equality of all people … but there’s no word on what’s behind the orange throwing!

Busójárás, Hungary

Busójárás is a Carnival celebration held in Mohacs, Hungary, 124 miles south of the country’s capital. Like most Carnivals, this six-day festival features parades and dancing, but unlike its counterparts, the Busójárás includes folk music and men dressed as shaggy, horned animals. Known as Busos, the mask-and-fur costumes resemble large, devilish goats – locals wear them as they carry a coffin through the streets.

The origins behind the masked revelry is mixed – some say the Busos are scaring away winter (hence the coffin), but others claim they were intended to frighten away the Turks, who occupied Hungary during the 16th century.

Carnival of Oruro, Bolivia

This 2000-year-old festival takes place in a Bolivian mining town and has also been recognized by UNESCO. The festival is a mix of indigenous and Catholic rituals that include pilgrimages, dances and story telling.

Since Oruro was once an important mining town, locals made sure to honor the Virgin of the Mineshaft in their Carnival celebrations, kicking off the festivities with a religious ceremony.

The other main element of this Carnival is the Diablada – or dance of the devils – where hundreds of locals dress as demons and prance in the streets. Together with some costumed angels, they tell the story of good conquering evil, as well as the seven deadly sins.

Other characters you’ll see in this Carnival are dancers dressed as Incas, and performers representing the black slaves who were forced to work in the silver mines by Spanish conquerors.

[Photo Credits: Flickr users PIXELPLUS Photography, olaszmelo, and CassandraW1]