Sunday, September 14, 2008

The magic of the southern skies

One of the great things about being in the southern hemisphere and somewhere semi-rural is the fact that the night sky is so different to what I'm used to. The light pollution is negligible on the hillside where we live and on a clear night, the sky is a cascade of stars.
I still find myself looking for Polaris out of habit, but realise that New Zealand is too far down for that. Here, you can see the Southern Cross shining bright and clear.  
Anyway, the real story is that on Friday night, we went down to the Ward Observatory in Wanganui, which houses New Zealand's largest unmodified refractor telescope. The Wanganui Astronomical Society opens the observatory up for public viewings every Friday after sunset. I went up into the darkened dome and said hello to the people there and we exchanged names and pleasantries even though we couldn't see each other's faces. They were knowledgeable old men who had been looking at the southern skies for years.  
The first thing I saw through the telescope was the craggy and dimpled surface of the moon. This was followed by a view of Jupiter and his handsome stripes. I also saw Jupiter's moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto. But what made the evening special was the eerie red light in the darkness of the observatory and meeting the members of the astronomical society. They spoke so passionately about the hundreds of volcanoes on Io and dispensed many other bits of celestial was the most fun I've had while also learning a lot about deep space and the intricacies of telescopes.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Movie night and teary eyes

La Vie Revee des Anges or The Dreamlife of Angels is the name of the extraordinary French film that had me weeping copiously into my oversize grey fleece last night. We borrowed it from the Wanganui Library, where I have spent some happy afternoons. And I digress. The story is simple enough but the treatment is complex. Two penniless girls, Marie and Isa, befriend each other at a sweatshop. Director Eric Zoncka, who co-authored the script, manages to portray all the intricacies of friendship; mutual need, exploitation and camaraderie. Elodie Bouchez plays Isa, the tomboyish optimist who approaches even her destitution with a certain madcap exuberance. Natacha Regneir plays Marie, a pessimist who is too afraid to need people. Still, she lets Isa into her life and the flat that she is housesitting for a mother and daughter who are in hospital after an accident. Together, Marie and Isa find that their hard lives, devoid of prospects, are made somewhat better by company. Friction is never far from their interactions though. Isa starts reading the diaries that belong to Sandrine, the room's original occupant, who now lies in a coma. She is moved enough to visit the comatose girl while Marie worries about when they might have to move out. Despite their obvious personality differences, the girls continue to comfort each other. Isa drags Marie to places she may have never gone, given her introversion. They manage to charm a couple of bouncers, Fredo and Charly, to gain entry into a club. I particularly liked the character of the Charly, the overweight bouncer who doesn't think he's fat. He's a gentle and wise giant who would have taken care of Marie if she'd let him. But Marie gets involved with his boss, a rich brat who sees her as an interesting diversion. This is where it gets ugly. Marie finds she can't let go of the brat, much as she dislikes him. What's evident is that through all their situations, the girls are by turn exploiters and by turn, the exploited. And yet, there is a sad hopefulness to them which I found all too human and honest and it stayed with me. Wasn't surprised to learn that they both shared the Best Actress Award at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The best thing about walking...

Walking around this town makes me happy. There is the quiet road by the river and the slip roads in the park by Virginia Lake. There are the old trees and dogs that come bounding up to you. A golden retriever appeared today wagging its tail at me and walked alongside for a while. Ducks came up to the entrance of our house the other day, it was amazing. Today, I was out walking for most of the evening. I watched the orange evening light turn into blue and inky black. The stars started to appear quite quickly in that pointillist way they do sometimes. I had the cold evening breeze on my face and I walked homewards. I thought of a paragraph from the book I'm reading. "Our lives spent in rooms, our imaginations and outlooks framed by windows--by concepts, logic, language--most of us continue to think of nature as a place to visit, wearing sunscreen and suitable protective clothing. Visitors in the museum of the great outdoors." (The book I'm reading is called The Picador Nature Reader and is edited by Daniel Halpern and Dan Frank)