Tuesday, November 09, 2010

The Dutch-American historical connection

YESTERDAY I READ A BOOK confirming and explaining the connection I've long felt exists between Netherlands and the United States — a common mentality, you might say, a societal posture differentiating them from other nations. Not all other nations, perhaps; and not entirely: but a special orientation enabling a societal organization — "political," in fact — that underlies the social responsibilities enabling a social contract, written or not.

The book is in fact a pair of short essays by Geert Mak and Russell Shorto, 1609, The Forgotten history of Hudson, Amsterdam, and New York, published in 2009 in a handsome bilingual edition by the Henry Hudson 400 Foundation. Hudson arrived in New York harbor on his ship the Half Moon in 1609; the book was published as part of the events celebrating the 400th anniversary of that event.

Hudson was English, not Dutch, but he sailed on a commission from the Dutch East India Company, who hoped he would find a short route to Japan and China by sailing along the north Russian coast where the long summer days, it was thought, might melt the polar ice. He was four centuries too soon for that, as we know now, and before rounding the north cape of Norway turned back, crossed the Atlantic, and sailed to what is now Virginia to visit his friend John Smith in the colony there; then looked into first the Delaware river, then what's now the Hudson, hoping for a passage through the North American continent to the Sea of Japan.

(Not as ridiculous as it seems today, Shorto points out. At the time most navigators and cartographers thought that Ptolemy's ancient estimate of the size of the earth was correct; this would have placed Japan about where Ohio is.)

Hudson sailed up his river as far as present-day Albany before the river proved entirely fresh water, not salt, dashing that hope. But he explored the banks, and reported back to the Company that the fields were fertile and well-supplied with game. Before long the Dutch were sending colonists to stake out their own territory north of England's doomed Roanoke colony, and New York was Nieuw Amsterdam until 1664, when the English finally claimed the city at gunpoint.

By then the city had begun to develop qualities that characterize it still, qualities that early set it apart, Shorto writes, from "Boston, Hartford, or any other city in English North America." And what were those qualities? "Free trade and an immigrant culture," the features that enabled Amsterdam's rise in the late 16th and the 17th century as the most important, richest trading city in the world. The shipping companies were owned by a Dutch innovation, stock companies, not a monarchy; risk was shared as were returns; and the co-operation this necessitated was underwritten by a relatively liberal, tolerant view of differing social values.

Amsterdam, with its busy seaport, had already been attracting refugees from the religious wars in Germany and France, and the suppression of the Jews in Spain. "In an age of religious strife, it was almost universally held that a nation should be of one people and one faith," Shorto writes.
Intolerance was thus official policy in England, Spain, France… but not in the Dutch nation. There, tolerance became a topic of political and religious debate. Tolerance was adopted as a policy — not as a grand ideal, but as a way to deal with the mixed character of the population.
The Union of Utrecht, for example, declared as early as 1579 that "each person shall remain free, especially in his religion, and that no one shall be persecuted or investigated because of their religion."

As a result, Shorto argues, the Dutch colony in New York was a mixture of ethnic and religious strains from the beginning, approaching common problems and decisions in the spirit of common consent. "Even as early as the 17th century," Mak writes,
the Dutch had an uncontrollable inclination to assemble and to "polder" or debate until consensus is reached. This inclination based on the collective decision-making they were accustomed to as they worked together to reclaim their wetlands… Everything revolved around the art of persuasion, convincing others through debate.
The technique has its drawbacks, of course: it requires an educated, articulate, and probably fairly small body of discussants; and it takes time to arrive at its consensus. But it's a commendable procedure, and no doubt served as a model to the "Founding Fathers" as they themselves debated the form of the new government to follow the American Revolution.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Rural; urban

OR: COUNTRY MOUSE, city mouse. For a long time it's seemed to me possible, maybe even simple — too simple, you'll object — to divide elements of human culture into those two categories.

This first occurred to me through coming to know the music of Anton Bruckner: big, easy-paced symphonies. It's true they're often characterized as monumental, even architectural, and somehow that does seem appropriate, whatever it means. I can understand those who liken his symphonies to cathedrals. It helps the fancy to recall that he was a devout man and a church organist.

But it occurred to me an even more helpful entry to these cathedrals of music was by walking. It had occurred to me even before I read somewhere of Bruckner's own walks, long ones, from home to school, from home to church, across the flat Austrian plains in the countryside south of Linz. I'd already sensed a logical connection between Bruckner and Schubert, whose late music often has a similar walking tempo. Schubert did a lot of walking too, but not in the countryside; his walks took him across Vienna, as a century later Erik Satie's walks took him across Paris.

Beethoven walked too, preferring the countryside outside Vienna; but I don't think of him as the inveterate walker that Bruckner was. Nor do I think Mozart can have been much of a walker: serene as much of his music is, it has the serenity of contemplation, not of walking; besides, he must have been in far too much a hurry most of the time. (I recently re-read his letters; you can't imagine how much activity he packed into that short life.)

Some music just seems to exhale country air through its phrases and cadences. Bruckner; Berlioz; Webern. I know the knowledge forms the impression; the music itself can't be responsible. Copland's harmonic dispositions are as wide as Berlioz's, for example, and few composers write more urban music than Aaron Copland — as far as I'm concerned, even Rodeo and Appalachian Spring reveal their Paris-New York breeding. But perhaps this country quality is expressed in purely musical terms through tempo and, especially, articulation. The even duple stresses and repetitive phrase-structure of the slow movement of Schubert's Ninth Symphony is a perfect example of this.

Of course there are Country and City painters, too, and poets, and cooks. We saw a wonderful show of landscapes by Giorgio Morandi the other day. He's known for his still lifes, of course; the idea of Morandi landscapes was particularly intriguing. He spent nearly his entire life in the city, in Bologna, but his landscapes are almost entirely rural. The Italian and French words — paisaggio; paysage — convey the open-country feel better than does "landscape," I think (though there again I'm probably completely misled by language; one's own language is so familiar that it tends to convey qualities more prosaic than do the languages one's much less adept with).

I think there was only one painting in the exhibition, though, that did not contain among its pictorial matter a building, or a road, or some mark of man's hand on the landscape. Most of the paintings contained mute Italian country houses. These tend to be cubical, probably because that's the most efficient use of material to contain space while relying on straight lines, not curved ones. (Masonry hates curves.) The windows tend to be few and small, protecting interiors from wind, cold, and blazing sun.

There are no people or animals attending these buildings, not in Morandi's world, and the feeling aroused by these landscapes is very like that associated with his still lifes. In both cases, the real subject seems to be the permanence of the evanescence of human products — houses, barns, bottles, pitchers — as they stand stolid, mute, dissociated from the humanity that made them through their obvious lack of use at the moment.

Why should Morandi's seem a country mentality to me, rather than an urban one? Perhaps because through both his palette and his geometry he so often recalls Cézanne? Perhaps because the nature of Morandi's moods resonates with my own mood, when I am lost in nature, away from noise and crowds, steeping myself in self-in-nature apart from intellectual, urbane, societal distractions?

We began our current journey with three days in noise and crowds at the Salone di Gusto in Torino, virtually every waking moment subject to insistent, urgent demands of all five senses. (The last day, in fact, we took a light-hearted test of the skills our five senses had at dealing with both subtle distinctions and imperious attacks.) Then came three days in snowy, rural Savoie; then three in the countryside and the villages of the Valsusa.

A week ago, on Sunday, we were back in a crowd of people, gazing at those wonderful Morandi paintings in an exceptionally well-installed show at the Fundazione Ferrero in Asti; but we spent the night in an isolated country hotel. The next morning we drove through the mute, Morandi-like mists of the Po Plain to Milan, as stylishly busy a city as I care to deal with, and tested our mental-emotional balance negotiating between its crowds, traffic, and trattorias and the discursive conversation we enjoy with our friends Richard and Marta the next two days.

Wednesday we flew across the unseen Alps, through the night sky and above clouds, to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, where we made the mental shift from Italian to Dutch, bought a Dutch phone-chip, took a Dutch train to this very familiar provincial city in Gelderland, my favorite province. We're staying with another couple of friends, really old and close friends. We've been relaxing, more or less, conversing, walking, shopping, reading a little.

Last night, to get back to the subject, we took the bus, the four of us, to the nearby provincial capital Arnhem, where we saw the National Ballet in three major works: Krzysztof Pastor's Moving Rooms, to music by Alfred Schnittke and Henryk Gorecki; Hans van Manen's Without Words, to Hugo Wolf's Mignon songs; and Benjamin Millepied's One Thing Leads to Another, to music by Nico Muhly. (Yes, all three titles were in English; yes, that choreographer's name is really Millepied.)

The opening work didn't interest me at all, either choreographically or musically, and I dozed. The other two, though, I found both beautiful and interesting. Without Words was basically a series of pas de deux, one woman (Igone de Jongh) responding to one or another of three men (Jozef Varga, Juanjo Arques, Alexander Zhembrovskyy) flirtatiously, or seriously, or disinterestedly, to the interesting musical accompaniment of Hugo Wolf songs presented through their piano accompaniment only, the voice (and therefor the texts) missing altogether. (Reinbert de Leeuw was the pianist, onstage though well back and ill-lit, and he was marvelous.)

One Thing Leads to Another was an altogether fascinating interpretation in dance, by no fewer than twelve male and twelve female dancers, of Muhly's always interesting, always clear, sometimes surprising score for large orchestra. The music is now choppy and insistent, now long-lined and insidious; its orchestration is skilful; its architecture logical but rarely obvious. (It was played splendidly, by the Olland Symfonia, conducted by Benjamin Pope.)

Millepied's choreography was attentive to small details while building large units. I thought it clear that he's found ideas in Mark Morris, in Cunningham, in Pina Bauch, just as Muhly clearly knows his Stravinsky, his John Adams, his Louis Andriessen. But everyone associated with this piece seemed quite comfortable knowing such sources, yet turning their contributions to new, idiomatic, individualistic expressions.

I call this quality sophisticated and urbane. It can be achieved by country artists: God knows Berlioz proved that. But last night it was the product of distinctly urban mentalities, and I was in exactly the right mood to deal with their "Strong Voices," as the entire program was called.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Valsusa, 2: Chapels

AFTER AN INTERLUDE of a couple of days in Milan, too busy to write, I resume, I hope. If you look at a map of Italy you see at what's normally though of as the northwest — though in fact the peninsula does not run north and south, but lies at a rakish angle against the compass — a big sort of shoulder: that's the two regions of Val d'Aosta and Piemonte. Val d'Aosta's an interesting place, rather isolated though easily accessible, a valley open at the south corner but otherwise ringed by Alps, home to Italy's magnificent national park the Gran Paradiso. We've driven through Aosta a few times, twice spending the night in one or another corner high up a side road, and have fond memories of the people, the terrain, and the cuisine. But we know Piemonte much better.

Piemonte's terrain is quite varied, flat and easily farmed in its southern half, rumpled for vineyard and truffle forests in the east central region, marshy along the great Po river where the best rice is grown. But it's the western side of the region I like best, the series of five or six valleys cut and drained by fast streams running from the high snowy ridgeline down to the foot of the mountains (pie monti in dialect).

Lindsey's father was born in Chiomonte in one of the northernmost of these valleys, the Valsusa. The country hereabouts is rugged. Chiomonte's above the Dora Riparia river on the south , right bank; across the river the mountain rises nearly vertically in some places, terraced with vineyards that seem impossible to maintain, and laced with perpendicular flumes, pipes perhaps a meter in diameter, bringing snowmelt down precipitously to run a hydroelectric plant.

(I like to think Lindsey's father was inspired by the awe of this landscape, and by this daring domestication of its powers, to an early fascination with electricity; he became an electrical engineer after his emigration to the United States.)

Like the Savoie on the other, French side of the ridge, the mountains and foothills on the Piemonte side are dotted with romanesque chapels, many containing frescos in the powerful, sometimes lyrical naive itinerant style of the area. We visited two of these: San Benedetto on the south side of the valley, above Villar Focchiardo in a regional park; and the Abbazia di Novalesa on the north side, just off the road leading over the Moncensio pass to Lanslebourg on the French side.

Chapel at the Abbazia di Novalesa

The Abbey was interesting for its architecture, its fine site overlooking a beautifully farmed valley, and its frescos celebrating Saints Eldrado and Nicholas, important local saints whose pilgrimages led them to these mountains. We drove there, impolitely driving right up to the abbey which is still a working religious retreat open to tourists only a few hours a week, and we joined a group of Italian tourists guided by an enthusiastic and very sympathetic guide who did her best to be sure I had some idea of what she was explaining though she knew very little English.

We walked to San Benedetto, driving to the end of a long narrow paved road, through many switchbacks, to a parking spot at the end, then walking nearly an hour along a narrow footpath through mixed hardwood forest, crossing a fast stream (half cascade) midway on the walk on a crude bridge a foot or so wide, then climbing fairly steeply before suddenly coming out into an alpage centered on a stone farmstead and the chapel, church really, of S. Benedetto.

S. Benedetto (center) in its alpage

This was founded by Cartusian monks walking here on their pilgrimage from Mont St. Michel on the French coast, by way of the Grand Chartreuse in the French Alps outside Grenoble, finally to Rome. I suppose these waypoints were settled partly to shelter, partly to supply later pilgrims taking the same strenuous but in many ways refreshing journey. In their day, of course, the terrain was wilder; the woods full of wolves, life considerably more uncertain. On our little pilgrimage up to the chapel the only danger was the slippery wet chestnut leaves underfoot; those, and the souvenirs left by milk-cows and cow-dogs, inevitably fouling our shoes.

On one side of the church a low side-room has been turned into a fromagerie where wheels of mountain cheese, tomme or tomo depending on your language, are left on crude wooden shelves to take on some age. I asked the farmer, who was about to round up his herd, what breed the cows were: "French," he said — the same red-brown breed we'd seen playing their bells on the main street in Lanslevillard. (Looking back on the little video I made of them that day, I see now that some of them are the Abondance breed, easily distinguished by the black "spectacles" they wear.)

The church has been stabilized, not really rebuilt, and a wooden suspended floor has been provided to protect the original. Apparently concerts are given here in the summertime; there must be a paved road up here that we didn't know about — I'm glad, as we might otherwise have missed a truly fine afternoon's hike.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Valsusa, 1: Agriturismo

Milan, November 1—
WE SEEM USUALLY to have incredibly good luck finding places to stay and to eat. In Lanslebourg, wondering what to do for three days and nights near Chiomonte, I looked for "agriturismo" near Susa, and found four. I chose the first, nearest Susa: Cré Seren. After finally getting my jacket liberated from the museum in Modane we drove back to Lanslebourg, then over the Moncenisio pass…

But first a few words on this road, which we'd already taken a few days earlier, on Monday, in a light snowstorm, northbound. We first drove this road perhaps thirty years ago, and I had distinct memories of that summer's drive, past a pretty lake where two girls, maybe twelve years old, were sitting on the grass weaving daisy-chains as they kept watch over their small herd of milk-cows.

We'd driven down through France and were eager to get to Italy and were pleased to see the conifers on the French side of the pass give way to mixed hardwood forest, then palms and citrus trees. Kennst du das Land, wo die Citrönen bluhen? Heidi and The Sound of Music giving way to Goethe!

Last Thursday, though, I noted the lake was a reservoir held back by an immense earthen dam; there were neither girls nor cows to be seen; the weather was chilly. The end of October is a long way from July at this altitude. We did stop just beyond the dam to investigate what seemed an abandoned village, its few buildings in varying degrees of collapse. It wasn't inviting, and we went on.

Our dashboard navigator with its incredibly irritating Englishwoman's voice — turn right at the vee-ah ee-vray-AH — led us to our agriturismo by a dubious route. I should have expected this; the same thing had happened to us in Sicily, when we were also led into an increasingly narrowing street. We turned an improbably steep angle, down a cobbled road between plastered stone walls confining fields, between frugally placed houses leaving almost no room for traffic, finally pulling in both side mirrors and driving with inches to spare, but finally noticing signs to Cré Seren, and finally drawing up at a pretty little chapel beyond which stood a winery shed across the street from what proved to be Cré Seren's restaurant.

This wasn't our digs, though. The restaurant was closed; no one seemed about. Back at the parked car, wondering what to do, we waited until a pleasant-looking man, fortyish, walked out of the winery. He asked us what we needed, then crossed the road to call into a kitchen window, and our hostess stepped out, apologizing for her lack of English, smiling at my Italian.

Another fellow drove up in a small pickup with a box of tomatoes and peppers, and the hostess transferred them to the wheelbarrow and trundled them back across the road. In the meantime her mother had materialized, a small, goodlooking woman with a marvelously good-natured face all smiles: she would lead us to our bedroom.

She set off back down the road, on foot, motioning to us with that curious Italian gesture, pawing the air palm down, and we drove slowly after, down the street and into a courtyard where she showed us to leave the car in front of a woodpile, the hood and windshield under an overhang.

The room itself was another forty feet away, up the street, into another yard flagged with basalt and granite, next to a vegetable garden, up a flight of stairs. Inside, two twin beds and a bunkbed; next to that bedroom, an enormous bathroom (lacking, however, a tub).

We later learned that this cheery lady was Sylvana Sereno. Her daughter, the cook, is Serena Sereno. (Her brother, who we never met, is named Hilario Sereno: Sylvana is a master of light poetry, I suspect.) The winemaker was Serena's husband, GianCarlo Martina: Italians often keep their own surnames when they marry.

I won't write here about the food and wine at this agriturismo; you may already have read about it over at Eating Every Day; if not, click over there if you like. I will explain that an agriturismo is a place licenced by the government to bring tourists in contact with the agricultural tradition of Italy; the food and wine served is often, perhaps always for all I know, produced by the location (obvious exceptions like cocoa, sugar, and coffee being tolerated); and in our experience the people who run these places seem to be particularly oriented toward small-farm, sustainable, chemical-free practice, though by no means refusing continuing education into modern versions of traditionally-valued agricultural practise.

After unpacking and cleaning up a bit I wanted a walk, and set out toward a chapel I'd noticed perhaps half a mile away, down the street through the village — if village it was: for there seemed no commercial center or indeed any commercial buildings at all apart from the winery, itself a modest sort of barn with no facilities for retail sales or tasting. On either side of the street were houses and their vegetable gardens or, occasionally, small orchards or vineyards. These were fenced and in many cases guarded by frisky, noisy dogs, mostly terriers it seemed.

I passed a fellow who was cleaning up a press-basket, having just finished pressing out his private stock of Barbera. We had a pleasant conversation, in the course of which he agreed that things in the Valsusa were changing: The only thing that's improved around here is the wine, he said, though he didn't seem outraged at the decline; rather he seemed optimistic and grateful for the improvement. I went on, past an open pasture in which the most enormous chestnut tree I've ever seen stood, certainly toward eight feet in diameter. A man was raking its leaves and chestnut-burrs away from the trunk, working methodically, raking out to a circular periphery exactly at the dripline, say twenty feet from the trunk. A wagon stood nearby; he'd soon be piling the leaves in it. For feeding his livestock, I wondered, later in the winter, when everything would be snowed in?

As I walked back the man with the press-basket eyed me curiously. You must be Mario's cousin, he said. No, I said, I don't have a cousin named Mario, I have no family at all in these parts, it's my wife's family comes from here, from Chiomonte. Ah, Chiomonte, he nodded thoughtfully; Chiomonte.

In the next three days we had three dinners at Cré Seren, each very good indeed. When on Friday morning we drove into Susa for information on walking-paths in the area I mentioned that we were staying there, and the lady at the tourist-office desk nodded and said Very good table there; that's a woman knows how to cook.

Serena feigned no English, though I suspect she speaks a little and understands more. (I'll never know how it is these people can understand more than they can speak; with me it's the contrary. Perhaps it's just that I speak, I talk talk talk, whether I know what I'm saying or not. As Laverdure the parrot says, in Zazie dans le Metro, tu parle, tu parle, c'est tout ce que tu pourras.) That didn't keep us from conversations, in the course of which she mentioned that the government restricts agriturismo tightly; they must have no fewer than x beds, no more than y; their dining rooms must have no fewer than x covers, no more than y; they must serve traditional food of the country: in this case, vitello tonnato, bagna cauda, brasato al polenta, bonet

None of that offends me at all. In fact I think it a good idea: old traditions are kept alive that might otherwise vanish, and the links among terrain, climate, nutrition, daily life, and daily pleasure as well as work are maintained.

For the most part the natives of this valley seem remarkably healthy. We hear of people of considerable age: there's a woman in Gialgione who's 105, and in full command of her senses though a little deaf, they say. People are lean and bright-eyed and ready to do things, perhaps at a measured rate, but one that accomplishes the task. Tools and vehicles are appropriately scaled. All parts of the land, the buildings, the day seem to be put to use: when not, they're allowed to collapse gracefully, sinking back into the soil.

Yet Serena told us even here there's been the constant flight to the city, especially by the young people. (I reflected on the migrations of the past: of Lindsey's father's family, for example; only her father, of his family of five siblings, ever returned to the land; and then to a distant land indeed, fortunately for me.) As people leave, their smallholdings begin to disappear. Where once had been orchards and vineyards the wild forest begins to encroach. They never used to worry about wild animals; now they have to fence against mountain goats and sheep, capretti, wild pigs.

Wolves? Yes, she said, even wolves; they don't bother us of course, they don't bother the gardens, but if you have sheep you have to think about them, shepherds now have big white dogs big enough to hold the wolves at bay, and the dogs are frightening too.

We've seen a fair amount of this forest, both on drives and on a wonderful walk we took the other day. Mixed hardwood forest with a fair number of chestnuts and horse-chestnuts, the colors and textures of the forested hillside incredibly beautiful to look at. The balance of nature and human occupation seems poised at a tentative stand-off, and I'm glad the traditional values (not to menbtion the skills) haven't completely vanished: before long they may well be needed, when areas like this have been left by technology's failure to fend for themselves.

Modane, Oct. 28: Museobar

Milan, November 1—
WE WERE ESSENTIALLY without Internet connection for the three days after leaving Lanslebourg: hence I have catching up to do, and will inevitably get confused about the time. Traveling like this always does strange things to my sense of time; or, rather, it confuses the days as their events mingle not only among themselves but also recall similar events on other travels, or similar sights or sounds in other places. Still, I make an attempt.

In the first place we spent the morning, last Thursday, in Modane, chiefly because I wanted Lindsey to see the Museobar there. Opened by the city of Modane in 2008, it celebrates and presents a specific part of the history of that frontier town, a part very dear to us: Modane's role as a center of emigration from Italy to other places, in the years 1860-1935. Modane lies on the northern (French) slope of the Moncenisio massif.

For a few hundred years its economy was primarily mining (especially lead) and, of course, agriculture, but the Industrial Revolution changed things. Waterpower produced abundant electricity, and small manufacture developed. The railroad arrived about 1860 (hence that starting date in this museum), opening distant markets. Then, in the late 1860s, the push developed for a tunnel piercing the Moncenisio massif, uniting France and Italy.

Until 1860 this entire region had not been French at all. It was Savoy, a nation whose ruling house was the longest-ruling family in Europe. There were two capitals, as the family's interests wandered from one side of the ridge to the other: Chambery and Torino. The official language was French, I suppose, but of course the people spoke the dialects of their own districts. In mountainous regions like this the concept of an overriding nationality was unfamiliar: since Hannibal and his elephants (not to mention Julius Caesar and his legionnaires) the country had been traversed and to one degree or another exploited by "leaders" from distant places, but the inhabitants had continued in their own traditions: herding, small-farming, hunting, trading.

After Napoleon, and especially in the time of the Second Empire, the French urge to spread to the ridges became irresistable. An election was held in 1860 to "reunite" (as the French had it) Savoy with France, and a majority was counted in favor of the idea -- though the result has been contested ever since.

Soon after, the railroad was built, mostly with Italian labor. Then as now Italy was poor, relative to the more Northern countries on "our" side of the Alps, and the contadini grew in numbers beyond their resources, starting with those in the nearest regions. Lindsey's own grandmother, for instance, though she was born and grew up in Chiomonte in the Valsusa, worked in France, mostly in Paris according to family history, as a wet-nurse. She'd have a baby, park him with a sister or a cousin, take the train to Paris, and nurse a well-to-do French baby for a couple of years; then return to Chiomonte and her husband until another baby was born and weaned, when the cycle would repeat.

Generations of Italians emigrated through the tunnel from Bardonecchia to Modane. Lindsey's grandparents did in the first decade of the 20th century; her father followed, alone, ten years old, in 1914. So the panels of photographs, and the extended quotations from oral-history interviews with oldtimers, fascinated us as we visited this museum. There are four "rooms," each depicting a café of a different generation, with photos of the period, murals depicting typical citizens of the town in four different periods: the bourgeois early period, the time of the first big wave of Italian passants, the roaring 'twenties, and the Modane of military occupation by huge regiments stationed here for defense, as the Maginot Line was being built during the nervous years before 1939.

In each room you can sit at a café table, put on a pair of headphones, and watch a well-designed video presentation of the history of the period. Or, if your French isn't up to that -- and mine isn't -- you can examine the dozens of photos, beautifully restored and enlarged, with explanatory texts (again only in French).

Lindsey and I were alone in the Museum, and I was lucky to have a long conversation with Claudine Théolier, who presides at its desk and writes a fair amount of its copy. She filled me in on the economic history of the period, the rise of its fascinating first families who brought in rice from Piedmont to be milled in factories in Modane, who were instrumental in organizing the drive for the tunnel, who went into banking -- and who built one of the most fascinating factories in Modane, specializing in the manufacture of mechanical pianos.

The Italians brought us music, one of the panels in the museum quotes; They loved to dance. Indeed the first piano I saw in the museum, in the first of the cafés represented, looked very much like one we'd seen in operation in a puppet theater in Palermo last May. Claudine wasn't surprised: the Italian crank-operated piano, often drawn on a cart by a street musician in the 19th century, was apparently a source for the inspiration that led Desiré Jorio to develop his factory.

Throughout this period Modane emerged as a city, with its bourgeois banking and manufacturing society, its armies of laborers and soldiers, its skilled labor and its tunnelers, thriving at the mouth of a tunnel that united two distinct halves of a single mountain. Since its ridge runs east and west it clearly has a cold side and a warm, France and Italy; this alone must account for an enormous amount of temperamental difference among residents. But because the ridge was always a frontier, even when it ran through the middle of a single politically unified "country" (Savoy), there was always smuggling, traveling, innkeeping. Jean-Jacques Rousseau walked over the pass on his way to Italy, 250 years ago or so; Henry James was only one of many travelers who wrote about the pass.

We left the museum at noon, having spent nearly two hours in it -- I've only sketched its attractions -- and has a croque-monsieur at a nearby bar, when I realized I'd left my jacket behind. I'd taken it off to sit at one of those café tables to watch a video, and had hung it on the back of my chair. I'd thought of hanging it on a coat-hook on the wall, next to a woolen jacket from the 19th century apparently belonging to one of the Modannais of that period, but realized the danger of that; it would take its place among the museum objects, I'd overlook it, it would never be a part of me again (though a part of me would always be a part of the museum).

It was probably because I did not hang it on the hook, but on the chair instead, that I dismissed the danger from mind, and wound up forgetting it anyway. Nothing to do but wait until three o'clock, or maybe four, when the museum would re-open after Claudine's midday break. But as we sat with a glass of wine talking about this, a fellow walked by she'd introduced me to in the museum, an archaeologist who'd been able to answer a number of my questions (and who indeed I'd met two summers ago at the little museum he himself had built in the nearby town of Solliers). He asked why we were lingering, I explained, he called Claudine, she came by and smilingly let me in to the closed museum to retrieve the jacket. Thank you M. l'Archaeologue, and especially thank you dear Claudine; I am very sorry to have put you to this trouble.