Saturday, November 30, 2013

Summer of 2012 - Othmarsingen, Switzerland

Werner and I got a late start departing from Clansayes, Provence.  We arrived in Othmarsingen just before nightfall.

Othmarsingen is a small town with a population of a couple thousand.  It is about an hour from Zurich.  This is the town where my great-grandmother, Susan Marti, was born, and my Swiss ancestors lived here for uncounted generations.  There were Martis living here all the way back into the town's early history in the Middle Ages.  There are still many Martis who live here, and I suppose if you trace their genealogy back far enough, we are all related. 

Werner and I stayed for two weeks in the family home that had been built by his parents (in the 1950's, I believe).  As I mentioned in an earlier post, Werner's father passed away in 2010.  His mother had been in nursing home for several years due to a stroke.  The house was vacant, but Werner would return here to stay on his frequent visits to Switzerland.  This year, his mom passed away. (I am so glad that I had an opportunity to meet her during my stay in Othmarsingen.)  Werner and his siblings have decided to hang on to the house.  This past summer, Werner had the house completely renovated.  It was a very nice, large, comfortable place before; now it is even nicer.  Werner hopes to rent it out as a vacation rental.  Othmarsingen is not a center of tourism, but hopefully its location close to Zurich (where prices are sky-high) will generate some interest.  Werner still wants to be able to return there when he is in Switzerland... and, of course, I hope to stay there too on future visits.

Werner's family home

View of Othmarsingen from the balcony of the house.

My first morning in Othmarsingen, the first place that I wanted to visit was the town's church, where my great-grandmother had been baptized.  It is a beautiful little church, inside and out, that was built in 1675

We had figured out in which house my great-grandmother was born.  It is on the edge of town, and is now owned by an elderly gentleman who is not a Marti.  Werner called him, and arranged a visit to the house.  The gentleman, frail of health and with a long white beard, was very kind.  He reminded me of the grandfather in "Heidi".  He showed us a stone from the original oven.  It was inscribed with the date 1742.  We don't know if the Marti family lived there all those years, but it proves that the house is very old.  Originally the house had a thatched roof, and it was one of the last houses in Othmarsingen to have one.

I also made contact with Niklaus, the town councilman who was responsible for finding the link to my Swiss family.  I took him and Werner out for supper at a restaurant not far from town.  I was a real pleasure to meet him face to face.

During my stay in Othmarsingen, I met most of Werner's family.  Of course they are my cousins too.  I met his brother and sisters, his nephew, and two cousins and their families.  Everyone treated me with great hospitality and kindess.  I had many emotional moments in Othmarsingen... seeing the house where my great-mother was born, and the church where she was baptized.  But probably the most emotional moment, which literally had me in tears, was when we went to visit Werner's aunt Sophie.  She pulled out the family photos, and amongst them was a family portrait of my great-great-grandparents and their children. I can't describe the feeling when I looked into the faces of those ancestors!  Susan, my great-grandmother, is the young girl seated on the left, next to her mother. From the date on the photograph, this picture was taken after they immigrated to Ohio.  They must have gone to a studio in Berea and had a family portrait taken so that they could send it to the family back in Switzerland! 



Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Summer of 2012 - Provence

It's a long drive from Madrid to Switzerland, and my cousin Werner suggested that we stay overnight at the home of some friends of his who live in Provence, France.  As it turned out, we stayed two nights and I was able to do a bit of sightseeing.  Our hosts were very kind and hospitable.  I had never been in France before, and I found Provence (or at least the little bit that I saw) to be very beautiful. 

We stayed in a tiny hilltop village called Clansayes.  In the Middle Ages it had been a fortress of the Knights Templar.  After the expulsion of the Knights Templar, the village fell into decline, but in recent years the abandoned stone houses built into the hillside have been bought and renovated.  It is a very charming place.  My hosts drove me down to the nearby town of Saint Paul Trois Chateaux, another very picturesque place dating back to medieval times.  It was market day in the town square, and, in spite of my lack of French, I was able to buy several bars of locally made lavender soap as gifts for friends back home.

Looking down to the Rhone River valley from the hilltop village of Clansayes

The remains of the Knights Templar fortress atop the hill at Clansayes.
The statue of the Virgin Mary was a much later addition.

A typical street in Clansayes

Fields of lavender were everywhere, although the peak of the blooms had passed.

The charming town of Saint Paul Trois Chateaux.
The tower of its medieval cathedral is in the background.
The market in Saint Paul Trois Chateaux

Street scenes in Saint Paul Trois Chateaux
After a short visit in this delightful corner of Provence, it was soon time to hit the road again.  Next stop...  Othmarsingen, Switzerland, the home of the Swiss branch of my family.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Summer of 2012 - Madrid

The summer of 2012 I took a long trip to Europe.  I flew to Madrid, Spain, to visit my cousin Werner.  He  has his own business working as a translator. (He speaks German, Spanish, English and French.) I spent a few days with him in Madrid, and then Werner drove me to Switzerland, where I spent a couple weeks at the family home in the small town of Othmarsingen. 

Here is Werner with his spouse, Manuel.  (Same-sex marriage has been legal in Spain since 2005.)
Manuel is a great guy.  I don't know if there is such a word as "cousin-in-law", but I am very happy to count him as a member of my family.

This is Polly, Werner's German shepherd.  Polly originally belonged to Werner's father, but when his dad passed away, Werner took her to Madrid.  Surprisingly, Polly adapted very well to big city life after having lived in a small town.  Sadly, Polly passed away this year.  She was a very sweet dog, and Werner misses her terribly.

This is where Werner and Manuel live.  They have a lovely, spacious flat on the next to the top floor of this older building.  It is located in the downtown neighborhood of Malasaña.  Malasaña used to be a "red light district" and was not a very good area.  Although you still see some streetwalkers, the neighborhood has become gentrified, and is very pleasant.  It would take months to try out all the restaurants and cafés nearby.  The location is excellent for exploring Madrid.  The Gran Vía, one of the city's principal avenues is only a few blocks away.  Many of the major tourist attractions are within walking distance, as are a couple metro (subway) stations.  Madrid is a very safe city.  You do need to be cautious about pickpockets, but violent crime is rare.  Even at night, I feel perfectly safe walking around central Madrid.  In fact, at night is when the streets come alive.  The residents of Madrid are night people and are often referred to as "gatos" (cats).

During my short time in Madrid, I would take off to explore the city while Werner and Manuel were working.  Madrid is very hot in the summer, and Werner thought I was crazy to be out all day sightseeing.  The temperatures were in the 90's, but the humidity was so low that it did not feel as oppressive as some of the summer days we have in Ohio.

This was my sixth trip to Madrid.  Here are a few of the sights that I saw during my wanderings on this latest trip...

The Gran Vía begins (or ends?) with the Plaza de España.  This park is dominated by a monument to the greatest Spanish writer, Cervantes.  Beneath the statue of the author are bronze sculptures of his immortal creations, the addled, idealistic knight, Don Quixote, and his faithful, down-to-earth, peasant squire, Sancho Panza.
The Gran Vía is lined with interesting architecture from the late 19th century and early 20th century.
The Gran Vía ends (or begins?) here where it merges into Alcalá Street.  The structure on the corner, the Metropolis Building, is my favorite on the avenue.
This elaborate building, farther down Alcalá Street, is another favorite of mine. It is not a palace or a cathedral...  it was the main post office, until recently, when it became Madrid's city hall.
The Retiro Park features a man-made pond for boating and an impressive monument to a rather unimportant king, Alfonso XII.
Madrid boasts numerous outstanding art museums.  The most famous of all is the Prado.  Nowhere else in the world will you find a comparable collection of the great Spanish artists such as Velázquez and Goya.  I spent several hours there (it was my fifth visit to the Prado), and I still have not seen it all.  Recently the museum was expanded with a new addition, and many works of art that had previously been kept in storage, are now on display.
One curious work on display which I had not seen before is the Prado's own version of the Mona Lisa.  This copy of the famous painting in the Louvre was painted at the same time and perhaps in the same studio as the original.  It was painted by one of Leonardo's pupils.
(image from the web)

The heart of old Madrid is the Plaza Mayor, built in the 1600's to serve as Madrid's town square.  The plaza is completely enclosed by buildings.  Archways at each corner lead to the streets.  It is a very picturesque spot, but BEWARE!  The plaza has become quite the tourist trap.  The restaurants and sidewalk cafés are overpriced, and generally not very good.
The old town is a maze of narrow streets.  I found the neighborhood of "La Latina" to be particularly picturesque and filled with sidewalk cafés and tapas bars.

The Royal Palace is the largest in Europe.  The present King of Spain does not use it as his residence, but it is used for official ceremonies and banquets.  At other times, the palace (or at least a few dozen of its more than 3000 rooms) is open to the public
Across from the palace is the city's cathedral.  Strange as it may seem, Madrid never had an official cathedral until the completion of this church in 1993.
The interior of the cathedral, sort of a neo-Gothic style, is not particularly impressive.  But it is worth a visit to go up to the dome for a spectacular view of the city.
My time in Madrid flew by, and it was soon time for Werner and I to pack up his car, and head for Switzerland (with a stopover in France).
¡Hasta luego, Madrid!

(image from web)


Friday, November 22, 2013

How I met my cousins (part 2)

I already told you about how I met my English cousins.  Now here is the story about how I made contact with my Swiss cousins.  It's almost like something out of a movie script.

I knew that my mother's paternal grandmother, Susan Marti, was born in Switzerland, and that the family had immigrated to Ohio when Susan was a girl.  I obtained a copy of her death certificate, and I was very lucky, because the certificate listed the name of the town in Switzerland where she was born... a little town called Othmarsingen, not far from Zurich.  On the internet I was able to find U.S. census data that gave me the names of her parents and siblings.  The data said that her father and brother had worked in the sandstone quarries that flourished in Berea, Ohio, in the late 1800s.  I also knew that many years ago, a great aunt of mine had visited cousins in Switzerland.  I was a teenager at the time, and I had not inquired about those cousins.  My great aunt died long ago, and had no children, so that information was lost.

I was unable to find any information from Switzerland on the internet about the family.  But I did find the Swiss telephone directory online.  I saw that in the town of Othmarsingen there were many families with the last name of Marti.  Some of them had to be related to me!  I toyed with the idea of writing to all of them, but I was hesitant to do so.  I then discovered that Othmarsingen had a website.  Of course it was all in German, but I figured that "gastebuch" meant guestbook.  So I clicked on it and wrote a message.  I apologized for my lack of German, and asked if anyone knew anything about my great-grandmother's family. I provided the information that I knew.  Months passed, and I had forgotten about the message that I had sent.  Then, out of the blue, I received an e-mail from Switzerland.  It was from a fellow by the name of Niklaus who lives in Othmarsingen.  As it turns out, Niklaus is the equivalent of what we would call a town councilman.  He said that, yes, there were many Martis living there, and that he would make inquiries and see if any of them were related to me. He also went to the regional archives and found documents tracing my family back a couple more generations, and he sent those to me.  A few weeks later he wrote that he had made a connection.  He had talked to an elderly gentleman by the name of Andreas Marti who said that relatives had immigrated to Ohio and that a cousin Bernice (my great aunt!) had visited them in Othmarsingen.  Bingo!!

Niklaus sent me the address of Andreas.  This was shortly before Christmas of 2010.  I sent him a Christmas card. (The retired German teacher from the school where I worked was kind enough to translate a letter into German for me.) 

On January 3, 2011, a letter arrived in the mail from Switzerland.  It was written (fortunately in English!) by Andreas's son, Werner.  Werner wrote that his father was very pleased to receive my Christmas card, and happy to have made contact with a relative in Ohio after all those years.  Werner does not live in Othmarsingen, but he was visiting for the holiday season.  And where does Werner live?  In Madrid, Spain.  Wow!  This retired Spanish teacher has a cousin in Spain!  Werner gave me his e-mail address, and I immediately sat down in front of the computer and wrote him a long letter.

That same evening I received a reply from Werner.  He told me that on New Year's Eve, he and his father had gone to Werner's sister's house to spend the evening.  They were having a lovely time, but then suddenly Andreas felt ill.  Just before the church bells rang out the New Year, Andreas died in his son's arms.  Even though I had never met him, tears were streaming down my face as I read the e-mail.  I immediately wrote back to Werner expressing my condolences.

The next morning there was an e-mail from Niklaus.  He had just heard of my new-found cousin's death.  He asked if I would like him to send flowers to the funeral in my name.  I said yes, of course, and said that I would pay him for the flowers, but Niklaus would not let me.  What a kind and generous man he is!  I will be forever grateful to him for having connected me with my Swiss family.  On a later trip to Switzerland, I had the opportunity to meet him, and I took him out for dinner as a small "thank you" for all that he did for me. 

The flowers were delivered to the funeral, but there was no card with them.  Everyone wondered who they were from.  Later that day, Werner found the card in the mailbox at the house... "from your American cousin."

Werner and I continued to correspond via e-mail, and we developed a close bond.  He invited me to visit him in Madrid, and later that winter I took a short trip to Spain.  When I left he presented me with a gift... something that he had found while cleaning out his father's office... the baptismal and confirmation certificates of my great grandmother.

I am an only child, and have no immediate family.  I cannot express how much it has meant to me to make a connection with my cousins in Spain, Switzerland, and England.  They may be distant cousins, but in my book they are all definitely  "first cousins"!

In the future I will post more about my subsequent trips to Spain and Switzerland.  For now here is a picture of my cousin Werner and me...


Cantona - Mexico's Largest Archaeological Site

In November of 2012, on a earlier trip to Mexico City, my friend Alejandro and I went to a place rarely visited by tourists... Cantona.  I had read about it in a guide book, and Alejandro had never heard about it before.  It is located in the Mexican state of Puebla, not far from the border of Veracruz, along the main highway to the Gulf coast.  It is a three hour drive from Mexico City to Cantona.

Although it was "discovered" in the nineteenth century, it is only in recent years that serious archaeological work on the site has been undertaken.  Archaeologists estimate that in terms of area (it is at least five square miles in size) Cantona was the largest pre-Hispanic city of Mexico.  It was a highly urbanized site which may have had a population of 80,000 people at its height between A.D. 600 and 1000.   The city might have been established centuries before by a tribe related to the ancient Olmecs.  It controlled the crucial trade route between the coast and central Mexico.  The major trade product for Cantona was most certainly obsidian, the volcanic glass which was fashioned into weapons, knives and other tools.  Obsidian mines were located not far from the city.

Cantona was probably a trading partner and rival of Teotihuacan, the great city located north of present day Mexico City.  (Teotihuacan's huge pyramids and ruins are today a major tourist attraction for visitors to the capital.)  As Teotihuacan fell into decline, Cantona may have taken its place as the most important city of the region.  After A.D. 1000 it too fell into decline and was eventually abandoned.  No one knows for sure the reason for its abandonment, but one possible cause was climate change which left the area more arid.

Although it lacks the artistic beauty of the great Mayan cities, or the monumental grandeur of the pyramids of Teotihuacan, we both found it to be one of the most impressive archaeological sites that we have seen.  The size of the place is astounding.  Even though only 10% of the city has been excavated and is open to visitors, it took us four hours to see it all.  The trail continued on and on to more plazas and pyramids and ball courts.  (The pre-Hispanic civilizations all played a type of ceremonial ball game.  Cantona has at least 24 ball courts, more than any other site in Mexico.)  What visitors see today is largely the civic and religious center of the city (downtown Cantona, you might say).  It is an acropolis defensively located atop a hill overlooking the valley. 

Because of its isolated location, distant from major tourist areas, Cantona receives very few visitors.  This adds to its appeal.  Unlike some archaeological sites, such as Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán, which draw hordes of tourists, there were perhaps a few dozen visitors when we were there.  We felt as if we had the place to ourselves.  The scenery was also quite spectacular.  The rugged semi-desert area is studded with cacti and yucca.  In the distance the snow-capped Pico de Orizaba is visible. 

A trip to Cantona is definitely worth the long drive!


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Barcelona with my cousins

In my previous post, I told how I had made contact with my cousin Kevin in England, and about their trip to Ohio to visit me.  Last summer (2012) I traveled to Europe to visit my Swiss cousins (that's a story for another post).  Kevin suggested that we meet in Barcelona, Spain.  They had never been there, and wanted to visit.  I had been there before, and was more than happy to be their tour guide and interpreter.  So after a couple weeks in Switzerland, I flew to Barcelona, and we spent several days there together.  Kevin, his wife Sue, and their sons were very impressed with Barcelona, and we had a great time.  Here are some pictures from that trip...

Kevin, Sue, and their sons Scott and Charlie on the "hop-on hop-off" tour bus in Barcelona.
We stayed in an apartment just a short walk from the "Ramblas", a beautiful tree-lined boulevard.  A pedestrian walkway extends the entire length of the boulevard.
The "Ramblas" extends from the waterfront inland to the Plaza de Cataluña.
Barcelona is renowned for its architecture.  In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a number a architects graced the city with countless buildings in a style that they referred to as "modernism".  The most famous of the architects was the brilliant and eccentric Antonio Gaudí.  One of his famous creations is this apartment building in the fashionable Eixample neighborhood.

In the heart of the medieval Gothic Quarter is the city's cathedral.
The Gothic Quarter is a labyrinth of narrow streets.

My cousins on the Plaza Real
We took the aerial cable car which runs from the waterfront up the top of Montjuich Mountain.  It offers fantastic views of the city.
From the cable car you can see the tree-lined "Ramblas".
Kevin and me at the top of Montjuich
From the mountain, you can see the towers of Gaudí's most famous building, the still uncompleted Church of the Holy Family.
My cousins in front of the beautiful fountain in the Ciudadela Park
The Columbus Monument at night
In the three days that we were there we could only scratch the surface of the many things to see in this fascinating city.