Sunday, August 29, 2010


We were in Brescia, Italy two nights ago and are in Salzburg, Austria last night and this morning. We leave for Slovakia momentarily, after we have coffee, of course. We'll try to find an internet connection in Slovakia and report in. I'd just like to say that Italian drivers are all crazy, every one, but Austrian drivers are very polite.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

It's a Dog's Life

After a morning of cultural-intensive sightseeing, what more does a dog ask for than to join his best friends for lunch? In France, consider it done! After touring Abbey Saint-Hilaire, sipping blanquette with M. Bernardini, and driving through vineyard country, we were near exhaustion. Not to mention that it was approaching 100 degrees F (36 C before high noon). The streets of Limoux were deserted, as if it was a wild west town due for a shoot-out. More like the blazing heat driving everyone to the sanctuary behind the shutters. We headed for a shady restaurant with Fergus in tow and sat down.

The garcon insisted we come inside for le plat de jour where one could find air conditioning. We pointed to le chien, and he tossed it off as if it were no more than a 6-year old kid. Another garcon immediately followed us with both a pichet of water for us and a bowl for the Ferg, which he promptly slobbered in a 3' radius around the bowl. They pointed to a small space behind the table where 'they' assumed Fergus could huddle. But Ferg liked being out in the open, where he could survey everyone's comings and goings.

He settled right down on the cool tile floor, knowing full well that a few bones were soon headed his way. Pretty good trade-off for a little culture.

A Chance Meeting

As we walked out of the Abbey at St. Hillaire, a gentleman heard our American accents and spoke to us. He confirmed that he was indeed speaking with some Yanks, and then offered to buy us a drink.

We were a little shocked but we accepted and sat down at the cafe nearby to hear what was on his mind. His English was better than our French (naturally) so we talked over some blanquette, and learned that he trained to be a pilot, for 16 months in 1943 and 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama, Panama City, Florida and Detrioit, Michigan. How did he come to be training in the U.S.?, I asked. He was on vacation with his father in French Morroco when the German invasion made it impossible to go home to Corsica. They stayed in Morroco until the U.S. invaded North Africa, and then it was possible for Monsieur Francois Bernardini to volunteer to join the French Air Force and was shipped to the USA to train.

Mr. Bernardini said a day did not pass when he did not think of the USA........and that he loved Americans in general and one in particular. He met a young lady in Detroit, a young lady whose parents were Swedish immigrants to Michigan. He described the Swedes as " half for the Allies, and half for the Germans." In truth, Sweden was neutral during WWII and did not participate. But, in any case, Francois fell in love with a young lady whose brother didn't cotton to Frenchmen. As his training progressed, he would write her frequently, but all he got from her were letters asking where were the letters that he promised. The brother, apparently, was watching her mailbox and tearing up the letters.

Just as Mr. Bernardini's training ended, France fell to the Allies and France's role as WWII as a combatant ended. There was some talk of Mr. Bernardini joining the troops in the Pacific, but in the end was sent home to France.

We thanked him for his service and told him about my father flying B-24's out of Bari, Italy. We shook hands, said goodbye and he told us, "We'll never see each other again, but I want you to know there are many Frenchmen who love Americans."

The Beautiful Abbey at St. Hillaire

Today, we paid a visit to the Abbey at St. Hillaire over near Limoux. The first time the abbey is mentioned in any written records was in the year 825, when the body of St. Hillaire was buried here. Monks lived here for about a thousand years until 1758. Every time I learn a small factioid like that, it causes my new world mind to marvel at the span of history in France.
One or more monks are thought to be buried here. Twenty years ago bones were found, but it's not known whether they are from one or a number of persons. In any case, it's spooky.

The cloisters are very beautiful, with a lovely little fountain in the center. The monks would have taken a vow of silence, so I imagine they spent a fair amount of time listening to the fountain's waters tinkle and splash.

I might mention here that you can click on 'em to enlarge 'em.

This photo is of the wall inside the Abbot's apartment. The coat of arms of each of the successive abbots was painted on the wall, this one being from good old Bertrand, from 1369. The ceiling and rafters bear a remarkable paint job from the 16th century.

Between the pillars of the cloister, was a checkerboard carved into the rock for the purpose of playing chess. I can easily see a monk at each end, one leg on each side, leaning back against the pillars, spending hours playing chess. Before scholars decided that it was a checkerboard, it was thought to be some kind of calculation system, like an abbacus. I can understand that church officials had a hard time thinking that the monks would want or need some kind of diversion like chess. Frankly, I can't imagine the monks sitting around and doing addition and subtraction problems here.

Light from the stained glass windows makes a beautiful pattern on the floor of the church. I took a picture of the window as well, but the un-intended design on the floor is more charming to me, and it changes by the second with the movement of the sun and clouds.

The masterpiece of the abbey is the sculpture by an artist whose name is not known and goes by the moniker "The Master of Cabestany". Its called the sarcophagus of Saint Sernin. However, it's not a sarcophagus (it's too small). The master's name comes from the village of Cabestany, in the department of Pyrenees Orientales where he is thought to have carved another work of art. There are works attributed to him in Spain, Catalonia and Navarre, in France, and in Italy in Tuscany. His signature style features triangular faces, low foreheads, high ears, stretched eyes, hands with long fingers and many pleats on the clothes and many details around the characters. One thing is for sure; the master, or someone, must have spent an amazing aamount of time working on this sculpture.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Lavender Harvest Day

Julian and Gwenda have an abundance of lavender plants and so Nancy and our friend Angela made a date to go harvest some of it. At eight o'clock this morning we were in their yard clipping away. Most people think of lavender growing in Provence, but it grows well in many places, including Leran.

Snip, snip, clip, clip. Angela works at a feverish pace. Nancy too, and in less than an hour they had quite a pile of the quintessential French aromatic plant.

Here's Angela's basket of lavender and below, is Nancy's stash all tied up and ready to hang.

It's supposed to hang in the dark but we just don't have anyplace like that in our house, at least if we don't close all the windows and shutters. Below you can see it hanging in our stairwell. It makes the house smell great.

In a month or so, they'll be working at a feverish pace making lavender pillows and sachets. While it is still fresh and pliable, those with advanced crafting skills will also be working on lavender wands (which, rumor has it, Angela is lucky to possess).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More Questions Than Answers

Nancy and I spotted these folks heading down the road outside of Leran this morning. I have no clue who they are, where they are coming from and where they are going to. I think they are not Roma, or Gypsies but I have little to base that judgement on. Why was she leading the horses? The workmanship on the wagon was beautiful, very nicely done.
He's old enough to be her father. Are they related? The sign says "Attention Chevaux" but you can barely see it through the mountain bike. There is also some kind of antenna, radio, what?

Your thoughts or questions are welcome in the comments. If you have any knowledge or information, it's welcome too. Click on 'em to enlarge 'em.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Searching for This Mongrel's Horde

The other night I was telling someone about searching for my ancestral roots and our upcoming trip to Slovakia. My ancestors, I explained, were English, Irish and Rusyn, an ethnic minority spread across the area where Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine share borders. She replied that "you Americans really are mongrels, aren't you?" Yes, that's exactly what we are. Mongrels, in the best sense of the word.

On Saturday, we're headed off to Slovakia to visit the home village of my maternal grandparents. It's a 3-day drive, across France, Italy, Austria into Slovakia, and return via Hungary, Slovenia, Italy and into France. Fergus will be adding several new countries to his doggie passport. We were given a not-to-be-missed opportunity to do a house trade in Slovakia.

I've included a map for any of you who are as geographically-challenged as our former president, who called it "Czecho-Slovenia". But, to be fair, George Bush isn't the only one who has 'misunderestimated' Slovakia. Apparently, travel guide writers aren't frequenting too often either. There is only one dedicated guide in English for Slovakia (Bradt).

Click on the map to enlarge, and in the far NE corner, look for the town Snina. Well, that's not it. My grandparent's village (current pop. @ 350) didn't make this map. Hostovice is due north of Snina, a few km shy of the Polish border. As you can see, Slovakia is a landlocked country, surrounded by Austria to the west, the Czech Republic to the northwest, Poland to the north, Ukraine to the east, and Hungary forming the southern border.

The relationship of all these surrounding countries is important historically, because at one time Slovakia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And we all know that Empires are a good thing, right? Briefly, the Empire came, saw and conquered, and then fell. Over the course of time, Slovakia has been under the thumb of many rulers. And, not surprisingly, some did not have much regard for human conditon of the Rusyn people.

Under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, conditions deteriorated. Rusyns were forced to assimilate into Hungarian society. The process was known as Magyarization. Hungarian was the only language taught in schools. Land was confiscated by Hungarian settlers. On the birth records of my grandparents and great-grandparents, occupations are listed as tenant farmers. They didn't own the land nor their animals. Poverty, famine, and magyarization didn't give the Rusyns much choice. Estimates indicate up to 900,000 Rusyns emigrated, most to the USA. My grandparents were among them at the beginning of the 20th century. Their names were Nicolaus Kicsa and Maria Szteranka.

Birth record for Nicolaus Kicsa: born 23 Dec 1881; Hosztovicza; parents Basilius Kicsa and Anna Miczika-Pavlov

I have long been perplexed about my mother's side of the family. I never really knew where they were from. Over the past six months I started researching in earnest, perhaps because I'm approaching 60. The more I discovered, the more I wanted to know. It was a huge discovery to find my ancestors were Ruthenian, or Rusyn. They are an ethnicity, with a language and culture of their own, but no country. I am still having a hard time digesting what it means to be a people without a country. Their "area" was the Sub-Carpathian Mountains, what is now northeast Slovakia and the adjoining regions of Poland and the Ukraine.
About a month ago, I contracted a researcher to locate birth documents for my grandparents and great-grandparents, etc. These records have been archived in Satoraljaujhely, Hungary. They are Greek Catholic church records, and have been recorded in either Latin, Rusyn, Hungarian or Cyrillic handwriting. The researcher found birth registration records for my grandparents, their siblings, and their parents (my great-grandparents), as well as my great-grandparents marriage registrations. These names provide little pieces to the puzzle.

Birth record for Maria Szteranka: born 20 April 1881; Hosztovicza; parents Basilius Szteranka and Eva Czapar

Somewhere around 900,000 Rusyns left their homes, their homeland (but not their country), got on a boat with a few belongings, rode in steerage for 21 days and arrived through Ellis Island with a few bucks in their pocket. Some were lucky enough to speak a little English. Nicolaus and Maria were not. America must have been the hope for a new start. "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses..." so greets the Statute of Liberty.

One day while we are in Slovakia, we will meet the researcher on a visit to Hostovice. He will be able to show us around the area, and since he is Rusyn himself (with excellent English), will be able answer questions about that period of history. At the time my grandparents lived there, the village was called Hosztovicza.

I'm not sure what I hope to find there. A sense of place perhaps, to see where my ancestors...and then this mongrel came from.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ode To the Laptop

You may not have considered how important the laptop is to us. But think for a moment. It is our English language newspaper, our instantaneous mail service to keep our families informed of our whereabouts, our evening's entertainment if we decide to watch a movie, our glossary of French history and customs, our dictionary in English and French, our resource library for our day trips here and there, and soon, our connection to NFL football. What a device! (And I should mention, it also hinders us from learning French and meeting French people. A two-edged sword.)

By way of contrast, my first trip to Europe in 1972, I got home to the USA before most of my postcards did. I was gone seven or eight weeks, perhaps, and never called home. Who could afford it? On our long bicycle trip to Europe together in 1987, Nancy and I made one phone call home, read a newspaper maybe three times, rode in an automobile once, saw no movies and were cut off from everyone (and everything) we knew for three months. It was wonderful, actually, but we missed our dogs and friends and family.

Well, things have changed. Now, we bring our dog, some of our friends and family comes to visit, and we sleep in our own bed every night, and get up in the morning and check our e-mail.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Photographs You Might Enjoy

When I go to the market, or a vide grenier, I usually don't buy anything, but I see lots of stuff and take lots of pictures. Here are just a small sample of them. (Click on 'em to enlarge 'em, kids.) There are always vendors who have old magazines and here is one with fascinating cover artwork. What happened to this soldier.....a sniper? What's going to happen to the horse when the train comes, which it will.

This attractive young lady wasn't dressed for the weather because it was unseasonably cold that morning in Mirepoix. She's signaling "Touchdown", I guess.

I pointed out to the vendor that I used to live in Montana. He wasn't the least bit impressed. He probably hears that everyday.

This picture was taken in the twelfth century shortly after the invention of photography.

I'm a sucker for young, pretty ladies who will stand still when I point my camera at them. She was a entrepenuer, and had a table of goods at Fanjeaux. She's from the twentieth century as you can surmise from her jean jacket.

This hardy plant was growing high up on the south facing wall of the Fanjeaux church. Perhaps 30 feet high, how it gets enough moisture and nutrients is beyond me, but it manages to survive.

A knocker on a door; the building is in Fanjeaux and was built in 1666 (Oh, really!). I didn't notice it until I saw Peter Matthews taking a picture of it. I was looking at the entire building, but this was the best little detail.

At the Fanjeaux Vide Grenier was this sweet little young lady sunning herself on her terrace.

The Vide Grenier was on a Sunday and the church service was taking place, nice and quiet amongst all the comotion outside. The inhabitants of the town of Fanjeaux, in the days of the Cathars, were almost all converts to the new religion. Unlike other nearby towns, where only 1 in 20 found meaning in the new ideas, Fanjeaux, and Montreal went for it 'whole hog' and were consequently in for rough times from the Pope. He did, however, build them this nice new church.

At the Lavalenet Friday market, this young basketmaker was working on one of her creations. Not much has changed in this profession for awhile except that she had a nice pair of clippers, very sharp.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Le Tour, Leran, Le Rerun

We were up at 4:30 on the Sunday morning Le Tour de France was due to buzz through Leran. Back in Colorado, that gave us about an hour cushion, just in case we computed something wrong. We had the computer all set up, ready to stream it live on the internet, hoping to see familiar faces in the cheering crowd.

4:30 am came and went and no Le Tour de France was streaming live. Instead, some NASCAR-like British auto race was blaring away. Still auto racing at 5:00, 5:30, 5:45. At about 5:47, they award the gold-plated cup and switched to Le Tour de France.

The only thing was, that by 5:47 am (that's about 1:47 pm Leran time) Le Tour had just passed through Leran. That's right, when live action streaming joined Le Tour, the peleton was about 2 km past Leran.

When we arrived in Denver for our flight to France a few weeks after Le Tour, we learned from Doug's sister Peggy that their dedicated cable TV channel (VERSUS) also denied the entire United States from seeing Le Tour de France in Leran.

It is only because of our good Leranaise friend, Julian Gray, that we can imagine the excitement in the village that day. He hauled his step ladder over to the corner across from le boulangerie, climbed to the top for a bird's-eye view, and clicked away.
Thank you, Julian, for documenting an historic moment.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Plague Descends Upon Vide Grenier

You expect vide greniers to be packed with treasures, trinkets and trivia. All the villagers (and interlopers from neighboring villages) purge their houses of odds and ends, in the hope of attracting Sunday suckers like us. The one held in Fanjeaux on Sunday was beyond all expectations. A delightful first stop was "the secret room", tables crammed with mixtures of everything from tins of constipation tablets to that missing lid from grandmother's tea pot.

It was hard to break away from buying all the things I will never need or use. But the rhythmic beat of medieval musical instruments lured me outside the little room. A traveling troupe of I'm not quite sure whom or what cleared passage through the narrow streets of Fanjeaux.

Their clothes were ragged, their faces painted near ghoulish, as if the Plague was making a comeback. They did not speak or sing, but stared blankly and demonically as they processed. With the backdrop of the centuries-old buildings, I could have been time traveling.

A charming entertainment addition to a great people-watching event, only to be topped by a superb lunch at La Table Cathar (a shared cassoulet and chevre chaud). I suppose we should have invited these poor starving waifs to have joined us.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Just Another Day in Camon

An ordinary day in neighboring Camon. A heartily and heavily contested boules tournament; an old sepia photo mounted on a stone wall and an attempt at recapturing a present-day image; a typical rose-bejewelled house; and a one-way pedestrian tunnel connecting nowhere and nowhere. To some it might seem like a sleepy little village, but they would be wrong.

The bouledrome on the edge of town was noisy. Team members winced as other players skillfully launched their weighted ball even slightly closer to the tiny jack ball, thereby taking the lead. Players were eliminated and headed off to drown their sorrows at the local bar, where we were having coffee. They, having been playing hard, needed heartier liquid sustenance.

Between the bouledrome and the bar, the old photo was displayed on the stone wall. If I remember my Roman Numerals correctly, I believe it identifies this as a view of the clock tower, 16th century. My photo follows, 21st century. Remarkably, however, the buildings haven't changed as much as I would have expected---no condos, no convenience store, no GAP.

Camon has a rose festival every spring. Every house is bedecked with rose bushes, with the tags hanging proudly identifying the specific rose. This is one of the oldest (or oldest) houses in Camon. It is across from the Tourist Bureau, where I was attempting to gather brochures, but the tour guide was just setting off with a group to visit the stone huts (cabanes).

On the short drive back to Leran, we stopped at the tunnel that was once a railroad tunnel and then a one-way part of the road system. Traffic was diverted through the tunnel going to Camon and on the roadway leaving Camon. It has now been converted for pedestrian and bicycle use only. Fergus is providing proportional scale, as well as a certain canine charm.

The only thing we didn't do on this trip to Camon was have dinner at the Abbaye. But, since it was only 10:30, that was near impossible.