An Italian Journeyby Jean Giono
In An Italian Journey, Jean Giono describes his journey to the land of his father's people. A reluctant traveler (he rarely left Provence), Giono discovers a strange beauty not only in the palazzi and canals of Venice but also in wistful waiters, suspicious hairdressers, pugnacious men of God, recalcitrant coffeemakers, umbrellas, and field machinery. In/i>
In An Italian Journey, Jean Giono describes his journey to the land of his father's people. A reluctant traveler (he rarely left Provence), Giono discovers a strange beauty not only in the palazzi and canals of Venice but also in wistful waiters, suspicious hairdressers, pugnacious men of God, recalcitrant coffeemakers, umbrellas, and field machinery. In Giono's world a stamp collectors' market can appear to verge on revolution and inept municipal musicians suddenly offer Mozartian joys.
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I am not a traveler, I assure you. I seem scarcely to have moved in fifty years. I was forced to earn my own living at an early age. When I was fifteen I started in a bank at twenty francs a month, and began to observe the wholly common run of human emotions. I became a spectator at a never-ending rehearsal, at a door that opened on truth. Others, however, were closed to me. Though my father had bequeathed me much more than the usual degree of imaginative insight, I found it neither unfair nor improper to be asked to look at things sensibly and logically. So I organized my life and began to enjoy looking for the cause behind the effect.
I wasn't vain then, nor am I now. I quite humbly accept all challenges to examine and even marvel at what I find around me. I stayed at the bank not for a few days or months but for twenty years. My present and my future depended entirely on the inspector who monitored my work from time to time. He was a stout man with a beard, a cigar smoker who never made any effort to hide his contempt for the vacant look I owed to my blue eyes. I might well have been a first-class employee, as he recognized, but he always kept me on a tightrope. This put me in a continual state of dread and wariness.
Nevertheless, I recall that period of my lifetime with great pleasure. Everything, in the end, was for the good. It is very helpful to run the risk of being reduced to penury from the start of your life. Only just managing to rub along is enough to make the most apprehensive of creatures (and I am certainly one of them) feel he or she has won a famous victory. That can be very beneficial and even enjoyable after a time (though, of course, it's essential to know how to put on the right sort of front). I met that inspector again in 1934 (he died, I think, in 1938). He asked me to inscribe a copy of one of my books for him, and I wrote something very affectionate in it. He still scared me, but I realized that he was entangled in his own needs and, like everyone else, incapable of being either very good or very bad.
Fear, then, had deprived me of any urge to travel. Eventually, I found that I was sensitive enough to experience some minor pleasures and even major delights in that dark office where we had to light the lamps around midday. Nothing was so pleasurable as those long, rainy winter days when I was dry, warm, and with time enough to consider what I really wanted. After all, I was very lucky to have somewhere to sit, where I could earn twenty francs. Anyone, surely, would have agreed that leaving would have been more than rash.
Of course I was far too inclined to let sentiment interfere with things. But there were so many responsibilities about which nothing need be said (but which weigh you down when you are sixteen), and duties I was anxious to fulfill. At that time my father, already an old man, had become willfully reticent. My love for him made me all the more alarmed when I heard him talking to his invisible partner. I wanted to make sure that he enjoyed a happy old age, if only by not having to rely on him. But all that depended on the half-Havana enthusiast. On Sunday evenings I used to pass by the bank building to reassure myself that it had not vanished during my short walks in the hills. You don't abandon habits like that if they take hold of you at a very tender age. To think of all the things I substituted for that cigar smoker when I had what people call freedom! Anything could take his place. Hence what seemed like an attachment to a specific area and even love for a certain way of life.
And so I had been thinking for three or four years that a visit to Italy was necessary, yet put it off from one day to the next. Finally I had my passport made out. That did not commit me to anything. The document had been lying on the table for a long time, but now it was in my pocket. We would soon be on our way. Our friends Antoine and Germaine were driving us there.
Standing in front of my table gave me an odd feeling. It wasn't a workplace any longer. I had put the top on the inkwell and the pens away, and my papers were filed.
Fortunately I had to solve a minor problem right away. The Renault 4 HP convertible (converted indeed, for the roof had been folded back) we were using could hold only a limited amount of luggage. My wife and I had just one small suitcase, but as we were going by way of Mont-Genevre we needed our coats. Then it was autumn, the light was russet-gold, the rain would soon be coming, and we had to find room in the car for all sorts of gear. I had also stuffed my notebook, maps, a guidebook, and another book into a beach bag, and I wanted to make sure that all these "impedimenta" were within reach. In the end, I fitted the bag in by my feet (we were in the back seat) and managed to stow capes and raincoats under the folded roof. We left abruptly after giving Sylvie a little kiss and saying goodbye to Fine. I had the feeling that my wife hadn't given Fine sufficiently detailed instructions about running the house when we were away. In short, our departure was like leaving for a picnic in the neighboring countryside, or when I spent a few days at Antoine's at Greoulx, about eleven kilometers away. I could hardly believe that I was really on my way to Italy (but then I might as well have been leaving for Tibet).
Of course I know the landscape around Manosque very well. After all, I was born there. I don't always feel I am going away when I drive along the roads that I cycle on to visit my farm. Neither twenty nor thirty nor even forty kilometers can take me away from my usual surroundings.
I haven't left home at all when I go through Lurs, Peyruis, or Saint-Auban. Now we were making for the Alps, and even that route was quite reassuring. I am at home in the mountains. I hate and detest the sea. At Manosque I always walk in an easterly direction so that, at the bend in the hills where the valley of the Durance opens out, I suddenly come upon thc Alps: vast sugar lumps piled up in the blue immensity of an opalescent bowl.
My blood is aroused, and I breathe headily at the mere sight of glaciers and chamois pastures. I never look over to the southwest, to Marseilles and the sea, a ghastly expanse of sandpaper rasping bodies and souls, and eroding even the rocks. (Oceans, to be sure, may have the same properties as mountains, but my means will take me into the Alps though not onto the high seas. In this respect, as so often, I have always had to travel on the cheap.) When my daughter Aline was little we used to spend the height of summer in the mountains, at Saint-Julien-en-Beauchene; and when my other daughter, Sylvie, was very young, we would go to Briancon from July to October. I have always found it uplifting to walk along with the mountains stretching up before me.
This was partly why I chose the Mont-Genevre route. If you reach Italy by sea you get there flayed alive. You have to hug the vulgarity of the entire Cote d'Azur, and then follow the west and east Riviera all the way around the Gulf of Genoa. That means much too much sandpaper and grated cheese, and all those kilometers of women in the buff. I was not going to take off (after so many precautions) in order to see Le Trayas or Cannes. First I needed the resounding empty spaces that come before the mountains; then to ascend and finally breathe that limpid, silvery air and survey those brown expanses. I have always hated crowds. I like deserts, prisons, and monasteries. I have discovered, too, that there are fewer idiots at three thousand meters above sea level than down below. (This, plainly, is the attitude of a fifty-seven-year-old man who has remained shy and scarcely adept at paying compliments, though as regretfully as that threefold condition implies.) Nothing makes me begin to feel happier than the avenues leading into the Alps. Then my eyes glow like the windows of a country cottage when the lamps are lighted.
As luck would have it, the clear and sparkling weather we had enjoyed in the low valley became overlaid--with expectation too, for some corners of the sky between two summits were even turning storm-black. I imagined Mont-Genevre thick with heavy mists, and pleasurably anticipated reaching the other side as the car all but hastened there. At times the poplar and aspen leaves were already golden. These trees seemed so melancholy against the dark sky. They formed a royal escort of alabaster trunks at the entry to Embrun. We all agreed to keep the roof drawn back in spite of the menacing weather. Then we could watch the high Briancon landscape coalesce around us.
In 1934-35 Elise and I had been supremely happy in this area. We had rented four big rooms from a Madame Dumont at the hamlet of Les Queyrelles. They were in an enormous house that looked like a monastery. We were opposite the town of Briancon, and only slightly above it, yet sufficiently high up to look down on the ramparts and gateways that made it like a view in an old engraving. I sat in the orchard enclosed by walls that gave the house the air of a secluded Carthusian monastery. I found this especially appealing. I watched the loaded mules passing over the drawbridges beside black peasant and blue soldier figures. The mountain beeches came down in a throng, all the way to the public fountain where we went to collect the water for soup. Immediately below us we heard the gentle rumbling of the Claree and its confluence with the Durance. The nights were cradled by the sound of the waters moving over those still attractive slopes. Just before dawn the wind from Lautaret began to raise the murmuring from the poplars above that of the mountain stream. We started every morning with Bach's Brandenburg Concertos on the gramophone. Some good friends would arrive to share our meals. My friend Lucien Jacques, the painter, was staying with us (afterward he and I used to go to the meadows to gather those little pink mushrooms in their fairy rings; after eating them we suffered from quite disturbing hallucinations that seized us when we were awake). I worked in a dark and resonant attic with hauntingly large pieces of furniture like none I have ever known elsewhere, though the vast lectern had its uses. Aline, serious yet delicate, profited from her Italianate features to charm the birds in the orchard into childhood friendships (which she also set up with the ants and rose chafers). Sylvie, plump and beautiful in her cradle, could only flourish on her surfeit of milk. Elise broke her ankle one morning when we were camping in the vineyard at Cavalles.
We recognized the place where we had stayed then. Now and again roofs would poke their noses through the leaves to inspect us. We craned our necks to see them.
As we reached the heights of Briancon and arrived at the Champ-de-Mars, an icy wind attacked us from ahead. Before us the slopes that we had to ascend on our way to the pass were covered with clouds, and a moderate sleet from the light veil drifting in the valley began to patter on our windshield.
It was on the same Champ-de-Mars that I first learned to be a soldier, in February 1915. I had been drafted as a recruit into the 159th Infantry Regiment in barracks at Briancon. Later, before leaving for the front, I had mounted guard for a month at Fort Infernet. When the weather was good I could see the yellow fog in the east that was Piedmont. An old artillery sergeant from the fortress persuaded us that some plumes of smoke were actually Turin. My father had often told me about Turin. His family was from Montezemolo in Piedmont. Even in 1951 I found those words especially captivating. For me they meant something other than what they generally evoke. They were redolent of the Grand'rue in 1907 and, more particularly, of the immense, supposedly gloomy house where we lived in that narrow street. There were shops there, of course, but it was very close to alleyways lined with sheep byres and with stables where they kept the horses that pulled the buses. At that time, too, I loved the scent of linenette and the steam from women's underwear when my mother was ironing. I shall say nothing of the universally prevailing smell of leather in our house. The sergeant at Fort Infernet (his name was Bec, I think) had no inkling of the sad associations he aroused in me when he mentioned Piedmont and Turin. I had arrived in a state bordering much more on homesickness than that of the other conscripts, except perhaps for four or five peasants, but they only felt strongly about the earth, which, after all, was there too, under their feet. From their first days in the barracks, they showed an interest in the local fairs, where they went to discuss the price of sheep and of pork on the hoof. That was in 1915. One day one of them called Saille, who was wounded near me at Verdun later on, went all the way to Embrun where he had been told there was a very big cattle market, especially for goats. It was in Briancon castle barracks and, more precisely, in the recess of the second-floor window overlooking Asfeld bridge, that I developed a taste for not owning, for not having, for being deprived of essential things such as freedom, and even the freedom to live. I remember incising something to that effect in the stone up there. I don't know exactly what I wrote, but I can still see myself scratching away with my knifepoint, on the whole quite pleased to be doing it. From that point, before that severe landscape, I date my tendency to avoid excess or, rather, my compulsion to lose out.
Now, on the banks of the road we were following up to the pass, I was looking out for clusters of the tiny blue gentians that had given me so much joy in 1915. But it was too late in the season. Now, like the foxes, the fields of Mount Genevre were already in their winter coats. It was cold, and the thick haze had reached out to moisten our cheeks. Still, we did not close the hood, but only because we hoped to be able to dive swiftly into Italy on the other side.
We had to stop at the first barrier at the frontier to prove that we were innocent travelers. We could hear the stove roaring in the little house where the border guard kept his rubber stamps. All that was needed to incite our sympathy was the hot air on our frozen knees. I have never liked a representative of law and order so much as this one, as he applied his various stamps to the pages of our passports. I wanted him to start questioning us, and to do so as meticulously as possible. I hoped there would be many, many points to elucidate; that he would begin to knit his blond brows; and even that he would imprison us in this wonderfully hot place. His wife was knitting away very agreeably before the window and near the stove. How lucky she was to be a policeman's wife and to knit at a certain spot (and a comfortable one in the bargain). We weren't so fortunate. We had to go on to Italy. The sleet on the windowsill of the border post sounded like wine fermenting.
One kilometer further down we came to the customs post, in a hamlet that was already Italian.
Meet the Author
Jean Giono (1895- 1970) lived most of his life in Provence. He is the author of more than thirty books, including Blue Boy, The Man Who Planted Trees, and The Horseman on the Roof.
John Cumming is a writer, translator, and critic living in France.
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