Saturday, June 28, 2008

The River Princess

The River Princess sank eight years ago, and has become something of a permanent fixture off Siquerim Beach in Goa, India, as it holds a few mysteries.

My arrival in tropical Goa was refreshing after the chilly weather near Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan. Something about wearing shorts and a T-shirt in December has a certain allure, even for a guy from "Sunny California."

A 20-minute taxi ride (much safer than this one) brought my friend Deon and I to our hotel across from the beach. As soon as we'd finished the check-in process, we headed to the sand and were met with our first sight of the River Princess.

I was initially under the impression that she was at anchor, but realized she was way, way too close to shore for that. She was clearly sitting on the bottom, and repair crews were all over the superstructure working under floodlights in the setting sun. I shrugged, figuring it was nothing more than the result of a helmsman asleep at the wheel.

Eating prawns at one of the ubiquitous beach restaurants the next day, I asked a few British expats about the massive container ship sitting in 20 feet of water.

"Oh, the River Princess? Yeah, she's been there since 2000, when she hit some rocks near Panjim. They towed her over here to sink."

I was astonished. Though not in the market for a container ship, I could imagine they are fairly expensive. "Why haven't the owners done anything about it?" I asked.

"No one knows who owns it."

"How is that? It must be registered somewhere." To that, the Brits just shrugged and told me an Indian company was working on taking her away, but they weren't holding their collective breath, as that was an old rumor
circulating for years.

I took a closer look at the vessel and decided she may have been smuggling arms or drugs - hence the reason no one has claimed it. Whatever the case may be, her presence is definitely altering the currents around the beach, and a small sandbar is forming.

"You know, that would make an awesome night club and hotel," I said.

"Yeah, a lot of people say that," a woman replied. So much for originality.

Whether the River Princess will continue to rust away in the sea or will finally be cleaned up is still up in the air. I hope someone had the foresight to remove the fuel and oil and somehow minimize the environmental damage, since a spill would be rather unfortunate. However long the she does sit there, she will be lamentable to the locals as an eyesore, and of passing interest to tourists who naturally wonder at her mysteries.

Or, perhaps, the Brits were having a joke at my expense, and there is no mystery at all.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Night in the Eternal City

Rome is one of those cities you want to see from the time you’re small. Its very name evokes a plethora of imagery in even the most unimaginative person, and walking streets that have thousands of years of history embedded in them brings a feeling that is indescribable.

Nights in the Eternal City are truly something special. Nominally on a walking tour in our guidebook, my family and I were really on a gelato hunt. Starting from our hotel, we walked a block to the Spanish Steps, where a hundred or so people sat, doing everything from drinking to just sitting – it’s not a wide range, and that’s the great part about Roman nights. You can do nothing and not feel the least bit guilty about it. I watched, amused, as a beer bottle toppled end over end down the steps like a Slinky before shattering on the fifth one.

We dropped by the Pantheon next, which we had visited earlier. Though the pre-Christian church with its impressive dome was interesting during the day, it seemed that the night breathed new life into it. A loud cheer interrupted my thoughts, and I spun around to see its source. I smiled when I saw a throng of Italians congratulating themselves, a few dancing in circles with dark bottles held above their heads. It was the 2004 Euro Cup, and the Italian team had just scored a goal.

Something else about the Italian football (fine, soccer) fans piqued my interest – gelato cups. Next door to the bar where they watched TV, a little gelato stand was doing brisk business. We hurried over to it and ordered heaping cups of their superior version of ice cream. The fiore de leche flavor I had was outstanding.

Gleefully eating the gelato, we wandered around a few streets and narrow alleys, not paying particular attention to where we were. We turned a corner, and there it was.

“It” was the Trevi Fountain. A few quick steps down took me to the cobblestones leading up to it. I had never seen Roman Holiday, Three Coins in the Fountain or any of the other movies that helped make the waterwork famous. The subaquatic lights illuminated the water in the pools as a bright turquoise and reflected off the coins strewn about the lowest level. The god Neptune rode a shell chariot drawn by horses, and the whole effect was mesmerizing.

I bought a beer of some sort from a vendor and then, because the man’s bottle opener was broken, befriended a couple of New Zealanders who assured me they always had an opener on them.

Drinking my beer and talking to my new friends, I joined the rest of the fountain’s mass of spectators, who watched something people have seen for 250 years, but which never gets old.

Tradition and superstition dictate that using your right hand to toss a coin over your left shoulder will ensure a return to Rome. Standing there that night, I scrambled for a coin (OK, I stole one from my dad) and did just that.

I was delighted to return two years later. I tossed the coin again (my own this time), and I can’t wait until I can once more fulfill the promise the coin offered.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Misadventures: Surrendering to the French

The first (and hopefully only) time I had automatic weapons pointed at me was in Paris, during La Fête de la Musique in 2004.

I was standing under the Eiffel Tower, of all places, when I saw a trio of French soldiers lounging a few yards away. As I had a few friends in the U.S. Army, I wanted a picture of their French counterparts for the next time they started with the French surrender jokes.

Bad idea. Very, very bad idea.

As I raised my camera, the officer turned and saw me. In a voice that boomed above the sounds of the nearby concert, he shouted, "No! No photo!"

That would have been enough for me, but the two enlisted men with him both spun, raising their rifles as they did so. The next thing I knew, I was holding both hands above my head with the camera dangling by the strap. It was a tense moment for me as I hoped I wouldn't be on the news the next day as the victim of a tragic accident. Fortunately, the two soldiers weren't trigger-happy, and left me with nothing more than severe Gallic glares.

When I told the story to my friends in the American military, they laughed.

I learned the French phrase "Ne tire pas" - just in case.

Friday, June 6, 2008

64 Years Ago Today...

The tide was out, and the waves lapped gently at the undisturbed sand. A few people walked along the shore farther up, but this was no beach for sunbathing or revelry. It had only been a short six decades since this was the scene of the action on what has been called the climactic day of the 20th century.

Omaha beach was a far cry from what it was on that day. I stood at the waterline and faced inland, seeing the bluffs thousands of men had to assault. I’d seen all the D-Day movies and thought I had as good of a sense as any civilian can of what those men went through. One thing I can say now is that not a single one of those movies, be it The Longest Day or Saving Private Ryan, can do justice to how far it is from the waterline to the small shale berm that offered the first real cover.

I walked across the beach, trying to imagine what it must have been like to see the cliffs not full of green vegetation, but enemy soldiers, the muzzle flashes and tracers creating a terrible light show. I realized I couldn’t do it. A split-second later, I realized I didn’t want to.

Above the beach stood roughly 10,000 solemn reminders of what the ground I stood on cost. The immaculately kept lawns and monuments at the cemetery at St. Laurent are interrupted only by white crosses and stars of David, each signifying a life lost. Most have the fallen soldier’s name and unit on them. Some do not. The etching on one marble cross I looked at read, “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” I wondered who he was. Probably a lot like me.

The cemetery is not just for the soldiers killed on D-Day, but includes the dead from the invasion to the end of the war. Some graves were even marked after the cessation of hostilities.

A few rows away and maybe 30 yards down, I saw two old men. Each wore a VFW hat, and they laid a bouquet of flowers by a grave. I wanted to know their stories, and I wanted to thank them. But most of all I did not want to interrupt their reunion, such as it was, with someone they had clearly cared a great deal for. I swallowed and then headed back to my car.

It was only a short drive to Pointe du Hoc, the sheer cliffs that, on June 6, 1944, U.S. Army Rangers had scaled and taken. The battlefield has not really been altered since that day. The whole area is still scarred with craters from naval guns and bombs. Visitors can walk all over, inside what is left of the German bunkers and in the craters. As I stood in the base of a crater, the world disappeared. The hole was about 10 feet deep, and 20 feet across. How anyone could have survived such a bombardment I will never understand.

Just east of Omaha beach, on the road back to the town of Bayeux, is a German gun battery at Longues-sur-Mer. The four gun bunkers still house the artillery that fired on Allied warships during the invasion. As with Pointe du Hoc, the area was open, and I was able to go in each bunker. All were damaged to some extent from aerial and naval bombardment.

As I drove to Bayeux, I was struck by how beautiful the countryside is. Stone houses dot the landscape amid fields secluded by the hedgerows that had been hell to fight through. I rolled the window down and heard the distant clanking of a cowbell. Storybook villages and stone manors passed in the distance.

The town of Bayeux itself was alive. Being so close to the anniversary of the landings, it was adorned with French, British, Canadian and American flags. Red, white and blue ribbons hung from the shops, and welcoming French citizens smiled at me as I stopped for food. I did not have time to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry, but it is displayed in the town as well.

My final stop was another cemetery, near the town of Bayeux. This one was much smaller than the American cemetery, split between British and German soldiers. It stands as a stark reminder that, even though as an American I was most interested in discovering what my countrymen had done, it was a multinational Allied force that liberated France. And while the Germans were the enemy, I couldn’t overlook the fact that some of the men buried a few yards away were really no different from me.

I left Normandy the next day. It is a land of immense natural and cultural beauty, despite the constant reminders of the life-and-death struggle of the past century, and many long before that, even. It is a place I wish everyone could see, because, though I left Normandy, Normandy will never leave me.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Kindness of Strangers: A Greek in Vienna

One of my best experiences in travel came in Vienna, Austria after my dad and I had visited the museum at the arsenal. It was a small gesture from a stranger, but it embodies one of the things I find most rewarding – the unexpected kindness of strangers.

Walking back from the military museum, we were passing the Belvedere Palace grounds on our way to St. Stephen’s Cathedral where we planned to meet up with my mom and sister.

Admiring the palace, which consists of two buildings separated by a well-groomed park, neither of us noticed the short, Mediterranean-featured man as he walked up to us.

“Excuse me,” he said.

I turned and acknowledged him.

“Are you Americans?” he asked, and we nodded. “I want you to come to my restaurant and have a beer or a glass of wine, on me.”

Since I had been offered free beer and wine by a restaurateur…well, never, I was instantly suspicious. Not only did he supposedly want to give me free alcohol, but he wasn’t put off by the fact that I was an American.

Initially, I turned him down, but he was persistent, and we had a half-hour or so to kill, so we followed him to the corner opposite the Upper Belvedere, where his Greek restaurant sat.

He told us to sit down, and we let him know that we couldn’t eat or have any more than one drink, as we had somewhere to be. He still insisted we sit at one of the outdoor tables while he went inside to grab ice-cold draught beers.

He sat down with us and told us he had a brother living in America, somewhere in the Midwest. The two men had opened the restaurant together 10 years earlier. As business was slow, he truly wanted nothing more than to sit and talk with us over beers about the land his brother had moved to. It surely didn’t hurt to have some customers sitting at his café, but I believe he really did just want the company.

We left him with a promise to suggest his restaurant to my mom, who was making the dinner decision that night, but told him we most likely wouldn’t be eating there. He didn’t seem to mind at all, and thanked us for our conversation, and we thanked him for the beers.

We didn’t return to his café, as we ate at a restaurant near St. Stephen’s, but I have every intention of dining there the next time I’m in Vienna. I have no idea what the name of the restaurant was, but I can still picture the spartan outdoor tables and the blue sign with Greek lettering over the door.

More importantly, the random act of friendship sticks in my mind.