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Interlude: Geneva-Paris

Interlude: Geneva-Paris

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…

Reading Chateaubriand, visiting St. Malo…

Reading Chateaubriand, visiting St. Malo…

A few weeks ago I found myself listening to a radio programme where they mentioned a new autobiography of the French 19th Century writer, Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand. Now, I had heard of this man before: he had lived in an apartment near the paris Observatory, which is marked by a plaque on the wall (It’s on the avenue Denfert-Rochereau). I had already heard of his last, long book, around ten years ago, the enormous “Memoires d’Outre-Tombe” (Memoires from beyond the grave) thanks to a certain American Writer. But hey – we are living in the 21st century, where every intellectual curiosity can be instantly satisfied. Within a few seconds I had downloaded the first volume (of ten I think) of “Memoires d’Outre-Tombe” on one of these shiny electronic devices we have these days and started to read it. Being wholly electronic, one has no real impression of the heft and size of the book: it’s not like for instance trying to read Pynchon’s “Against the Day” or David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”, both of which are more than 1000 pages in length. “Memoires d’Outre-Tombe” is even longer than that. One is not intimidated. So I started reading. And after a week or so I knew what I would be reading for the next few months — the book is much more interesting that I expected it to be.

Chateaubriand lived in an extremely tumultuous time in French history. Born in 1768, he died eighty years later in 1848 after having witnessing the French revolution and all that came after it (Napoleon the Emperor, the restoration). He travelled travelled widely. I’ve now read the first ten books out of forty-two (!) and there are many wonderful descriptions and scenes. Chateaubriand is considered as one of the first romantic writers and it’s easy to understand why. He describes his childhood in Combourg, a mediaeval chateau in Brittany: this chateau once held 100 people, but when his family moved there they were in total maybe 20 people in the Chateaubriand household. His father sent each member of the family to a separate tower and Chateaubriand (who was less than ten years of age) spends his evenings listening to the wind whistling around the rafters. He is in Paris during the storming of the Bastille, and his descriptions remind me more than a little of the scenes after the fall of the Berlin wall — people singing and reciting poetry on the rubble… In the purges and terror, he survives but most of his family do not. He travels to America, stopping off at Baltimore and embarking on a crazy quest to try to find the north-west passage (which for unknown reasons seems to involve going to Florida). He has an audience with George Washington. He heads out into the American countryside, he see the forests being cut down to make space for the European settlements, encounters indian tribes which will shortly be massacred. He comes back to France after six months abroad (after seeing a newspaper in an American farmhouse announcing the flight of the King)… he returns to Paris and then enlists in a emigrant army to fight the French Republicans alongside the Prussian army. This army is composed of a diverse collection of displaced badly-equipped aristocrats and they spend a few months wandering around in the mud to not much effect, laying siege to the French city of Thionville, which resists. Cheateaubriand is wounded and manages to make his way to England…

What’s actually surprising about the book is that it is very cutting, sarcastic and funny. His descriptions of Danton, Marat and friends are excellent and terrifying. And I found a lot of echoes with other books I had read which were written much later: they have all been influenced by Chateaubriand without perhaps even realising it. Thomas Wolfe, for sure, for my money.

Chateaubriand was a Breton, from St. Malo: and Marie-Laure and I have just come back from three days’ vacation over there, just after Christmas. A welcome trip: St. Malo is deserted at this time of year, there are long beaches to walk along, excellent oysters and clams to eat. I made good progress reading “Memoires”: strange and wonderful to hear his words in his town. And the day after we I arrived I discovered that Chateaubriand’s tomb is on one of the islands facing St. Malo. This island is isolated from the mainland at high tide. Mr. Chateaubriand is facing the ocean; it seems that the wind he felt in his childhood tower was something that he wished to stay near to for a long, long, time.

"For people who cannot go back home…"

"For people who cannot go back home…"

I’m in transit, between Nikko, celebrated pilgrim town, and Kanazawa, a town on the coast of the sea of Japan. The ocean has just became visible, a foggy band of water only dimly visible a few meters from the train tracks through thick grey cloud. I should arrive in Kanazawa in an hour or two.

I’ve been here in Japan since Saturday, and I’m on my way to Matsuayama for a conference — I’m taking the slow route, although trains in Japan are not that slow at all. Today is Tuesday, and I plan to be there on Sunday. My three days in Tokyo were exhausting, probably because I walked too much. On the first day I saw this sign–


To which I immediately attached a profound metaphysical significance. “You can’t go home again”, after all! These Japanese look after everything, even existential angst! Well, alright: I suspected it was a circumlocution for “homeless people”. But, in fact, none of the above: these shelters are really for salarymen who’ve missed their last train home.

I’m still on the misty coast of the sea of Japan. On the left I can see some snow-capped mountains behind a blue-grey mist and on the right, the ocean and many houses with black sloping rooves, wet with rain. It does look like it rains a lot here. The umbrella I bought on my first day in Asakusa will be useful around here.

My arrival in Tokyo was slightly surreal, as perhaps are all arrivals in unknown countries after long-haul flights. After descending through the clouds, absolutely nothing was visible until a few seconds before landing: Tokyo was shrouded a thick fog, and heavy rain was falling. I found my way easily enough to my hotel in Asakusa, but as it was only 9AM I couldn’t take a shower or readjust to the changing of continents. So I visited, in the pouring rain, Asakusa’s main attraction, the Senso-Ji buddhist temple. It was still early, and the crowds had yet to arrive, and I spent the good part of an hour wandering around the temple and the yet-to-be filled streets until exhaustion and rain overcame me. Remember, it was really around 3AM for me, and I had not slept in 24 hours. I decided to find somewhere warm to pass an hour or two until I could check in.

After time spent elsewhere in Asia (Iran and China) I had forgotten that actually the Japanese do know how to make a good coffee, and I found one such coffee-house where an extremely hot cup of coffee was prepared from beans for me before my eyes, which gave me just enough energy to keep going until 3pm.

I don’t have much else to report concerning my stay in Tokyo. After reading about the various districts of the town in my guidebook I had perhaps an exaggerated sense of the differences between them. My invariable reaction when stepping from the subway station was to think, actually, this looks very similar to all the places in Tokyo I have seen before. In the end, Asakusa, where my hotel was located, turned out to be the part of town I preferred. There I found everything on a more or less on a human scale, at least in the narrow streets around my hotel, where there were many fine restaurants and bars. Walking around Shinjuku was a bit like constantly watching television outside, so much is moving and changing. At certain intersections this is literally true: giant tv screens have been placed at major intersections, and everyone’s eyes drift skywards whilst waiting for the light to change so they can cross. And also there is a constant aural background of dozens of small voices speaking to you simultaneously in a language you don’t understand. There are I don’t know how many hidden loudspeakers in the metro system and visits to department stores and pachinko hall can be an overwhelming experience.

[a few hours later]. I’m now in Kanazawa. I’ll perhaps write more in the next few days as I continue down the coast.

Persepolis and other ruined cities

Persepolis and other ruined cities

I’ve left Tehran behind for three days to visit Shiraz. I arrived two nights ago, and will leave for Tehran and Paris tomorrow night (my flight schedule is the most ‘interesting’ I’ve had for a long time; I have to wait from around midnight — when I arrive from Shiraz — to 06:45, for my flight departure for Paris. I’m not sure yet how I will occupy myself at Khomeini airport in the middle of the night).

My main motivation in coming to Shiraz was to visit Persepolis, as well as the other archaeological sites. For the last two days I hired a car and driver and we covered several hundred kilometers across the desert visiting ancient ruins. Some of these sites were indeed extremely ancient, almost three thousand years old.

But how to describe Persepolis itself? I will try. The scale of the site is overwhelming; I spent almost three hours there and took over one hundred photographs. It is easily comparable in extent to the Foro Romano, the ruins of ancient Rome at the center of the Italian capital — but it is several hundred years older.

The entire city is built on a terraced plateau, which one reaches by climbing a monumental staircase. The steps are shallow, we are told, so that visiting dignitaries could mount them gracefully in their flowing robes. At the top, one passes between two enormous slabs which have been sculpted with beautiful bas-reliefs. Incongruously, at eye level, the stones have been covered with a range of graffitis from late 19th century and early 20th century explorers. I noticed at least one “count” something or other, a Gentleman Explorer for sure, and I tried to imagine what his trip to Persepolis must have been like and what the city would have looked like with many important monuments still hidden under sand.


On the terrace there are many ruined palaces to visit, as well as the famous Apadana staircase, one half of which whose bas-reliefs are much better preserved than the other because they passed the centuries under the sands. Serried ranks of princes and kings pay tribute, for eternity, to king of the Achaemenids.

One palace, known as ‘Hadish’ near the corner of the complex intrigued me. I had arrived very early, at around 08.30, and there was no-one else at this corner of the ancient city apart from a bored security guard. In this palace, all had been destroyed except the frames of a door and window. On the ground one could see the stone stumps of many columns. The window frame must have been at least a meter in thickness. I looked out across an expanse of semi-arid desert, a small stand of trees in the near distance. The sun shone from a faultless blue sky as it probably had done 2,500 years ago. It was here in this palace, some say, that the fire was started by Persepolis’ conquerors — Alexander the great — which destroyed the city. The fire was fueled by the wooden columns supporting the roof, either accidentally in a drunken party (this is before the Islamic Republic, remember) or deliberately in retaliation for the destruction of Athens by Xerxes.

Three hours had passed, and I returned to the car and took tea with Ari, my driver, on the ground near our car under the shade of some trees. Throughout the morning I had had a constant, throbbing headache which I realised was the symptoms of caffein withdrawal — I had dared to leave my coffee maker in my bag at the left luggage at Mehrabad airport. I was extremely grateful for the tea. (Incredibly, it’s now three days since I have had coffee; thankfully, the headaches passed after the first day). Ari had worked for years in hospitals in Shiraz and very scrupulous when it came to hygine, carefully labeling our respective tea mugs. He had also studied a great deal of history, and he tried to answer my many questions.

There was still more to see. After tea, we drove six kilometers to the necropolis, the burial grounds for Achaemenid kings. From the distance, I saw a long ridge of mountains and I thought to myself, after spending a morning looking at bas-reliefs: “those look like monuments.” As we cam closer I realised they were monuments; hewn into the side of the mountain were four enormous tombs, tens of meters high, cross-shaped, with bas-reliefs below. These were the resting places of Darius II, Artaxerxes, Darius I and Xerxes I whose bones were placed in these chambers after the vultures had picked them clean. One bas relief was blank; asking Ari he told me that in fact this bas relief had been planned to commemorate a victory never happened.


Our last destination was Pasagarde, where the tomb of Cyrus the Great stands in a desolate windswept plain. Centuries ago it was surrounded by a walled garden, but everything was destroyed by Alexander’s invading armies. A few hundred meters away are the ruins of his palace; incredibly one column is still standing and written on it, near the top, in cuneform script, are the words “I am Cyrus, the Achaemenid king”.

Although this inscription is not particularly hubristic, leaving Pasargade and reflecting on what I had seen throughout the day I was more than a little reminded of Shelly and the ruined statute of his king Ozymandias, staring out across the desert on his vanished empire, where, today, “nothing beside remains.”

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