Le Weekend, 4/12/24: The Dark Side of the Moon

A French astronomer who discovered helium and future eclipses to catch in France…  ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌ ‌


April 12, 2024

Dear Frenchly Readers,

On Monday, after three days with no power due to another unseasonable weather event up here in Maine, my sons and I packed up and headed North. Our goal on that Monday morning was to find ourselves reasonably within the path of totality for the eclipse. Both kids were getting out of school early, so it seemed silly not to take the entire day, even though they had already been home last week from yet another storm. (As I write this, I am looking out the window at intense rain and wind that threaten to pick up; more power outages are predicted thanks to the already compromised trees.)

Now, in her newsletter on Wednesday, Cat mentioned the “Sun King,” Louis the XIV of France. Germaine to our sujet here, on May 12, 1706, there was a total solar eclipse over France, which took place during the Spanish war of Succession. At the time, the Italians and the Spanish saw it as a sign that Louis’ power was being dimmed, eclipsed. The French, however, saw it as a purely scientific phenomenon.

And it was the French astronomer, Jules Janssen, who, in fact, during the total eclipse in August of 1868, studied the flames and flares that dance around the edges of the eclipse. Looking through a spectotrophic prism, he saw the signature of helium, and discovered that helium was present in the universe, even before it had been found on earth.

Last Monday, helium or no helium, if I am honest, part of me felt barely up for another “thing,” good or bad. However, my older son was determined to get a photo when the moon obscured the sun. He had done his research, he explained the science to me, he marked up a map, he was flexible where we ended up, and he took his long Sunday run to the other side of the town to pick up extra glasses from a friend. How could I say no?

We packed up the previous night’s homemade pizza and some tangerines, chips, and granola bars. More water than a camel might need, sleeping bags and pillows, in case we got stuck in the car and, as every true Mainer knows to do, coats, hats, and flashlights.

As we drove North, we saw the wreckage of two weeks of ice storms: trees shattered, as if exploded, their limbs or tops or entire trunks lying along the edges of yards, forests, houses. Swinging electrical wires, taped off to avoid danger. Standing water from the storms made enormous puddles in yards; in one such “pond” two young kids played. Brown grass and leaves, exposed, and, somehow, unseemly, stretched along sandy roadways.

It made me think about when I was on a road trip across France in the summer of 2022, and the Pyrénées were burning. I remember the shock of charred trees, limbs hanging like blackened hangnails from the trunks. I remember wanting my kids not to see the destruction, to protect them from what is happening to the planet, everywhere.

As we drove up our home state, we arrived at a town called Bingham. It felt lawless, ramshackle, uncentered. My younger son asked, “Are we still in Maine?”

We followed the cars in front of us down the middle of town and noticed people set up with chairs in the parking lot of the Dollar Store, at the gas station, in driveways. In one driveway, two guys held beers in their hands and they leaned against the tailgate of a truck. Their kids sat in folding chairs nearby. One of the men had on a t-shirt that read, “Fuck Biden” against a backdrop of exploding fireworks. He was yelling at the cars that we all needed to “slow the fuck down in my neighborhood,” though we were barely inching along.

We continued on up through the mountains until we found a place to stop along a lake called Wyman in a town called Moscow. A dammed portion of the Kennebec river, this manmade lake was still frozen. Across from us, mountains were covered with trees. We slid down the steep bank, found a few other people camped out on the rocks, threw down a sleeping bag, and started to set up our cameras and glasses and water bottles. A stream of melting snow gurgled vociferously nearby. My younger son threw grenades of rocks at the melting ice on the lake. I freaked out that we all were going to go blind.

And then, the breeze came, slapping us in the face; odd ripples of atmospheric changes began to shimmer over the snow, the light slanted in such a way that everything was in technicolor, my photos suddenly became detailed, crisp, even without any photographic talent on my end. We made shadows with our hands. My older son made a pinhole camera. My younger one posed for photos with the moon’s shadow on his neck or hand. And then it went dark.

What did I feel? I don’t know. Sort of discombobulated, if I am honest.

Now, some friends of mine who got into the path of totality reported that they had incredibly spiritual experiences. Two have even said they are already planning for how to get close to another partial or full eclipse, so they can repeat the feeling. I think they were less worried about the glasses and capturing the moment than I was. Or maybe they just are more evolved than I am. This video, here, tells about the history of eclipses and how people throughout time have been more like me—that is to say, freaked by the experience. Homer wrote in the Odyssey, “the sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist hovers over all.”

So, in case you’re in the more balanced and cheery camp of eclipse watchers, and you want to have the trifecta of perfection: France, eclipse, bottle of cheap but awesome wine in your hand,  I have some dates for you: The next partial Lunar eclipse will be this fall, on September 18th, in France. The next full Lunar eclipse in France will be on March 14, 2025. If you hang around for two weeks, you can then see a partial Solar eclipse in France on March 29, 2025. If you want a total Solar eclipse and you want to be in France, you have to wait 57 years, until 2081. Chances are, I won’t be here to remind you. (Varied eclipses in France are listed, here.)

“It was over so fast,” my younger one said when we finally got back to the car. And he was right, it was. “We need to remember the journey,” I said, “The whole day.” My older one said he was deeply satisfied with the shots he got, and that now having seen it, he’d never forget it. Joy spreads through that kid without one ounce of irony. I watch and learn. It’s infectious. My younger one allowed that he’d never forget it, either. Then he said he was starving.

But the long snake of cars in front of us was barely moving. License plates read Texas, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire. We inched along, our cars sending C02 into the atmosphere.

We dipped down, and came back through Bingham, where we saw a huge piece of plywood painted with green letters: “F.J.B.” An enormous American flag with “Trump 2024″ embossed over it hung from the upstairs windows of a house on the other side of the road. People were starting fires with tree limbs and drinking beer, standing around, grilling.

My younger one was saying he was too hungry to bear it; he finished the pizza and oranges. Traffic was moving at a snail’s pace. Everywhere we looked, shops and restaurants were boarded up as we drove south, to Skowhegan and on down. Each town had more than one gun shop each, several cannabis shops, and at least one shop where both guns and pawned goods were sold.

The hungry boy asked, “Why are there so many gun shops?” My older one answered: “It’s America.” When he said that, somehow it pierced me. I don’t want that to be the America my kids know. Why have I only managed to talk about moving our family to France, while somehow also digging more into our lives here? How does that happen?

I remembered a map I saw one time on Google of gun shops in America—purple dots on a white map of the country spreading, measles-like;  so dense in the Northeast and down the Eastern Seaboard, there was no white at all. I compared this to a map of France that had several in Paris, a few in the Alps, a few here and there, but I could count them on two hands, twice. Here is a piece we published about gun violence in France, compared to the U.S. Knowing what I know and not doing anything about it; have I failed?

We never found anywhere to stop to get food; guns we could have anywhere, though, but no grocery stores in sight. We were on the wrong roads, it was too hard to know where to go in traffic like that. Should we get off? How much longer would it be?

Home, finally, after a 4-hour drive that should have taken 2, we pulled onto our road. A neighbor was outside playing basketball with his son. In the dark, he’d been spooked by our car pulling around the corner. He started mouthing off to me, and then came to our fence to yell, swearing, stumbling a bit as he walked. I went inside the house, closed the door and locked it behind my kids. We all sat down with the dinner my husband, Dan, had made, and looked at each other, wide eyed.

By then, the darkness felt like it was everywhere.

À cuisiner, boire, regarder et lire ce weekend:

Speaking of the science of it all, as the sky got darker on Monday, we saw the brightest star in the sky appear: Sirius. That twinkling was otherworldly as the blue faded from light to dark. And speaking of stars, we have an Olympic swimming star, naturellement French, named Léon Marchand, who is rising up the ranks. We’ve got a story about him, here.

Also, we have a whole new and improved Gluten Free France Guide for you, updated and expanded. And this guide to the Cannes Film Festival, where a whole other kind of star will hit the red carpet.

Now, some might say that every season is Apéro season, when the French enjoy drinks and food in the early evening, which often rolls right into dinner. But spring and summer are when the Apéro becomes a serious thing, especially on the weekends. So, we have bright, fresh wines for you made by female French winemakers, a guide to setting up a French cheese plate (with fewer cheeses than you might expect), a guide for how to cut the cheese and if you’re still flummoxed, and a guide to the mythical, inimitable Apéro.

Stay bright, stay sane, eyes wide open, except during an eclipse.

À bientôt,


Photo made by author. Caitlin Shetterly is the author of the novel Pete and Alice in Maine. The New York Times said, Shetterly’s debut achieves a subtle grace, a quality of light and shadow worthy of a Bergman film.” Pete and Alice in Maine is out in paperback this month.

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