Eclipsed

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I saw my first total solar eclipse on a hilltop in Germany 18 years ago. It took place on Steve’s 50th birthday. Months earlier, when I had heard that the two events would coincide, I had worked to arrange a house (and car) trade with a family in Bavaria, and on the big day, Steve and Michael and Elliot (then 14 and 10) and I piled into the Bauer’s little Ford and headed out, seeking a viewing site. It was a stormy day, and we had a wild time, trying to find clearer skies and a well-situated town from which to witness the spectacle. We found a town but had a terrible time parking. Still, we managed to work our way to a spot within the throng that had gathered to watch the sun disappearing between the passing storm clouds. The clouds parted right before the astronomical climax, and my family’s shouts of amazement and gasps of pleasure joined in the general chorus.

It felt electrifying, and when it was over, I vowed to travel to every other total solar eclipse viewable on the planet in my lifetime. That impulse was sincere but impractical, and my resolve was short-lived. Total eclipses aren’t that infrequent, but they’re far-flung and expensive to get to. I hadn’t made it to a single additional one when I heard about the coast-to-coast extravaganza that would take place in the United States on August 21st this year. That fired me up again.

It occurred to me that if I used our frequent-flier miles to transport us home from Europe to Portland, instead of San Diego, we could snag inexpensive tickets home to San Diego the day after the eclipse. Also, I have a niece who lives in Portland, a city I’d never visited. So we set eclipse-viewing plans in motion.

We refined them a bit in the late spring and early summer. Our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie decided to fly in from Reno to join us. We also began to rethink my original plan for where to view the event. Portland was just outside the zone of totality, and I knew that clear skies on the Oregon coast were not a sure thing. At first I reasoned that, if necessary, we could get up early and drive over the mountains to the hot, dry side of the state. But in June we began to hear stories about the huge crowds that would be flooding in. Authorities warned about the need to stockpile food and fuel and even water. Envisioning the nightmare of being stuck in a massive traffic jam on a small road through the Cascades, we resigned ourselves to accepting whatever the weather gods delivered for Salem (well within the totality zone and only a 75-minute freeway drive from Shannon and Jimmy’s house). As Steve and I traveled in Europe over the past few weeks, I sneaked peeks now and then at the upcoming Salem weather; mostly I found jolly yellow balls predicting sun, but at other times, partial clouds were forecast. That was depressing; by the time we landed in Portland Saturday night, I had decided to just stop thinking about it.

Sunday the skies in Portland teased us — clear part of the day but obscured by light clouds and haze at other times. The prediction for Monday in Salem, however, continued to be a bright yellow ball. When we walked outside around 5 am on Monday morning, Venus, shone brightly, almost directly overhead.

We started driving south at 5:30 and hit patches of traffic. Despite it, we reached Salem under azure skies by 7:15 — three solid hours before Totality. While driving, we’d read online that a huge eclipse party would be taking place at the state fairgrounds — but the tickets were all sold out. Another recommended spot, however, was a park not far from the center of town. We headed there.

Now that I’ve experienced two total eclipses, I have a pretty clear idea of my dream viewing spot for any future ones. It’s on a hilltop crowded with festive fellow eclipse-watchers, some playing guitars and clapping as the color drains almost imperceptibly from the landscape. The sweeping view of the surrounding countryside offers the chance of sensing the shadow of the moon streaking toward one at 1800 miles an hour, in the last fraction of a second before the sky turns black.

Our park in Salem wasn’t quite like that. It was flat, encompassing a couple of huge grassy meadows, but signs warned visitors against walking out on them. Instead people strolled in and arranged folding chairs or picnic blankets along the edges of the open areas. They chatted quietly within their little groups, relaxed as holiday-goers soaking up rays on a beach. I whooped loudly when, a little after 9, my eclipse glasses revealed the first small bite out of the disk, but if anyone else cheered, I didn’t hear them.

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Not exactly a mob scene.

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The shape of the sun, reduced by the moon to a slim crescent, captured through the pinholes cameras created by the tree leaves.
Tension built only slowly. By 9:40, the four of us agreed that the light had shifted into some subtly otherworldly spectrum: colder, weaker. Stephanie noticed that the chirr of insects was growing louder. By 10, a portly older man dragged his wife up the embankment next to us to show her a patch of the pavement where sunlight was filtering through the leaves. He couldn’t resist coming up to us to ask if we too had noticed the splatter of crescent shapes: the shape of the sun’s image projected on the ground. We hadn’t and thanked him for sharing the insight.

 

More people around us rose to their feet; more voiced comments addressed at large. Anticipation coiled us tighter and tighter as the light grew more surreal with every passing second.

Then it happened. Better writers than me have commented that the difference between experiencing any partial eclipse and a total eclipse is like the difference between riding in an airplane and falling out of an airplane. Or like the difference between seeing a lightning bug and seeing lightning. At the instant that the moon obliterates the sun, people shout, cry out. Tears sprang into Stephanie’s eyes. I know I screamed. Steve, more level-headed, was trying to capture it on his phone. Here’s what he recorded starting just before totality:


<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/230680395″>Eclipse 2017</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/user25079241″>Jeannette De Wyze</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

It lasted only a bit over two minutes. Then we gathered our things and straggled out of the park and slogged through almost four hours of horrific traffic, back to Portland. But we talked about those two minutes, off and on, the rest of the day and evening.

There’s another total eclipse coming in 2023 and another one in South America the following year. I’m wiser now, I’ve already put them on my calendar.

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Still hungry in Florence

When we said goodbye to our French friend Olivia before heading to Turin and Florence, she warned that the beauty of Florence was so great it could be stupefying. She claimed that on her visits there, she couldn’t resist walking compulsively from one exquisite site to another, forgetting even to take breaks for food and drink.

This did not happen to Steve and me. We got hungry at regular intervals, and we paused to eat wild boar, osso buco, gelato, roast suckling pig, pizza, deep-fried rabbit and eggplant, sea bass, more gelato, buffalo-milk mozzarella, flavorful tomatoes, poached codfish, gnocchi with crab, risotto with fresh truffles, more gelato, and other tasty dishes (in only three and a half days!) Every meal was extraordinary. Almost everything cost about half what comparable fare would cost back at home. I don’t know if we gained weight eating it. (I’ll find out soon, when we get home). But it’s possible we didn’t. Like Olivia, we walked obsessively — at least 8 or 9 miles every day. Thursday we also climbed the 38 floors to the top of Florence’s magnificent basilica.

If the beauty of the city didn’t stop us from enjoying its food, we nonetheless found it pretty much as wonderful as Olivia promised. It made us yearn to someday do a house trade here to savor it all at a slower pace.

In the meantime, we’ll have to console ourselves with memories such as these:







Now we’re in Portland, trying to plan for a successful eclipse-viewing tomorrow!

Border-crossing, Italian style

Trump talks a lot about building border walls. Europe got rid of most of the ones it once had, but with more homeless and desperate folk seeking refuge throughout the continent, I wondered if more barriers would be evident in the course of our current visit to France to Italy. The answer is…mixed.

To get to Italy last Friday, we rolled our carry-on bags down the hill from Olivia’s flat in the French Alps to the little bus station on the main road through her village. We caught the 8:58 a.m. bus bound for Oulx (across the border in Italy); we’d bought the tickets ($8.85 per person) when we’d arrived in town a few days earlier. The bus was clean and pleasant and not very full The ride took only 95 minutes, and the views out the windows entertained us the whole way. We climbed through the beautiful alpine valleys, often well above the clouds.For a while, the road reversed itself, making one 180-degree turn after another.

Those cars weren’t going in the opposite direction. They were behind our bus, which had just rounded yet another bend.

I felt happy that I wasn’t powering myself upward like some of the warmly dressed cyclists we rumbled past.

Near a high point, we stopped at a small French town where a few of our fellow passengers disembarked, and a little ways down the road, we passed a wood and glass structure where Steve caught sight of a couple of French officials seated at desks. They didn’t glance at our bus. A minute or so later, I snapped a photo of a sign welcoming us to Italy. Steve also spotted a little shack that he thought might once have served as a border-crossing inspection station, but it was abandoned.

That was it. No one ever asked if we even were carrying passports. The bus reached our destination on time, we dashed across the tracks at the station and caught the train leaving for Turin. (Although we’d bought tickets for the one leaving an hour later, no one seemed to care that we’d jumped on the early train.) We pulled into the Turin station on a cool, sunny morning, and rest of the weekend was filled with one pleasure after another. 

I might conclude that European border-crossing was still innocent and hassle-free. But the old American friend with whom we spent the weekend had a different experience on his journey. His supposedly “express” bus got to Geneva (where he lives) more than two hours late, filled with passengers who reported being subjected to sniffer-dog inspections at the Swiss border. Going from Switzerland to France, his bus stopped again for more dog sniffing, and crossing from France into Italy, everyone was required to hand over his or her passport. Those were not returned for about a half hour. 
It all reminded me: when it comes to border-crossing, you can’t count on anything. You just have to feel grateful when you get lucky, as Steve and I did.

Our French Wedding

We came to France to attend a wedding. It’s a long way to travel, but we feel like we’ve known the groom since before he was born. His mother and I got pregnant almost simultaneously, and after decades of interactions, his family and ours feel as close as family. So Paul-Louis’s wedding stirred us and touched our hearts for many personal reasons. But it also was a fascinating intercultural experience.

Now that it’s over, I can report at least a dozen ways in which the marriage festivities were unlike their American cousins:

1) There were no night-before-the-wedding activities for those in the wedding party. This was great for us because it meant that our friend, the groom’s mother, was free to dine with us. Still, we marveled at the ability to stage such a complex dramatic event with no rehearsal.

2) The bride and groom, like all married couples in France, were wed in a civil ceremony back in March. That was a much smaller affair, but still included immediate family members and godparents. It took place at the City Hall of Neuilly, the suburb just outside Paris where our friend Olivia lives. The bigger event (which we and about 175 other people were attending) was held in a church that is almost 700 years old, built back in the days when Roman Catholic popes lived and ruled from their palace in Avignon (just across the river) from the church town.

3) The church service, naturally, was entirely in French, and I didn’t recognize a single hymn.


4) Even though it was close to 100 degrees outside (and pretty toasty inside the church), the vast majority of the men (young and old) wore suits. Ladies got to wear much skimpier outfits.

5) The service was supposed to start at 3:30, but for 5 or 10 minutes past that hour, many guests stood in the main aisle and pews, socializing. (Some of the young guys took off their suit coats for this part.)


6) Most of the wedding party zoomed up the aisle briskly, paired up in ways that seemed eccentric to our American eyes: the groom escorting his mother to her seat in the first pew on the right side of the church; followed by the bride’s and groom’s sisters, escorted by their romantic partners also to seats in the first two pews; the groom’s father escorting the bride’s mother; two female and and two male “witnesses” each with escorts, and finally no less than seven adorable little boys (the offspring of the bride’s two sisters). In the program they were identified as enfants ‘d’honneur (literally, children of honor).


The bride and her father did move at a more stately pace, however.

7) There were NO flower girls (but many comments about how Paul-Louis and Candice need to make up for the dearth of family females).

8) Most alien to our eyes: after the marriage ceremony and Mass, no permission from the priest for the groom to kiss the bride, and no ceremonial striding of the couple down the aisle to the strains of Mendelssohn. Instead, the bride and groom had to sign some sort of register off one of the side aisles, and while they attending to this, the guests gradually got to their feet and straggled out the front door of the church.

9) The big finale instead came when the groom and bride walked down the aisle of the almost-empty church and emerged onto the front step, where almost everyone pelted them with white rose petals. (Everyone except for clueless Steve and me, still inside the church, confused about what was going on.)


10) The bride and groom drove off in a classic white French Deux Chevaux (their equivalent of our Model T).


A little while later, everyone converged on a domaine on the island in the middle of the Rhone River between Avignon and Villeneuve Les Avignons, and the reception festivities played out there. These were splendid: first cocktails on a huge lawn under enormous trees, then a very formal sit-down dinner, followed by dancing. The food and wine were superb. The speeches (as far as my French went in understanding them) were witty and articulate. And once again, we were fascinated by the cultural differences. Including:
When Paul-Louis and Candice joined the party, the DJ in the room cued up music and everyone rose to their feet, twirling their napkins over their heads. This went on for quite a while.

The dinner and speeches lasted from 8 pm until about 12:30 am. Only THEN did the dancing begin!

I couldn’t resist joining in for 3 or 4, but Steve and I were pretty tired by then. We tumbled into bed about 1:30, but then arose again fairly early to join the brunch back at the domaine.

The grand lawn, where the cocktail party segment of the reception was held, along with the Sunday brunch.

All weddings are special. This was was sure no exception.

Seven reasons we liked Marseille 

Steve expected Marseille to be grubby and disagreeable. But on our whirlwind visit, we had a great time. Among the more likable things:

1) Delicious seafood


2) Reminders of how close we were to North Africa (coupled with adamant assurances from our B&B operator that, unlike in Paris, here everyone gets along extremely well)


3) Some of the most intensely royal blue and azure and turquoise ocean I’ve ever seen


4) The oldest hardware store in France (where we found the bolts and screws we needed to repair my broken suitcase handle)


5) A church filled with dangling ship models



6) A lively, sun-drenched port.


7) Lots of great vistas


One of those little islands in the distance is the site of Chateau d’If, the fictional home of the Count of Monte Cristo

(Less likable was the intense heat. But now that we’ve moved inland, Marseille feels like a cool respite.)

A Visit to Frank in the Bois

Not so much to write about, as I expected, but a bunch of great sights crammed into our 48 hours in Paris, including sections of the Seine transformed into a beach-ish place…


…and our first visit to the wonderful new exhibit space by master architect Frank Gehry in the Bois de Boulogne. (Just a 20-minute walk from Olivia’s house, The Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuiton opened in late 2014). Both the building and the current exhibition (art by contemporary African artists) took my breath away. We had to tear ourselves away after more than three hours.




Now we’re in Marseilles, a much messier, grittier, more international kind of place. 

The bonobos of Texas

Steve and I are mad at American Airlines. We’ve been frequent fliers with them for almost three decades, and our loyalty has enabled us to fly free to countless destinations, both domestic and abroad. But in recent years, it’s become harder and harder to use our miles to go where we want. The most recent example is my effort to use miles to get us to Europe for Paul-Louis’s wedding.

I started trying to find passage back in late December, but all I saw were flights that required us to fly through London’s Heathrow Airport. The problem with this routing is that Heathrow charges hundreds of dollars per passenger in taxes. In contrast, if we fly direct from a US airport to Paris, we pay only about $11 per person.

But the only choice the new (mean and stingy) American Airlines was offering me was to fly from San Diego to Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport one day, then continue on to Paris at 5:50 pm the next day. Repulsive as this choice was, I booked it.

I hoped that eventually better flights would become available (ones that wouldn’t require the Texas sleepover.) At one point, I was checking the AA website two or three times daily. But nothing opened up. Then one day it occurred to me that I had a good reason to spend a day in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area: Ft. Worth is one of the only zoos in the US that includes bonobos in its collection!

In recent years, I’ve become a fan of bonobos — our highly endangered primate cousins, so much more likable than chimpanzees. (We share more than 98 percent of our DNA with both.) Matriarchal in their social organization, bonobos are far more peaceful and sexy in their social interactions. This spring I wrote a cover story for the Reader about the colony at the San Diego Zoo — the first place bonobos were brought from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, and the place where the vast majority of groundbreaking research has occurred.

That reporting was a great experience, and it whetted my appetite to see the other bonobos in captivity in America. The Ft. Worth Zoo is one. So Friday after taking our flight to DFW, we rented an inexpensive car, slept at a cheap hotel, then set out Saturday morning for Ft. Worth (about 30 minutes west of the airport.)

It was instructive. Admission to the Ft. Worth institution only cost $24 for the two of us. (I think it’s close to $100 in San Diego.) Although the temperature was in the high 80s (and headed to the high 90s), the zoo was pleasant, shaded by mature trees.

It’s much smaller than the San Diego Zoo, and it seems much more fearless about promoting its ape collection. The great ape compound was highlighted at the entrance, where the Texans boasted that their primate center includes “all the great apes” — gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos (who are mentioned by name. In contrast, for reasons that never were clear to me, the San Diego Zoo seems intent on almost hiding its bonobo collection.)

Despite the weird reticence of the San Diegans, I can now tell you this: if you want to have a close encounter with one of our closest animal relatives on the planet, the San Diego Zoo is a better place to do it than Ft. Worth. In San Diego, the bonobos enjoy a huge enclosure, and there are three or four windows into it that enable a lot of up close and personal interaction with these charming animals. We saw six bonobos at the Ft. Worth facility. Two were in an indoor enclosure, the size of which made me cringe. Steve had to remind me that the alternative for bonobos (living wild and free in the Congo) carries the constant risk of being killed and smoked by poachers.

In the Ft. Worth Zoo’s outdoor viewing area, we were able to catch a glimpse of four more bonobos (two females adults, one male, and a baby). Then, to my delight, the mother and baby moved right next to the only viewing window, near where we were standing. 

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The baby looked very young — less than a year? The mother settled into the corner near the glass, and the baby began nursing. We were inches away, albeit viewing all this through scratched, milky windows that made it hard to take good pictures. The baby sucked at one of its mother’s breasts. It moved to the other side and gazed at its mother adoringly, but also periodically focused its attention on Steve and me. We stared back. I tried to communicate some sense of solidarity with the pair, to project my respect and admiration.

I don’t think they got it. But I’m still glad we went.