I had heard about the French Riviera, and the Cote d’Azur, but I always assumed that it was just like Malibu, or maybe Cancun, with a nice beach, some towns and a few stars.  It turns out that I way underestimated it.  The Cote d’Azur is a stunning stretch of aqua blue Mediterranean coastline with beautiful towns, mountains, beaches, and great food.  I’m lucky enough to have cousins that live in Nice, at the center of the Cote d’Azur, and we spent a fun few days exploring the area and visiting with them.  The beaches in Nice itself are made of small pebbles, but it’s comfortable to lay on them on a towel.  One danger you may want to watch out for, however, are bare breasted leathery old ladies!  Mixed in with the normal bathers there were a few oldies who looked like they had been tanning since the 1950s.  Whatever discomforts you encounter on the beach are instantly forgotten the minute you jump into the truly aqua warm water.  I can see why Jacques Cousteau setup shop a few miles down the road in Monaco!

Speaking of that exclusive principality, we visited it in the best way possible, we went sailing with my cousin and one of his friends!  From the boat cruising out of the harbor in a steady breeze, we could see the apartment buildings housing the most expensive apartments on earth, and got great views of the mega yachts in the harbors.

The Riviera has water that you can swim in year round, beautiful people and architecture, and a pleasant way of life.  As if it couldn’t get any better, the Italian alps with their world class skiing are only a few hour drive away!  It’s a good thing that Nice doesn’t have any surf, because if it did, I doubt that I ever would have left!


Who was Gabriel?

Some stories, a few faded pictures, and a name, that’s all I have from my great grandfather Gabriel.  I guess that a name is a lot though.  What I don’t have is a real impression of him, as I never met him.  Every cousin or uncle or relation that I’ve talked to have used the same words in describing him: kind, gentle, and quiet.  He was probably quiet because he spent his first sixteen years in a small village in southern France, practically in Spain, and then moved to big city London.  I think that I would be quiet too if I grew up in place with only 500 people, and had to exist speaking my third language. Montazels 2010-09-11 010 But you can’t get much of a sense of a man from stories and pictures, not as much as you can being in the same room as him, sharing a drink with him.  What I wouldn’t give to have 5 minutes to talk and really learn what kind of man my great grandfather was.

My father’s love for his grandfather is clear; he named his first-born for him.  To trace this love we took a trip to my great grandfather’s town, Montazels, on the Aude river.  We wrote a letter to the mayor, told him who we were, some of the other surnames that we new, and beyond all expectations had an e-mail from a cousin a week later.  She knew my grandfather, she remembered my Dad’s uncles, and she would be honored to host us.

My Dad had been to Montazels before, 44 years ago to be exact, with his uncle Simon, my grandfather’s son.  They’d met a young male cousin who had shown them around, taken them on the back of his motorcycle to a hilltop fortress, and they’d slept in Gabriel’s house.  In fact, Gabriel’s house was still Gabriel’s house even though in those days he had no interest in returning.  My Dad and uncle spent a night or two in town, gave the house to the rest of family in Montazels, and left.  I think that there has always been a bug in the back of my Dad’s head to come back to this town.  He would speak of it to me, pull out the atlas and point it out on the map.  Tell me that it was tucked right up next to the Pyrenees.  His uncle Simon passed away suddenly last year.  We had all been together and seen him two weeks before, made plans for trips and visits, and then he was gone.  Maybe that jogged loose the bug in my Dad’s head.

We didn’t know much about the family that we were coming to visit.  My father remembered a male cousin, not a female one.  Simon had made another trip to Montazels when he was in France years ago.  Doubtless he had the same bug in his head.  He had it so bad that he named his house in London Montazel.  When Simon visited the town none of the close cousins were to be found.  He was walking near the square and saw someone raking leaves.  In his broken French he told this person who he was, and the first word out of their mouth was “cousin!”  Simon and his wife spent an evening in town and learned that Gabriel’s house was owned by someone who worked far away in a city.

Over the years we speculated.  Maybe the house was a vacation home for some Parisian who came down for the summer.  We weren’t hurt, how could we be, but I think that we had this dream of a big warm family still living in Montazels, making wine from the family vineyard plot, and wondering about their cousins who had moved away.

We found that family.  It turns out that Josette, the daughter of Gabriel’s cousin, still lives in Gabriel’s house.  Gabriel was an only child, and was very close to his cousin.  They remember our branch of the family well.  In fact, Josette pulled out a black and white picture of my Dad, Simon, and Franci (her brother) in the hilltop fortress, putting a photo to the memory that my dad had.  Josette spent her adult life working and raising her children in Toulouse.  There isn’t much work in small towns in the hills anymore, so Josette had to move to earn a living, but she held onto the house.  She and her husband are spending their glory years in Montazels, and Franci and his wife live just off the town square, a 2 minute walk from Josette.

The welcome that my Dad, Simon’s son Daniel, and I received was beyond our wildest dreams.   Josette and Jacque prepared feasts for us, housed us, and drowned us in wine.  A lunch or dinner at their house went like this: we started off with an apertif, and then had an appetizer with a glass of wine.  Then we’d have the main meal, with a few side dishes (and more wine), followed by the wine and cheese course.  Finally we’d have dessert with Blanquette (a sparkling white wine) and drink and talk for hours.  Our relatives in Montazels know how to live, and after dinner Daniel, my Dad and I would take an evening walk enjoying the beautiful town and speculating about my Great Grandfather.

Those four beautiful, sun-drenched days in Montazels will live prominently in our memories for the rest of our lives.  We went for hikes, met the mayor and got the key to the old church, took a ride in Franci’s beat up Peugeot to the little forest that he tends, explored the market in the town next door, met a few expats who inhabit Montazels, and talked, laughed, and ate our way through the visit.  While I’ll never know Gabriel, I learned a lot about him on this journey.  I learned about the place he was from, and what is important to his family; I learned about hospitality and kindness.  A bug has been planted in the back of my head, and I’ll be back to Montazels, but I won’t let it take 44 years.


Lithuanian Storks, Very Fine

In Salamanca I noticed giant nests on top of the church spires and remembered that storks come to Europe in the summer.  Soon I was stork crazy, looking for them everywhere and was sad to be leaving Spain thinking I wouldn’t see them any longer.  Little did I know I was off to the region with the most storks in all of Europe.  All through Latvia and Estonia I was glued to the bus and car windows looking for the giant nests, hungry babies and graceful large birds.  When we arrived in Lithuania I learned that they had the highest concentration of storks in Europe.  There were so many that they had to build stork nest supports or the birds would build their nests, weighing hundreds of pounds each, on telephone poles causing power outages.

Of course we were in Lithuania for more than storks!  Ieva, Gabe’s friend from high school was back in her hometown visiting her parents.  We were amazed at the coincidence of seeing her both in Pucon, Chile and now in her hometown of Panevėžys.  Her family graciously hosted us, cooking local food as well as gourmet Italian.  It was fun to finally meet Ieva’s parents and sister.  Gabe and her Dad, Jonas, had a good time drinking and trading stories.  Jonas grew up under Soviet rule, but speaks great English, and if he likes something (like a whisky), it is “very fine.”  Next time that we visit, we’ll have to come on the weekend so that we can go to their “very fine” country home! 

As in Latvia, Gabe and I were eager to hear stories that began with “during Soviet times…”.  I began calling them our Soviet bedtime stories and we were enthralled to learn as much as we could about daily life under Soviet rule.  There were many tales as expected about shortages and lines, but many others about happy times and certain benefits of living with communism.  One of the most amazing memories told to us was about Ieva’s grandmother who was “reeducated” and had to hide that she had come from a landowning family from her husband and the rest of her family until the 80s!  Our images of the Soviets were a mixture of 1950s black and white propaganda films, Gorbachev making speeches while the Berlin Wall came down, and destitute cement apartment block streets.  Learning from those who actually lived through it has helped color those memories and made us even more interested to picture life in that society.