Category Archives: Travel

Sous le ciel de Moab

En fait, nous n’étions pas tout à fait à Moab, mais à une vingtaine de minutes de route, tout près du parc national de Canyonlands dans l’état de l’Utah. L’idée, c’était de nous éloigner au maximum de toute source de lumière : notre guide Alex, armé d’un télescope allait nous fournir des explications sur ce qu’on pouvait espérer voir en tournant nos yeux vers le ciel et en le collant à l’oeillette de son télescope.

C’était une première pour nos filles. Richard et moi avions eu la chance de participer à une sortie un peu semblable il y a plus de dix ans, en Australie, à quelques minutes de bus du fameux monolithe Uluru (ou Ayers Rock). Ce soir là, une bonne cinquantaine de participants ont dîné à la belle étoile, avec en fond sonore un “didgeridoo” joué par un australien tout ce qu’il y a plus blanc (il nous a expliqué très honnêtement que les Aborigènes de coin d’Australie ne jouent pas de cet instrument). La partie “étoiles” suivait. Malheureusement, le ciel était assez couvert ce soir-là, le bon vieil obstacle météorologique auquel personne ne peut rien. Et un télescope pour cinquante, cela ne donnait pas beaucoup d’occasions de découvrir les étoiles qui voulaient bien se dévoiler. Heureusement, la présence des nuages a dispensé les trois quarts des participants de faire semblant de s’intéresser à l’astronomie, pour se concentrer sur les excellents vins australiens servis. Du coup, la poignée d’amateurs a pu profiter au maximum des explications très intéressantes de la personne chargée de cette partie du programme de la soirée, même si la démonstration pratique était un peu limitée.

Hier soir, nous étions onze et notre guide a dégainé du matériel impressionnant. Tout en nous donnant des explications sur la toplogie du lieu, les sources de lumière inévitables (un puits pétrolier, les phares de voitures de locations quelques touristes qui rejoignaient encore le camping du coin après la prise de photos de Delicate Arch au coucher du soleil à Arches National Park), le voilà qui assemble et visse un engin motorisé, de diamètre important, environ 20 centimètres, mais pas très long, grâce à une technique de miroirs intercalés dont le détail m’a un peu échappé, les étoiles commençant à être bien visibles à l’oeil nu et mon attention étant par conséquent quelque peu partagée…. Il est guidé automatiquement par une console pré-programmée par Alex pour aller scruter plus de cent objets célestes : un petit pianotage sur la console et hop, le télescope pivote pour se braquer là où il faut.

Et à tour de rôle, avec l’aide d’un escabeau pour les plus petits quand l’oeillette était placée un peu trop haut, nous visionnons étoiles, nébuleuses, galaxies, et, clou du spectacle, Saturne incroyablement net avec ses anneaux et apparemment quatre lunes; j’en ai décerné deux, mais bon… À vrai dire, ce n’est pas si facile de regarder dans un télescope, il faut parfois quelques secondes pour bien voir et sur les sept choses à regarder, il y en a une que je n’ai pas réussi à voir du tout. Alex aurait pris le temps de recalibrer l’engin pour m’aider mais j’étais déjà bien contente de ce que j’avais pu découvrir et le ciel au-dessus de ma tête m’interpellait aussi de plus en plus.

En vérité, j’ai vu, une fois dans ma vie, un ciel plus profondément sombre qu’hier soir. C’était dans le Poitou rural, chez mes grand-parents français, une nuit de la mi-août, avec une véritable pluie d’étoiles filantes, magnifique. Près de Moab, ce ne sont pas les nuages qui jouent des tours, c’est simplement la chaleur qui voile très légèrement les choses.

Alex nous parle des constellations qui portent des noms différents dans différents endroits du monde. Assez sentimentalement, je me fais la réflexion que c’est réconfortant de retrouver la bonne vieille Grande Ourse, positionnée différemment que chez nous, mais instantanément reconnaissable néanmoins. Notre guide nous donne encore quelques implications puis nous explique qu’en tant qu’Apache, s’il s’en tenait au savoir de son peuple, il serait un peu embarrassé pour identifier les constellations qui nous sont familières. Et il nous montre comment, pour lui et les siens, la Grande Ourse est en fait inscrite dans une constellation beaucoup plus vaste représentant le foyer de la cheminée, avec la matriarche et le patriarche l’encerclant dans une espèce de grand arc.

Ce ciel étoilé familier et dépaysant en même temps restera longtemps imprimé sur mes rétines.

The legacy in my mind

Olympics Musings 5

So it’s all over. Rio has the flame. Pundits will move into dissection mode. I’ll have another go at surfing for three-minute summaries in a while, and in the meantime, I’ll close these Olympics musings with what will stay with me, in my memories, in my mind:
The thought that must have gone into venue design. Those fabulous, never-yet-seen views over London from the top of temporary structures in Greenwich and Horse Guards Parade were especially amazing for me.
How much fun synchronised swimming was.  I thought the costumes dire, the choice of music often plain weird and the pre-dive bits of choreography ungainly. But I was entranced by two pairs of feet corkscrewing down, amused to see the technical names of the compulsory bits of the routine flashing up on the screen and amazed how much you can see, even from a long way away. So, a style nightmare in my book (and maybe style isn’t THE most important aspect of sport, whatever the adverts with Becks or now Jessica Ennis show….), but thoroughly enjoyable nonetheless.

Children reading during the events. This is a memory I share from both sets of Games I’ve been to: the Harry Potter fan at Melbourne (yes, Melbourne hosted stuff during Sydney 2000) told off by his Dad for not watching the football and the younger two out of the four-member family at women’s hockey with their noses stuck in books.

Usain Bolt. Sorry, Michael (Phelps), Jess, Mo and all the hundreds of superlative athletes we saw over the fortnight, these weren’t quite your games in the way they were Bolt’s.

The canal-side walk in the Olympic park.
I hardly had time to enjoy it, but I loved the wild flowers, the information about the bird boxes, the little bit of nature inside a manic space. As Richard pointed out, there was a Liverpool garden festival touch about it, for those in the UK who remember that far back.
The volunteers. Like in Sydney, they were helpful and friendly. High fives with the pink foam hands may seem to cheesy to you, but collecting them is a serious business when you’re seven years old. Sydney volunteers scored a point in reactivity when they provided spectators with rolls of kitchen towel to dry the wet seats after a shower, before the softball. No such provision in London before the equestrian jumping. Hah! However, London had volunteers monitoring crowds from umpire’s chairs, singing. And I heard no-one in Sydney warble self-depecratingly that “we’ll meet again, don’t know where, don’t know when.”
Photos: Richard Wilkinson

Hosting the Games – making noise is the real advantage, not hearing it

Olympics Musings 4

 Montréal, Moscow, Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and now London, these are the Olympics I consider to be mine, in that I remember something about each of them. Like Nadia Comaneci’s perfect 10 gym routine, the first opening ceremony that really bowled me over at Barcelona, the joy of being in truly a fun place, in Sydney, for my first live experience of the Games. Like all these cities, and others before it, and very likely better than most, London has made good its home advantage. How good exactly will be the focus of many articles, which will also address the legacy question in great detail, together with the economic points I tried to go into previously.

The joy of cheering

What does a home advantage actually consist of? Well the highly praiseworthy number of medals of all three colours achieved during London 2012 is clearly due to a combination of personal belief, work and sacrifice, extensive collaborative efforts, significant resources – in the present instance, resources that were channelled in great part through the National Lottery – a bit of luck and … crowd support.

The phrase “cheering him/her home” has certainly been heard often over these past couple of weeks, but there’s no better way to describe it. And before some party pooping professor of social psychology mentions crowd hysteria or collective emotion, can I just say that it’s great fun. Great fun to add your voice to the thousands of others, to add your flag to the colourful kaleidoscope showing up on the screen, to relieve your feelings after high drama with a stupid dance, and to cap it all, to be rewarded with another medal for the girl or boy from Ordinarytown. After all, that’s basically what some people paid silly money for, “because you just can’t describe the atmosphere”.
Supporting and cheering is great, and I joined in enthusiastically, trying to keep up with Sophie, and to prod Emma into more action… Richard yelled a fair amount too, but refused the warpaint outright, which I accepted only for the final event we saw, the basketball as you recall (and if you didn’t remember, consider yourself rapped over the knuckles).

The pain of jingoistic coverage

But now I put my disgruntled angry-from-Manchester-hat on. The coverage. It really hit home in Sydney: I’ve still not digested Steven Redgrave (that name probably needs no explanation on my part) and, to a lesser extent, David Douillet (French judoka) being ousted from the screens in favour of Aussie Taekwondo bronze medal hopeful or somebody. And naturally, for London 2012, the host nation behaved in exactly the same way (I kept an eye on French TV, which was also wearingly über parochial), with what practically amounts to the censure of many great performers.
I’d like to suggest a new IOC rule: half the coverage on the world’s TVs has to be on competitors from outside the viewing country. And if any media organisation falls foul of this rule, their key culprits are feathered, tarred and rolled around the stadium on each of the five Olympic rings just before the cauldron is lit. This could result in: less about Tom Daley’s little left toe (and hopefully less scope for the haters to send him stupid tweets), and more about how Hungary achieved eight gold medals. Out of ten minutes’ BBC actual sports coverage, I’d say eight minutes went to Team GB and, one and a half to Usain Bolt and half to Michael Phelps. And I’m not talking about the torch relay, presentation of venues, volunteer interviews, plugging the festivals around the country and so on.
So, hosting the Games is a welcome home advantage for the competitors. It also represents a sometimes unbearable bias in the media coverage.

Small things – English as she is wrote

You know those fast, apparently underused (they were full when we were on them), Javelin trains? Well, on day nine, an electronic sign directed me, with a flashing arrow, to “JAVLIN TRAINS”. You will share my relief in finding out that on day ten, I was reassuringly directed to “JAVELIN TRAINS”.
A more lasting mistake: helpful signs told me that such-and-such a venue was “10 minutes walk” away (and I forgot to take a photo of this for all the doubting Thomases out there). Now, I’ve checked this with a 100% native English speaker, thanks Elizabeth, not a half-and-half effort like me (or a “mixed bag” as a fellow supporter described our two-flag waving family…) “10 minutes’ walk” is correct, as is “a 10 minute walk”, but NOT “10 minutes walk”. Richard’s theory is that this is an Americanisation, thoughts anyone? Of course, speaking yank ranks just above a plain mistake in my scale of crimes.

Photos: Richard Wilkinson