Pristina view

Where is Kosovo?

“Do you want to go to Kosovo?” asked my wife.

Kosovo, hhmmm, where is that?  I vaguely recall some trouble there back in the 1990s. Something to do with the break up and civil wars in Yugoslavia. I think it’s in the Balkans. I’ve never been to the Balkans before. Sounds interesting; let’s do it.

Pristina view
A view across the city of Pristina, Kosovo.

Our purpose in going to Kosovo was to help lead a week long English-language camp for university students. On our way to and from the camp, which was to be held in Kosovo’s Rugova Mountains, we were going to stay in the small capital city of Pristina (only 200,000 residents) for a few days.

After arriving at the new international airport (funded by the EU), we hopped into a taxi for the ten mile ride into the Pristina city center. One thing was clear right away. Most Kosovars love Americans! (This was refreshing to me, after having spent some time in France earlier this summer). The taxi driver was friendly, even though he didn’t speak much English. As we drove into the capital city of Kosovar, we saw Bill Clinton Boulevard and a large mural of Bubba himself.

Pristina view
Another view of Pristina.

Kosovars love Americans because the US (along with NATO) helped them in response to Serbian aggression during the Kosovo War of 1999. Kosovo had been a semi-autonomous region of Serbia after the break-up of Yugoslavia. Serbia’s people are ethnically Serbs and primarily Eastern Orthodox in religion (~85%), and Kosovo’s people are primarily ethnic Albanian and Muslim, (although they are considered to practice Islam to a low standard, with not many regularly attending a mosque). This ethnic and religious tension boiled over in the post-communist, formerly Yugoslav world.

Pristina street scene
I’m not sure what that mobile phone shop is selling…

The Serbs, under President Slobodan Milosevic, revoked Kosovo’s autonomy and a harshly repressive Serbian-led regime was installed.  Albanians were largely purged from state industries and institutions.

Kosovars wanted for independence and in response Milosevic sent in secret police, army and paramilitary troops in March, 1999 to crush any dissent.

Widespread violence broke out in Pristina. Serbian and Yugoslav forces shelled several districts and, in conjunction with the paramilitaries, conducted large-scale expulsions of ethnic Albanians accompanied by widespread looting and destruction of Albanian properties. Many of those expelled were put onto trains apparently brought to Pristina’s main station for the express purpose of deporting them to the border of Macedonia, where they were forced into exile. The majority of the Albanian population fled Pristina to escape to persecution.

NATO attacked the Serbs in a bombing campaign approved by Clinton. NATO troops entered Pristina in early June 1999 to bring peace. The UN set up a provisional administration to help the Kosovars rebuild their country. The 45,000 ethnic Serbs in Kosovo left to go to Serbia. Kosovo’s parliament declared independence in 2008, although even today some countries do not recognize this claim.

Milosevic was subsequently indicted on the war crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity.  The trial, which started in 2001, dragged on for five years but Milosevic died of a heart attack while in prison.

Kosovo sign
An independent nation.
Martin's Pristina house
Some friendly Kosovars.

Today Pristina, although struggling economically, is on the upswing. The small city center is lively and full of cafes and restaurants. There aren’t many tourist attractions.  A popular thing to do is to meet with friends and drink coffee.

While in Pristina we had the opportunity to stay at the home of a man I’ll call George. He quickly became my friend and I enjoyed talking with him about Kosovo’s history. During the 1990s, George worked as a translator for Kosovar leaders. On several occasions he was in meetings with Milosevic and other Serbs while working for Kosovo.

 

Mother Teresa photo
Mother Teresa.

 

 

George also knew Mother Teresa (born Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu in 1910, in Skopje in neighboring Macedonia, she died in 1997).  Mother Teresa was an ethnic Albanian who left home at age 18 to become a Catholic nun and missionary. Mother Teresa was quoted as saying: “By blood, I am Albanian. By citizenship, an Indian. By faith, I am a Catholic nun. As to my calling, I belong to the world. As to my heart, I belong entirely to the Heart of Jesus.”

On a visit to Pristina in the 1990s, Mother Teresa stayed at George’s home. Regardless of who the guest is, George is a gracious and thoughtful host.

It was amazing to me that George knew both Mother Teresa and Slobodan Milosevic. I can hardly image two people who were farther apart on the spectrum of human life.

As I walked around Pristina, I realized that the future is wide open for the city and for Kosovo. Most of the UN reconstruction and influence from the past 15 years is gone. The conflicts of the 1990s are a generation in the past. The Kosovars, and especially the young people, are taking control of building their own future.

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giraffe

The Oldest Zoo in the World: Vienna’s Schonbrunn

On my recent trip to Vienna, Austria I had the opportunity to visit the oldest zoo in the world. The Tiergarten Schönbrunn (the Schönbrunn Zoo) was founded in 1752 by orders of Holy Roman Emperor Francis I.  It was built near the Schloss Schönbrunn, the imperial palace of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A smaller zoo had existed on the site since 1540.

gibbon
Why are you looking at me like that?

The zoo was opened to the public in 1779 and admission was free. Today, it’s no longer free (what is these days?), but it makes for a nice and easy trip by train and tram from the center of Vienna.

 

When I got there on a muggy summer day it was threatening to rain. I was hoping to make my way through the exhibits before a thunderstorm rolled in.

rhino
Where is my dinner?

When I got to the elephant’s enclosure, there were no elephants in sight. They were locked in their room while the zookeeper brought out bales of grass. I hung around for a few minutes until he was out of the area. Soon several elephants of all different sizes came lumbering quickly to get to the new grass.  It was snack time!

elephant eating
Thanks for the grass, Mr. Zookeeper.

I spent quite a while watching these cheetah cubs. They were romping around the enclosure with each other, and one of them repeatedly jumped on his mother’s head.  She took it all in stride and ignored him.  Just another day with the kids.

cheetah cub
I am working on my spots.
cheetah mom
If you jump on my head one more time, your are getting a licking!

The Schönbrunn Zoo is one of the better zoos I have visited.  The views were good and the distance to the animals was close. It’s certainly a good choice of an activity when visiting Vienna with children (how many old buildings and museums can they put up with?), and is even fun for us old-timers…

giraffe
Hello there, Ms. Giraffe…

Check out these amazing Australian animals.

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Count von Harrach car

The Assassination of Franz Ferdinand

One hundred years ago Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife Duchess Sophie left Vienna, Austria to visit the provincial capital of Sarajevo, Bosnia. Franz Ferdinand was the nephew of Franz Joseph, the Emperor of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and at 50 years old was the heir to the Habsburg throne.

assassination painting
A car ride that changed the world.

There was a lot of unrest in the empire.  Various factions in far flung regions wanted independence from Austrian rule.  One group in Serbia, called the Black Hand, was formed by Serbian army officers with the purpose of liberating Serbs living under Austro-Hungarian occupation. The Black Hand decided that they would assassinate the Archduke. They recruited three young Bosnians to carry out their plan.

The royal couple were on their way to a civic reception at Sarajevo’s city hall when the violence began with a conspirator tossing a homemade bomb from a bridge over the Miljacka River. It bounced off the folded convertible cover of the Archduke’s car and bounced under the vehicle traveling immediately behind them before exploding. The Archduke and his wife were unhurt but occupants of that car suffered injuries.

Count von Harrach car
The 1911 Graf Stift Double Phaeton.

After speeches at the city hall, the couple left the reception to go to the hospital to visit people wounded in the bombing attempt. With the Archduke in a military tunic and helmet, and the duchess in a dress of white filigreed lace with a matching hat and parasol, they headed back along the original route through the city and straight to their fateful encounter with a young man named Gavrilo Princip, one of the young Bosnians.

Princip's pistol
Princip’s Fabrique Nationale 9x17mm model 1910 semi-automatic pistol.

After learning that the first assassination attempt had failed, Princip thought about where he might make another attempt.  He waited outside a place called Schiller’s Delicatessen near the Latin Bridge over the Miljacka River.  On the drive from the city hall to the hospital, the driver of the Archduke’s car made a wrong turn. The driver stopped the car to correct his mistake. However, there was no reverse gear in the car, so security men had to push the car backwards. Unfortunately for millions of people, the car had stopped right in front of Schiller’s Delicatessen.

Princip stepped forward and fired twice with a pistol from a distance of only five feet away. He hit Franz Ferdinand in the jugular vein, and Sophie in the abdomen. Both died in the car on the way to the hospital.

Franz Ferdinand's tunic
Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s tunic, with original blood stains.

The assassination set off a chain reaction of events that led to the Great War of 1914-1918.  Millions of people died, empires crumbled, and 20th century history started down a dark path which lasted for the next 70 years.

On the day of the crimes Princip was 27 days short of being 20 years old, so by law he couldn’t be charged with the death penalty. Instead he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. However, he died three years later in prison of tuberculosis and malnutrition.

While in Vienna I read that the Museum of Military History (the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum opened a new wing of the museum devoted to telling the story of World War I and commemorating the 100 year anniversary of the start of the conflict. As a history buff, and especially a 20th century military history buff, I knew I had to pay a visit to this somewhat obscure Austrian museum.

ceiling of Military History Museum
The ceiling of Vienna’s Military History Museum.

After a subway ride, a tram ride, and a rainy hike through a park, I finally made it to the Museum. The new World War I exhibits were excellent. I highly recommend a visit to this museum if you like history and find yourself in Vienna someday.

The Museum also has a longstanding exhibit about the assassination. The car that Franz Ferdinand and Sophie were riding in is displayed.  The car is a 1911 Gräf & Stift Double Phaeton convertible luxury limousine.  It was owned by Count Franz von Harrach, who was in the front seat of the car at the time of the assassination.

The exhibit also includes the military uniform that Franz Ferdinand was wearing (complete with original blood stains!), Sophie’s clothes, the chaise lounge on which he was declared dead, and the pistol used by Princip that changed the world.

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private beach on the Riviera

Partying With Supermodels On The French Riviera

The French Riviera has always had an allure for me. I like French culture, outstanding geography, sunshine, beaches (even if some have pebbles), and the sea. It all comes together on the Cote d’Azur.

Riviera scene
Aaahh! The French Riviera.

I also like movies and someday I would like to attend the Cannes Film Festival. On this trip I was in Antibes during the film fest.  Antibes is a small beach town a few kilometers down the coast road from Cannes. I wanted to pretend to be a paparazzi and try out my new telephoto zoom lens on some celebrities, but I had read that only officially recognized journalists and photographers were allowed into the tent areas where the stars come out to be seen.

The Cannes party scene is also legendary. The big name actors and actresses come to promote their latest movies (whether or not the films are in the festival). The movie studios throw elaborate parties full of the glitterati consuming champagne and caviar. Or so I’ve read in People magazine. I have never been invited.

So I avoided the crush of Cannes and stayed on the beach at Juan-les-Pins in Antibes. The Mediterranean Sea sparkled, the sun was warm, the beach sand was comfortable, a few sunbathers were topless…

juan-les-pins
The sandy beach at Juan-Les-Pins (minus the sunbathers :))

There are two parts to the beach on the French Riviera – private and public. A private beach is typically in front of a beach café/restaurant/club. The private beach has muscular young men in polo shirts bringing expensive drinks to patrons while they recline on comfortable padded lounge chairs. For the privilege of such comfort and service the beachgoers pay 25 euros per day to sit on the chairs and use an umbrella. Signs around the private beach notify the riff-raff to stay out.

Since I am too cheap to pay 25 euros to sit on someone’s chair at the beach, I find a spot on the public beach, which in many cases is right next to the private beach. At the beach in Juan-les-Pins where I was, I laid out my towel on the sand just a few feet from the private beach rope.

private beach on the Riviera
A typical private beach next to a public beach on the French Riviera.

A few days later I had an early flight to catch from the Nice airport. I was loaded with my backpack, rolling suitcase, and dastardly GPS unit. I was walking through the hotel lobby at 5am and noticed two guys in tuxedos sitting in the lobby.  They appeared to be professional photographers, with their big cameras on the table in front of them.  They were busily typing away on laptops, possibly uploading photos for their editors.

As I kept walking in my early morning haze while looking back at the photographers I almost walked right into two woman who were standing directly in my path. They were stunning models in evening dresses. They looked like the eye candy you see on the Oscars broadcasts, the women who politely usher the long-winded Hollywood stars off stage.  Brightly colored long dresses, 5 inch stiletto heels, big hair, painted faces, long legs.

“Excusez-moi,” I stammered, momentarily disconcerted by their surprise appearance.

I walked out the front doors of the hotel and saw two more exquisite supermodels in evening dresses sitting at a table by the front door.

“Excusez-moi, monsieur!  Avec-vous une cigarette?”

What? Are you talking to me? I still wasn’t fully awake.   Was I dreaming? No, this is happening and she is talking to you. She’s asking you a question.

“Uh, non… Je ne fume pas,” I answered.

I kept walking without saying anything more. The two beauties smirked and giggled.  One of them called after me:

“Êtes-vous American?”

Yes, I am.  I would like to sit down and have a chat with both of you, I want to know which Cannes party you went to last night and why you didn’t invite me along to escort both of you, but I’m married and I have a plane to catch.  To America.

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Provence car wash

A Car Wash in Provence?

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It was a pleasant day for driving. After my stop in Arles, I was touring around the countryside in the Provence region of southern France. I had stopped for lunch at a country restaurant which I happened upon by chance. It was a Sunday and they were setting up for Sunday brunch. I sat outside on the terrace, making repeated visits to the gourmet buffet until I was stuffed. Everything was amazingly fresh and tasty.

Provence view.
A nice day in Provence.

A few kilometers down the road from the restaurant I drove under a bridge. As I came out the other side I noticed a cascade of water behind me. What was that? A car?

Provence car wash
A French car wash…

What is it doing there? Who parked it? Is it a joke? Vandalism?

Or is that what they use for a car wash in Provence?

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