Posts Tagged ‘corsica’

From the Beginning

Saturday, January 24th, 2009


Summer comes for the first time on a seaweed-strewn beach on the Cap Corse, the finger of Corsica that points, unwavering and unmistakable, toward France. (And Corsica, her storefronts striped with graffiti, her guttural dialect, knows exactly which finger it is.)

That morning, my friend takes a flight back to Paris and school and I take a bus up the coast to a tiny town with a beach, a half-moon of white sand cradling neon blue ocean. This would become, it turns out, my seasonal theme. But by June, summer has only half-arrived in the northern stretch of the Mediterranean. Drippy, late-afternoon rain still falls every other day. I wear a jacket and retreat to my room to watch dubbed TV.

The very last day, though, the clouds blow away and the heat settles, leaving the sky a suffocated powder blue. For the first time, I pull my bathing suit from the bottom of my suitcase. The bus ticket costs 2 Euro and the driver accelerates around the corners as though he’s playing a video game. Stomach still touchy from the flu, I close my eyes as we fly around the rim of the Cap—the coolest roller coaster ever. The one that falls over water.

My destination is a pebbly parking lot hemmed in by mountains on one side, green vineyards clinging to their slopes. In the center of the lot, looking weathered and out-of-place, stands a painted cement altar dedicated to Saint Anthony and the chapel that stood on the spot before it was bombed in World War II. The beach itself is serviced by only a ramshackle bar and café at one end, its awnings flapping the breeze. The sand is mostly empty, save a few scampering children and their weary moms, and picky gobs of seaweed that look like dish-scouring pads.

I hardly remember how to be on a beach, what to do on one. It’s been that long. I am early-season pale and soft from all those macarons in Paris and reluctant to stand around in a bathing suit, to make tanning-related pretenses while the women around me are mostly topless and brown already. (In Paris in the cold, where such things are easier to say and do, I boast of being topless all summer. In the actual Mediterranean in actual summer, I realize that certain parts of my body have never known direct sunlight and that the acclimation process could prove painful.)

I spread out a towel. I have no idea what to do. My bathing suit is a riff on a 1930s showgirl costume. There is no better way, in the Mediterranean in early summer amidst sleek black suits and skin without tan lines, to look like an American. It might have been more effective, maybe, to paint a target on my back in sunblock and let the rays do the rest.

He appears before my eyes in a clinging blue bathing suit that is vintage chic and worthy of the window display at Le Bon Marche, and so does the second theme of my summer. That I will be approached —in several different nations, situational contexts, and languages—by handsome men who bear, along with a certain sort of swagger that I will only call international, a single question.

“Are you traveling alone?”

The answer to this question changes depending on my mood, the exact contours of that situational context, and whether they guy seems, at the outset, like a would-be or even a seasoned murderer.

In this case, the suit whispers a tantalizing, “Maybe.” So does the ravishingly beautiful boy, no older than 19 or 20, who shares his beach blanket. As the man leans over to ask if I’d like a coffee, my eyes wander to the boy, whose dense curls—a lazy midday yawn—distract me and make me wonder if I am in a sort of real-world version of a Bond movie. Only I’m wearing a bathing suit with too much fabric.

I say no thanks to the coffee and he smiles.

“Do you want to swim?”

“Yes,” I say, “But I want to warm up first. I’m going to wait a little while.”

“Come on,” he says, waving me toward the water. I blame the language gap.

I follow because I am grateful for the company or maybe because I like swimming in Corsica with handsome men, two things that can get a girl killed in all sorts of situations. When I ask where he’s from, he smiles, reveals a row of gleaming teeth and says, “France.” Assuming that “No shit” won’t translate particularly well, I ask which city.

“Paris,” he says, before diving under the surface.

“No shit,” I say to the splash.

The cove at Pietracorbara is surrounded by high green cliffs that obscure the view to other parts of the coast. The sky is cloudless, the color shifting from pale to sapphire as your eyes move higher. The beach itself is rounded and white, a thumbnail edged by reedy grass. I take stock, float over the waves, prepare myself for weeks more of just this.

The man emerges from the waves and says, “Do you know what they are, les meduses?”

“Yes,” I say. “Jellyfish.”

He laughs at the word and we converse for a solid five minutes about my French-language education, my time in Paris, his “good friend” back on the sand, how much he loves Corsica, before he says, “Ah, there is a meduse right in front of you. So many in the water today.”

I arrive safely back on my blanket approximately four seconds later. My friend stops by later to check in, water still dripping from his hair. He asks again if I want coffee, and I thank him but refuse again, unable to grasp the idea of drinking coffee in a bathing suit. Later , he brings some back to the boy.

I flip. I read, but only a little. I braid the ends of grass. I watch a mother wrangle a kicking, squirming little boy into her line of vision. I wonder how I will manage my summer alone, how I will make my way down endless stretches of sand, vacation everywhere, the domain of the exhausted, all while knowing no one. I touch the clumps of seaweed to see if they really feel like scouring pads. They don’t. They’re softer in the center.

Fast Food in Corsica

Thursday, August 21st, 2008


The sun sets over the mountains in a straggling seaside suburb outside of Bastia, and I get off at the wrong stop. Actually, it is the only stop.

I sit watching the view, waiting to see the familiar contours of the streets around my hotel, but they never come. This bus is in a whole different place. The right direction, but the wrong everything else.

Terminus,” says the bus driver, eyeing the open door and then me. I am the only person on the bus and I sense that he’s talking about his shift more than anything. Busses are busses everywhere. The words “Last stop, kid” comprise an almost-universal language unto themselves.

This is where I was told to go. But this is not where I’m supposed to go.

C’est l’hopital?

Oui,” says the driver, bothered that he has to weigh in further on our location. He doesn’t elaborate, but points a thick finger toward a mammoth complex of flesh-colored buildings directly to our left. If this horror of modernity is not a hospital, I could not venture to guess its actual use besides perhaps a jail.

I force a smile and step into the street. For the first time in four months, I legitimately have no idea where I am. I have no map. My cell phone battery is dead. The sun falls fast over the sea, painting the coastline, its intermittent smattering of high-rise hotels, orange and pink. I do not have much time.

I walk toward the sea.

I am on a hill high above the coast and some inner compass, a basic awareness of how things look and act in certain places, tells me that I’m not that far off. But I’m not that close either. I’ve also been at the beach all day and I’m wearing clothes that aren’t particularly suitable for a solo nighttime stroll through a strange suburban neighborhood. I am also carrying a pizza.

Back in town, before I catch the bus, I decide that my hotel’s exorbitantly-priced menu of stringy steak and roast chicken isn’t to my taste or my budget, so I think ahead. I get a pizza at one of the cheap little sidewalk joints on the square. I had looked forward to a luxurious night in my room with English-language TV, a white cotton bathrobe, hotel-brand shampoo. All the cheap accommodation in town was full and I planned to take advantage of my sprawling, handsomely wallpapered situation. I did not plan on getting lost, however, and as I walk, the pizza — and my aspiration for a moment of high-class comfort — turns profoundly cold.

A man comes up behind me and I slow down to let him pass, my city girl instincts kicking in. Eyeing his back, though, his very non-threatening pair of Tevas, I make a decision. There’s no one else around.

Excusez-moi, monsier. Ou est l’hotel…

He smiles and stops me. “I’m a tourist,” he says, in French that I can at least understand. “I’m sorry. I don’t know this area.”

My face, I’m sure, arranges itself in some totally unfortunate way.

“I’m going this way, though,” he says. “I’ll walk with you.”

He’s older and handsome in that very French way — narrow-featured, bright-eyed, gray at the temples but distinctly youthful. He asks where I’m from and his reaction is everyone’s reaction.

Bof… New York c’est magnifique!

We talk, but my French is hinky and limited, even though he assures me several times that it’s not. I ask him what he’s doing out here.

“My wife is in the hospital,” he says. “She broke her ankle while we were water skiing. We were supposed to go all the way down the coast in a car, but we’re stuck here for a few days now. Besides, she won’t be able to move very much once she’s out, so I think our vacation is over.”

I share my sad story too and it’s a short one. Je suis un peu perdu.

We come to a fork in the road and parked on one side is a kebab-and-fries stand that looks like it hasn’t served a customer in a decade.

“I’m going to ask this man,” I say.

“Alright. I’m going this way, and I think that’s the wrong direction for you. So we’ll say goodbye, then. And good luck.”

I wish him the same, and to his wife, too. His politeness is reassuring. There is no real tragedy for either of us. No doubt in him that I will find my way home. He treats me as though I don’t need rescuing, and suddenly, I don’t.

The guy in the fry stand is missing teeth. He seems confused when I approach him; he stares at my pizza. I ask for directions to my hotel.


My heart beats faster. What if I misunderstand him or I confuse something? But I have no choice. Directions in French from the fry guy are the best I can do. All the while it’s getting darker. The houses along the coast have turned a hazy, liquid purple. But then he starts to describe landmarks that are distinctly familiar. They are mundane things. A roundabout with flowers. A place where three streets meet. But this is right. I know it’s right. I will get back.

I repeat everything back to him twice, just to be sure.

“It’s far?”

“No,” he smiles, revealing the series of dark holes between his teeth. “Not far.”

After the fry stand, the houses change. They become a little more rundown, a little smaller. A crowd of big, pimpled teenage boys lumbers past and I can feel their eyes on my back. I walk a little faster.

When I come upon a pizza stand, I decide to ask again. Just to be sure. There are five or six guys inside at a table, all of them a little bedraggled and tough-looking, but something about them, their easy laughter, makes me unafraid. Another man sweeps the grimy linoleum floor, and I inquire with him first. The words are barely out of my mouth, though, when the entire place decides to come to my aid. They form a circle around me, asking questions, fussing over who’s going to offer their advice first. That I already have a pizza is apparently hilarious.

“Where are you from? English, right? Of course you’re English.”


Alors! Americaine!” they all shout, as though I am some strange breed that only emerges from the forest on rare occasions.

One guy looks at me and then around the room, baffled. He puts up his hands. “But why would you come here?” he asks, as though I have come to Corsica just to visit this very pizza place.

Before I can answer, another guy is nudging me on the shoulder. He has a shaved head and clutches a cigarette between his third and fourth fingers.

“Alright, listen. I’ll take you right now.”


“On the scooter.”

He is, apparently, the delivery guy. And there’s time in his schedule, it turns out, for an additional drop off.

Euuuuuh… Non, merci,” I say. “I’ll try to find my way back. It’s not a problem.”

They all seem disappointed. They reassure me, though, that the fry guy’s directions are right. That I’m going the right way.

“And if you get lost, just come back here,” says the delivery guy. “We can even give you another pizza, if you want.” They all laugh.

I set off, wondering if I will need to take them up on it.

Just up the road, I see the roundabout with the flowers and I feel my muscles relax, inadvertent, the reflex of fear. The street lamps start to flicker on. Then my hotel appears over the hill, like magic. Like I wished it there. The oil from the pizza has soaked through the bottom of the box.

Inside, the click of the electronic key in the door is like love. I collapse on the bed, stare at the neat swirls of plaster on the ceiling. I am petrified to look inside the box. It’s been hours.

I have a ferry ticket to Sardinia in the morning. I am leaving France, setting out. Moving onto the next phase.

I turn on the TV and Gimme Shelter is on, blessedly subtitled and not dubbed. I watch, curled up in the white cotton bathrobe, picking at the pizza. The cheese — which is emmental and not mozzarella, of course — has coagulated into a solid lump. They didn’t really bother with sauce. I wonder, out loud and to no one, if the box would taste any better.

Onward, then. To Italy. To anywhere you can find on a map. To anywhere that is not far.

Mediterranean Gothic

Wednesday, August 13th, 2008


On an island in the middle of the sea, in a city with a sleepy old port cut with the vertical lines of masts, and the mountains jutting up behind it, green with feather white clouds drifting across the tops, and closed in by two lighthouses, a green and an orange, protecting the tiny opening, or just pointing out its edges, we know we have left the continent.

The city pressing against the port is run-down and crumbling, the paint peeling off in sheaths. The shops smell of almond cookies — a thing you can get anywhere in the Mediterranean; they go by 101 names — and pungent ham and hand-wrapped soaps. Glistening bottles of liquor stand on shelves, a thin layer of dust crowning each one.

And we walk in the heat.

The hotel is horrendous, windowless, with two hard, narrow beds wedged into a corner and an enormous, tiled bathroom that does little to compensate. I feel as though I’ve been shoved underground, stuffed into darkness. I am too ashamed to take a picture. At night, I cry myself to sleep, hoping J____ doesn’t hear but I know she does.

Me and my bad French screwed up the reservation. All my fault. I could understand so well most of the time, though. Most of the time is not all the time. It is best never to make assumptions in a language that is not yours.

I still cannot eat. My stomach turns over at the sight of food, and the waiters feel terrible. Bring us free shots of limoncello and pastis. Because they think we haven’t enjoyed our dinner. But we did! We tell them. We’re just… not well. Not totally well yet.

We find the chapel, the enormous sun pattern created in tiny little stones on the ground outside. There is a painting inside, I read, that depicts the circumcision of Jesus — a rare and strange subject for a painter, and I want to see.

The chapel glitters. The walls are hung in red velvet. Crystal chandeliers gleam in the low light. I am agape, admiring the art, the carved ceiling, a gilt tabernacle, the things that make it seem more like a ballroom in a French chateau than a tiny chapel on a hidden street.

“Laura…” says J_____ from behind me. “There’s a coffin.”

“Oh… God.”

It is utterly plain, a wooden box like in a Vampire movie, little handles on the sides. It sits on a bier in the main aisle.

“There can’t be anyone in it, right? They wouldn’t just leave someone here, would they?”

She ignores the mounting hysteria in my voice and goes to look closer. To learn whether this is some tradition or preparation, a leftover sliver of some ancient ritual, or whether we are simply alone in a church with a dead body.

“It’s a woman,” she says, peering at a little gilt plaque on the top of the coffin. “June 8, 2008.”

“Please, let’s go.”

“It’s OK,” says J____. “She had a long life.”

“Good. I’m going outside.”

Under the flood of daylight, standing on the sun mosaic, I am still shaken. I am not a particularly phobic person, but coffins. Funeral parlors. The smell of gardenias, sticky sweet and cool. These things double me over, turn me to jell-o. Even as a joke. Even at Halloween.

“At least I get to be cremated ,” says J____. We walk up a ragged little back street full of shuttered shops and flaking plaster. “I can’t imagine being put in a little box like that.”

“Well, you don’t know you’re in the box. Well. I hope you don’t know you’re in the box…”

We tread back to the square, past an obscenely muscled statue of Napoleon, laurel-crowned, done up like Caesar in a toga. Local boy made good. A pack of kids plays at his feet, squealing at the tops of their lungs, tossing fistfuls of dirt in each other’s faces, or just sitting, sifting it through their little fingers in clouds, watching it slide to the ground.

Going On Alone

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Citadel, originally uploaded by Miss Laura M..

You can go to Calvi with one dress and a bathing suit in a bag and maybe a bottle of sunblock, and you can stay in a grass green room above a courtyard full of hibiscus and hydrangeas and you can take a tiny little train through the mountains to get there.

You can rent a chair and an umbrella for about $10 and swim in water that is clear and waveless except for the ripples made by the wind.

You can spy the snow on the tops of the mountains and remember a story that a guy told you once about how you can only see the snow and the sea at the same time in a scant few places on earth, and then he named the places. But he didn’t name this one.

And you won’t appreciate in the moment how this is all making you better, or teaching you something, but you can sense the shape of that change coming, how it might seem in hindsight when you’re on a sun-baked sidewalk a thousand miles away or on another beach somewhere else, under some other palm tree.

You can miss everyone and no one and two or three specific people so much that it aches, and you can be almost sure that they don’t miss you. Because they’re not on a beach, on an island, in the middle of the sea, waiting to go somewhere.