The formative moments of my life that motivated me to travel and discover new places only become apparent to me many years after they occurred. What brought me close to the Slovenian- Italian border to visit the village of Kobarid and surrounding Soca River Valley began over thirty years earlier in a tiny town on the edge of Charlotte, North Carolina. My grandparents lived in Derita, a community that has long since been swallowed up by Charlotte. It was here that I spent summer days helping my grandparents in their garden and with yard work. At night, my grandfather would sit on his favorite sofa reading newspapers, magazines and books. That is where I first noticed his monthly veterans paper. He had served in the United States Navy during World War I. This paper was printed for all veterans of the war. He would spend hours reading each issue. Sometimes he recounted stories from his service, which amounted to sitting on a ship in New York Harbor, then being called home earlier than expected when his mother became gravely ill. The stories he told were the beginning of my interest in the war.
Whiteout – A Famously Obscure Front
Two decades later I was visiting with an English friend of mind. We were at his house in Rabun County, Georgia. A professional historian and professor by trade, at that time he was retired. He had a keen interest in the war and was trying to diverse his knowledge of the different fronts. He discussed with me the difficulty in trying to find good books on the army of Austria-Hungary. The Italian Front was the only theater of the war Austria-Hungary fought in that had become part of western historical consciousness. This was almost entirely due to Ernest Hemingway’s famous novel, A Farewell To Arms. Hemingway had been a Red Cross ambulance driver on the Italian side of the front. That conversation piqued my interest in the topic. Not long thereafter I found a newly published book, The White War: Life & Death On The Italian Front 1915-1919 by Mark Thompson. We both read it and agreed that it was the best scholarly work done on the subject.
The White War dealt with the entire theater of the war in northeastern Italy. One of its main focal points was the Battle of Caporetto, a devastating defeat for the Italians that turned into a full-scale retreat. Hemingway evocatively wrote about the chaos of Caporetto in his magnificent narrative. I went back and reread his account. Both books made me long to visit the battlefield. When I traveled to Slovenia, one of my main goals was to visit Caporetto. I knew a day trip was possible from Ljubljana. It would afford me the opportunity to finally realize my passion for this remote front of the war and visit a battlefield where Austria-Hungary (with major German assistance) had won its greatest victory.
The Name Changes – The Place Stays The Same
Caporetto, the name was magnetically attractive. It sounded mysterious and elegant, like a seaside resort where wealthy Europeans parked their yachts for summer long sojourns. The name started me daydreaming about an exotically glamorous spot on a sun splashed shoreline. Nothing would be further from the truth. I would only understand this after traveling to the town and surrounding battlefield. Luck turned out to be on my side regarding this trip. My Slovenian friend, Darja, despite being eight months pregnant and terribly sick the day before, picked me up at 8:00 a.m. Our first stop on the journey was her sister-in-law’s house, on the outskirts of Ljubljana. The sister-in-law was wonderfully kind and energetic. She also went by the name of Darja. The plan was for her to drive us in her SUV. The two Darja’s hospitality was incredible. They did not want me paying for gas, food or anything else. When I did they got upset. All that was asked of me was to sit beside Alex, Darja II’s son who was less than a year old. He was a pleasant child who spent much of the ride smiling.
I soon discovered that we were and were not heading to Caporetto. After World War II, the border was moved to the east and Caporetto became Kobarid, the name it was known for, first in Yugoslavia and now in Slovenia. I was never able to get used to Kobarid. That name had none of the Mediterranean elegance I associated with the Italian name. What I failed to understand is that the area had been highly contested ground between Slovenes and Italians in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Kobarid is the furthest western town in Slovenia, at best a two-hour drive from Ljubljana. Fortunately, the highway was in perfect condition. Every road we traveled on this trip looked like it had been recently paved. Such infrastructure made it easy to understand why Slovenia had become the poster child for a successful post-communist nation. Large dollops of European Union money had been poured into the country and put to good use. I found myself wishing American highways were modeled after Slovenian ones. The scenery was beautiful, large mountains crept closer the longer we drove. As for the weather, it could not have been more perfect. The previous day’s torrential downpours were now a distant memory as sunshine and blue skies greeted us.
Tripping Out – On A New Road
I was surprised at how normal this trip felt for such a unique situation. Here I was an American obsessed with going to see a World War One battlefield while being driven halfway across a country that had not even existed during the war. I was traveling in a country (Slovenia) that had been part of a different country (Yugoslavia) twenty-five years earlier. All those news reports I had seen on television in the early 1990’s about the dissolution of Yugoslavia now meant something to me. When Yugoslavia suddenly imploded and new borders were drawn, an opportunity to freely travel in the area arose. One that would have previously seemed impossible. In a sense, the political had become personal. To make matters more head spinning, I was traveling with two Slovenian women and a young toddler less than one year old. I have been accused of having an overactive imagination, but I never could have dreamed up such a delightful adventure. This was the kind of life I had always dreamed of. Never knowing who or what comes next while traveling to a place I had never been before. On this trip the rest of my life became an afterthought. This was what I called living.