Handshake with a clown

Cirque Zavattta posterIn the circus business, the Zavatta family is a legend. From father to son and grandson, a Zavatta has for decades been the foremost clown of his generation, first in Italy, then in French North Africa, then in France proper. None was ever more famous than Achille Zavatta, who carried the family name through the sixties and seventies.

Legend or not, everyone has to make ends meet; the Zavatta troupe toured the beach resorts of Brittany in the summer, and was not above resorting to the occasional publicity gimmick to lure vacationers to the evening show.

I think I was 15, so the year must have been 1966. I was, like every year, spending the summer in Trébeurden in Northern Brittany, to which (after reading how it was forever spoiled, a decade or two later, by the unbridled development that has disgraced much of the French coast) I shall never return. Then it was paradise, if a wintry and rainy kind of paradise. We were told that at three in the afternoon a swimming competition would take place and — supreme enticement! — the winner would receive a prize of fifty francs from the very hands of Monsieur Achille Zavatta, the great clown. 50 francs was a not inconsiderable sum for a 15-year-old (with inflation it might be something like fifty dollars or euros today), but the name of the prize-giver was an even stronger attraction. So at the appointed time I was at the harbor, together with a dozen or so other boys, in our swimming suits. I don’t remember any girls; they probably had their own race.

No one has ever called me athletic. I could swim pretty well, and was good at staying in the water for a long time — I am still amazed that my parents once let me do a tour of several kilometers and several hours, far away from the coast, just by myself — but I certainly was not fast. Still, I wanted to try. At school we were always told what Pierre de Coubertin said when he founded the modern Olympic games: l’important, c’est de participer. What counts is to be in the game.

The swimming contest was a simple affair. A man on the pier told us: “See the small boat out there, where a boy is standing? You go swim around it, then you come back”. Trois, deux, un, partez: we jumped in and started moving towards the boat. I was not last, but definitely was not first; three or four boys were ahead of me, and maybe as many behind, a fair reflection of my place in the order of the world. I would never have thought of winning anyway.

Then I saw something interesting. The first swimmer, truly fast and modestly triumphant, held his hand out to the boy in the boat, who obligingly extended his own and helped him jump inside. The second followed, then the third. All were in the boat, looking quite happy with themselves.

SwimmerNow I may not be the fastest swimmer in the former kingdom of Brittany, but when it comes to carrying out a clearly stated specification I do not let myself be influenced by the first guy or two, or three, who just did not pay attention. I knew what we had been told to do, and I was going to do it whatever anyone else was thinking. I went all the way to the boat, ignored the hand stretched out to me as it had been to my predecessors, swam around, and started going back towards the shore.

It did not take long for the others to realize their mistake. They jumped back. By now, however, I was far ahead. For the remainder of the race I quietly enjoyed the position of the one with whom everyone else is trying to catch up, rather than the other way around, to which I was more accustomed. They were still faster, but by then I had secured my advantage: I reached the shore first, gaining my first ever victory in a sports competition. Regrettably my last one too, so far.

In the years since, I have many times been in the company of people faster and — in science — brighter than I; often, as in the harbor of Trébeurden in the summer of 1966, they did not prevail in the end. Knowing your limitations does not mean you should let yourself be intimidated by the smart guys. How often have I seen the students whom everyone thought the most brilliant of all collapse on the day of the exam; the “most promising researcher of his generation” peter out; the author of a breakthrough paper succumb to the comfortable laziness of tenured life! Although outside of fables the race never goes to the turtle, the hare does not always win either; neither does the frog (or froggy, as I have been called a few times to my face and no doubt more behind my back); but the patient donkey, having memorized the instructions and never forgetting the destination, may well finish ahead of them all.

On that summer evening I received the fifty francs from the hands of Monsieur Achille Zavatta. In the following days I made good use of them. From the prize-giving event I remember the handshake, and the envious look of the other boys. I remember, too, my mother’s comment; at least this is the only reaction I remember from her: “Did you make sure to say ‘thank you, sir’?”.

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