Kittie Howard

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Pertisau, Austria; Off To Vienna Tomorrow, Then Home on the 4th

Pertisau, Austria, hugs Achensee, an alpine lake about 3,000 feet above sea level in the Austrian Alps.  Approximately 500 people live in Pertisau, Tirol (Tyrol).  The picturesque homes and shops have the traditional flower boxes and stenciled designs near windows, all very similar to the lifestyle in Bavaria, Germany (which Tirol (Tyrol), an Austrian state, borders,)  If you've seen The Sound of Music you are inside a postcard with me.  No one would think it odd if the von Trapp family walked down the village street singing "The Hills Are Alive with Music."  For they truly are.

This is our second trip to Pertisau.  This morning Dick and I hiked the trail that follows the lake.  And what a fabulous morning it was -- the soft sun, the emerald green lake, the alpine mountains, the wildflowers along the trail, and the fresh mountain air.

Yes, I have photos for you and long to share them.  But this must wait until we return to the States.  Which will be August 4th.  It's hard to believe we've been on the road almost two months.  For awhile time seemed to stand still.  We neither knew nor cared which day of the week it was.

When we lived in Skopje, Macedonia (or Former Yugoslavia Republic of Macedonia, whichever name floats your boat), we transited through Vienna.  So, it will be nice to enjoy a couple of days re-visiting old haunts.  

Upon our return, we're attending a wedding at The Homestead in Virginia, not far from Richmond.  I remember when Jenny was a toddler (which sometimes seems like yesterday).  She's marrying a very nice young man, and we wish them life's every happiness.

In the meantime, I want to thank you for your comments, for hanging in there.  I've got a bit of catching up to do with your blogs and plan to do just that after the wedding on the 7th. I'm looking forward to seeing what you've been doing.  All of you have such interesting blogs.  And, a year later, there's a comfortable rhythm that warms the heart.

Until then, I'd like to share with you a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche that the hotel posted this morning at breakfast:  The hurry in human life is a flight from oneself.    XOXO, Kittie  

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Statue in Thermopylae, Greece

A larger-than-life bronze statue of a Spartan icon, King Leonidas I, stands in an eclipse near a wide, long, and dusty plain in Thermopylae, Greece.  The king's raised right hand holds a javelin.  The downward left hand grips a shield.  A Spartan helmet, with its now famous Mohawk swoop, covers the warrior's head.  Otherwise, King Leonidas I stands naked.  The Spartan king fought naked.

Leonidas died at the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, more specifically, at the Pass of Thermopylae, where, in the combined area of mountain pass and lower plain, Leonidas and his 7,000 soldiers held off Persia's King Xerxes and his 2,641,610 soldiers for several intense days.  When the ferocious fighting ended, only two of the 7,000 Greek soldiers survived.  The victorious Persians, though, eventually tasted defeat at the Battle of Plataiai in 479 BC., where history also changed course.

But, for the moment, I'd prefer not to trod another war-torn path, but remain at the Battle of Thermopylae, one of history's most studied and respected battles.  However, without the drama of war, the Pass of Thermopylae rises above the extended battle plain below and appears more a snapshot of Greece's spectacular mountain scenery than an extended setting for one of history's bloodiest battles.

The battle plain below, large enough to hold over two and a half million men, lies flat, like a discarded remnant, as if Mother Nature had created a rugged masterpiece and dropped the scrap of land to perfect a turquoise-blue sea to lap the peaceful shoreline.  If not for the Battle of Thermopylae, an historical quirk, the long plain would simply exist, neither pretty nor ugly, just there, a wall flower among Greece's more imposing battle sites.

But, trapped and out-numbered by Xerxes, Leonidas refused to surrender, basically said to the Persian king, "If you want me and my men, come and get us," and, so, Xerxes complied.  Leonidas and his men fought to the bitter end with heroics that earned the Greeks dictionary definitions of honor, valor, courage, and bravery, definitions that have since translated into the world's various militaries with equal respect.  For there are times when something so powerful occurs even sworn enemies agree to agree.

So, today a statue of Leonidas faces burial mounds and thousands of soldiers who died on that dusty plain.  Behind Leonidas, in the far distance, a modern highway and parallel rail tracks cut through a land that once ran scarlet with blood.  This morning, however, the hum of fast cars and heavy trucks whirs like gnats on a hot day. Save for an occasional chirping bird, diesel- and gas-powered modernity is the only sound one hears.  For it is hot.  Perspiration runs from the brow like a salty river.

I look at the statue of Leonidas and wonder about history's enormity: The millions of men gathered to kill, the armada of ships in the sea needed to transport the soldiers, the why of it all.  True, the Peloponnesian Wars eventually followed the Battle of Thermopylae, wars that produced innovation and change modern military leaders follow, but the Battle of Thermopylae seduces today's warriors primarily for the raw courage that prevailed.

Historians like to point out that most wars or significant battles began because of economics or a need for land, truisms that socialists say exist today.  However, the Battle of Thermopylae happened because it could.  Leonidas and Xerxes didn't really want to fight each other.  Attempts to prevent the conflict didn't work because Leonidas and Xerxes had nothing else to do.  As my husband, a military history hobbyist, said, "Warriors don't pick olives."

So the armies fought.  Men died.  And time moved on.

Sad, actually.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Greece's Navarino Bay

Greece's Navarino Bay, near the western tip of Peloponnese, offers more than spectacular Mediterranean vistas, pristine beaches, olive groves, and white stucco houses with red tiled roofs.  The sun-drenched bay, with its turquoise-blue waters, shimmers not only beneath open blue skies but within Greece's heart.

On October 20, 1827, at the Battle of Navarino, naval forces crushed a fleet of Ottoman ships, an outcome that ensured Greece's independence after 350 years of Turkish rule.  History documents this rule as harsh. The Ottomans governed with a cruel whip.  Greeks lived in abject poverty under tyrannical conditions, free only to dream about tomorrow.

Three and a half centuries is a long time to hold onto a dream, to work toward throwing off the master's yolk, to retain one's identity, as an individual and as a country.  But this is exactly what happened.  After the downfall of the Ottomans, the Greek culture re-surfaced, wiser and stronger, determined not to be subjugated again, by the Turks or anyone else.

The Greek language, once a language that traveled the Mediterranean -- and beyond with Alexander the Great, retains its purity, if localized to Greece these days, still, though, a remarkable feat after 350 years of linguistic onslaught.  The Turks had worked to erase the language from the world's lexicon.

Unlike in Bosnia, where, basically, an entire country converted to the Muslim religion to avoid mass slaughter, Greek Orthodox Christianity thrives throughout Greece. (To be fair, the Ottomans didn't threaten the Greeks as such; however, lifestyle improved greatly if a Greek converted.  Few did.)  Regardless of one's religion, the fact that the Greek people preserved their spirituality deserves a certain respect (about which I'm not the first to write -- but more fully understand now -- as historians have long linked the Greek's preservation of their religion to much that is Europe today, not necessarily in a religious sense.)

However, I think the inner determination to retain core beliefs, all the while occupied by a voracious empire, speaks volumes about the strong character of the Greek people.  (And I would write the same if the Greeks had occupied Turkey, if the Turks had retained their identity under such brutal conditions.

Because the character of the soul is more than a religious symbol.

Because wanting for the sake of wanting destroys an individual, brings a country to its knees, as it destroyed the Ottoman Empire (and others throughout history).  It is the recognition of needs greater than simple wants that fuels the forward motion that protects society from itself.

As such, from occupied to free again (for Greece has a deep history, a rich history that gave birth to democracy and rational thought and so much more), the country's genealogy continued, families held together by stories of tragedy and hope, a freedom attained, a dream realized, a tomorrow that shimmers like the waters in Navarino Bay, mostly calm and inviting, but sometimes a bit harsh -- for Greece struggles, like other countries, with today's recession -- but always, the waters in Navarino Bay lap the shore and whisper the dream that lives.

In an era of globalization, we can still be who we are, not robots made in some factory in China, cheap goods sold on a mass market, made to fall apart after the first wash, imitations with a commercialized logo that screams for attention.

So, as I sit in a quiet lobby in a lovely hotel in Peloponnese, I am rejuvenated.  Regardless of nationality or religion, regardless of the day's challenges, regardless of fears that work to mute the soul, our ancestors whisper that dreams live.

If only we'd listen.

If only we'd want more of what can't be bought.

If only we'd get our hands dirty from doing our own work, honest work that laps the soul, like the waters at Navarino Bay.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Arivederci, Italia!

Arivederci, Italia!  Tomorrow evening we sail to Patras, Greece, two nights and a day aboard a Greek ferry, slicing across the Adriatic Sea.  New memories await.  And, to be honest, I possess the traveler's eagerness to explore new frontiers, to experience Peloponnese's Mediterranean terrain, to visit Delphi and Sparta, to sip the local wine and nibble green olives, to walk quiet villages, to feel what is and imagine what was, how it all came to  be, this miracle called democracy.

But I'll miss you, Italia.  Your serenity.  Your beauty.  The patient and understanding lifestyle.  The optimism:  How piave, rain, nourishes more flowers than floods; how food feeds the soul, not just the body; how doing nothing can trump doing something.

I'm going to miss morning walks down narrow lanes, the afternoon siesta, the after dinner strolls in the piazza with my husband, and, later, sitting on our balcony, mesmerized by the moon's white shimmer on calm waters, enthralled by twinkling lights on cruise ships that approach Venice, and, talking into the night, about this and that, nothing important, just enjoying each other's company.

And, of course, our four trips into Venice or nearby islands, like Lido Beach, where the Duke and Duchess of  Windsor frequented, or Burano, the quaint and colorful island where lace was made (but now imported from China), or Murano, the home of that magnificent glass, still made locally.  Since this is our fourth year at the same hotel, we've come to treasure the routine:  Bus No. 5 to Punta Sabionni and the ferry ride to the day's adventure.

And returning to our hotel room, tired but pleased with the day, happy to crawl into a book.  Readings this year included Thuborn's Shadow of the Silk Road (almost brilliant); Harris's Pompeii (contrived); Ericksson's Girl with a Dragon Tattoo (too dark); and Gregory's The White Queen (interesting).  I learned from each.

We also rode the bus to Treviso, into the countryside, to an old Italian town, locals gathered in the sleepy piazza, eating pizza, drinking beer.  We walked the side streets, ancient streets filled with shops, probably like they were hundreds of years ago.  But too many shops had shuttered, also the reason too many locals gathered in the piazza.  Italy's economy struggles.  Unemployment's high.  House after house is for sale.  New buildings stand empty.

And I wish I could say that the situation with the Russians at our hotel had a happy ending.  It doesn't.  Last night, at dinner, tempers flared over the food grab.  It wasn't pretty.

Nor has the pool been peaceful.  There's no lifeguard, but international signs say No Diving, No Running, No Soccer Balls, No Topless.  Only the latter has been followed.  Small kids run alongside the pool, everywhere, actually.  Older kids dive into a rather shallow pool.  Teenagers play rough with a soccer ball, yelling to each other.  One father decided to make a game of tossing his kids into the pool, turning and flinging them into the water.  On-lookers complained, worried about injuries.  Management's intervention had no effect.  The Russians continued to do as they pleased.  This morning, some guests checked out early.  They'd had enough.

For we've also had a problem with crime.  Last week, at 0235 and 0315, someone tried to gain entry to our room.  We flipped on the lights and started talking to scare them away.  It worked.  However, several rooms in the hotel next to us had been robbed.  Police out front that morning.  A desk clerk said police are looking for three Russians on our floor who'd checked out that a.m., before the police arrived.

The other night, fake whistling like birds awakened us, and others, at 0300.  Police out front that morning.  

More police this morning.  Someone robbed the money exchange in the piazza.

True, Italy has a pick-pocket reputation.  And, it's not totally unfair.  One has to be careful.  However, this is all a bit much.  I mean, this is a very nice hotel, not exactly cheap. Nor is there a downtrodden beach area along the strip.  Everything looks respectable, very neat, very clean.  Then, again, according to the lady at the money exchange, the couple who robbed her looked very respectable.


I still want to visit you again next year, Italia.  Ti amo.  I love you.