Saturday, December 29, 2012

And a special tribute to my other roots also...

The end of the year and the winter solstice are usually a time of reflection on what came before and of regrouping for what comes next. A month ago I wrote about my roots in French Catalonia, in the village of Vinça. With the recent passing of the last of my grand parents, it seems also timely to write about my roots in Alsace, where I was born almost exactly 50 years after my grand father Fernand –or Fern, as he liked to be called.

A rare shot with my four grand parents, dating back to 1993 (when I still had hair): Fern (2nd from left; he's probably the reason I lost my hair...) and his wife Marcelle (far right) were from Alsace; Edmond (far left) and Paulette were from Vinça
Fern and I had always been quite close, and got even closer somehow even though I have been living abroad for 10 years. We saw each other on Skype almost every week, as Chrysa or also my former lab-mate Dave Zappulla could attest from our regular French chatter!

Fern and I in the early 1980s
Fern had always been somewhat of a "computer geek" and I remember we have had in our family all models of computers and computing systems, from one of the first ping-pong computer games in the 1970s, to the latest PC, through an Amiga and an MO5, among others. Fern loved to use them to make what he called "numerical art". A website with a gallery of his work can still be found online.

Artwork by Fernand Gebhardt (1926-2012)
Fern was my grand father on my mother's side. He was from Rosheim, but soon after I was born he and my grand mother inherited from a 15-bedroom house in the North Vosges mountains, in the village of Niederbronn-les-bains. The house had been built by the grand father of my grand mother in 1900.
Old postcard of Rosheim

Christmas market in downtown Niederbronn-les-bains

Family house in Niederbronn-les-bains, November 2012 – fun fact: about 12 years ago, I planted the tree you see on the left side...
Like his father before him, Fern was a dentist. He left his father's practice in Rosheim to his brother Jean-Paul, also a dentist, and opened his own practice in Strasbourg, where he bought the apartment in which my parents are currently living.

My grand parents Fern and Marcelle in the 1950s, when my mom was about 2 years old

View from Fern's apartment –which now belongs to my parents– in Strasbourg
My mum grew up in Alsace, and that's where she tied the knot with my Catalan father who had studied at the Ecole de Chimie in Strasbourg. After I was born, Niederbronn became a regular weekend home, and I've had a bedroom in that house pretty much since that time, not always the same bedroom, but always on the top floor.

Sandstone cathedral in Strasbourg

Panoramic view from the top floor over the village and the Vosges mountains
If I have always been so fond of forests and mountains, I think it is because whether I would be in Alsace or in the Pyrénées down in the South of France, that's the environment I would be surrounded by. I have always loved its quietness and peacefulness!

I recently hiked in the area again, and I paste some of the pictures taken from that hike below.

Niederbronn sits at the heart of the Parc Naturel Regional des Vosges du Nord
Forest near Niederbronn - check out the soft bright green moss on the ground, isn't that just awesome? Straight out of the Shire...
Further down the same hiking trail
A lake ("etang de Hanau") at the end of the trail. My parents actually got hitched there back in 1975!
As I hope these photos and previous blog posts can attest (e.g., 23 Dec., 2009 and 30 Sept, 2012), Alsace is a very picturesque area which has been drawing tourists for a long time. In my humbly biased opinion ;) it's spectacular in all seasons, much like Colorado!

Stories I also like to tell and that you may thus have heard —in spite of Chrysa protesting with a "oh no, not again!"— are that Alsace is the home of the Statue of Liberty, and of the glass ornaments we are so used to hang on Christmas trees :)

South of France and Alsace are as far away as Latin America and Scandinavia, in many ways: culture, mentalities, pace of life, etc. So it's been quite difficult to find my own identity. Over those years of living abroad, particularly in the US melting pot, I think I realized that I am a blend of both places! I am in particular grateful to my grand parents for having planted seeds of our traditions in me and for having watered them over the years.

Fern passed away on November 27th. Like that of Edmond, Paulette and Marcelle before him, his spirit goes on, with me and the new generation it is now my turn to help raise. Such is my promise to them!

A week after Vinça, another pilgrimage to a cemetery where my ancestors are buried
Rose on my grand father's grave
C and Q with Fern in Niederbronn in April 2010

Monday, November 26, 2012

Where I –Quentin– really come from (and all the 'Vicens' before me...)

Last week I met up with my dad in our family home in the village of Vinça, in the Catalan part of France. It was a very practical trip –we cleared out a lot of old crap and I brought back baby stuff my sister had stored there- but also a very emotional trip.

I have not gone back to this place a lot since living in the US and DK, and it is what I still refer to as 'my true home' as our family roots in the area date back to the early 1600s, when it was actually still Spanish.

I spent a lot of time in Vinça when I was younger, and I learned a lot about life from my grand parents, whom I still miss a lot. I even went to school in the village for one trimester! Vinça is therefore loaded with history and memories for me - a place where I can connect to my lineage in a sort of unequivocal way.

It is also a breathtaking place, right by the Mount Canigou. I hope you'll get to visit some day!
More on that part of France here:

What to see/visit in the area:
View over Vinça from outside of the cemetery - the bell tower dates back to the 12th century and was restaured in the mid 1700s

Persimmons I collected from a tree in our ~3 acre yard (dare I call it 'a park'?)
The view from the graves of my grand parents and great grand mother in the cemetery of Vinça - not a bad place to spend eternity! The peak at a distance is mount Canigou (2,700 m = 9,000 ft)

Our house in Vinça, which was built in the late 1800s and acquired by my family in the 1920s if I recall correctly what I've been told about our history

The lake in Vinça - our house is on the other end of the lake, behind the patch of trees that can be seen in the center

Cozy tea-time by the fire place which bears the initials of my grand father and my ancestors before him: 'EV' for 'Edmond Vicens' 
My bedroom for the past 36 years!

View from a balcony in our house - I've always sworn this was the same hill that Zorro would wave from when leaving in the sunset!
Recycling wood 'the Catalan way' ;-)
Sunset over a field of olive trees at the Provence border, right by the highway! Photo taken on my way back to Nice

Saturday, October 20, 2012

The French Riviera: It's also about the Alps!

Discovering the mountains above Nice!
This past summer, one of my goals was to make it to the mountains about an hour North of Nice that constitute the Parc National du Mercantour. This banana-shaped national park makes for the Southern part of the Alps, and is shared with Italy.

Luckily I discovered that the local regional council had set up a few buses to reach mountain resorts and trail heads during the summer. These were still running during September, albeit on weekends only.

So about a month ago now I sat on a bus that took me –and only 5 other persons– to the picturesque Saint-Dalmas-le-Selvage village. The bus would park up there for the day and come back down to Nice at the end of the afternoon. Roundtrip cost: 5 euros - can't beat that!

Church in Saint-Dalmas

It was a beautiful Saturday, but I only met a few other hikers, including a local who actually drove me to the trailhead that the bus was supposed to drop us at...

I hiked all the way to the Col de Gialorgues, a pass at 2,519 meters altitude (~ 8,000 feet). Nothing by Colorado standards for sure, but when you come from sea level, it's quite some elevation gain! It's actually the same elevation gain as when you live in Boulder and go up a fourteener. You just have more oxygen in the end ;-)

I was actually quickly above tree line and the landscape was just as stunning as when going to Rocky Mountain National Park when living in Boulder. I sort of expected to find decent mountains because after all there are plenty of ski resorts not far from Nice, but actually being there in person to see that was a profound revelation!

Another revelation followed upon my return to Nice. As I told my parents on the phone what I did during the weekend, I was surprised to hear my dad tell me his parents would take him to that same village on vacation in the late 1940s, early 1950s! I knew my dad had grown up in Nice, but I also knew he did not particularly like mountains. I guess at that young age he did not have a choice! Doesn't seem that it's not because he went there on vacation as a kid that he does not like mountains though - he actually had a few stories like going up to the mountain refuge on the back of a donkey...

Anyway, this place is beautiful and with the luscious waters and these stunning mountains, C and I feel quite blessed to be living in this area!

Sheep: white; Dogs: black; Shepherd: blue – herding sheep again a serious business since wolves were reintroduced in the Mercantour in 1992

Blue but not a Columbine (nor a shepherd...)
Quite reminiscent of Lake Haiyaha!

Corsican wonders

Marina in Porto Vecchio
Living in a place like Nice —a vacation spot for many— raised the question for us about where WE would go on vacation ;-) After going North to Alsace when everybody was going South, we went South ourselves a few weeks later, to beautiful Corsica.
Leaving Nice by boat...
Corsica is about 6 hours by boat from Nice, depending on where you aim to arrive in Corsica. We arrived in Bastia after our boat ride was delayed because of bad weather. Actually we later learned that during the first half of our week it would rain in Corsica as much as it normally rains in a month... We could have expected it from the dark weather in Nice on the day of our departure.
La Cote d'Azur se prend pour le Danemark ;-)
In Corsica we stayed near a town called Porto Vecchio on the South-East side of the island. We chose that area as our first visit (in 25 years for me...) because of its concentration of pristine beaches and the vicinity of Bonifacio, a town built on white cliffs above the sea. Bonifacio is built on the Southern most tip of Corsica, only 18 km away from the Italian island Sardinia.

For those interested, the 100th Tour de France next year will start from Porto Vecchio, so you'll see more of it then I am sure!
View from the old town in Porto Vecchio
It's just darn so hard to live off local olives, olive oil, bread and cheese...
The not-so-great weather at the beginning of our stay precluded us from discovering the pristine beaches around. We did go to Bonifacio on a rainy afternoon though and enjoyed the surprisingly still not too touristy town. The contrast between the blue/green of the water and the white cliffs was stunning, even on a rainy day.
Bonifacio on a rainy day: Could substitute for Southern England perhaps?
We also opted for a day in the mountains nearby, up to a small town called L'Ospedale. The sky was definitely grey, which meant we could not enjoy the panoramic views on the coastline, but it was one of these days when the mountains put on their "Borneo" costume (just Google Borneo and look at Images). I tremendously enjoyed the vivid shades of green, yellow, red, and ochre in the forest as well. I half expected I would encounter a centaur or an elf...
Corsica, not Borneo
We also enjoyed a hearty lunch of wild board stew and polenta up there; wild boars are everywhere in Corsica, and hunting season was open (even right by our doorstep as it turned out...). We also did a small trip to the lake up there, which was truly reminiscent of sceneries in Colorado.
Lake at L'Ospedale
We discovered a patch of ripe blackberries by the roadside, so we treated ourselves to a good 2 pounds of these...
Blackberries by the lake

"Is there gonna be enough?"
And then the sun came out again! We were a couple of kilometers up the road from the popular Palombaggia beach, but we actually ended up preferring the next one over, Acciaggju (not sure about the spelling, but actually often mistaken for Palombaggia on the web). When we asked the Corsican owner for the beach that he liked most around, that's what he recommended, and he was right.
The Acciaggju beach at sunset
That beach was not just beautiful, it was peaceful too. Fewer people and boats. The water was still and the snorkeling by the tiny island made of round boulders was just outstanding. I even got to swim with one of these black birds that swims under water to catch fish. He did not seem to really mind my presence and I noticed he could stay under water for quite a while! A flying fish came to show off just for the tourists as well :-)
Round boulders at Acciaggju

Turquoise waters at Acciaggju
A colorful flying fish
Hey, I like it there!
On our last full day in the area, we opted for a boat tour all the way down to the Lavezzi islands via Bonifacio. A couple of companies offer such tours from Porto Vecchio, we just picked the family-owned one that had a smaller boat and the most promising lunch option...

This trip was fantastic as the pictures will attest. Enjoy!
The Corsican coastline – about 100 of these towers surround Corsica, they were used to signal arrivals to the island

Getting closer to Bonifacio...

Much closer!

Here's Bonifacio – the overhang is 15 meters out and over the sea
Heading out to the Lavezzi islands

A last look at Bonifacio
Life's hard —"where are the olives?"— but I know how to keep a smile on my face
The Lavezzi islands – these grey boulders seemingly out of nowhere (or out of the blue ;-) were stunning on their own, but the underwater views and the incredible amount of fish would just blow your mind! Lavezzi are a natural reserve, and one can appreciate the difference!
After a lake from Colorado... rocks from Utah?