Sutherland is an unusual little village in middle-of-nowhere, South Africa. It’s known for being the host town of SALT, the Southern African Large Telescope – and, as a result, every little eatery and sleepery (and there seem to be as many of them as there are stars in the sky) is named after some heavenly formation: Galileo Cottage, Starry Night Guesthouse, Halley-sê-kom-eet coffee shop…
Sutherland is also known for being the coldest place in the country (temperatures there dropped to -16 ºC in 2003), and it snows almost every winter. My friend B and I were there in early autumn, but already the evenings were very cold and the morning air very crisp. B commented on the unusual cloud formations above the town, and I was able to tell her they were contrails (short for ‘condensation trails’), because I saw the same formations in Holland a couple of years ago, and asked someone about them then. They’re basically engine exhaust vapour trails that form behind aircraft (and I love that Wikipedia gives them a Latin name: Cirrus aviaticus). In the picture above, which is of me drinking champagne out of a tin ‘Sutherland’ souvenir mug with SALT as a backdrop, you can clearly see some contrails in sky.
That evening, B and I went to a talk on the night sky, and the lecturer, a jovial fellow called Jurg – an entrepreneur extraordinaire and apparently the de-facto mayor of the town – made a little joke about the contrails: ‘You guys will have seen the trails in the sky,’ he said, ‘which are formed when planes brake as they’re approaching Cape Town International Airport.’
B nudged me and whispered, ‘See? They’re formed by brakes, not exhaust fumes.’
Because we were sitting in a darkened lecture hall, she wouldn’t have seen my eyebrows doing the Dance of Disbelief across my forehead, so instead I whispered, ‘Really? REALLY?!’
It took her a few moments, but then she twigged, and she laughed.
On the weekend I was telling this story to my daughter – usually an intelligent young woman, but pregnancy has mushened her brain somewhat – and when I’d finished, she looked confused. ‘But then how do planes brake in the sky?’ she asked.
And it got worse. My friend M, who was visiting from England, told a blonde-moment story about her daughter, who, in discussion with someone about having gammon for Christmas dinner, remarked that ‘it’s always good to have a nice piece of fish at Christmas’. We all fell about laughing at this, then my daughter sent us off the deep end by adding scornfully, ‘Everyone knows that gammon is a bird.’
To round off this day of gormlessness, my daughter then excitedly told me about the outsize Ferrero Rocher chocolates that were on sale over the Easter weekend. ‘And I think they’re genuinely big Ferrero Rochers,’ she said, ‘rather than a big Ferrero Rocher package with lots of little Ferrero Rochers inside.’ Then she paused and thought for a moment before adding, ‘Hang on, where would they get a hazelnut that size?’