Thursday, September 30, 2010

Live...It's Saturday Night....In Leran

Last week, from Wednesday evening until Friday morning, there was a national strike going on in France. As part of a national movement against the government's retirement reform, all air traffic controllers, SCNF (French national railroad) workers, and Paris public transportation agents took a few days off. Strikes are not unusual events in France, and people learn to adjust. So did Barry-Oke, when he learned that his Thursday flight was grounded, and he couldn't escape Leran until the following Monday. He was forced to cancel his weekend singing gig in England, and extend his 'Tour de Leran' for another night.

Since our social calender had prevented us from catching his earlier performance, we were delighted to hear the unfortunate airway news. Marek, the village crier, was quick to issue an email invitation. When summoned, Leran answers, and a crowd appeared.

Barry's regular sidekick and provider of musical accompaniment in Leran, Alan Simmons, was off in Spain. Emma, a recent addition to Leran, luckily travels with her guitar and graciously offered to stand in. Additionally, she added back-up vocals.

Lynn, Barry's lovely wife, made the trip to Leran this time. We had not met her before, and thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. Lynn suggested that one of the bar's staff, Lise, come up and sing a few songs. Lise is French, and working at the bar is improving her English at a lightning pace. Lise and Barry belted out a few songs back and forth in French and English. Then Barry turned Lise loose.
I spent several hours attempting to upload video clips we took that night of Barry, Barry and Emma, and Lise. Only one would load. I wish you could have heard it all. I guess either Blogger or Sony are on strike. (Click on the video to play)

Sunday, September 26, 2010


This strange, devilish statue is just inside the door of the little church in Rennes-le-Chateau, where it has been standing since 1896, when a poor parish priest undertook a major renovation of the church and grounds in the tiny isolated village near Limoux. This little church has quite a notorious past, however, most of it is entirely speculation.

A few days ago we visited Rennes-le-Chateau, a place made even more famous by the movie "The Da Vinci Code". The church and grounds are beautiful, to be sure, but the real story is of the priest, Father Berenger Sauniere. Beginning with his tenure here in 1885,the priest transformed the run down, ready to collapse church into a thing of beauty. The mystery, and the most enjoyable thing about the visit, is learning the theories about where Father Sauniere obtained funds to finance this restoration. We bought the comic book version of the story (which is probably pure speculation but just as reliable as anything else) and it postulates that Sauniere found a stash of gold that was hidden in the church just before the French Revolution. The gold was thought to be that of wealthy parishioners who died in the violence or fled France. There are other more magnificent theories that say the gold was Templar treasure, Visigoth loot or a stash of gold hidden by Cathars before being persecuted out of existence. Even mention of the Holy Grail pops up here and there.

Here's a page from the comic book. You can see the good father's housekeeper, Marie Denarnaud, who, it is said was quite attractive, who never married and who was buried right next to Sauniere, thirty years after his death in 1917. So, we've got speculation about finding gold and the unspoken suggestion of illicit sex between a supposed celibate priest and his unmarried housekeeper. Wow, this is good stuff!

Besides refurbishing the church, Father Sauniere also bought property in Marie's name (hmmm...she must have been a good housekeeper) and built towers and greenhouses and a sumptuous cottage where he entertained important guests. He sounds to me more like a crooked mayor, or a gangster, than a priest. But the villagers loved him, perhaps because they all worked for him on his renovation projects. The good father was defrocked in 1915 because the Catholic hierarchy suspected him of dipping his fingers into church funds. While he was no longer a priest, Marie still owned the nearby villa, gardens, tower and greenhouse, so Sauniere didn't have to move too far away. In fact, only a few feet.

The greenhouse is very cool indeed and has a great 360 degree view of the vineyards and mountains nearby. I was surprised to find that no one has accused Father Sauniere of growing marijuana in his greenhouse.

Here's the final resting place of the good father, and Marie is supposed to be buried nearby, but I didn't find the spot because I wasn't looking for it. Well, it's all quite a good yarn, but there may be no truth what-so-ever to any of the speculation. Father Sauniere may have raised the cash legitimately from anonymous donors and Marie may have been quite plain looking and died a virgin with some nice real estate. But one thing's for sure: in this part of France, with all the other fantastic things to see, the chateau is hardly worth a visit without all of the lurid speculation.

Friday, September 24, 2010

From the Department of Strange Coincidents Department

Remember this young lady that I photographed on August 24th near Leran?
And this young lady, remember her? I shot her a few days before on August 20th, a few miles away, in Lavalenet. They are the same person.

I just realized that it was the same person while looking at my photos. It certainly didn't dawn on me at the time. She must lead an interesting, very un-conventional life, travelling around in a horse drawn wagon, fashioning baskets from willow shoots. But she doesn't seem very happy, or maybe she doesn't like me sticking my camera in her face.

I can't confirm that it's the same ring but it's on the same finger. Now, if I can just get another photo of her someday, maybe I can get her to smile.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

French Laundry

The laundry system at our house in France has always been a sore point with me. Since we don’t have a yard or garden to string a clothesline, we either must hang the clothes indoors or use the dryer. The dryer also is a less than ideal choice, since it vents inside and ends up creating a sauna-like atmosphere when you don’t really want it (i.e., on some hot, muggy summer days). I know I shouldn’t be griping, because anything beats sitting in a laundro-mat, reading 6-year old copies of Reader’s Digest. Bear with me, as my whining does have some good merit.

After fussing with those portable laundry racks for a couple years, we found a 5-line retractable clothesline unit in one of the bricolage stores last summer. Doug installed it between two beams in the salon on the deuxieme etage (USA 3rd floor). We generate most of the dirty laundry on the deuxieme etage, where our bedroom and bathroom are, and then it has to be hauled down to be laundered and then back up to be hung out. I finally just got tired of carrying the laundry basket up and down the 29 steps, knowing that one day I’d miss a step and take a unexpected shortcut down.

So I started lobbying for a solution, some sort of pulley system to lower and raise the laundry basket. The stairwell is open and I thought there might be a possibility, but it takes some odd twists and turns and didn’t look too positive. When our friends John and Eileen were visiting, I mentioned my dilemma, and Eileen suggested rigging the pulley outside the back window in the little courtyard. Eileen, being a long-time follower of Alicia Bay-Laurel, as well as an occupational therapist since college, is always crafting up clever solutions.

All at once, a brilliant plan went into action. John and Doug did a quick assessment of materials needed: pulley, rope, big eye hook, S hook and long stick (the French equivalent of an 8’ 2 x 2. I bet you are trying to figure out why the long stick. The eye hook was to be screwed into the roof sheathing outside our bedroom window. Without hanging in mid-air out the window, there was no way to reach the edge of the sheathing, so first they taped the cordless drill to the end of the long stick to drill a starter hole. After cutting a saw kerf in the end of the long stick and inserting the eye hook, they then used it as an extra long “reacher” to screw in the hook. The long stick wasn’t done yet. The pulley was taped to the end of the stick and “hooked” onto the eye hook. Within an hour the first load of laundry was hoisted up.

Four minds came together on a summer’s afternoon. A simple plan, well executed.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Tour des Pyrenees Mountain Challenge

We had heard about the Heritage clan's trans-Pyrenees Mountain bicycle challenge, from St. Jean de Luz on the Atlantic coast to Collioure on the Mediterranean. A mere 750 kms distance (450 miles) and 11,000 meters elevation gain. Julian and Gwenda Gray transported their son Tom back from England so he could participate with Craig and Jo. Since Strath and Cam couldn't drop out of school for the week, Julian and Gwenda also transported the lads on Friday afternoon so they could share the weekend torture.

We figured the least we could do was take a leisurely drive into Spain, spend the night in Bossost, and watch the athletes summit the Col du Portillon. As luck would have it, we ran into Julian and Gwenda just in time for lunch. We learned that the past couple days cycling for the Heritage group were pure hell---rain, cold and monster hills. It had been 3 degrees C (37 degrees F) on the Col du Tourmalet. My personal experience included commuting by bicycle for several years and taking several long cycling trips, so I can attest to what an instant morale buster bad weather can be.

When we arrived at the top of the Col du Portillon (1293 m), it was great to see that Jo was all smiles. The sun was shining, the sky was a cloudless blue, and it was shirt-sleeve temperature. Tom Gray had already made it to the top and Jo was waiting for her crew to arrive. The bad weather had taken its toll on everyone, and spirits needed rejuvenating.

Within a few minutes, Strath rounded the bend. And if you click on the photo below, I'd say that look has that "piece a cake" attitude, as if he did this every day.

Cam pedaled the final bit with a huge smile on his face, which made me think he must be out of his mind. But then, youth can sustain anything.

Jo was beside herself with pride in Strath and Cam, and who wouldn't be. It's not everyday your family hops on bikes and pedals over the Col du Tourmalet, the Col d'Aspin, the Col de Peyresourde and the Col du Portillon. Some families wear themselves out working the buttons of the TV remote control.

Last, but not least, Craig powered up the hill. I think he just wanted to make sure the boys got up before him. He might have been sweating a bit, but I don't think anybody noticed.

I'm pretty sure I heard these guys say that this was going to be an annual event. Didn't I hear that? Or was it once in the spring and once in the fall?

Julian and Gwenda head over to Collioure to help with the shuttle back. It's just damn lucky that these bicycle challenges occur in some spectacular places. Well done, all.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Pre-Historic Paintings in the Niaux Caves

John and Eileen wanted to visit the Niaux caves so I escorted them over to Tarascon (Nancy had gone last year with our niece, Kate, and declined another trip). I went to the cave in 2007, and less than a year before we had been to the Caves at Lascaux II. Those paintings are reproductions as are the caves themselves. In order to protect the paintings from CO2, and the subsequent deterioration, they were forced to build a total replica of the site, which is very finely done. The Niaux caves, however, are the real deal. You get to see paintings made by mankind around 13,850 years ago, give or take a few years. The cave paintings may have been far more numerous in the past, but now they only exist where the cave walls have remained dry for the past 13,000 years.
Let me put that number in perspective. Thirteen to fourteen thousand years ago is too much time for humans to imagine. As you walk the kilometer underground to the cave paintings, you pass graffiti from early cave visitors from 1603 and later, and to us, that seemed quite impressive. That time frame seems impossibly ancient to us North Americans, who think in terms of just a few generations. Our tour guide, Miriam, explained that those visitors from the recent past felt little appreciation for the paintings because they had not yet been carbon dated, and they thought mankind began with Adam and Eve just a number of generations previous, therefore felt no guilt when they left names and dates in the cave. Two thousand years ago we have the Roman Empire and Jesus Christ alive and healthy. The Egyptian pyramids were being constructed about five thousand years ago, give or take a few hundred years. Even that is a mind-boggling amount of time for me to imagine.
We were only able to stay a short time in front of the paintings because our mere presence hastens the deterioration process. But, we were able to study them and wonder why they were created, why only some animals were chosen to paint, mostly bison, horses and ibex, and why early mankind ventured to far underground to paint when they had other rock canvasses nearby? Scientists are able to answer some questions, such as what was used for paint and when they were painted, but no one can say with certainty why they were made. So, when I look at paintings made by mankind thirteen thousand years ago, I can rest assured I will never see anything, no evidence of man's passage, that is older. The only place I will see evidence of man that is more ancient is human bones, or stone tools, in a museum, and that doesn't fire my imagination like a paining on a cave wall.
(Please note that these are not my photos, as you are not allowed to take pictures in the caves. These are photos from other websites. My thanks to them.)

Friday, September 17, 2010

Quiz Night at Le Rendez-Vouz....or....It Is Whether You Win or Lose

Last night was Quiz Night at Le Rendez-Vous Bar, the fifth or sixth recurring event, back by popular demand. We were first-time attendees, as were our partners (a couple from near Antwerp, Belgium). I will allow them the privacy of remaining nameless. We recently learned that Quiz Night is a common pub happening in England, but Marek's bi-lingual Franco-Britannique twist might well be a first. We chose our team name, TEAM FLEMCO (Flemish + Colorado). It sounded strong, proud, patriotic and a winner.

Teams of four, alternating questions in French and English, interspersed with a curry supper and pichet of wine---a superb evening of fun for 10 Euros. Marek distributed the packets explaining Rules of the game and what proved to be an intentionally sketchy outline of the five "categories": What, Where, When, How and Why. We also received a Joker card to be played at the beginning of a round to double points.

The last piece of paper was a compilation of old baby and childhood photo head shots. We had until the end of supper to identify each of these individuals. You must click on this one to enlarge for some good laughs.

With microphone in hand, Marek, the master of ceremonies, welcomed us to the festivities and passed out the first page of questions (the category WHAT). Immediately a sense of doom fell upon us. The questions in English were no more understood than those we could translate from the French. While our Belgian partners spoke excellent English, there were nuances that fall through the cracks when translating. The English questions didn't always refer to matters English, Canadian, Australian, or American; and likewise, nor did the French questions always refer to French matters.

We considered the first round a warm-up, and looked forward to Round 2 (WHERE), which we assumed to be geography. Doug suggested using our Joker card so that we could double our points. He felt confident he could identify countries, maps, oceans, anything smacking of geography. Marek has had numerous attempts practicing his format at Quiz Night, and our assumption that WHERE would be akin to geography in the familiar sense of the word was naive. Questions in this category included "Where are the phalanges?" or "Where did Dorothy want to go after the tornado?". Our double point score was 6 (total possible was 20).

We knew we would be guessing at many of the European sports questions, and how right we were. Who knew there are 15 red snooker balls? How many players on a cricket team, or what is the name of the French rugby league? That was to be expected, but to total embarrassment, we tanked on questions about American culture. Where is the beginning of Route 66 (according to the song) or how old was the 35th president of the US when assassinated, or where is the US Open played? Why can't they ask something about the Broncos or Yellowstone National Park?

After each round, we exchanged papers with a neighboring team to correct each others. As Marek read out the correct answers, there were whoops and hollers, and equal boos. We did attempt to argue our answer to one or two questions, but Judge Marek insisted there were no appeals, no rebuttals. I mean, who in the Rocky Mountain states actually believes that the purpose of tire tread is to channel away water rather than for traction in snow? In the end, a point or two wouldn't have helped much.

Shirley was (as usual) back in the kitchen, cooking up a storm. She took time between cooking and dishwashing to pose for a smiling photo, and ask if I was coming round hoping to get a few answers. Shirley! How could you think that! I only came back to compliment the chef.

In between each round and during dinner, we hovered over the photo page. Marek was elusive about who these people could be, calling them "celebrities" or people we would know. We went back and forth, narrowing it down to the eyes, the mouth, the ears, one fragment of recognition. In the end we just wrote down names. I have left both the name Team FLEMCO wrote and the correct name on the page. I leave it for you to decide. By the way, Team FLEMCO got 3 out of the 12 correct.

Le Rendez-Vous friendly and able staff (Sophie and Elyse) sped between tables, filling and refilling glasses and pitchets. Thinking builds up a powerful thirst. They finally had a chance later in the evening to rest their feet. Amazing that they were still bubbling with good cheer.

Billy and Sally's team scored our paper, and we generally caught this happy look on their faces, knowing full well we didn't stand a chance.

The Misfits team, concocting yet another humorous answer. For instance: Q: When are the Miranda Rights pronounced? Misfits response: during marriage. Well done. Better yet, when the correct answer (under arrest) was announced, there was this undercurrent of "what's the difference"?

Rumors were circulating that Nigel's baby photo might just have made it onto the famous photo sheet. Hint, hint....bottom row, middle. See any resemblance?
After a brief intermission, Marek announced that the standings were posted. Doug rushed in and looked at the sheet on the wall. He called out "Hey, we're in 4th". Then he looked closer. They weren't listed by cumulative scores, just a random team listing. We were indeed in the fourth slot on the list, but our point score of 26 landed us in 11th place.
That's right, not every team can win, or even come in second, or third, or fourth, fifth, sixth, and so on. I think you can see where this is going. Team FLEMCO came in dead last, 11th to be exact. It would have been 12th, but one team disqualified itself due to too many players. Perhaps we should have thought of an equally dignified excuse before it was too late.

The way I look at it, we can't get much worse. Can we just not be last again?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Asked One Question, And Another, And Another...

I have a memory of my mother ironing while watching a TV broadcast of Nikita Kruschev talking at the U.N. More correctly, he was shouting, screaming and pounding his shoe on the table at the UN. An interpreter in an accented voice was translating the unfriendly words. I was not quite 10. What I remember as being remarkable about this event was that, even though there was a delayed translation, my mother was recognizing some of the words he was speaking. This was definitely more interesting than ironing to her. I had heard the name Kruschev, the term Cold War, was amused by a grown man pounding a shoe, never thought twice about why my mother understood this foreign language, and packaged the memory away for 50 years.

Why now, I ask myself? Why am I now curious about Rusyn vs Russian? I never once discussed being "Rusyn" or "Russian" with my mother. While my brother had a phonetic understanding of the home village name, I was clueless. When I started Google-ing different combinations of search terms to enlighten me on who the Rusyns were, I realized that the information out there is as confusing and disjointed as the ethnicity itself. Everything, everything, even beginning with where they came from is muddled.

Then I came across an article, written by an 'outsider', a non-Rusyn, to clear up a few things. The article was from The Pittsburg City Paper, authored by Chris Potter. From what I have already read, Pennsylvania could have been called "Little Ruthenia" in the early 20th century. Close to 100,000 Rusyns ended up in the Keystone State, my grandparents included. They were married and had their first child in Pennsylvania, before moving on to Indiana. In order to write the article, Potter attended the Pittsburgh Folk Festival and viewed Rusyn identity politics in action over heated discussions about the difference between nationality and ethnicity. In summary, Potter concludes, Rusyns are like the Basques of Spain---"one of those countless and usually uncounted peoples whose roles on the global stage has largely consisted of bit parts written by someone else."

The Rusyn homeland (northeast Slovakia, southern Poland, western Ukraine) has been described as terra nullius (no-man's land) and terra indagines (the land in-between). Because it was at the crossroads between east and west, its location was strategic and found itself the center of attention all too often. Potter quotes a common joke among Rusyns, that their family has lived in five different countries without moving once. This references the shifts in rule under the Magyars of Hungary, the Poles, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazis, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. But there was one day in 1939, one short 24-hour period that the Republic of Ruthenia existed. This joke is one that can no doubt be told by many ethnicities and some nationalities. A people whose sin was geography.

I make no attempt to explain the Greek Catholic Church. My mother was baptised as a Greek Catholic, but I was raised Roman Catholic. I do remember that St. Nicholas Day (6 December) and the Epiphany (6 January) were important dates to her. I think the Rusyns originally were practicing in the Eastern Orthodox church, and at some point in the 1600's a schism occurred which resulted in a bartering session and creation of the Greek Catholic Church. The priests were given a position of elevation, allowed to marry, were connected to the Vatican and the Pope but retained all the trappings of Eastern Orthodoxy.

Whereas the priests benefitted from this religion paradigm shift, the peasants probably did not. Potter quotes what he describes as a rueful summary of Rusyn history:

"First they took our God, then they took our land, and then they took our identity...Many Rusyn immigrants surrendered each of those things on their own. For immigrants, the goal was just to make a living, and not stick out your head...The second generation is the melting pot---being Rusyn is the past, you're American now. It's the third generation that really begins to take an interest."

My grandparents were the immigrants. They both died in their early 50's, so I never met them. My grandfather worked a laborer's job, they lived in company housing. My mother often talked about going to a 'settlement house' in the neighborhood, sort of a community hall for the immigrant populations and activities for children. My grandparents had six children, all of whom had an anglicized surname. I'm not sure when or how the surname changes occurred, but it fits in with the description of the previous paragraph---'you are an American now'. And, as I have said, my mother and I didn't talk about her childhood all that much, and we never talked about her parents or anything she might have heard about her grandparents. And then it comes to me, the 3rd generation. For nearly 60 years I ignored a full half of my ancestry. And then one day, I asked one question, and another, and another.....

When I contracted my researcher Michael and provided him the name of my grandparents and their home village, he countered by initially doubting that those were surnames from that village. I thought what an odd comment. To know a village by people's surname. As it turned out, my family was from Hostovice. There was only one Szteranka family in the village. As far as the Kicsas go, in true Rusyn form, things are muddled. But what he was explaining was that in the 1800's in the Rusyn homeland, people didn't leave their village much. There was no need, perhaps, except to emigrate.

I asked Michael about my memory hearing my mother translate Nikita Kruschev, and whether I could have been imagining this. He said no, it was indeed possible and probably likely. Rusyn and Russian have similar words, because Rusyn is a mixture of East and West. It's still all muddled, but that's what piques this mongrel's interest.

Thanks to Chris Potter for the story "How the Rusyns Could Save Civilization" URL:

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Carpathian Wooden Road

I have heard Rusyns called by many names: Ruthenes, Sub-Carpathians, Rusniaks, Lemkos, Ukraines, and the list goes on. Perhaps this is the lot of a "lost people", a people without their own country. While they may be a people without a country, they certainly have left standing memorials of a cultural institution, their Greek Catholic Church. These memorials are the Carpathian Wooden Churches.

Villages with barely three-digit populations are home to the most striking architecture in north-east Slovakia, 27 in total built in the 17th and 18th centuries. Their overall "tripartite" design may look similar with three onion-shaped domes, but no two are identical. There was no blueprint to order and follow. The carpenters, artisans and villagers expressed their individuality. This is a striking (and thankfully refreshing) difference from the Soviet Bloc apartments in Slovakia's larger cities during the communist rule.

The location of the churches was generally on the edge of a village, on a hill if possible. The village cemetary was usually in close proximity and a fence surrounded the entire area.

The churches were constructed entirely from wood that had a high resin content for its weather resistance. Some of the woods used included red spruce, pine, fir, beech and yew. Only the best materials were chosen. Axes were used to reduce logs into planks. The walls were weather-resistant, but most of the churches were exteriorly sided with shingles or board and batten. An additional safeguard against a damp climate, the churches were built on a stone foundation, and some had shingle skirting around the base of the outside walls to divert water away from the foundation.

The most fascinating construction methodology I came across was reference to the fact that there were no nails used. That's right: there were no nails used in the entire construction. This is because Christ was nailed to the cross, so nails were perceived as a form of torture. Instead, wooden pegs made of walnut were substituted throughout.

My favorite: The Church of the Demise of the Mother of God! Go figure.

Architectural styles of the wooden churches are distinguishable, and although we only saw a few of Slovakia's 27 churches, we could pick out the Lemko from the Boiko design. Both styles are called "tripartite" with three domes, but the location of the tallest cupola varies. In the Lemko design, the highest cupola of the church is at the entrance with the two other domes sloping down towards the sanctuary. The Boiko design varies in that the highest cupola is above the nave. Several of the Carpathian wooden churches sustained heavy damage during WWII and underwent restoration. Even now, some of the churches get "facelifts" with new shingles. Doug thought he was pretty sure nails were being used on these later renovations. Hmmmm. I'll have to think about that.