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!