Monday, November 01, 2010

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.

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