The French Festival Devoted to Stargazing
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can still see in the City of Light.
By Fiona Zublin
This is the perfect summer night: For one weekend a year, all over France, local astronomy clubs break out the telescopes for the Nuits des Étoiles, allowing everyone a glance at the summer sky just as the Aquarid and Perseid meteors start flying across it. French families, tourists and immigrants like me rub shoulders in the name of science, marveling at just how big everything is, and how far away, while all feeling small together.
Except we’re in Paris, and while you can still see some of the brighter stars and planets in the City of Light, it’s not exactly the Atacama Desert. But l’espérance, doit-elle disparaître? Never. The French Astronomy Association’s Paris event is at the top of the Tour Montparnasse, the tallest skyscraper within the city limits, possibly based on the logic that the higher you are, the closer you are to the stars. Unfortunately, 59 stories means zip to space. The Montparnasse, with its blocky, unappealing architecture is loathed by the French and swarmed by tourists hoping to get a glimpse of Paris’ other, more beautiful buildings without a butt-ugly tower in the way.
The roof boasts a Champagne bar, some flat maps of the surrounding buildings — and, that weekend, beautiful white telescopes, each surrounded by a crowd and staffed by friendly people with armbands who know how to work the lenses. Hoping to avoid the crowd, I settle back on a circle of tarmac, tuning in to the two chain-smoking 25-year-olds on my right who are giving flippant answers to an earnest TV crew on one side, and to the two hijab-clad women on my left who are mapping out the sky for their toddler. The flier I’ve been handed explains that if I join the astronomy association, I could spend the night in an observatory, but it doesn’t say whether or not the observatory is haunted. I’ll file that under “maybe.”
At 11 p.m. on the dot, the Eiffel Tower lights up like a disco ball.
It takes 10 or 15 minutes for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, plus an extra 10 minutes every time one of the French news crews sticks a bright light in my face. Unfortunately, the Night of Stars turns out to be Night of That’s Definitely Mars, and That’s Venus, I Think? That Looks Venus-y and That Might Be the Big Dipper. Or the Little Dipper. How Do You Tell Without the Other One for Comparison? Does Anyone Have That Sky-Mapping iPhone App? But, since we are on the 59th floor, it’s also the Night of Looking Out Over the World’s Most Beautiful City. The Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and Sacré-Coeur are obvious landmarks, but with the streets below brightly illuminated, you can make out other, more personal landmarks. There’s your favorite ramen restaurant, there’s our old apartment, there’s the zoo. At 11 p.m. on the dot, the Eiffel Tower lights up like a disco ball, as it does every night, and those of us who have seen it before migrate to the other side of the 360-degree view. Right below us is the great dark splotch that is Montparnasse Cemetery, with a single light on in a single building. In that cemetery, during daylight hours, you can visit the grave of Urbain Le Verrier, the Frenchman who used math to predict the existence of Neptune. His name is inscribed on the Eiffel Tower, and his planet is out there, in the farthest reaches of the solar system, the only planet you always need a telescope to see.
Before leaving, I get in line to look through one of the big white telescopes. I watch as a group of female tourists snaps flash photos of one another peering through the lens. So much for your eyes adjusting. As the elevator, Europe’s fastest, lurches down the side of the building, I make a resolution: Next weekend, for the Perseid meteor shower, I’m getting the hell out of Paris.