Wednesday, December 7, 2016

History comes alive during the re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz

Charge! Re-enactors raise their swords at the Battle of Austerlitz.

Cries of "Vive la France" (Long live France) and "Vive l'empereur" (Long live the emperor) echoed across the battlefield as swords clashed and bayonets were drawn during the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of Three Emperors, last Saturday.

To commemorate the December 2, 1805 battle between France and the allied forces of Austria and Russia, more than one thousand history enthusiasts hailing from twelve different European countries traveled to Slavkov u Brna, a town in current day Czech Republic.

The sun's feeble rays did little to warm the encampments of the troops prior to the battle. While an authentically clad French fusilier examined some wool socks at the market, I marveled at his lightweight uniform. Rubbing my hands together in an attempt to banish the cold, I snapped a photo and was tempted to buy a pair of wool socks for myself. "How were the troops able to cope with the cold in 1805?", I wondered. My feet were freezing!

When Stéphane revealed that he would like to participate in a historical re-enactment, I jokingly told him that I would don a costume and join him. Unlike the exclusively male-only troops in 1805, I noticed several women re-enactors in the infantry and cavalry.

Passing troops lined up for inspection, soldiers filling cylinders of paper with gun powder and some delicious smelling soup bubbling over a blazing campfire, we decided it was time to make our way to the battlefield to await Napoleon's arrival. Anxious that we would miss the first shots, we hurried past a stand with sausages roasting on a grill but paused long enough to buy some mulled wine from a passing vendor to warm our hands and our bellies.

American/French Mark Schneider, one of the foremost Napoleon re-enactors

We arrived just in time to see American/French Mark Schneider, one of the foremost Napoleon re-enactors, trot onto the battlefield astride a dapple grey horse. Members of the French expat communities in Prague, Vienna and Bratislava cheered for the leader of the "Grande Armée". Known as the French emperor's greatest victory, Napoleon's 68,000 soldiers beat the combined Russian and Austrian forces of 90,000 men in less than nine hours. At the end of Napoleon's finest tactical masterpiece, the battlefield was strewn with the bodies of 27,000 Allied forces and 9,000 French troops.

In a short speech prior to the re-enactment, French Ambassador to the Czech Republic Charles Malinas stated that, given the current crisis in Europe, the battle was a moment of joy but also a moment of emotion. I couldn't have agreed more.

Please click here to see the photo album posted on my Facebook page.

 The Vendôme Column, formerly the Austerlitz Column, at the Place Vendôme in Paris is a memorial to Napoleon's victory at Austerlitz in 1805. Its 425 spiraling bas-relief bronze plates were made out of cannons taken from the Russian and Austrian forces.

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"!