On August 11, 1999, a total eclipse (Sonnenfinsternis) came to Germany. It was billed as the Event of the Century and the line of totality was about an hour south of where we lived. We had planned to go down the night before and sleep in our new VW camper van, but Karin had a doctor's appointment first thing in the morning so we joined the hordes on the road later in the day instead.
After two months of sun, it had finally started to rain again and the trip south was spent cursing other drivers, trying to decipher weather reports on the radio, listening to how all trains south were overflowing, and madly changing course to avoid the latest traffic jam. We spent way too much time weaving through small towns with too narrow streets and too much traffic, but finally hit uncrowded freeway and tooled along to a likely-looking farmer's field that was starting to fill with other eclipse watchers.
I asked one of the serious telescope types to take a photo of Karin and I in our doofy Sonnenfinsternisbrillen (eclipse dark glasses), which he did, although he completely failed to see the humor in the situation. While mumbling to myself about the smiley Germans, two cars pulled up in front of us and a load of hip-looking men and women piled out and immediately started joking around with their doofy-looking glasses. OK, maybe I'm wrong about the Germans, I thought. Then I heard them speak and checked out their license plate. They were Italian.
The weather was dicey but holding as the eclispse started. For some reason, both Karin and I thought the whole process would take a little more than the two minutes of totality -- we had completely forgotten about the moon slowly moving across the sun (or the sun moving behind the moon, or the earth rotating so that it appears that the moon is moving across the sun, or chariots of winged horses dragging one celestial body in front of another just to scare hell out of ignorant people, or however the hell it is that an eclipse works), for which the funny little glasses proved quite useful.
After an hour of this and taking pictures of everybody else looking silly in their dark glasses, we approached totality and it was noticeably colder, although whether this was due to lack of sunlight or cloud cover was hard to say. Then, totality, with the clouds behaving just enough that we didn't need our funny little glasses at all. It wasn't as dark as I had expected -- like just after twilight, but before stars are really visible.
The corona was clearly visible through binoculars and quite amazing -- sort of a pinkish-red color. For some reason I'd thought it would be orange and dance like the northern lights, but it was relatively static, with one flare -- five to ten percent of the sun's diameter -- cleanly separated from the rest of the sun. We quickly passed the binoculars back and forth and repeatedly said, "Wow! This is soooo cool! Isn't this cool? This is really cool!", thereby demonstrating the effects of solar eclipses on the brains of so-called intelligent, well-educated people.
Then the moon moved or the sun moved or the earth moved or the chariots of winged horses got tired of their joke or whatever and the sun peeked back out and it got totally light again. Five minutes later the clouds closed in and the show was over.
We toodled over to the nearest town looking for a restaurant, figuring that it would be better to wait than to fight traffic on the way home. After wandering through several small towns, we settled on the first place we found, which was coincidentally the only place we had found.
The restaurant wasn't too busy when we got there, but was soon hopping. The owner had failed to plan for a post-eclipse surge of customers and was swamped, but we eventually got our food and chatted with the other eclipse-goers. (Was this your first eclipse? It was my first eclipse and Karin's second. Did the weather cooperate for you? We got to see everything. Did you look stupid in your glasses and blither like an idiot during totality? We certainly did. Don't you think Sonnenfinsternis is really too long a word for "eclipse" but sounds cool when you say it a whole bunch of times in a row? Sonnenfinsternis-Sonnenfinsternis- Sonnenfinsternis-Sonnenfinsternis. We do.)
For the trip home, imagine trying exit the parking lot of a rock concert with several million attendees. It wasn't bad at first, but as we went from smaller feeder road to bigger feeder road, the Staus (a very nice short word meaning traffic jam) kept getting worse and the radio was reporting Staus of up to 35 kilometers, with roads in some areas completely overloaded. Our strategy was to keep trying bigger and bigger roads until we came to a near halt, then head back to the smaller roads. This worked until just south of Worms, where we stopped almost completely for half an hour or an hour.
We finally broke free about 30 km from home, getting there after four hours of driving. (It's normally a one hour drive.) At least we can say we participated in the Event of the Century -- the Biggest Traffic Jam in German History.