Total Eclipse 1999

It was late at night, and I was sitting in Utrecht in the Netherlands, poring over the internet’s meteorological sites trying to determine the best place to see the upcoming total eclipse of the sun. It didn’t look good, with a band of rain sweeping over Germany, closely followed by another rolling in from the Atlantic over the UK and France. I needed to get between the two weather systems, in the hope that the intervening skies would be clear. According to my calculations this meant any town between Reims and Luxembourg. On the basis that Luxembourg is my favourite European city, and that it had onward train connections to England and to a festival that I wanted to go to, the choice was not difficult.

The 03:00 train from Utrecht to Rotterdam contained the usual dribble of partygoers and the first wave of people going home from the bars. In Rotterdam at 05:00, an appreciable number of eclipse-chasers were on the platform, and I was lucky to get a seat. Well, it wasn’t luck really. While everybody clustered around the passenger doors I got in through the goods van and beat them to the seats; product of a mis-spent youth on Interrail.

The 07:30 train from Brussels was always going to a problem. I had tried to reserve a seat on it but had been told that the train had been removed from the reservations system. The clerk seemed puzzled but I had a good idea what that meant. Sure enough, the train was packed to overflowing with eclipse-watchers. I only just managed to wedge myself in through one of the doors, and a fat guy behind me had to give up. There was no room for him at all, and the train set off without him.

I was crammed in with a load of other people in the tiny corridor outside the toilet. Two large jolly ladies decided that they were going to co-opt the toilet, which made more room for the rest of us, and we were able to arrange it so that nearly everybody could sit cross-legged if nobody moved. Occasionally some outsider would fight through the morass of bodies to the lavatory, and we and the two ladies then had to perform an intricate dance to let them in. It was all quite amusing, and served to take our minds off the three-hour journey and the fact that the sky was still grey and overcast.

Just as we came into Luxembourg city, patches of blue appeared and a couple of times we actually saw the sun’s disk murkily through the fug. On one occasion, it even cast a small shadow, and we all cheered. Once in town, an hour late presumably because of the huge weight the train was carrying, we thankfully clambered off, cracking stiffened muscles and stretching our aching bodies. I expect that the few innocent passengers continuing on their way to Milan were quite relieved too.

I tried to buy a slice of pizza for breakfast, but they wouldn’t take Dutch Guilders, only Deutschmarks. I couldn’t remember the exchange rate for Luxembourg Francs, so at the cash machine I just pressed the lowest number displayed, working on he principle that in most countries this is the cost of a few beers, or around ten English Pounds. When I got my change back from the pizza lady, I realised that the machine had given me about seven times that amount.

All the major bridges were already lined with people, optimistically having their photos taken wearing their Eclipse glasses, and streams of bodies were for some reason heading for higher ground. Looking down from one bridge, I spotted an unoccupied bench far down in the valley, perfectly positioned on one of the tiny paths that wind up and down the valley walls. I happened to know that the route to this particular bench was intricate and not at all obvious, so I set off against the crowd, fairly secure in the knowledge that nobody was going to stumble on it by accident. Sure enough, when I got there the only competition was a local lad setting up a camera tripod a little distance away; perfect peace.

The only problem was that the weather was closing in. It looked like I’d judged it wrong after all, as you couldn’t even tell the general direction of the sun above the thick grey cloud layer. As the minutes ticked away to totality, the photographer suddenly picked up his carefully positioned tripod and began snapping the eclipse-watchers on the bridge above. There was no way that we were going to see the sun again today.

Nevertheless, the moment of eclipse was still impressive. With no cues to warn us, twilight suddenly fell as if someone had turned down a huge rheostat. A few automatic lights came on, the birds went silent, and some crickets began to chirp hesitantly in the trees behind me. A ragged cheer went up from the bridge, echoed by another from across the valley. We had a few moments to experience the almost-darkness, and then the invisible hand once more switched the lights back on.

It was all over, but what had we actually experienced? A momentary darkness at midday. Worth travelling all this way for? I think so. I had undertaken a long and difficult journey in the company of a disparate and international crowd, all fully aware that we had only a limited chance of seeing what we had come all this way to see. When it came to the moment of totality, the awe was inherent not in the sights and sounds, but in the huge implacability of the event, in the inevitability of the enormous forces at work. Definitely a moment to remember.

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