25 Ott Personal experience
My passion for travel goes back in time. Perhaps it has some connection with my complex family history. My father left Turin and Italy to go to Paris after his baccalauréat and from there, because of the racist Racial Manifesto of 1938 and the events of that period, he moved to England. At the beginning of the war, as an Italian and thus an ‘enemy alien’, he was interned. After a period on the Isle of Man he was transferred to the Lake District where he became a farm worker. There he met my mother, who went from Wallsend (Northumberland) to teach in that beautiful part of the country. The rest of his family – my father’s grandparents and my aunt – escaped Italy and found shelter in New York. My parents married in England in September 1945.
At the end of the war, my father’s family decided not to stay in New York but return to Italy and they were reunited in Turin. My mother wanted her only child to be born in Wallsend. The links with England – more appropriately with Great Britain, since my grandmother was Irish – have always been very strong. As a child, I used to spend every summer in England. I usually left with my mother to spend a long period between Wallsend in the North of England (where my grandmother and two aunts lived) and the South of London, where a third aunt had moved. This allowed me to develop a close relationship with my nine English first cousins.
My father – when he had not travelled with us – would always arrive from Turin by car. We then returned together to Turin and we took different routes across Europe. I still have clear memories of all those journeys to and from England; crossing the Channel by sea or by air in a small plane (the air ferry service) that opened at the front to accommodate 4 to 5 cars (that is a measure of the traffic in those days…) from Calais and Le Touquet to different small airports in Kent; the emotion of seeing, from the sky, the small houses, the boats and even people (it was a short trip and the plane cruised at a low altitude); France, the mountains and glaciers in Switzerland; a one week cruise from Genoa to London with a violent storm in the Gulf of Lion and friendship with some kids from Kenya that we met onboard; a journey to England through the North of Europe and Norway, by ferry from Bergen to Newcastle (near Wallsend), at the time an important port and shipyard; the train from Turin to London, arriving at Victoria Station, etc.
I remember many journeys across Europe in years when there were very few cars, as there were few motorways. When we met another car with an Italian number plate, we would often stop to say ‘hello’ and to ask about the journey (another world…), or at the very least we cheered, flashed the lights or hooted the horn. I recall avidly reading and studying the maps; I marked the roads and enjoyed sleeping with my parents in hotels scattered around Europe. I always asked them to stop in mountainous areas so that I could set out to explore the area in small adventures on foot; I remember the films that my father made.
Mountains have been another important component of my travels and those small adventures which started in childhood. Each year there was that week that I would spend with my parents and friends in different ski resorts – Montgenèvre, Courchevel, Zermatt, Pontresina, Kleine Scheidegg – between Grindenwald and Wengen, under the Eiger and the Jungfrau. I remember seeing, the legendary Toni Sailer (three gold medals at the winter Olympics in Cortina 1956) win the downhill competition at the Lauberhorn in Wengen. Thereafter, the period in Courmayeur with family friends, summer and winter, skiing and walking in the magic environment of Mont Blanc, and then Cervinia (Breuil), again summer and winter under Cervino/Matterhorn; and finally skiing exams and a diploma, first as “maestro-aiuto” (assistant instructor) and subsequently as a full ski instructor (n. 1577) between 1969 and 1971, probably the first truly ‘metropolitan’ ski instructor in Italy. All this led to years of teaching in Bardonecchia (while I was at University) and years of skiing in numerous ski resorts in Italy, France, Switzerland, Austria, even Scotland and Colorado.
After this came travel experiences of greater depth. The turning point was a month in North Kenya after graduating in Medicine in Turin. With three companions, as guests of missionaries from the diocese of Alba (Cuneo), we stayed in the Northern territories of Kenya, up near Ethiopia and Somalia. We helped from a medical perspective (two of us were doctors, a senior medic and me, a fresh-cheeked graduate) in regions neglected by the so called civilized world. I remember the beauty of those unlimited African horizons, the savanna, the incredible skies and stars at night, the local populations – Masai, Samburu, Rendille, Ol Molo – the magnificent and untouched ceremonies of the natives, the animals in the wild, the Chalbi desert (which unfortunately does not appear in this book!), the beautiful lake Rudolph (today lake Turkana) in the Rift valley, etc. It was like being at the origins of our planet. Africa sickness is not only a legend. I remember saying to myself that if I could not work as I would wish, the degree in medicine opened unparalleled opportunities.
That period in Kenya was a turning point, both broadening my passion for travel and causing me to discover photography. I left for Kenya with a tiny Minox pocket camera… ideal for the African landscapes. One of our group, Aldo Agnelli, was a photographer from Alba while Piero Masera, the senior doctor, was and has always been a great photographer. My passion for photography developed after seeing, after our return, the pictures they took in Kenya. But I shall return to this a little later.
I have to thank many people for the personal journey that has spanned over so many years and that has today resulted in this book. First of all my parents. My father, at the age of 19, found himself first in France then in England, alone and during a time of war. He adapted to his new reality, loved England and was ‘adopted’ by my mother’s family in a small village in the North of England. My mother who, in 1945 at the age of 25, without speaking a word of Italian, moved to Turin and was capable of integrating in the closed society that Italy/Turin was at the end of the war. How many people spoke English in those days? My parents certainly injected me with the pleasure of travelling in many different countries and a curiosity for other regions, people and cultures; and perhaps the necessary adaptability.
A passion for mountains in all their forms – both physical and photogenic – developed through friendships, first with the Donvito family (between Turin and Courmayeur) and then with Renzo Zocchi. Lino Donvito was also a skilled mountaineer, friend and companion in many of the climbs conducted by Gaston Rébuffat, the well known climber, writer and mountain photographer. With Renzo Zocchi, I shared – the two of us alone – innumerable days skiing or walking; first in Cervinia/Breuil, then in Bardonecchia and, finally, in Sestriere, always admiring and contemplating the beauty of nature and searching for new ‘adventures’.
A word of deep thanks and affection goes to Piero Masera. He does not know it, because sadly he left us prematurely many years ago, but I owe him a lot; first of all, for agreeing to ‘take’ me to Kenya with him. We barely knew each other and I was only 24. He trusted me… In Kenya a friendship florished, as frequently happens when you share uncomfortable situations. With him, my passion for photography began and grew. I still had a gift token from my parents, a graduation present, so, soon after our return from Kenya, we went together to buy my first Nikon; a Nikkormat, with a set of lenses (a 24, an 85 and a 200 mm), that I still have. With Piero and Aldo Agnelli I developed my love for the Langhe, a region that both of them have immortalized in many beautiful pictures. And because of Piero I returned to Italy from England to go to work with him at the Department of Medicine in Turin.
On Rita’s influence I will come back in “Personal life”.