On Provins: Gallic roses and the fairs of Champagne

Where and what?

Have you heard of Provins? I hadn’t, unless perhaps it was mentioned in my hearing but, thanks to my still-imperfect grasp of French accents and pronunciation, filed  under references to ‘Provence’. Which may have led to some confusion if we were talking about how to get there, seeing as Provence is in the south of France, about 4 hours by train from Paris, whereas Provins is a mere 1 hour and 25 minutes by the same vehicle.
That’s how I got there, on a beautifully sunny day in late winter that had us all convinced that spring had arrived early (in fact, winter put its bitter claws back into us a week later, so I was intensely glad to have profited from the sunshine).
To start with, let it be said that I wholly recommend the place in general. It’s quite touristy, but in a more quaint and charming way than Paris, and with largely French visitors – although I do my best to harbour no bias to a particular country and the tourists it may produce, it’s still nicest to be surrounded by people of the country you’re actually visiting when you’re sightseeing.
I had the luck to be there on a market day, so even the ‘new’ part of town was bustling with activity as clothes and books and fresh produce spilled abundantly from fold-up tables in the main street while the market hall hosted butchers’ stalls, baked goods and long rows of fish and seafood lying glassy-eyed on their banks of ice cubes. Although Paris has wonderful fresh food markets, I couldn’t help but appreciate the wholesome simplicity of an average small-town Saturday market, free from any pseudo-traditionalism.

What’s there to see?

In terms of sightseeing, I bought a 12 euro Provins Pass which gave me access to everything apparently worth seeing in the old part of town. That includes, specifically, les sousterrains – ‘the underground’ – one-time quarries converted into storage that stretch beneath the town; the town museum, the small fortified tower (la Tour César) and the somewhat kitschy grange aux dimes (tithe barn) which has mocked-up displays of various tradespeople surrounded by their work – weavers, potters, merchants, etc. Each display is accompanied by a short dialogue between the figure and a very conveniently curious 13th century visitor, giving you a basic understanding of the roles the workers played in a medieval context. The audio is easy enough for kids to follow, but still informative enough to be interesting to adults – assuming you don’t happen to be an amateur medieval expert already.

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La Tour César (right) with the dome of St. Quiriace church in background

The town museum is essentially just a collection of oddities related to the area, and reminds me strongly of small-town Aussie museums where they don’t really have enough history in the area to justify a whole museum and try to make up for it by dedicating a room to art-deco bathroom fixtures or some random inhabitant’s family tree. There’s zero coherency to the exhibits, with Neolithic stone fragments displayed beneath a Belle-Epoque era painting of someone-or-other and faced by some wooden Renaissance religious effigies. It seems strange, considering their strong links to medieval history, that there isn’t anything more particularly aimed at vaunting this, but I suspect from the emptiness and lack of information on the displays that this might be due to lack of funding.

A taste of history

The foires de Champagne (Champagne fairs) were 6-8 week long affairs that encompassed practically any and all goods – food, precious metals, livestock, cloth, trinkets, spices, whatever the merchants could find and make a profit on. By decree of Count Thibaut IV de Blois, there were 6 held annually, in 4 different major cities of the region: Troyes, Lagny, Bar-sur-Aube and Provins. The regular influx of visitors served to enrich these host cities, and the authorities began to provide guaranteed, free protection to merchants travelling to the cities in order to ensure that these profitable events continued smoothly. Over the 12th and 13th century, the towns grew in wealth and importance, so it makes sense that is this time from which the major buildings and the town’s fairly extensive ramparts date.
These ramparts, of which more than a kilometre’s length of the original 5km exist, are freely accessible. Following them makes for a pleasant ramble down cobbled roads and grassy lanes, with cultivated fields spreading wide on one side while you gaze over the rooftops of Provins on the other. Being there in the very beginning of spring, I revelled in noticing the first brave blooms of field-flowers along the path, even if the glorious sun that had accompanied me through my visit in the town itself was in the middle of setting.

There’s also plenty of houses from later periods, though, and walking through the town’s cobbled streets provides a reasonably picturesque mix of non-descript buildings that are difficult to place chronologically, and pretty examples of half-timber houses from around the 17th century.

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If you truly fall in love with the town, there’s sure to be a half-timber house like this one currently available for purchase

The rose of Provins (rosa gallica officinalis)

The town is also famous for the Provins rose, supposedly brought back to Europe from the Crusades by the local count, Thibaut IV, the same one who introduced regulations to the Champagne fairs. Also known as the Gallic rose,  the hardy flower was used in religious ceremonies and for medicinal purposes up until the late Middle Ages – to aid digestion when made into a syrup, relieving sore throats as a candy, and applied to the skin as a lotion. It’s still popular in dozens of different forms today, and you can find anything from rose-flavoured ice cream to coffee to liqueur in the various shops in the old town. Personally, I can recommend every rose product I sampled myself, which is to say: rose petal jam (excellent on waffles), rose ice cream and rose-infused honey!
All things considered, Provins makes a lovely daytrip if you’re in Paris or its environs, and is well worth a stop if you’re just travelling through the area. Particularly for those with children, who tend to be unimpressed by beautiful cities like Paris and much more interested in clambering over some city walls and sampling sugary pink goodness, it provides a fun and wallet-friendly experience of a small French town with a fair bit of interesting history to keep you occupied.
There’s also a number of spectacles, including regular bird of prey shows held on the ramparts, and medieval reenactments involving horses and knights, but as I didn’t bother coming at the right time I can’t proffer an opinion on them. Check out the Provins tourism site for more information!

Woman of the Week: Queen Christina Alexandra (née Kristina Augusta Wasa)

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Christina aged approximately 16, between 1640 and 1642 (by Jacob Henry Elbfas)

Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-1689) isn’t one of the few queens that people actually know about, but it certainly isn’t because her life and character don’t merit the recognition. Literally from the moment she was born, Christina was causing scandals. Apparently born with unusual quantities of hair and a ‘strong, hoarse voice’, the birthing attendants initially believed the infant to be a male, which entertained her father, Gustav II Adolf, immensely. ‘She’ll be clever,’ he said, ‘she has made fools of us all!’

 

 

 

In fact, the strange stories about her birth, as well as her reportedly masculine behaviour and appearance, has lead modern historians to theorise that she may have had one or more unacknowledged disorders, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (which can cause hirsutism and obesity), Pervasive Developmental Disorder (encompassing behavioural disorders such as autism), or Disorder of Sex Development (involving abnormal development of sexual characteristics), although her skeleton was judged ‘typically female’ when analysed in 1965.

Having no other children, Gustav arranged for his daughter to be raised exactly as a male heir would have been, from studying statecraft and sciences to learning to fence and hunt bears. It wasn’t surprising, then, that she became known as ‘the Girl King’ when at age 6, she inherited her father’s kingdom after his death in the Thirty Year’s War – even at her coronation, her official title was ‘King of the Swedes, Goths and Wends’.

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Christina depicted on horseback in a portrait intended to gain favour with Philip IV of Spain, in 1653 (by Sébastien Bourdon)

Due to her youth, Sweden was ruled by a Privy Council until she came of age at 18, but Christina attended council meetings from the age of 14, showing a keen interest in politics and diplomacy. She is reported to have spent 10 hours a day at her studies, learning up to 8 languages other than her native Swedish and developing an interest in culture, religion and art that would last throughout her life.

As reigning queen, Christina continued to be an enthusiastic patron of the arts, gathering scholars, musicians and artists to her court, among which were philosopher René Descartes and kabbalist Menasseh Ben Israel, as well as various prominent Jesuits. It was her discussions with these last that finally convinced the young Queen that she should convert to Catholicism – a significant decision, considering that at the time, it was illegal to be Catholic in the country of Sweden. The punishment for such an offence? Only execution.

Nonetheless, Christina was determined. She had already made her first cousin, Charles X Gustav, her heir in 1649, and in 1652, after strong opposition from her advisors, Christina abdicated in favour of her heir, citing her desire to remain celibate as the reason for her decision. Immediately after the ceremonies were concluded, she disguised herself in men’s clothing so as to pass herself off as ‘Count Dohna’ whilst travelling through Denmark, a country still hostile to Swedish monarchy, on her way to Rome.

The true reasons for Christina’s celibacy may not have been purely religious motives, however. Christina’s sexuality remains a mystery even now, as she was rumoured to have romantic liaisons with both men and women but had no public relationships throughout her life. She was conjectured to have had relationships with both Charles Gustav and her long-time friend and bookkeeper, Decio Azzolino, but also with a female friend, Ebba Sparre, who is frequently alleged to have been the Queen’s lover due to the Queen’s description of her as her ‘bed-fellow’, and the intensely emotional letters written between them, which included the Queen declaring that she would always love Ebba.

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Monument to Christina in St Peter’s Basilica, ordered by Pope Innocent XII in 1702

Upon reaching Rome, Christina enjoyed considerable popularity, becoming famous as the monarch who gave up her country for her love of God. She spent the remainder of her life maintaining her extensive patronage of the arts whilst living in Italy and France. Though she made a failed attempt to regain the Swedish throne after the death of Charles X Gustav, Christina ultimately never returned to power and died in relative peace in 1689 in her palace in Rome, leaving her autobiography unfinished. Contrary to her wishes, Pope Innocent XI arranged for her to be buried with great ceremony in the Grotte Vatican beneath the St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, making her the third woman ever to be interred there.

 

 

 

Woman of the Week: Ada Lovelace (née Augusta Ada Byron)

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Ada in 1840 (by Alfred Edward Chalon)

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) is known as the ‘mother of modern computing’, but not by nearly enough of the world. The only legitimate child of the famous poet, Lord Byron, she deserves fame in her own right for her contributions to computing and mathematics, a field vastly different from her father’s.

Ada never knew Lord Byron, thanks in part to his dying when she was just 8 years old, but more specifically due to her mother, Anne Isabella Milbanke, maintaining a violent dislike for her husband, who she considered insane. Hoping to discourage any similar tendencies in their only offspring, she encouraged Ada to study mathematics and science, which she believed would help subdue poetic (and thus insane) proclivities.

Whether due to her mother’s grooming or her own natural talent, Ada’s zest for innovation and learning manifested at an early age. When she was just 12, Ada was designing wings to allow human flight, using her anatomical observations of birds to determine the size, shape and materials that would best achieve her goal.

Her education was enhanced greatly by the opportunity of having Mary Somerville, one of the first known female scientists, as a tutor. Becoming close friends with the Scottish mathematician, it was Somerville who both encouraged her studies in higher mathematics and who would eventually introduce her to Charles Babbage in 1833. The 17 year old scholar quickly gained his respect and began an extensive correspondence with him in which they discussed mathematics and Babbage’s invention, an early calculator he called the difference machine. Babbage clearly respected his gifted protégée, coming to refer to her as the ‘Enchantress of Number’.

Ada shed her famous father’s name in 1835, upon marrying William King, later the first Earl of Lovelace. Fortunately, King appears to have supported her scholastic pursuits, and together the couple enjoyed the society of various known academics of the time including Michael Faraday and Charles Dickens. Family life didn’t prevent Ada’s continuing endeavours – in fact, her most famous contributions were made only after the birth of her third and last child.

In 1842, Ada started translating a French work describing Babbage’s newest computational concept, called Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage. However, the notes and algorithms that she added to the basic translation were so abundant that by the time it was published, the work was largely her own.

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Though not visually impressive, the Bernouli algorithm is recognised today as the world’s first computer program

There remains contention regarding whether Ada herself wrote an algorithm intended to compute Bernouli numbers, widely considered to be the first known computer program. While it is certain that she worked on it, some scholars believe that the actual calculations were performed by Babbage, with Ada only editing it and specifically correcting a major error made by the older mathematician. Regardless of the exact details, it was remarkable work for the 26 year old that gives Ada and Babbage every right to their titles as the ‘mother and father’ of computer programming.  In addition, Ada is credited with being the first to recognise the wider application of using algorithms for any sort of information, such as music or language, by converting the data into numerical form. Today, this concept seems meaninglessly abstruse or glaringly self-evident: at the time, it was revolutionary.

“[The Analytical Engine] might act upon other things besides number, were objects found whose mutual fundamental relations could be expressed by those of the abstract science of operations…” – (notes on Sketch of the Analytical Engine invented by Charles Babbage, 1843)

Sadly, from 1843, Ada’s health declined and she began to drink heavily and rely on opiates prescribed as painkillers, causing her moods to be erratic. Her habit of gambling resulted in huge debts after she tried unsuccessfully to devise a mathematical model allowing for large wins, and this minor scandal was exacerbated by rumours of affairs with various men. She died tragically young in 1852, aged just 36, from uterine cancer.

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A portrait of Ada in 1836, jokingly described thus in a letter: “I conclude [the artist] is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jaw bone upon which the word Mathematics should be written.” (by Margaret Carpenter)

Woman of the Week: Desirée Clary (née Bernardine Eugénie Désirée Clary)

Desirée Clary (1777-1860) was a woman who knew how to climb the social ladder. Born the daughter of a reasonably wealthy silk merchant in Marseilles, she ended up being the Queen of two nations and a political informant within the French government. That begs the question – well, how? The answer is simple, as technically all she had to do was marry the right man, but the story is far more interesting.

It starts just after the French Revolution, when in 1794 Desirée became engaged to a young soldier from Corse called Bonaparte, but the arrangement was broken off so that Desirée’s older sister, Julie, could marry him instead. A bad deal for Desirée? Not really, considering that the change was suggested by Bonaparte’s younger brother, who had his eye on Desirée himself – another soldier, very recently elevated to the status of general, whose first name just so happened to be Napoleon.

In another turn of events that ended up being a blessing in surprise, Napoleon soon abandoned Desirée to become involved with Josephine de Beauharnais, a wealthy and influential widow in the Parisian ‘set’. Throughout his life, though, he maintained a respect and affection for his one-time fiancée that would give her a unique position within the inner machinations of the French government.

Returning to Paris after a sojourn in Italy with her sister, Desirée soon found herself romantically linked to another French general, Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who she married in 1798. Bernadotte was already a well-known and well-liked figure in the military before Napoleon’s rise to power, and was seen by many as the ideal alternative to the despotic Bonaparte. As the wife and ex-fiancee of these two powerful rivals, Desirée had to contend with both factions trying to use her as a political pawn.

Though Bonaparte hoped to end Bernadotte’s military and political influence in 1809, when he stripped the other man of the Marshal’s baton (and rank) that he had bestowed upon him in 1804, a healthy dose of karma helped to balance the scales again. Bernadotte’s benevolent treatment of some Swedish prisoners brought him to the attention of the aging, heirless King Charles XIII of Sweden, who eventually adopted him as his royal heir.

Thus Desirée became the Crown Princess, and inevitably, after the old King’s death in 1818, the Queen of Sweden and Norway. Finding the -20 weather that greeted her upon her first arrival in Sweden to be rather not to her taste, Desirée flatly refused to stay in her adopted kingdom and returned to Paris instead, where she remained for 12 years.

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Desirée as Queen Consort in 1822 (by Fredric Westin)

Whilst there, though her personal relationship with Bernadotte drifted into insignificance, she stayed in close contact with him so as to provide Sweden with the latest political news in Europe and France. By receiving important personages like Talleyrand and
Fouché
, and playing on her lingering intimacy with Napoleon, she helped to mediate political conflicts between the country of her birth and that of which she became Queen, despite a self-professed lack of interest in politics and government.

Though Desirée did eventually move permanently to Sweden in 1823, to remain until her death, the French habits and expectations that she clung to were at odds with Swedish culture, and she never truly adapted to – or was adopted by – the nation with the enthusiasm of her husband.

Woman of the Week: Elizabeth von Arnim (née Mary Annette Beauchamp)

avt_elizabeth-von-arnim_9068Born at Kirribilli Point, Australia in 1866 to British parents and the little-known cousin of New Zealand poet, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth von Arnim published her first semi-autobiographical book, Elizabeth and her German Garden, after her then-husband, Baron von Arnim, was imprisoned for fraud and debts. Despite claiming to have no taste for work, indeed, informing us that “There is nothing so absolutely bracing for the soul as the frequent turning of one’s back on duties,” (Elizabeth and her German Garden), from 1898 onwards, she had a reasonably prolific output of more than 20 books, often based heavily on her own life and experiences. Her irreverence towards the private nature of her relationship with her husband, or indeed to appropriate behaviour in general, as well as her disregard for the odd beliefs and biases about love and the sexes that pervaded her era, can be seen from the thick satire ubiquitous in her work.

“But there are no men here,” said Mrs. Wilkins, “so how can it be improper? Have you noticed,” she inquired of Mrs. Fisher, who endeavoured to pretend she did not hear, “How difficult it is to be improper without men?” (The Enchanted April, 1910)

With her first book becoming rapidly popular, Elizabeth was soon associating with the literary names of the time, becoming mistress to H.G. Wells for some years and including E.M. Forster among her children’s tutors. Throughout her life, though, Elizabeth’s cheerfully acknowledged misanthropy, so often alluded to in her work – “It is true she liked him most when he wasn’t there, but then she usually liked everybody most when they weren’t there.” (The Enchanted April) – allowed to be quite capable of contenting herself alone, and indeed she demonstrated her taste for independence with her frequent relocations throughout Europe. To travel so willingly and so much as a single mother was already notable, but showed the strength of her personality even more so when she moved to the United States after separating from her second husband, the second Earl Russell -who  was known colloquially as ‘the Wicked Earl’ due to being tried for bigamy and who she never officially divorced.

Elizabeth’s writing is filled with her original and somewhat cynical opinions on society and the various absurdities she observed within it, delivered with what became a signature style of wit – a kind of flippant satire that makes her characters feel intimately relatable, like a cheerful old friend. After all, who can disagree when Elizabeth warns of the danger of extended family?

“Oh, my dear, relations are like drugs, – useful sometimes, and even pleasant, if taken in small quantities and seldom, but dreadfully pernicious on the whole, and the truly wise avoid them.” (Elizabeth and her German Garden, 1898)

Even in death, Elizabeth entertains us, requesting an epitaph that read parva sed apta (‘small but apt’ in Latin), referencing her rather short stature. Sadly, however, in spite of her impelling honesty and famous friends, Arnim, who preferred to style herself simply as ‘Elizabeth’, though her birth name was in fact Mary Annette, has been largely forgotten by the reading public today.

Famous Works (freely available via Project Gutenberg):

Elizabeth and her German Garden, 1898
Vera, 1931

 

Woman of the Week: Artemisia Gentileschi

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Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (between 1638 and 1639 – Royal Collection, England)

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1653) was internationally famous in her own time, despite the obvious prejudices of 17th century Europe, being invited personally to the court of English king Charles I and enjoying the patronage of Cosimo II de Medici. Today, she is academically recognised as one of the most accomplished painters of the period, but remains largely forgotten, instead of claiming her place in public knowledge among the likes of Rubens, Caravaggio, or even her father, Orazio Gentlileschi. The first female to be admitted to the prestigious Accademia delle Arti del Disegno, her fame was partly – and rightly – due to her fascinatingly expressive and skilful paintings, but also to her dramatic personal life, echoes of which reverberate throughout her work.

 

With her father already a famous painter who included Caravaggio, known for his introduction of chiaroscuro to the world of Renaissance painting among his close friends, it was natural that Artemisia began painting at an early age, with

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Susanna and the Elders (1610 – Schonbrön Collection, Pommersfelden)

her first major artwork, Susanna and the Elders, marking her debut onto the painting scene. She was just 17 when the canvas was finished, and already making a name for herse
lf with the controversial subject choice as much as her obvious talent. Unfortunately, she rose to notoriety shortly after for a rather more upsetting reason, when Agostino Tassi, a fellow artist hired to the tutor the young Artemisia, raped the still teenaged girl in her own house. The case went to trial, lasting a staggering seven months, and the entire transcription of the proceedings has been miraculously retained. In it, Artemisia states that she threw a knife at her assailant, shouting ‘I’d like to kill you with this knife because you have dishonoured me’. Eventually, Tassi was found guilty, but the experience, unsurprisingly, had a profound effect on Artemisia’s painting.

 

Many of her portraits are now interpreted as intensely autobiographical, with Artemisia favouring strong female characters from the Bible or popular mythology and depicting them with a sense of agency and emotion practically unseen at the time. One of her most famous pieces, Judith Slaying Holofernes, is largely accepted to represent Artemisia as Judith, finally exacting her revenge on Tassi in the form of Holofernes, an infamous general from the Old Testament. The grim determination of Judith as she saws off the head of a screaming but helpless Holofernes is one of the most chilling examples of Artemisia expressing herself, as a female in an incredibly male-dominated world, through Biblical allegory. Artemisia’s deviation from social expectations in her depiction of women shows, quite clearly, how she defied against a culture inclined to ignore her with the most powerful weapon she had – her art.

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Judith Slaying Holofernes (between 1614 and 1620 – National Museum of Capodimonte, Naples)

 

On Preparation, and how to enjoy history properly

As a kid, my parents dragged me to half a million fascinating places between Portugal and Germany, and I have clear memories of quite a few of them. The common element of all those memories, though, is that I frequently barely even remember the historical or cultural significance of the place, but rather some silly anecdotal event that happened. Getting lost as an eight year old in the Schönbrunn palace and deciding to continue on with a random tour group I found, or carrying our pet cat through an abandoned-feeling monastery in Spain. There’s a place I went in Germany which I couldn’t describe as anything except ‘the place we watched a squirrel run up a vertical wall’.

Obviously, unless it’s a particular hobby of theirs, children are rarely as fascinated by who-lived-here-when and who-died-how as adults are. But even travelling as an adult I’ve found that a lot of the time, seeing the must-see sights of this famous city or that can be, rather, well, boring. This is despite my being both keenly interested in and possessed of a relatively well-developed understanding of Western history.

Almost everything is wonderful if I read the helpful placards and remember which king Henry VIII was (the one with all the wives, FYI) and what else was happening in the world at that time (European expansionism, mostly) because then I can put personalities to the scenes in front of me, whether it be an ornate display of the tea-table or a half-destroyed dungeon where some political prisoner was kept. That is without debate: it is amazing to see the remnants and reproductions of how these famous characters from our cultural development and their fellow man lived.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, you don’t really know the specifics of what you’re visiting. Yes, the Arc de Triomphe is an impressive monument in and of itself, but if you’re very vague on what Napoleon actually did except be made fun of by modern day students for being short, it doesn’t mean a great deal beyond that. The solution is surely to read the informative plaques that inevitably accompany any popular tourist site, but even then, the information might not be available in your language or it might be too dreadfully brief and expect you to already be well-versed in the exact succession of royalty in Hungary in the 18th century. Not many of us, sadly, are. Guided tours are often perfect for filling these gaps, but might be impossible due to timing, language barriers or costs.

What’s the solution, then? Should we confine ourselves only to seeking out the historical monuments we already know the history for? Of course not. The answer, while perhaps a little unattractive, is to read up beforehand. It sounds counterintuitive to think that you should be studying for your holidays, but the fact remains that you’ll get more genuine enjoyment out of what you’re seeing if you know why you’re supposed to be enjoying it. That’s why people get tours, after all – to have someone explain why they should care. But it’s easy to do it yourself, too, whether by buying a guidebook or just letting yourself fall into the rabbit hole that is link-hopping on Wikipedia. And as an added bonus, you can customise your research to include exactly what it is that interests you most – though you do run the risk of ending up completely off topic and wanting to go visit another three different sites because of what you’ve read about them!

In simple terms, unless you’re ready to throw yourself on fate’s /hands/ and hope that there will be adequate information that fits neatly into the jigsaw puzzle of what you already know, or, at least, an interesting event involving small furry animals, it’s nothing but a good investment to be prepared with all the facts you need to truly impress everyone with all your brand-new knowledge about the place you’re going to – even before you get on the plane.