Ahh, Christmas!

That wonderful time of the year when children can dream of getting lots of presents.

But kids in Catalonia have to be on extra good behaviour as the many-eyed Fumera might pay them a visit – coming down the chimney and finding out about any misdeeds.

So be good for goodness sake…

A gap between two languages

Like much of central Europe, this Transylvanian city has more that one name. Some call it by its Romanian name of Târgu Mureș and others by the Hungarian Marosvásárhely.

The proportion of books in each language on the stall give a clue to the proportions who say Târgu Mureș to those who say Marosvásárhely.

Two languages might mean booksellers having to stock twice as many books, but not everything that is written is a translation of the same thing.

A browse at the Romanian and Hungarian Wikipedia pages, show that the different languages allow for two very different accounts of the same history, particularly over the violent clashes that occurred in 1990. Since then, things have settled down with different points of view being dealt with in the close-run local elections between the ethnically-aligned political parties.

Both languages can seem daunting to outsiders and must pose a challenge to the many foreign students who attend the renowned medical school, UMFST.

For anyone wanting to start their journey into Romanian, Hungarian (or both) by finding out what the city’s name actually means, it might help to know that it also used to have another name.

In the days when this town was part of the Hapsburg Empire and had a significant Jewish population, it was also know as Neumarkt am Mieresch.

This place was a new market/Târg/vásárhely on the river Mureș/Maros – ideal for a bookstall.

What’s in a name?

If you have a sense of deja vu walking across the Pont de les Peixateries Velles (Old Fishmongers Bridge) bridge in Girona, it might help to know that it is also referred to as the Eiffel Bridge.

Gustave Eiffel started his career building bridges and it was the skills developed in spanning rivers that allowed his company to create bolder designs for other constructions such as the Eiffel Tower.

Paris’ iconic landmark wasn’t actually designed Gustave Eiffel, but by two engineers at Eiffel’s company Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier.

And if it seems that France’s most famous engineer has taken a little too much credit for the iconic structure, he probably wished his name hadn’t been associated with another project.

The French Panama Canal Company attempted to be the first to join the Atlantic with the Pacific but the plan was a failure and ended up as a financial disaster. Even though he was only indirectly involved in the project, he was charged with raising money under false pretenses and found guilty.

His name was cleared on appeal but the experience was enough to make him sever all links with his company.

But while Eiffel may be one of the most famous names in French engineering, it wasn’t even his original name. Born Gustave Bönickhausen dit/called Eiffel – he changed it formally to just Eiffel in his late 40’s.

Remembering at Trafalgar Cemetery

Every October, a remembrance service is held at Gibraltar’s Trafalgar Cemetery.

Photo By Jim Crone – DiscoverGibraltar.com

It contains the graves of just two casualties of the Battle of Trafalgar. Most of the rest were buried at sea, with one notable exception ending up in St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead the graveyard holds many of the victims of a series of devastating yellow fever epidemics which spread through Gibraltar around the same time.

Gibraltar’s pivotal position made it a must-have for the Royal Navy, but it’s climate made it a breeding ground for yellow fever, which originated in Africa.

It also posed something of a mystery. The disease could decimate a ship’s crew but individual sailors who had caught the disease ashore, didn’t seem to pass it on. It wasn’t until the 1890’s that Aedes mosquitos were proven to be the transmitter.

Photo by James Gathany – CDC – PHI

In 1927 it became the first virus to be isolated and in 1937 a vaccine was developed which is still in use today making Max Theiler the first African-born Nobel Prize winner.

Perhaps in addition to the annual Trafalgar Day remembrance service held in the cemetery, it might be worth remembering the scientists as well?

The biodiversity of dragon’s teeth

Anti-tank barriers, known as dragon’s teeth, were a key part of the Nazi Germany’s Westwall (often called the Siegfried Line) and ran parallel to France’s Maginot Line.

But despite the toil of hundreds of thousands of labours, it proved to be just as useless. While the Germans went around the Maginot line in 1940, the Allied armies’ solution four years later was to go over the top by just piling earth over them with bulldozers.

Now these teeth provide a unique habitat and are home to diverse flora and fauna.

They are even being traversed by a different type of mobile armoured unit.

The rare narrow-mouthed whorl snail

By Gilles San Martin – Photo Vertigo moulinsiana from Flickr by Gilles San Martin.
Image cropped 4:3 by User:Snek01., CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7108026

Facing death through art

Among the pine and silver birch forests on the Gulf of Riga sits Mārtiņ cemetery with one gravestone unlike the others.

On the headstone of Latvian artist Emīlija Mērniece-Gūtmane is her death mask.

Every line on her face in its final form is captured in vivid detail given the impression she could open her eyes any moment. But it isn’t spooky, it’s very human and a reminder that every other stone in this graveyard contains someone who once could smile or furrow their brow.

Before the advent of photography, death masks were used to capture a person’s ultimate likeness and would help sculptors make statues. And while it’s a practice that has fallen out of use, there is one face from a death mask many of us will have seen – and may even kissed.

Resusci Anne is the standard CPR doll used to teach first aid and was based on L’Inconnue de la Seine, the death mask of a girl drowned in the Seine.

Aachen’s moving sculptures

The Puppenbrunnen (puppet/doll fountain), created by Bonifatius Stirnberg in the 1970s reminds us that Aachen is a curious mix of religion, education, theatre, music, horse-riding, fashion and carnival.

While Bonifatius wanted his sculptures to be touched and to move, he didn’t like them moving too far. In 2004 he sued the council for moving his horse sculpture 20 meters when the railway station was refurbished.

A lasting legacy of the last pandemic

Covid-19 has made us all change our habits.

And whilst most of us have not felt the urge to lick church floors or shrines, the WHO have still found it necessary to issue a list of things that don’t help protect against coronavirus.

So will our new found habits stop when a vaccine becomes available?

By mid 2021, will we all be back to our old ways or will there be a longer legacy?

In the wake of the Spanish Flu epidemic (and First World War…) the Panacea Society was formed and soon started a healing mission.

People could apply for a free pack of muslin squares which had been breathed on by their leader Mabel Barltrop.

Each pack came with instructions for use, which generally involved popping a square into a jug of water to dissolve/transmit some of the ‘healing’ before drinking or applying.

This rather bizarre and, in light of current understanding, somewhat unsanitary practice continued long after Mabel (who was meant to be immortal) had died. In total 130,000 people applied for the cure.

The last squares were sent out in 2013 with a rather sad letter informing them that as all the Panaceans were now departed, they were now on their own.

Maybe in 2113, there will be another letter like this informing the recipients that they too will have to find another cure.

If you would like to learn more about the work of the Panacea Trust, visit their website or read my article.