Dear fellow travellers
"And this is where Madame Curie was born," a guide was telling her French tour group, as we walked briskly along ulica Freta in Warsaw. It was something we had heard before and yet it always comes as a surprise. How could someone with so French a name as Marie Curie have been born and raised in Warsaw?
Yet Madame Curie was Polish through and through. Born Maria Sklodowska, she spent the first twenty-four years of her life in her native Warsaw, before moving to Paris where she studied physics and married Pierre Curie. Warsaw never forgets Madame Curie's Polish roots. The scientist was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, when she and Pierre shared the Nobel Prize for physics in 1903. Eight years later, Marie Curie received a second Nobel Prize, this time for chemistry. Today, one of Poland's largest higher education institutions recalls her full name: Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin.
It is always interesting to discover the places where famous folk were born. Who ever would have thought that Andre Agassi, the son of an Iranian-born boxer, should have first seen the light of our world in Las Vegas?
And that brings us to playwright Tom Stoppard, born in 1937. You could not invent a more English name if you tried. But Stoppard was born Tomás Straussler. Stoppard's birthplace happens to be a rather interesting community. It is in the Moravian hills and, in all our travels around Europe, we have never stumbled on a place that is so utterly dominated by shoes. Zlín is an old market town, but it was the Moravian shoe mogul Tomás Bata who, with others members of his family, propelled Zlín to footwear fame.
From the mid-1890s onwards, Bata's shoe business blossomed, and the company sponsored some the most adventurous architecture in central Europe. Tomás drew on emerging ideas of the Garden City from England and on the work of Swiss architect Le Corbusier to create in Zlín model housing areas for his workers. After Tomás' death, his brother Jan Antonín Bata commissioned the Bata's headquarters in Zlín, a striking piece of Constructivist design and the highest building in Czechoslovakia at the time. Jan Antonín, by then the company's chairman, had his office constructed in a lift which swept up and down the building. "The best way to keep in touch with my staff," said Jan Antonín, "and it ensures that they have easy access to me."
Were it not for the paternalistic nature of the Bata business, we would probably never have enjoyed Tom Stoppard's remarkable plays. Tom's father was a company doctor working with Bata in Zlín - it was in the nature of things that a good employer looked after the health of his employees. With the German invasion of the Czech lands in March 1939, the Straussler family was despatched to the safety of Singapore. Their Jewish origins made Zlín no safe place to stay. Singapore turned out in time to be none too safe either. Dr Straussler perished during the Japanese invasion of Singapore. Tomás and his mother fled to India, and in due course to England. Tomás Straussler became Tom Stoppard.
Perhaps one day, as we walk the streets of Zlín, we shall hear a tour guide mention a moment of Moravian history: "And this is where the famous playwright Tom Stoppard was born." But that is a mere flight of fancy. Zlín's considerable contribution to European theatre goes generally unremarked in the town of Stoppard's birth.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe)