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.
“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.
“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.