Saturday, June 30, 2007

Bored with TV? Go get this film!

If you've come to believe in the maxim that TV is a giant wasteland, especially in summer, I've got a film recommendation for you: Joyeux Noel, directed by Christian Carlon(2006). It sounds a little bit out of season, but it really isn't: it's about the Christmas truce of l9l4 on the western front, when Germans, French and British soldiers spontaneously stood down for a Christmas hiatus. They clambered out of their trenches, sang Christmas carols, exchanged gifts, shook hands in No Man's Land. Paul Fussell once said that this was the last time in the 20th century, and maybe ever, that you could feel that human beings were basically nice, decent creatures.

This version is fictionalized, and is a bit much in some places, but I ended up enjoying it--it's another great film about World War I. You can get a brief synopsis here.

In the blackest black numbers on the calendar--June 28

Once again, the loss of focus on dates caused me to fail to comment on the most fateful of days--June 28. I'm not sure that people properly appreciate this date in European history, so a brief review is in order:

June 28, 1389: The Ottoman Turks defeat the forces of Prince Lazar of Serbia, on Kosovo polje(Blackbird field). The Serbs lose their Balkan empire and are plunged into despair and defeat. They will spend the next five centuries attempting to avenge this loss, and will partially succeed in l9l2, by recapturing Kosovo. But Bosnia-Hercegovina, a key component in Prince Lazar's empire, has eluded them--Austria-Hungary has it in l9l2.

Thus, on JUNE 28, l9l4, Serbian nationalists decide to send Austria-Hungary a message by assassinating Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne. They somehow think Austria-Hungary will exit Bosnia. Instead, they set in motion the series of events that will lead to World War I, the collapse of 4 empires and the deaths of 9 million people.

On JUNE 28, l9l9, the Versailles Treaty was signed in Paris, to general approbation. Serbia gets Bosnia, kind of, in the new Yugoslav state that they insist on ruling. The world will come to know that the signing of the treaty merely marks an armistice in the war, which concludes temporarily, then recommences on September 1, l939.

On JUNE 28, l948, the Soviet leader, Stalin, expels rebellious Tito and the Yugoslavs from the Soviet empire, confidently predicting that "I will move my little finger and Tito will disappear!" Tito does not disappear, but is encouraged in his neutrality by effusive praise and money coming from the western camp in the Cold War.

On JUNE 28, l989, Slobodan Milosevic sounds the death knell for Tito's Yugoslavia with an incendiary speech about the Serbs, Kosovo, and, implicitly, the coming Serbian domination of post-Tito Yugoslavia. These words resound like a cannon shot throughout Yugoslavia, ultimately resulting in the Slovene exit, the Croat-Serb war over Bosnia and the Kosovo hostilities.

On June 28, 2004. Slobodan Milosevic is arrested and indicted in the Hague for war crimes during the Bosnian war. He later dies in captivity.

Is there any other date that lives in fame/infamy like 28 June? Post your nominations, please

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Another fateful anniversary

I was so taken with the Vatican's Ten Commandments for Drivers, or Pastoral Care on Our Roads, that I nearly forgot to remind everyone that yesterday, June 22, 2007, was the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in l941. That day marks one of history's most notorious doublecrosses, Stalin having declared himself the eternal friend of Hitler in the Nazi-Soviet pact of August l939 only to see his fellow dictator come after him with the strongest army in the world to date less than 2 years later. You know something of the road to June 22, e.g. the partitioning of Poland and the murder of the Polish home guard, Stalin's snatch of west Ukraine, the Baltic states and Bessarabia in l940, the buildup of German forces in huge numbers all along the Soviet border, the steady stream of German officials LEAVING the USSR, and finally all the espionage reports that pinpointed the exact day and hour of this outrage. Stalin, who had apparently convinced himself that nothing bad could happen, and/or that he was missing the the military leadership who could've helped counter this threat, did absolutely nothing. In fact, he forbade preparations and defensive measures that could've saved thousands of lives. He, Stalin, was not going to be tricked into provoking Hitler(!).

What followed was a terrible ordeal for the Soviet people, who already had endured two revolutions, a civil war, famine, a brutal industrialization regime and waves of political purges that saw thousands of people get one bullet in the back of the head or an impossibly long sentence in camp at hard labor. But it was the beginning of opportunity for Stalin, who drove his people to the end of their strength to push the Germans out of the Soviet Union. He then got to pose as the liberator of eastern Europe from the hated Nazis, his armies being the first to encounter the horror of Auschwitz and Treblinka, while making plans to install the Red Army and re-conquer the "liberated" people. He got all the way to Berlin and rendez-voused with the Allies before the Red Army halted. At that point, the Soviet Union had half of Europe and the British, French and Americans had the other.

That's the way it stayed until November 9, l989, when the Berlin Wall came down, bringing to an end the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe.

What I am trying to say is, Hitler's invasion was the beginning of the division of Europe, the real beginning of the Cold War. Who woulda thunk it then?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Vehicling with the Vatican, or Puttering along with the Pope

If you thought the Vatican was obsessed with abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research and sex, well, you're just wrong. In fact, the good men in red and their Chief are worried about you and your driving on the world's roadways. And how else would you communicate this concern, if not through a series of Commandments? Here are the Driver's Ten, as articulated just today:

1. You shall not kill.

2. The road shall be for you a means of communion between people and not of mortal harm.

3. Courtesy, uprightness and prudence will help you deal with unforeseen events.

4. Be charitable and help your neighbor in need, especially victims of accidents.

5. Cars shall not be for you an expression of power and domination, and an occasion of sin.

6. Charitably convince the young and not so young not to drive when they are not in a fitting condition to do so.

7. Support the families of accident victims.

8. Bring guilty motorists and their victims together, at the appropriate time, so that they can undergo the liberating experience of forgiveness.

9. On the road, protect the more vulnerable party.

10. Feel responsible toward others.

Armed with these commandments, and maybe a Rosary--they advise praying the Rosary as you roll gently along--go forth and sin no more in your auto...

Monday, June 18, 2007

Movie Recommendation

I went to Portland yesterday with a friend of mine for a day of shopping. He had read a movie review in the NY Times about a movie called The Wind that Shakes the Barley. This takes place in Ireland in 1917. It's about two brothers, one who is a guerilla (Teddy) and the other who is about to go to medical school (Damien). Damien does join his brother's cause against the Black and Tan army until truce is signed. Damien continues to fight for a whole Ireland while Teddy joins the army hoping to placiate the British until Ireland can be whole again. Obviously because of the subject matter you know there is not going to be a happy ending. This is a great movie and I highly recommend it when it comes out on DVD or if you are planning to travel to Portland anytime soon, it's playing at the Hollywood Theater located on the corner of 41st and Sandy Blvd. In fact, I think Mo could use this movie the next time she teaches about the Troubles. Oh yeah, we started the day at an Irish Pub, Kells, with Corned Beef hash and Irish Soda Bread toast. Yum. They had more corned beef than hash. It was a great way to start the day.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Knowing your enemy

There's an interesting article in the International Herald Tribune today by two correspondents who were uncertain about just what Islamic jihadists believe, or if you will, what their rule book says. They decided on the direct approach: they arranged to meet some jihadists and ask them personally. As they were citizens of nations affiliated with the Great Satan, they proceeded at great personal risk, but it turns out that the jihadis were interested in setting forth their views.

Among the highlights? It is technically forbidden in the Koran to kill innocents, but you can do so with confidence in a jihadi operation because God will sort out the wicked from the righteous and only the wicked will be killed.

Similarly, the Koran says children are innocent and should not be harmed, but the jihadis maintain that children receive special dispensation from God and will immediately be advanced upon entry into Paradise to the age of 20, where they may enjoy the 72 or so virgins to which they would be entitled at that age. No word on what happens to female children.

This is one of the difficulties with Christianity, each denomination typically has a leader that formulates policy and sets standards for clergy. For example, Catholics look to the Pope for leadership, and what he says is official church policy, period. Not so in Islam, where it seems that anyone who wishes to call himself an Imam can. Thus there are lots of official prohibitions in the Koran, yet anyone can interpret it according to their own objectives. Some pretty creative doctrine twisting any case, you can read all about jihadi etiquette here.

These views will be repugnant, but it's always wise to know your enemy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

A fateful day

June 6 is a fateful day on the historical calendar. On this day in l944, combined American, British, Canadian and other forces launched the long-anticipated invasion of Europe. The Soviet Union had already turned the tide against Nazi Germany in the east and were chasing the Nazi armies back towards Berlin. On June 6, the USSR's allies formally joined the endgame, dislodging Nazi forces from the French coast and beginning to back them out of France and Belgium. The operation was enormously costly--the 9,000 plus graves in the Normandy American cemetery are proof of that--but there is little doubt that this was the most important military campaign of the 20th century. I hope everyone today will remember all the men and women, living and dead, who made the D-Day launch a success.

On June 6, l968, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, after his victory in the California Democratic primary over Gene McCarthy. RFK wasn't a perfect man or candidate by any means, but I admired his honesty and courage tremendously. He said flat out that the Vietnam war was a mistake, that he helped to deepen our involvement there and he was running for President to try to undo the mistake he and his brother made. It might have been bad timing, it might have been opportunistic, but I thought he made a compelling case for his candidacy, and his death diminished us.

I was a ten-year-old campaigner in l968, and I liked RFK because he took time out to come over and talk with the little kids at his rally. Anyone who liked kids was at the top of my list. In fact, they still are at the top of my list...

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Muttley!..Do Something! (Part II)

Where last did we leave our dastardly duo? Helplessly hog-tied on the railroad tracks? Anxiously awaiting the buzz saw? Feloniously forced into a vat of bubbling sulfuric acid? Well, no, nothing quite that drastic; just zooming through the Slovenian countryside, minding their own business when at the side of the road, where no intersection or obvious obstruction presented itself, there appeared a rather ordinary….traffic signal. Muttley’s keen eye spotted it immediately and even registered that the red light was indeed illuminated. Hmm….what could that mean? Muttley’s steel trap mind quickly assessed that while the color red could arguably be construed as the universal symbol for STOP, he could not make the leap to process this information within the context of our situation. (There’s a reason they say a dog’s intelligence is on par with a four- year- old.) Therefore, he issued no warning to Dick Dastardly, and so we continued on our merry way, completely ignorant of impending doom. However, 35 years of driving experience slowly overrode this rather cavalier attitude (as well as the fact that the row of cars that had previously been in our rear view mirror were now eerily absent) and Muttley quickly rethought the whole unfortunate situation. And just as that fact registered in his beady little brain, the road precariously narrowed down to one lane. This in itself was somewhat alarming but appeared to pose no immediate threat. However, within seconds, as fate would have it (yes, even one on vacation), what comes barreling down upon the Mean Machine but….yes, you guessed it…a Totally Turbo Teutonic Tour Bus. (I don’t understand it either. Try as you might, you just can’t keep those Germans in their own country!)

Well now, Muttley stopped his insufferable snickering and threw Dick Dastardly a horrific look, causing him to helplessly throw his hands in the air and scream: “Muttley, Do Something!” And as always, Muttley was up to the task. I few Hail Marys later (I’m not certain but I think he’s Catholic), the Dauntless Duo effortlessly pulled onto a most welcome widening on the side of the road and allowed the Massive MercedesMobile to pass with millimeters to spare. After recovering our composure, we expertly readjusted our goggles, quickly did a pre-flight check, boldly shifted back into first, and….prudently decided to stay put until those cars that had obeyed that rather glaring red light made their way through. We then meekly snuck back into the flow of traffic and continued on to the home stretch and further Wacky adventures.

For those of you concerned, do not fear! I do not anticipate the arrival of a Slovenian ticket, one attempting to take advantage of a poor foreigner ignorant of the country's traffic laws, to increase their gross national product. This is predicated on numerous factors. Firstly, it was dark and we were out in the middle of nowhere. Secondly, there were no surveillance cameras or police cars in the area. And thirdly? The most helpful agent at Hertz didn’t photocopy MY license.

Breaking News, and it's GOOD!

Great news from the world of travel and tourdom! You've just read a vivid account of the Slovenian travelers' careful negotiation of the Slovene roads and traffic. Well, there's even BETTER news than that out there! In this week's New York Times Week in Review, Paul Vitello cheers American travelers to the skies with his assertion that there IS a ruder, more obstreperous group out there than the us. We've been notorious for our lack of sartorial splendor(gym shorts, dark socks and tennis shoes), non-knowledge of furrin' languages and outrage that They Do Things Different Over Here, etc., but our status as "ugly Americans" may now be SO September l0...

"Let it be said," Vitello writes, "that no group holds a monopoly on the title of “ugly.” Tip-stiffing, line-jumping, excessive price-haggling, sidewalk-blocking-when-stopping-suddenly-to-take-pictures-of-a-person-playing-the-steel-drums — none of these are unique to any national group.

Whatever. Is it time, at least, for retiring the term “ugly American” from the dictionary of foreign phrases?

The answer, according to experts in the rarified field of tourism anthropology, is a possible yes."

Mr. Vitello, just who or what has knocked us off this pedestal of shame?!

"Valene Smith, an anthropology professor at California State University at Chico who pioneered the academic study of tourism and travel in the 1970s, said that the tourists most likely to be deplored by their hosts these days are not the euro-rich Europeans or the British or the standard ugly Americans but the CHINESE. 'They have only been traveling widely in the last five years or so, but they are touring in numbers no one has seen before — by the thousands,' she said. 'They behave as they would at home — there is a lot of pushing and shoving. Very few speak languages other than Chinese.'

Last summer, in an incident widely discussed among travel experts, she said, 40,000 Chinese tourists descended on the small German city of Trier to visit the birthplace of Karl Marx. 'It was quite a mess,' Professor Smith said. 'No one was prepared ahead of time. The Germans were quite upset.'"

So let's hear a "halleujah," and send kudos to our fellow citizens of the mysterious East, for taking the burden of "world's most obnoxious tourists" from our American shoulders. Now you can look the world in the more slinking around and hiding that passport! Freedom is here!

Friday, June 1, 2007

Muttley!...Do Something! (Part I)

You’ve all read about our harrowing, hairpin, death-defying adventures through the Julian Alps, wherein we skillfully maneuvered, usually with our eyes open, around those Berserk, Bavarian BMWers. Needless to say, after having relived WWI at the wonderful Kobarid museum we were in no mood to battle another onslaught of Deutsche Daredevils on their Dynamo Diesels. (And I mean it had bordered on near-authentic reenactment, as we got caught up in a crushing wave of clearly indifferent academic adolescents being herded through the various exhibits. What an obvious study in contrast it was for us who had so enthusiastically journeyed well over 6,000 miles to specifically see the sites. Of course, chronologically we are much closer to the actual event so maybe that was the deciding factor!) Instead, we were looking for a more peaceful, gentler experience as we headed into the setting Slovenian sun and our Ljubljana hotel.

So there we were, the embodiment of everyone’s favorite Wacky Racers, Dick Dastardly and his canine side-kick, the snickering, but ever-so-lovable, Muttley. [Ed. Note: The choice of this pair of villains is purely fictional and bears no resemblance to the actual participants. I just couldn’t see us typecast as Penelope Pitstop in the Compact Pussycat. Yes, Professor Pat Pending in the Ring-a-Ding Convert-A-Car was an obvious contender, as well as the Gruesome Twosome in the Creepy Coupe. However, these Wacky Racers lacked the furry faced conspirator, an absolute must for a good story.] Having, rather rashly it now appears, left my perfectly valid driver’s license safely tucked away in my underwear drawer at home, I, like the ever-loyal Muttley, was the designated navigator. (Who in their wildest dreams imagined a Slovenian Hertz franchise would be so enticingly situated a few mere meters from our home-away-from-home in Ljubljana or that my intrepid traveling companion was willing to risk not only her tenured life and limb, but my aspiring ones, simply for lack of convenient public transportation. But, I digress.) Not legally allowed to fiddled with any knobs, sticks, or pedals that might actually interfere with the operation of the Mean Machine (aka VW Polo), Muttley cleverly occupied himself by stapling, folding, and otherwise ingeniously mutilating the map as well as frantically searching the interior of the vehicle for the correct combination of Euros to be carelessly thrown at the Slovenian trolls guarding the all too frequent toll roads.

So there we were, zoom, zoom, zooming through the East European countryside. The former Yugoslavian wind was blowing through our hair (well it would have, had we scraped together enough Euros to rent a convertible) and the Slovenian sun was tanning our fresh and eager faces (and it would have too, if the moon had not already been out. I’m just trying to set the perfect stage here. Work with me here!) God was obviously in his Heaven and all was right with the world. Only another 100 kilometers or so (that’s around 60 miles for the metrically challenged) and we’d be skidding under the checkered flags, home safe and sound Yes! Score another victorious run for the Wacky Racers! And then, unobtrusively situated at the side of the road, there it was……Stay tuned for Part II. Same time, same blog….

Travel 101

Wondering what it takes to really get to know a city like Ljubljana, or for that matter any city that's not your own? Maybe a tour, a gaggle of fellow tourists on a bus and a guide directing your gaze through a microphone? Not on your life! What you really need is a pair of good walking shoes, some sharp eyes and clean ears and a left or right turn out your hotel door. More details here.