Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Climate Control

The weather is being peculiar. Here at the end of October, it’s been ludicrously warm, interspersed with high winds and lashing rain. All of which conspires to give me a problem: windscreen fogging. The warmth means that as soon as it rains, and the outside temperature plummets, the residual warm air in the car (and this is with the heater on cool) hits the cold glass and - POW! - instant loss of visibility. Usual response - to put the blower on the windscreen - fails miserably, only causing more fogging. I try turning the heat up, as I do in winter - it just gets worse.

I try to approach this logically.

Fogging is caused by condensation - warm, moisture laden air passing over a cold surface, the water condenses out onto the surface. It’s meteorological.

I need to equalise the temperature somehow.
To clear the rear window, you put the inbuilt heating element on - this heats up the glass and stops the condensation. Heating up the windscreen - by using the hot air blower - does not have the same effect. It doesn’t prevent the condensation, it makes it worse, except for a thin strip at the bottom, which clears a bit. Hmmm. OK - so there’s even more moisture in the air now, with it being warmer. (And I’m melting…) So I need to take the moisture out of the air - dry it out. I stick on the air conditioning and the air recycling, whizzing the moist warm air through the drier, in effect, and not letting any new damp stuff in. This isn’t very effective, but does reach halfway up the windscreen. Something is working, I’m just not sure what.

SO - if heating up the screen fails, try the opposite! Cool the air down.

Turn down the heater, and blow cold air across the screen. This still fails to give me visibility. Take it down a notch - I stick on the air conditioning, turn up the blower, and wheee! The screen clears almost immediately. I freeze, but I can now see where I’m going.

So the answer, at least in warm-ish weather, is to cool down the air that’s actually hitting the windscreen - effectively putting a thin layer of icy air between the screen and the moist air. Now that’s quite logical, but given the meteorology involved, it leaves me with one question. When the moist warm air hits the icy layer, why doesn’t it condense out? My guess is that the cold air is moving too much - but I still wanna know - why aren’t there clouds forming just above my head?


Friday, 27 October 2006

Being a Tourist – 16 October

Duties concluded, we are free to sight-see! This may take some time, so I recommend you get a cup of coffee (or the beverage of your choice) and settle in for a while.

I decide to have another lie-in; you understand, these are not late lie-ins, merely to about 9.00 am, when the noise of traffic, trams and people outside drives me out of my bed to the shower! I forego breakfast in the hotel and decide to do the real tourist thing – to find a café and sit outside, watching the world go by whilst sipping on a café au lait.
I set out to find the cathedral. Of necessity born of joint damage, I move slowly, so it’s a gentle amble, checking out the shops as I go, (and beginning to understand Liz’s fascination for the shoe shops!) and soak in the difference of the place. It reminds me of York, in a way, trendy shops giving way to the more tourist-trap versions as I near the cathedral itself. It rises from the houses much in the way York Minster – or indeed Beverley Minster in my home town – does; there is no clear view of the building, just glimpses of facades through gaps between other buildings. I find a road leading to the North doors, and stop to take it all in.

It seems to be red sandstone – the only time I have seen this before is St Magnus in Orkney – of course I may be wrong, not having a geological hammer with me (and I doubt I would have been allowed to take samples!), and the details in the carving are still very clear, which I wouldn’t expect in something subject to the weathering of centuries. The North Porch (apologies if I get this wrong, but I’m guessing direction!) is fascinating, and I stop at a café, order petit dejeuner and sit down outside to take in the view.
Croissant, café au lait, et cathedral.
On one side, the Wise and Foolish Virgins look smugly at each other. On the other, the Vices backstab the Virtues. Above the door, the Virgin Mary dies and is buried. Higher still, Kings on horseback ride around the sides of the towers, and above all – gargoyles. Crowding each buttress, each cornice, they hang out halfway to the sky, open mouthed at the antics below.

I love gargoyles! The chief beauty of Gothic architecture, for me, lies in the gargoyles. I wish our modern architecture had room for them, it would be so much more fun!
Off to my left, an old merchant house looks more German than French, reflecting the mixed nature of the Alsace region.

A strange noise attracts my attention. There is a man with a barrel organ to my right, and another group that I can only describe as the local equivalent of a mariachi band to my left, but another, deeper, more visceral noise underlies it all. Finishing my coffee, I pay the bill and go to find out what’s happening.

Russian horns! They look more like old brass telescopes, but the sound is wonderful. They play classical music, sounds Russian to me (but what do I know!) and it clashes deliciously, in a way that makes me want to laugh out loud, with the accordion/mariachi version of ‘Delilah’ that is still playing around the corner.
I wander back to the tourist office to meet up with Liz and Lucy, who are halfway through the walking tour, cleverly guided by mp3 directions. We head for the cathedral to see the astrological clock, only to find that demand means that the doors are closed before the 12.30 pm ‘performance’. So we wait for it to finish (quietly cursing!) on the steps below the outer clock.

Once the doors open, we make our way inside. The clock is a masterpiece of automata; created in the 1400’s, and repaired and extended in the 18th century, it has some of the oldest moving mechanical figures in Europe. But the first thing that meets the eye as you enter by the (probably) West gate is the Angel column. It represents the Day of Judgement, gospel writers below angels below archangels and holy figures, and it’s quite beautiful.

OK, back to the clock. It’s absolutely huge, and I don’t know if the picture gives any idea of how big it is. I apologise for wobbly bits in the picture, as I’ve stuck two together to show you what it looks like. What are we looking at?

Top left – a rooster, which crows – apparently represents Peter’s denial. Below this, a lot of mechanism which drives (bottom left, behind the grille) an ecclesiastical clock – which, I guess, is something that will tell the date of Easter or something of the sort – it goes into epochs and all sorts of things. The pictures are of the muse of astronomy, Urania, Copernicus and…umm. Guilty, don’t remember!
Top right – and below – the stairway that rises for the maintenance man (very narrow steps!)
In the middle: at the top, I think, it’s the figure of Christ and the apostles parade past him each day at noon - hence 12.30 – the clock works on astronomical time rather than official time (remember Leap Years?). Below that figures representing the ages of man parade at intervals – childhood, youth, maturity and old age. Under them, a black and gold globe shows the phases of the moon, and below that, the astrological signs revolve around the heavens. At the foot of these sit two cherubs, one with a bell (which rings the quarter hours) and one with an hourglass (which turns on the – half - hours?). Between them, there is a clockface with two sets of hands, one showing official time, one showing ‘real’. Under these - (I told you it was huge!) – and this is under the dark shelf at the lower third of the picture – are a series of Roman chariots representing the days of the week – today it’s Luna, in a chariot drawn by stags (how appropriate!).
The big disc below that shows the Earth, with hands that reflect the length of the day at this time of year. I’m guessing that the globe revolves to show the side of the Earth facing the Sun. Behind the man who is inconveniently standing in the middle is an orrery, mapping the heavens.
And one small detail, which I love and which I have failed to represent clearly, is the light coloured band to the right bottom corner. This has the months of the year on it, from top to bottom and back up again (and the appropriate sign of the Zodiac) and in the door to the right of it is a slit, which makes the midday sun shine on the appropriate time of year. I love this clock!!!!
On either side of the big disc at the bottom are the emblems of Night and Day. Day is a chap in Roman armour, who points at the current time. Night, on the other hand, is to be quite frank, a bit of a floozy. I mean, look at that frock…

Liz and Lucy head off to finish their tour, and I set out around the cathedral to se what they’ve already seen. It’s gorgeous, and not that huge – it bears comparison with either Minster – and has a number of rather enchanting features such as this -

On the left, a representation of the preacher’s dog, put there to keep him company during long hours in the pulpit! And then there’s the organ loft, hung like a swallow’s nest high in the vaulting, (I doubt it still works, but it’s amazing! And think of the organist climbing all that way up there…) After a while, I venture back into the word outside, blinking in the sunshine, and take a trip on the wee tram that runs round the old part of the city. It travels through the more picturesque streets, bucking over the tram lines, squeezing through the narrow lanes of Petit France, crossing and re-crossing the river. It’s a nice way to see the sights.
I met up with the others back at the cathedral, for quick refueling stop consisting of patisserie, and we head down to the river to take in the sights on the boat trip. The day has become warm and sunny, and we opt for the open top boat. For the first part, we cover relatively familiar ground, seeing the old part of the city from the water, traversing a couple of locks, passing the old washing stations and the tanners’ houses, before turning upriver towards the more modern elements of the European Parliament buildings.

It’s a relaxed and relaxing way to see the sights, (and you can get off on certain trips and see things more closely) and we finally wander back ashore with thoughts of shopping and coffee. Liz heads off shoe-shop-wards, and Lucy and I decide to be a little more leisurely and find yet another café –this time with a more Germanic flavour. But before we split up, I find another gargoyle, this time on the downspouts of the Rohan Palace…

Tomorrow we head back to Scotland, via Orly and Charles de Gaulle, over the cloud covered land, before dropping down through the grey layers to an Aberdeen little different for our absence. Tonight, wandering back towards the hotel, before a final meal at our favorite haunt, we see that we have made some form of impact on the city. In a plant-pot on one of the main shopping streets, Excalibur waits for the Once and Future King…

Random memories?

The panic of trying to by a tram ticket and finding the machine broken – and the delight in discovering how to get it to tell you what to do in English! And the tram system itself – regular, efficient, and cheap. And clean!!
The bats swooping over the Music Hall.
Small, silent, smiling children.
The Eiffel Tower, lit up and glittering at night.
Finding words in French that I didn’t know I knew suddenly at the front of my brain.
Sunrise through mist, and the cathedral rising through it, clad in scaffolding that looked like part of the building – a lacework tracery edging the steeples.
Discovering – as if I should have thought different – that kids are very much the same, wherever you are.
A wealth of very charming men!
Sun on the water.
Plane trees, reminding me of the old slogan – plane trees aren’t.
Market stalls, farmers’ market on Friday, antiques market on Saturday, neither of which we had time to see (or spend money in!)
The Eiffel Tower during the day, from the window of the coach between airports.
Nightfall rushing towards us across the clouds.
A crazy idea, that seemed to work!

Home again, how long ago it feels…

Wednesday, 25 October 2006

Encounters - 15 October

So I had a lie-in, of course…what did you expect?

Sunday morning in Strasbourg is relaxed. The trams still run, naturally, and there is a to-ing and fro-ing of people, but a lot sit out around the squares, just taking in the ambience and enjoying the sunshine. Which is what I did, for a while. Until I got into conversation with another taker of the morning air – he passed by with his dog, and smiled. Being polite, I smiled back. He commented on the weather, and I replied, in my fractured French. He enquired if I was German – no, Anglais. He spoke fractured English. He asked if he could sit down on the bench I was on. There was no-one else on it, and it’s a free country, after all. We began to chat – the usual niceties, the weather, where we were from; he was from Mauritius, did I know where it was – yes, in the Indian Ocean – he seemed surprised. He was an ex-sailor, he had been to England but had come to France and now had his dog. We considered how places had changed over the recent past – wages, job opportunities and the like.
Was I here with anyone?
Yes – I explained about the science fair.
Was I here with my wife?
I blinked, but reckoned he meant husband – no, some colleagues.
Was I married?
In retrospect, I guess this is the point where alarm bells rang. Quietly. And I should have invented a large hairy man lurking in the background. But being me, I told the truth.
No, I work with them, which is quite enough!
‘Do you not like sex then? There is plenty in France! If you like women there are some hot ones!’ the conversation became more graphic.
I’m not exactly sure what I said here, but I made my excuses, politely thanked him for his company and scurried back to the safety of the hotel and the ‘Bringing the Cows Down the Mountain’ celebrations on the local TV channel. And the weekend meteorological programme.
I shouldn’t be let out without a keeper.

Meanwhile, Liz and Lucy had made their way to the Museum of Modern Art, and had discovered, amongst other things, the exhibition of erotica...

We meet up at the tent just before 2.00 pm, and as the doors opened, a positive flood of people come in, and it’s non-stop thereafter. Joanna has difficulties getting away to catch her plane, being in the throes of tree-making. One very small and utterly enchanting little girl comes in with her mother, and proceeds to make a tree, with my help. I can tell her Mum wants to get on and get home, but the wee lass is engrossed, and won’t quit until the tree is completed to her satisfaction. Mum has the rueful, ‘I know we’ll be doing this at home’ look I’ve come to know, but she is very patient. Eventually, they leave, clutching a tree, partly in pieces – I’d explained it was best to take it that way so bits didn’t become ‘perdue’. When I next look up, the little one is back again, busy with paper. She cuts and folds for a while and then silently presents her creation to me.
‘Pour moi?’
She nods, silently smiling, and goes off to find her mother.

Outside the stag herd grows apace. David the Security Man is now a convert ‘I thought this was stupid when it started, but it is all about families, which is the important thing - it is wonderful!’ he confides to Lucy.
One lad has been coming back for three days now, making part of a stag until he has to go. The first day, his half-built creation had ‘gone for recycling’ at the end of the day; when he came back and it wasn’t there he had set to and rebuilt it, and this time it was saved overnight – he’s back again today and is very intent on his task. He finishes just as the event does, and proudly displays his creature. He then has to go home on the tram (he was late yesterday, we expected him to be grounded!) and so leaves it, content that he has finished it at last. He takes the last of the ‘giveaways’ with him.

Time to pack up. The tent is stripped down in about 45 minutes, all the stands a mass of frantically packing people. We say a sad farewell to Eric and Delphine (and leave her with the last of the marshmallows!) The organizer is delighted – she reckons we’ve had 11,700 people through the tent since opening on Friday (I don’t know where the numbers came form, but there was semi-controlled entry, so maybe it’s not too much a case of creative accounting.) I reckon we’ve seen at least 700 to 800 of them on our stand(s) over the three days. She wants one of our stags for her office, and we give her my little fellow, as he’s small enough to fit and strong enough to have survived this far. I’m glad – I didn’t want to witness the moment when he would be broken up and sent for recycling. OK, so I’m daft! It’s not news!

The three of us head back to the hotel, to clean up and relax. From my window, I watch a distant plane draw a contrail across the clear blue sky, and am staggered that we have only been here four days; it seems much longer.
Then it’s out for supper at the tavern at the back of the square – a seafood and local produce place, wonderful langoustine bisque, steak the way I like it (shown to the grill briefly), and a large measure of beer. We make plans for our sightseeing trip tomorrow – Liz wants to do a walking tour, Lucy wants to see the astronomical clock at the cathedral, I want to do the river trip. The shoe shops are also exerting a certain call on Liz…

We agree to meet up at the cathedral at 12.15-ish, and take it from there. We leave the tavern, which has suddenly turned into THE place to watch the football, and head back across the square, early for a change. Above the Music Hall, small shapes are flickering back and forth. Bats, chasing moths drawn in by the lights illuminating the building at night. It’s air combat to rival anything previously seen in the skies over France, wingtip turns, dives and barrel rolls. The bats don’t have it all their own way, the moths drop like stones to evade their pursuers, sending the bats off course, skimming the roof tiles at high speed.

We watch, the only ones on the square looking up.

Monday, 23 October 2006

“Another Ten Hours of Fractured French …” - 14 October

And that pretty much sums it up – 9.00 am to 7.00 pm, straight through with no breaks! There is a phenomenal stream of people coming through the exhibits. One woman asks if we are to be a regular feature in Strasbourg – ‘the children need something like this, something to do, to gain their interest.’ More teachers ask for details of the activities. The second projector produced has no more effect than the first; the projector screen looks unused and lonely, and Eric and I decide to go for Plan B. I design a poster, and he translates it, we stick pieces of A4 together and I draw it out, and together we stick it up on the screen. It explains the rationale behind what we are doing on the stand, the theory behind ‘Simple Science’. My paper stag stands atop the wooden booth at the front of the stand, inviting explanation.

Outside, the Saturday morning school groups are head-to-head building stags. Security Man David shakes his head, and grins. Gradually the school groups give way to families, all ages involved in serious stag creation. Elegantly clad ladies crouch, sticky tape in hand, as their children get down to the serious business of rolling lengths of newsprint. I’ve wrecked my thumbnail taking staples out of papers, and today have brought my nail clippers to take up the duty. At home, I’d have had my penknife, but there are some things that just won’t pass airport security!

The herd grows bigger. Even Bill Oddie and Simon King haven’t got this many beasts in their AutumnWatch programme. Fortunately, ours are silent, although their makers aren’t; constant chatter and laughter mark the place outside the tent beside the monument. One teenage girl remarks that it’s the first time she’s had fun in this place. It’s not all children. Adult groups take part too; some serious paper engineering resulting in fine, upstanding creations with multiple-branching antlers – here, Lucy presents one of the finest of the morning.

And so it goes on, all day. Our French improves, more in desperation than by skill, and every so often we check our newly-produced lists of ‘words we need’ with Eric and/or Delphine. By the time 7.00 pm rolls around, we’re shattered, and head back to our hotel. I realise I haven’t mentioned this so far – not having had much time to think beyond paper and photographs.
It’s very nice, the Kleber Hotel, just off the square beside the crossing of the two tram lines. Each room is individually ‘themed’, and named as well as numbered – a blessing to the confused visitor. My room overlooks the tram station, at Homme du Fer (named after the first train), and is decorated in grape colours – fresh green and deep aubergine-purple. There is a flat screen TV – it’s taken me until now to find the French-speaking stations, to try and find a weather forecast. I’m surprised at how warm it is, 20C on the first day, and it stays pretty much the same throughout, although mornings are slightly cooler and misty. The heat means I leave the windows open, and all night long, if I wake, I can hear the soft rumble of the trams as they cross the junction below.

They blow their horns to warn of their approach, but seem to suspend this in the small hours – not for a lack of people, for the streets seem constantly busy – starting again at around 6.00 am. Liz is less fortunate – her room is near what is probably an air-conditioning plant, and is constantly noisy. Lucy has a room with two double beds, and we threaten her with being the venue for an all-night party on the last night.

We head for the Tête du Lard again for dinner. Tomorrow is the last day of the festival, and we work from 2.00 until 6.00 pm, and then do the final clear up – a short day, and an opportunity for a little sightseeing in the morning. Or for a lie in!

Paper Trees and Challenging Stags - 13 October

Hmm, Friday the 13th.
Actually, that’s usually a good day in my family and so it is today - my luggage has finally arrived! Oh, the joy of using my usual toothpaste - relegated to the hold baggage by security restrictions, along with shampoo and moisturiser- little things gain unexpected significance.

We open to the public at the tent in Place Broglie at 10.00 am, and it’s pretty constant from then on, with troops of visiting school children until lunchtime, followed by families in the afternoon and early evening. Our activities for this day, and the rest of the weekend, are constructing paper trees using only four A4 pieces of (recycled) paper and scissors- ‘pas de scotch, pas de colle’ as I grow used to explaining - and making ‘Highland Stags’ from newspaper and tape - papers cannot be cut or torn, and the tallest is the winner. All deer should have antlers, ideally branching, and both trees and stags should be free-standing. It’s an exercise in strength of construction, in counterbalance and cross-bracing, in planning and thinking through a design, and in the subsequent execution. We also relate it to the actual living things, to the shape and structure of a tree, with the roots to hold it up and a strong trunk, and to the way a stag has a strong neck to balance the spread of the antlers. Simple materials, simple ideas, and more complex than it appears. It’s a far cry from much of the other stuff that’s going on at the fair - we are next door to a wonderful solar-powered oven, designed for use in Central Africa to reduce the deforestation for fuel, and opposite us, something looking at all the things that cause pollution in homes - there is a particularly disturbing picture of a dust mite! There are stands promoting solvent-free glues and mastics, medicines, and to be quite frank, a lot of stuff that is beyond my dodgy translations! Much of the ‘hands on’ involves looking at pictures, down microscopes and doing quizzes, as far as I can make out. Which makes us even more of an oddity!

We are constantly asked what we are doing, how and why is this science, and when we explain, it’s like a light-bulb going on - teachers in particular want details of the activities to use for themselves.
Our fragile French is bolstered by the arrival of the inestimable Eric. He is serious, meticulous, and dedicated to correcting our linguistic mistakes.
He’s also great to have around - our explanations to visitors are often punctuated by cries of ‘Eric, what’s the word for…’ and he’s utterly unflappable.
Lunch is taken on the run - Liz dives out to the bakers for baguettes - and the paper forest grows steadily.

Outside, the herd of stags is also growing, much to the amusement of passers-by and the security man, David, who shakes his head in gentle Gallic derision. Lucy is brilliant at conveying what to do by means of a broad smile and one-word exclamations. ‘Voila! Formidable!’
‘Say it with conviction’ she says ‘…and you get away with a lot!’
The solvent-free glue man is entranced, and brings offerings of apple tart. I can’t resist having a go at building a stag of my own – he’s not the tallest of beasties, but quite stable and not a bad-looking lad, if I say so myself!

The trees seem to be the favourite of the smaller children, whist the adolescents - and later, adults - seem to enjoy the stags, often competing between groups to see who can make the tallest. Liz and Lucy are kept on the hop measuring and recording, and awarding prizes. I go between activities, taking pictures and updating the rolling slideshow - the projector fails utterly, so we have two laptops constantly showing pictures from the activities in Scotland and in France. In between cursing the vagaries of technology under my breath, I help out Annette and Eric with trees. In the middle of the afternoon, Annette turns into Joanna, also from the BA in London, a running handover punctuated by tree building. Joanna bravely dons the red t-shirt we all wear as ‘uniform’ (we look like a mis-matched punnet of tomatoes) and dives in.
In a similar vein, at 5.00 pm Eric turns into his sister Delphine - or rather she takes over the shift - she’s bouncier, less serious, and quite an artist in her own right - she has to have a go at making a paper tree - with astonishing results.

Suddenly it’s 7.00 pm, and it’s over for the day. We stagger as far as the café next to our hotel for dinner, and at some point before we collapse into bed, Lucy comes up with the title of tomorrow’s diary entry…….

Sunday, 22 October 2006

Marshmallows and Spaghetti – 12 October

Morning arrives far too soon. After breakfast, we head out into the gathering daylight, to take the tram to our first destination.

The cathedral rises beyond Place Kleber, shrouded in the early mist. It’s busier than I would have imagined this early, with people heading out for their work, and the tram – a modern, sleek and very clean machine – full of commuters. We are heading south of the city, to a secondary school– to deliver our first workshop; building towers from dry spaghetti and mini-marshmallows (see, I told you I’d tell you why Lucy’s luggage was full of them!).

What’s this to do with science? Well, it is a great way to teach the basic principles of engineering – strong shapes (triangles) versus weak (squares), material limitations (the marshmallows can only take so much!), task constraints (limited materials), and the need for precision (you need to make sure your spaghetti strands are broken to the same length, or suffer the consequences in terms of tower instability). Using simple materials makes it very accessible, and the sheer daftness of some of the ideas makes it a lot of fun. We have to explain this many times over the next few days, starting with the contact teacher at our first school.

Annette is the picture of calm, armed with maps and directions, and we alight from the tram on a wide street, tree-lined and cool. A brief consultation and we make our way to our destination. The sun is starting to break through as, at ten to nine, we arrive at the school gates, and the mist begins to clear.

It’s not quite what we were led to expect – we thought we were operating throughout in the International Schools, where most of the children speak English. Not so. Is this the time to explain that none of us is fluent in French? This school is in an Educational Priority Zone (ZEP) – which means a certain level of deprivation, and a certain level of - umm – how do you put it in this age of political correctness? – behavioural challenge. Apparently. In fact, we didn’t see it – the kids were great. Admittedly they looked at us as if we were mad to start with, but in this job you get used to that. They listened carefully, they grinned, and they set to with a will. And made some wonderful structures.

We had two classes at the secondary school, before heading back into town for lunch, (having had no dinner, by this time we were ravenous!) - and a date with the International School in the afternoon – three classes of primary level children, from five years up. Now, we haven’t done this with kids that young before, so it’s a challenge! We decide, for the youngest, to make triangles and squares, and take it from there – and they came up with some terrific constructions; the main problem was preventing them from eating the marshmallows, even though they had been on the floor by then. Fortunately, English is the main language here and we can explain in more detail why not! It was still an extremely sticky experience for all of us, and I hope the school cleaners will forgive us…

School finishes at 4.30 pm and we take our leave, heading back to the tram and to Place Broglie, where the Strasbourg Fête de la Science is taking place over the next three days. Two long tents in the middle of the market place, one for talks and one for stands; we discover that we have one small booth in which to do both workshops – building trees from paper without using tape or glue or staples, and building stags from whole sheets of newspaper and sticky tape – both aiming to make the tallest construction possible. It just ain’t possible in the allocated space (given that the nuclear physicists next door have nicked six inches of our space anyway!). One activity will have to go outside – which makes our original plan of two or three to do the activities at a time while the other takes a break rather unlikely. We are due to get a couple of students to help with translations, which is a blessing!

We set up as best we can, although it turns out that the projector provided to show the running slideshow (my job) doesn’t cope well with sunshine. By 7.30 pm we’ve done as much as we can, and head back to the hotel, to clean up and check on our luggage. Liz and Lucy’s has arrived – mine is still stranded in limbo somewhere….I go to wash out things for tomorrow.

We are recommended a place called ‘La Tête du Lard’ for dinner. To British ears this sounds a little off-putting, but it turns out to be excellent. We try the local speciality, ‘Tarte Flambée’ – like a very thin pizza with bacon and onions and – well, a selection of other things, such as cheese or mushrooms. Delicious! And an alcoholic ice-cream sort of dessert, and – because we obligingly moved halfway through to accommodate a large group – a complimentary glass of wine from the management!
Tomorrow we need to be back at the tent for 9.00 am, so head back to the hotel and bed.

Here Comes the Night – 11 October

With a ‘thunk’, the wheels retract, and we climb from a damp, grey landscape into nothingness. Outside the window, blank grey-white. Inside, a narrow aisle lies between the leather-look padded seats, one to the left, two to the right. We swallow hard, equalising the pressure in our ears as the plane climbs, lifting above the thick rolls of stratus into a gap between the layers, the sky brightening as we ascend. Suddenly we pop out into sunlit blueness, over a fuzzy white blanket that covers the whole of Britain.
‘The weather’s better up here’ I try a half-hearted joke to cover my apprehension. The ironic secret is, I’m not that keen on flying. I gaze out of the window to take my mind off what I know of flaps and ailerons, lift and control procedures. I’m not reassured to see another aircraft away to port, leaving a clear contrail in the thin air. Sunlight paints it white, glinting off metal.
We’re heading for France. Strasbourg, by way of Paris (Charles de Gaulle), to be exact. It’s part of the European Science Festival, and we are Britain’s contribution to the year-long series of events, where each participating nation sends a team to another country to demonstrate ‘science activities’ for schools and the general public. ‘We’ are Liz, Lucy and myself, from Scotland, representing the British Association for the Advancement of Science (the BA), and we’ll be delivering some of the activities that have been used during North-East Scotland’s National Science Week over the last three years. Which is why Lucy’s cabin baggage is full of mini-marshmallows. And mine contains a laptop computer which makes it weight half a ton. And I think Liz has more marshmallows in her luggage, too. I’ll explain why later!

I continue to look out of the window, contemplating catching a few minutes sleep; it’s been a long day already, helping to run a training session for teachers on how school grounds can be used throughout the curriculum, and I could use the downtime. Outside, the sun is going down, a glory of coral and gold to starboard, catching the tops of the few clouds that rise above the flat layer below our wings. Away to port, where sky meets cloud, a thick dark-blue line runs straight as a ruler from north to south, moving inexorably towards us.
The terminator.
Not Big Arnie, but the edge of night, hastening across the face of the Earth as it turns away from the sunlight. Cumulonimbus rise below, edged in pink and gold, sending long blue shadows out towards the onset of darkness. I guess we’re somewhere over the Channel by now, and beginning our long descent towards Paris. No stars yet, but a deepening blueness, the last few glancing rays of light catch the tops of the cloud as we slide back down into the featureless nothing. The hard bump of clear-air turbulence rocks the plane, marking the gap between cloud layers. The flash of strobe lighting and navigation lights is the only illumination as we find more cloud and sink ever downwards.

No stars? Below lie constellations, glittering rivers of light and nebular clusters against the blackness of the land. I glance to starboard and am struck by the shimmering lights of the Eiffel Tower – good grief – it’s just there - just like its picture…
I’m still feeling faintly amused by my ridiculous reaction when we are instructed to fasten seatbelts for landing.

Wheels down, flaps down, bump. We slow down gradually, lights racing too fast for comfort past the wingtips. Taxiways lead inexorably towards hardstanding.
Passengers for Strasbourg and Pau will be met at the foot of the aircraft steps.’ We exchange baffled glances.
Right enough, we are met by a man in a yellow jacket, who hastens us and our cabin baggage aboard a minibus, and takes off across the airfield as if in the Paris-Dakar rally. We have very little time to make our connecting flight, and we have been battling a headwind all the way south from Aberdeen. This is how Air France solves the problem – personal escort by a charming chap called Pascal, who guides us all the way, reassuring us that it isn’t far, we will catch our flight, all is well… Charles de Gaulle is a vast airport – we’re at terminal 2F, we need to be at terminal 2D, but we need to go via 2B to go through immigration – and we must hike from 2B to 2D, which is no small distance. Red-faced and sweaty, I follow the ever-calm Pascal, who, true to his word, delivers us to the check-in for our onward connection to Strasbourg. We join the queue, which seems to be going nowhere.

This is perhaps the point to relate that Liz has a long history of being separated from her luggage on overseas trips.

The flight to Strasbourg goes without a hitch, an Airbus conveys us to our destination in wide-bodied comfort and around 45 minutes. We reach the baggage hall, and wait.
And wait.
One lone suitcase is left to make the endless circuit of the conveyor belt. It’s not one of ours. A lady from the airport comes to meet us. Our luggage has not arrived, it is still in Paris, it will be put on the first flight in the morning; if we could just accompany her and give some details? Dutifully, we do as asked. She gives us overnight survival packs, and tells us to call her if there has been no result within 24 hours.
We slump into a taxi to our hotel, and the lights of Strasbourg pass pretty much unheeded. It’s after 11.00 pm, local time, when we arrive, and meet up with Annette, who is the representative of the BA’s Head Office, and who has done the recce for tomorrow’s school visits. Breakfast at 7.00 am. I stagger into the shower in my room, and turn it on full blast, thanking whatever small household god drove me to pack a spare t-shirt, travel towel and clean set of underwear around the laptop in my cabin baggage.
Sleep, to the rumble of the city trams.