I’m on the train, gliding through mountains shrouded in mist and fog, not so far from the border between Switzerland and France. I’m returning from a short trip to Geneva and heading to Paris.
Even today, each place I visit is framed by the books I have read – too many, it seems. It’s the second time in a year I am in Geneva, but before that it was more than twenty years since I last visited. I am reminded of that short story by Borges where the older Borges meets himself, much younger, on a park bench overlooking the lake. What would I have said if I had met the younger H. J. McCracken in the streets of Geneva? Well, I know what he would have said to me: “Hey, what happened to the hair”? He might have also remarked on the wedding ring. But he would have probably been relieved to learn that I was now a astronomer and living in Paris and that I had actually managed to find someone like Marie-Laure. All that would probably have seemed incredible to him then, in that distant summer of 1991 when I first travelled to “continental Europe” as I sometimes called it back then. I don’t think I would have had any useful advice to offer him, other than “keep working, you’ll get there, and along the way you’ll find out where you’re supposed to go”.
I spent three months as an assistant at a research lab in Zurich, the ETH. It was my first to the vast European continent. I was so excited at the prospect of that trip and spending so much time there that for weeks beforehand my dreams were filled with jumbled-up impressions of what I imagined that these cities I had never visited before would look like. Once I arrived, I was disorientated and charmed – I had never seen before a city that was actually pleasant to look at (my thoughts on Zurich have changed a bit in the meantime, when I returned there in 2012: that, again, is a story for another day). On the weekends, I would take the train and visit Swiss cities or wander the streets of Zurich. The last two weeks before I returned to Manchester I made a short tour of a few European cities, strangely selected in retrospect – Munich, Prague, Strasbourg and Paris. I did not visit Italy. I harboured a lingering suspicion of the debauched South at that time in my life, probably as side-effect of my isolated adolescence in rural Ireland. Back in Manchester I vainly searched for traces of the life I had seen in Switzerland, which in general meant lingering for hours over milky tea in greasy spoon cafes after I had eaten beans on toast and imagining that I was in a cafe overlooking Lake Zurich.
It’s strange the details I recall from that summer. I actually remember the first espresso I ever drank. I had somehow been given a ticket for a free drink at Zurich cafe (remember, I am a student coming from Manchester at this point). I presented my ticket, expecting a large mug of coffee I think, and then being surprised to see … what? The smallest cup of coffee I had ever seen in my life. An espresso. I didn’t understand. I didn’t appreciate it either – it probably wasn’t a very good espresso. Ah, I would have to wait a decade or so before I really appreciated espresso.
To return to the present: this afternoon at IAP we are celebrating the institute’s 75th anniversary. It’s interesting to think about how astronomy has changed in intervening years, and to imagine what will be the state of affairs will be in another 75 years. Reporting back soon…