A trip to Paris in 1977 January 20, 2007Posted by dorigo in Art, personal, social life, travel.
This post is triggered by a question by Fred: “Were you, as a youngster, able to accompany your father on his trips? If so, where was a memorable place you visited[…]?”
Today I do feel like writing about that. I had my most memorable travel experience with my father when I was 11, in Paris. Not one of his business trips, but still a nice travel experience together. It was the summer of 1977.
1977. Feels like a lifetime away. My parents had parted four years before, and my brothers and I (the 11 years-old me, 16 years-old Martino, and 17 years-old Paolo) were used to spending July vacations with Mariella and August vacations with Wladimiro. That usually meant most of July in Bibione, a seaside town on the Adriatic coast where my mother owned a little house together with her sisters; while in August we would go to the dolomites with my father.
Not in 1977. Those where years of fierce battles between the radical leftist youth and the establishment, in the streets in Italy. In June of that year Paolo had been arrested for trying to put together a Molotov bottle with a friend who had had the ingenious idea of lighting a cigarette nearby: they had been picked up by the police in the hospital, and Paolo was to spend the summer in a correctional facility for minors. My father, me and Martino were then offered by Paola -an old-time friend who was later to become my father’s second wife- to spend a month with her and two of her seven sons in Paris, in the house of the Toutee’s, her acquaintances, with whom she had arranged to exchange housing.
I remember the circumstances of that uncommon trip as if it happened yesterday. We left Venice by train at about midnight of August 1st, after a reception in S.Marco for the vernissage of an art exhibit my father had to attend to. Speaking of vernissages, I usually had a lot of fun at these events, since I was the only kid there and I felt like I was invisible to the adults present. So I could play in the typically mysterious settings of the dark inner courts of venetian palaces or discover the intricacies of their Piano Nobile – the main floor.
Anyway, that was indeed a quite uncommon situation for a kid, spending the evening at a mundane happening, and then rushing home to pick up our luggage and leave. Before leaving, I even remember quickly checking out the condition of my mother’s cat Bis, which was dying of Panleucopenia (it would not make it to the end of the following day). By the time we reached the train station, I was feeling sick for the stress – I did not want to lose the train!
Anxiousness for deadlines such as the departure of trains or airplanes is something I probably inherited back then… But my father was quite relaxed, as we rushed by feet to the station dragging our luggage (no wheels on the suitcases back in the seventies!) with just minutes to spare. And we indeed made it.
I also remember quite well our arrival in Paris the following morning, and our transfer by metro to Bourg la Reine, a few miles due south. The house was a very large two-stories high villa, with a garden that bordered with the trees of Parc du Sceaux – where I was to lose a very nice spring-charged airplane, my first purchase in french Francs. The house had lots of space for the six of us, and I was given a room full of toys I would not be too shy using: the Toutee had a son more or less my age.
With a month in Paris, one would think we took a relaxed attitude toward visiting the city and its museums and other attractions. Quite the opposite. My father was a culture stachanovist. We would leave early in the morning, reach the metro station one mile away at uncompromising walking speed, and start marathon-like daily visits to everything the city had to offer.
My father had of course visited Paris many times before, but he nonetheless had a unextinguishable hunger to see everything again, to walk around every monument (even those unnervingly large), check out every piece in every room in each of the many huge museums. Of course, he would explain in detail the artworks to me and Martino, tell us the past history of literally every stone, comment on the forma urbis of the city and the reasons for its layout. And he would have us enter every possible church that crossed our path, measuring the width of the navata centrale with meter-long steps, or at times re-checking more precisely by placing one foot after another in a straight line. Then he would explain to us the reason of the ratios between measurements, and how those betrayed the units of measure used by the architects that had designed the building.
It is a miracle if after that treatment I still have the curiosity to visit old churches in foreign cities now that I could opt for other activities: as a kid following a father who was an enthusiastic professor of medioeval history, at times I had to scream for a glass of water, or fall exhausted on a wooden bench in the middle of one of his lectures. Evidently I did not get burned by the experience, but in Paris I did get very close to that.
We visited the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou, the Musee de l’Homme, a large number of art exhibits… We toured the city twenty times by feet. We went on top of the Tour Eiffel (it took us three hours standing in line in a hot summer day), visited Versailles (a full day there, and it was one of the most relaxing days).
I remember very well in particular our visit to the science museum: fascinating stuff for a kid, especially in the seventies. There were daily interactive exhibits and shows, where they made experiments of all kinds for the audience. I remember an experiment with pidgeons who were taught to walk through a maze, and many others -optical illusions, displays of technological gizmos, the planetarium.
What I like most to recall is my father in front of a model cyclotron, explaining to me what it was for, how marvelous it was, and the fantastic world of contemporary physics. My father was a humanist by education, but he had come to master the scientific method in his research of the ancient history of Venice and the interplay of the old city with the constantly changing lagoon and the surrounding environment.
Our visit to the Beaubourg – the just-built Centre Pompidou – was also memorable. My father was enthusiastic about that over-designed, futuristic building. Being by profession the director of the historic archive of the Biennale di Venezia, he had a special interest in the new library hosted in the Beaubourg. In fact, the latter offered the same concept he had put to work in the library he directed: open shelves, for a free access to information and a wider use of knowledge. Tables for consultation and study. A user-friendly environment which was revolutionary at the time.
We also had a few mundane happenings there. One evening we were invited for dinner by Zoran Music and Ida Barbarigo, two painters whom had become friends of my father. They had a huge apartment on the top floor of a building close to Les Invalides, which they used as their home and their studio. Some rooms were crowded with paintings, canvases, colors, brushes and materials of all kinds…
I visited Paris several times afterwards, in less knowledgeable but more pleasant company. But the stratification of memories which usually happens when one visits the same places multiple times has not touched those early impressions. It was indeed a memorable experience.