When a solar eclipse swept across Europe last month, the cosmic event inspired me, and I’m sure many others, to ponder some of life’s unknowable mysteries. Specifically, the unknowable mystery that preoccupied me most was: the Flintstones.
Or rather Stone Age clans in general. How did those isolated hunter-gatherer tribes learn about eclipses? They no doubt experienced them once in a while, but total eclipses are so rare it must have taken centuries of handed-down lore before they figured out what to expect.
I like to imagine that someday a decipherable written record of prehistory will be found, perhaps in a cave in southwestern France, with archives that read something like this:
Notes For Future Generations, Volume I: Dawn of Time to Dawn of Civilization
March 20, 55412 BCE. Wow! It was the damnedest thing: the sun went away in the middle of the afternoon! It was scary, but a little while later it came back. So if you ever see this happen, don’t flip out — it only lasts a few minutes.
Special note for guys: don’t bother telling women that the only way to make the sun shine again is to have sex with you. They’re already wise to that one. I think maybe they’ve been keeping their own archives.
October 3, 39112 BCE. Oh man, we just came up with a fan-TAS-tic joke to pull on the Neanderthals. Here’s what you do: paint a bunch of pictures of big animals all over the walls of your cave. Bulls, mammoths, wooly rhinos, tigers — whatever.
Then pretend you’re moving out, hide in the bushes and wait for them to come scavenging. They can’t tell art from real life, so the first time they move their torches over those paintings they’ll crap their bearskins and come running out of there screaming. It’s priceless!
Oh, and BTW, remember that thing about the sun going away? When that happens, don’t look at it or you’ll go blind. Took us 15,000 years to catch on. Sorry!
Today, of course, we have the benefit of modern astrophysics, which has given us a thorough knowledge of the eclipse phenomenon. Even schoolchildren understand it: at certain predictable times, the moon lines up with the sun and casts its shadow over a narrow zone of the Earth, plunging it into complete darkness. Which lasts until all the astrophysicists have had sex.
Which is why everyone, especially in the astrophysics community, was looking forward with great anticipation to the solar eclipse of March 20. The totality zone was far north of us, up around the Faroe Islands, but a partial eclipse was visible in Paris.
Or would have been, except that the sky was completely obscured by clouds, mist, fog, smog and gloomy economic prospects for the Eurozone. Essentially, no one noticed a thing, and everyone in Paris just kept going about their daily business — taking coffee breaks, taking cigarette breaks, taking two-hour lunch breaks, making dinner reservations in three-star restaurants, planning their five-week vacations, etc., etc.
Nonetheless, it reminded me of the markedly more spectacular eclipse of August 1999, when the blackout zone went right across northern France. Nancy and I decided to go up to Dieppe, on the Normandy coast, to see it.
The trip turned out to be something of an adventure, and not just in terms of astronomical interest. If my hypothetical logbook of human experience existed, it would have later entries like these:
Notes For Future Generations, Volume II: Dawn of Civilization to Y2K Apocalypse
June 3, 1240. Hey! We just noticed something: people seem to act crazy whenever there’s a full moon.
August 11, 1999. And if you think the full moon brings out the weirdos, try a total eclipse sometime.
Special note for guys: cut it out already — it has never worked. It’s not even funny any more.
The event seemed to have put the entire kook population of France on active duty. The train to Dieppe that morning was packed with eclipse watchers, all equipped with eye protectors, and many burdened with eccentricities.
There was one guy who kept his cardboard safety glasses on the entire time inside the train, even in tunnels, apparently operating on the assumption that merely being near a solar eclipse without them would fry his eyeballs like falafels. Or maybe he thought that he was watching a really long, plotless 3D movie.
If it had been a documentary, there was another passenger who was out of touch with the reality show. He spent the entire trip silently wandering the aisles, looking around in dazed wonderment as though it were the first time in his life that he had ever been on, or heard of, a train.
He also looked as though that morning was the first time in his life that he had ever put on, or heard of, clothing. And, despite being middle-aged, he apparently had yet to hear of some other things that most of us become acquainted with early in life, such as combs, nail clippers and facial tissues. And soap, which made me glad that he was wandering the aisles and not seated in our car.
Then there was the British woman who latched onto Nancy and me because she had heard us speaking English and felt the need to vent her indignation. Both of which — the need and the indignation — were considerable.
Violating her country’s time-honored tenet that one does not complain about things that one is unable or unwilling to change, she groused profusely about French people’s insufficient proficiency in foreign languages (i.e., hers), the speed of the train, the price of everything and whatever else crossed her mind, including the weather.
On the latter topic, she had a point. The problem was essentially one of consistency: as we rolled toward the coast we went through patches of sunlight and patches of cloudy sky.
This was not sitting well with our fellow Anglophone, who spent much of her time, when she wasn’t trying to enlist our sympathy for the next item on her peeve list, looking out the window and harrumphing.
Finally she blurted out, “Well! I can see that only rich people will get to see the eclipse!”
Everyone within earshot joined us in staring at her quizzically, with the obvious reaction written all over our faces: WTF (Where’s The Factuality)?
Then she explained: “Because they have cars, so they can drive to wherever it’s sunny!”
Ah. Yes. Clouds split up so that they can follow individual groups of poor-to-middle-class people around, taking care to stay right over their heads until all rare or interesting celestial phenomena have finished. Everyone knows that!
As it turned out, her pessimism was ill-placed but well-founded: we got to the beach in Dieppe about half an hour before Totality Time and waited under gray skies. And the clouds didn’t clear until well after the eclipse.
But it was still thrilling. Even in less-than-perfect weather, since we were on a beach facing the right direction, we could see the shadow of the moon racing towards us across the water. Night enveloped us in one second and the temperature dropped rapidly. The birds fell silent and the sky filled with gigantic fluorescent-eyed bats.
Which turned out to be bat-shaped kites that a local club had prepared for the occasion, but nonetheless it added to the excitement. All in all, being in an eclipse, if not exactly seeing it, was spookily pleasurable. And pleasurably spooky.
Notes For Future Generations, Volume III: Y2K to Actual Apocalypse
March 20, 2015. If you want to view a solar eclipse in Paris, be sure to be rich, because you’ll need a car. To drive you to the airport, where you can charter a helicopter to fly you above the clouds.
Special note for guys: oh, what the hell — keep trying. Maybe it’ll work next time.
© 2015 Paris UpdateFavorite
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