Friday, October 14, 2016

Signal Festival of Lights illuminates the historical heart of Prague!

Voice of Figures by Russian creative studio Radugadesign projected on the facade of the Kinsky Palace in Prague.

Wandering through the chilly streets of Prague with a map clutched in my hand last night, I was reminded of the excitement I felt when I was a child trick-or-treating for candy on Halloween. Even though I wasn't wearing a costume, the heightened sense of anticipation was the same. Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly spotted an enormous luminous object on the roof of Charles University. Fumbling for my camera, I snapped a photo of the extraterrestrial being while a group of youngsters behind me squealed with delight as they pointed at its hulking form.

Rather than a fearsome creature, the glowing figure was one of five monumental art installations created by Australian artist Amanda Parer that are part of Prague's Signal Festival. Annually attracting crowds of 400,000 to 450,000, the highly anticipated four-night festival features creative outdoor lighting installations and video-mapping exhibitions. It's the Czech Republic's largest cultural event.

Fantastic Planet by Australian Artist Amanda Parer

Perhaps the best part of my outing yesterday evening was the sense of community that I felt. Thanks to all the tourists who visit the historic center of Prague, I regularly hear a multitude of different languages but rarely do I hear Czech. Last night was different. It was the first time that I've attended an event with so many local families, university students and groups of friends. Although I didn't have a clue about what they were saying to each other, their excited exclamations warmed my heart.  

To make the most of the festival, pick up an official program (50 CZK) from the tourist information office or one of the clearly marked Signal Festival information points. The guide has a handy map with the locations of the 22 installations along with information about the artists.

There are long lines at the interactive installations so be sure to bundle up. It's cold outside!

Hyperbinary by Czech artists Amar Mulabegovic, Jan Sima and Martin Posta
Loop by Czech artist Michal Pustejovsky

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

"Remarkable Creatures" - the historical novel that inspired us to travel to Lyme Regis

Remarkable Creatures, the inspiration for Sara's and my weekend getaway.

Perhaps the most unexpected joy of having children is how much I've learned from them over the years. When Sara and I concocted a plan for getting together during regular mother/daughter weekend getaways, she proposed that we travel to Lymes Regis for our inaugural trip. The destination on the Jurassic Coast of England came with an interesting reading assignment: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier.

While Sara and I agreed that the historical novel based on real life characters wasn't as engaging as Chevalier's more famous Girl with a Pearl Earring, I could easily understand why it had captured the imagination of my geologist daughter because it recounts the tale of Mary Anning, a working-class girl who made some of the most significant geological finds of all time.

Mary Anning, who inspired the tongue twister “She sells seashells by the seashore”, was born in 1799 to an impoverished family that supplemented their meagre income by collecting fossils on the windswept beaches of Lyme Regis. Not only did Mary have the good fortune to survive a lightening strike when she was a baby, she also helped her brother Joseph unearth the four-foot skull of an unknown creature when she was merely twelve years old.

Mary Anning, "the greatest fossilist the world ever knew."

With its jaw shaped like a needle-nose pliers and peculiarly large eye sockets covered with bony plates, the ichthyosaurus skull fueled the heated debate about extinction, a concept that was deeply troubling to those outside the scientific community. At the time, church doctrine maintained that the world was literally, and not metaphorically, created in 6 days and was a mere 6,000 years old.

To help modern day readers better understand the conventions of early 19th century England, the story is told through the eyes of Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot, a middle-class woman who moved from London to Lyme Regis with her two sisters in 1805. The self-educated girl and the spinster became friends while scouring the beach and limestone cliffs for specimens. Together they encountered famous scientists and collectors who flocked to Lyme Regis to see Mary's extraordinary discoveries and Elizabeth's fossil fish. Even though the two women won the somewhat grudging respect of their more liberal minded contemporaries, they were barred from entering the Geological Society of London and rarely received public acknowledgement for their work.

Undaunted by gender, class or lack of formal education, Mary was posthumously included in The Royal Society's list of the ten most influential British women in science. I'm thankful that Sara introduced me to her!

You can see Mary Anning's Ichthyosaur skull in the Enlightenment Wing of the British Museum and more of Mary's specimens in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery in the Natural History Museum in London.

Elizabeth Philpot's collection of fossil fish is at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

The beach and limestone cliffs of Lyme Regis

Monday, October 3, 2016

Where in the world is Czechia? And whatever happened to Czechoslovakia?

How many European countries do you know? There's a map with the country names and capitals at the end of the post.

One of the ways I like to distract my mind during takeoff is by playing "Name that Country". As the plane taxis into position, I flip open the airline magazine to the flight map of Europe and mentally point to Switzerland, France, Italy and Spain. Like reciting a mantra to the god of travel, I find myself silently rattling off a couple more easily identifiable countries while the planes barrels down the runway. By the time we begin our ascent, I've moved on to the more difficult Nordic countries. My brain is occupied with the location of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland while the earth recedes in the distance. When the plane levels off, my eyes settle momentarily on the cluster of countries to the east and northeast of Italy. Thankful that we're now too high for a bird strike (Have you seen Sully, Tom Hank's latest movie?!), I promise myself that I'll tackle the more difficult countries during my next flight. Now, it's time to relax and wait for the beverage service.

During recent flights from Prague to Paris and London, I've found that my routine has changed. Instead of focusing on Western Europe, my eyes immediately zoom in on the salmon-colored country smack dab in the middle of Europe. That's the Czech Republic! And despite having lived in this remarkable country for nine months, I'm still baffled by it's placement. How can Prague be further west than Vienna when Czechoslovakia was referred to as an Eastern Bloc country during the Communist Era?

As it turns out, many of our visitors this summer were also confused. "Why?", they asked, "Do you keep calling Czechoslovakia the Czech Republic and saying that it's in Central Europe?".

To answer those questions, I have to back up a bit and explain that this region was previously part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia was created by cobbling together the present day territories of Bohemia, Moravia, Slovakia and Carpathian Ruthenia in 1918.

Let's fast forward past World War II and the Communist Era to November 1989 when democracy was restored to Czechoslovakia as a result of the bloodless Velvet Revolution. In 1992, the Czechs and Slovaks decided to part ways. Unlike the hoopla that accompanied Brangelina's recent split, the dissolution of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which is known as the Velvet Divorce, happened so amicably that it wasn't splashed across the world's headlines.

Judging by an official letter I received last summer from the Comptroller of a certain US state that shall remain nameless, the Czech Republic needs to do a better job making its name change more widely known because the letter was addressed to me in Czechoslovakia, a country that hasn't existed for 24 years.

To make things even more complicated, the Czech Republic decided to rebrand itself in April 2016. Henceforth, the government asks that English speakers refer to the country as Czechia, which is hard to pronounce and will probably be confused with Chechnya. It will also be known as Tschechien in German and Tchequie in French. All are direct translations of Cesko, which is how the Czechs refer to their homeland.

And what about Czechia's location in Central Europe? That's another complicated post for another day!

Friday, September 30, 2016

I'm (finally) ready to dive in and start life in Prague!

Before jumping into this post, I'd like to say thank you to everyone who has written to ask if I'm alright (I am!) and to those who have proposed blog topics. My online silence wasn't due to ill health or lack of inspiration but rather the need for some quiet time to figure out what I want to do with this next phase of my life.

Ask any expat how they feel when confronted by the challenges associated with moving to a new country every couple of years and they'll probably say that the opportunity to reinvent yourself is both a blessing and a curse.

While some expats plunge headfirst into their new lives, others need time to survey the possibilities. With the exception of diving into blogging when we first moved to Paris, I've always been the kind of expat who eases into life in a new country the same way I enter a swimming pool, by wiggling my toes first to cautiously test the temperature.

And, admittedly, my obsession with the presidential elections hasn't helped. Before getting out of bed in the morning, I'd fumble around in the dark searching for the news application on my cell phone to check if something catastrophic had happened in the US while I was asleep. Even on the days when all was well, I still found myself eating breakfast in front of the television to catch up on every twist and turn as reported on the news.

It was only after ticking the box on my absentee ballot earlier this week that I felt some sense of release. Aside from posting reminders on social media for expats to vote, the only thing that I can do now is hope that the majority of Americans have the same vision for the future of the United States as I do. Instead of worrying about something over which I have little control, I decided to forge ahead with a couple of projects that have been evolving in my mind during the past months. Even though I'm not yet in a position to reveal the details, the common thread between the projects is "Women Helping Women".

In the meantime, one of my goals is to write more blog posts about Prague and the Czech Republic. It's a beautiful country with a rich history that I'd like to share.

Prague - also known as "the golden city of 100 spires" and "a symphony in stone"!

Friday, May 6, 2016

Le Food Trip's "Tasting Passport" is a uniquely delicious way to explore Paris!

Isabelle at Les Petites Domaines is both charming and very knowledgable about French wine.

Two of my favorite topics are food and travel, so it didn't take me long to answer an enthusiastic "yes" when the CzechTourism agency asked if I would be interested in co-hosting a 45 minute Twitter chat about Culinary Travel while I was in Paris. The questions posed by the tourism agency, particularly the one about my favorite kind of culinary experience (food tour, wine tour or snacking?) while abroad, caused me to reflect on the various food and wine tours I've taken over the years.

My mind was still firmly focused on the joys of food when I received a text message from Elodie, my friend at the Paris Tourist Office, suggesting that I meet with Martin Herbelin, one of the three co-founders of Le Food Trip, to hear about their newly launched "Tasting Passport". Talk about serendipity!

The concept is simple. After purchasing a Tasting Passport online, visitors use easy-to-read maps to conduct self-guided tasting tours of three different regions of Paris. In keeping with their goal to make the city's best food and drinks easily accessible, the Tasting Passport includes coupons for 12 tempting products. Unlike traditional food tours led by a guide, passport holders have the flexibility to decide when and where they would like to begin their culinary adventure.

My journey got off to a wonderful start with a warm welcome from Isabelle, the owner of Les Petits Domaines in the 7th arrondissement. Passionate about small wineries, Isabelle used a map to show me the main wine growing regions of France before offering me a glass of Le Clandestin Sauvignon from the Languedoc-Roussillon region. As I sipped my white wine, Isabelle offered some advice for selecting a good bottle of French wine and told me about her visits to the Champagne region. The convivial experience reminded me of how much I always enjoyed talking with local shopkeepers when I lived in Paris. Unfortunately, many tourists never have the opportunity to interact with French people because they're too intimidated to enter a small store in a foreign city. The Tasting Passport effectively breaks down those boundaries.

"Magnifique" Merveilleux are little bites of happiness!

This would be a good time to confess that I almost skipped two of the four tastings in the 7th arrondissement because Calissons and Merveilleux have never ranked high on my list of must-eat foods in France. That would have been a big mistake because the French founders of the Tasting Passport have done an excellent job selecting the best spots to sample the city's culinary treats. I liked the Le Petit Duc's Calissons so much that I bought several packs to take as presents when I go to the USA next week. A big box of Merveilleux would have also ended up in my suitcase but I didn't think that the delicate meringues would travel well ... and there's a good chance that they would have proven too hard for me to resist!

Given the miserable weather while I was in Paris, I'm thankful that the Tasting Passport gave me the flexibility to plan my outings so that I wasn't trudging around the city in the rain. Even though the sky was still overcast when I pushed open the door of Première Pression Provence, the atmosphere inside the store was as sunny as the region for which the store is named. After learning about the three different types of olive oil,  I was invited to sample a flavorful one perfect for drizzling on carpaccio and a more mild one that pairs perfectly with roasted vegetables and meat. Best of all was the entertaining exchange I had with the shopkeeper who generously shared several French cooking tips and helped me select some lightweight items (Herbes de Provence and Tomates en Poudre Fin) to take back to Prague.

The Tasting Passport, which is valid for three months, includes a glass of French wine, foie gras from Aquitaine, crispy cookies from Aquitaine, a cup of coffee at one of the trendiest spots in Paris, charcuterie from Aveyron, Calissons from Provence, a pot of jam, one of the best croissants in the city, a tasty Financier, Comté cheese, a sampling of olive oils from Provence and a Merveilleux.

Insider's tips: try to time your visits during off-peak hours so that the artisans have more time to tell you about their products. If you've ever had a question about French wine, cheese or charcuterie, the Tasting Passport gives you access to experts who can answer it. Don't be shy!

Get Tasting Passports for the entire family and let your children plot out your itinerary on the map. Delicious culinary treats will be their reward for leading you to the right destination.

I spent a delightful 30 minutes learning about olive oil and other regional products at Première Pression Provence!