Copyright 2005 by Lise Charlebois
2005 Travel Contest Winner
Photo by Timo Stern on Unsplash
After finishing my studies and before entering the career world, I left Canada for what was supposed to be a two-week break in the South of France. This little trip unexpectedly turned into a four month voyage of escapism and discovery.
I can’t remember my dreams here. Perhaps it’s due to the sheer exhaustion with which I collapse onto my thin mattress every night, or the fact that I am literally thousands of miles away from the usual preoccupations of my life back home, or perhaps it’s simply that the nights here are so deep and black that they cloak the dreams of sleepers in their darkness.
Whatever the case, I have not been able to recollect a single dream since I arrived in Corsica. When was that? It was only a few weeks ago that my friend Sara and I, tiring of moving from one overpriced bed & breakfast to another along the Cote d’Azur, saw a billboard on the side of a building, a huge photo of a sandy beach and a turquoise lagoon, announcing ferries departing daily from Marseilles for Corsica, ‘la belle isle’, the beautiful island. “Know anything about it?” I asked Sara, wondering just where we were headed as we emerged from the yellow and blue Corsica Ferry office an hour later, tickets in hand. “I think Napoleon was born there,” she answered after a moment’s thought. And so we boarded our ferry, shamefully ignorant of Mediterranean geography and history, true, but thrilled to be on our way to a place we had only vaguely heard of, a place our friends and family back in Canada had surely never even considered visiting, a place quite off the North American traveller’s radar.
The crossing was longer than we had expected. As Sara and I hadn’t sprung for the more expensive class, we didn’t have a cabin, only semi-reclinable seats in a large, windowless room in the belly of the ship. All around us were a variety of holidaymakers, some placating already bored children who were getting more boisterous by the second, some shifting and grunting as they tried in vain to find a comfortable position in their seat, and most looking resolutely glum. “I suppose this is what steerage class must have been like”, I mused as I flipped through a two month old copy of French Marie Claire. An hour and three magazines later, we decided to check out the ship. We passed the tiny gift shop and the uninviting cafeteria, the closed pool and empty discotheque, before discovering the piano bar. it was open all night and there were attentive waiters who, with sly smiles, served us drinks at happy hour prices. Definitely better than steerage. We left only when we heard the captain’s voice on the PA system announcing that we would be docking in Ajaccio in fifteen minutes.
Walking through the streets of Corsica’s capital city Sara and I were buoyant. The sun had already heated the paving stones of the streets though it was only eight o’clock in the morning, and everywhere palm trees lined the broad sidewalks. The air smelled of a mixture of French roast coffee and the sea. Geraniums spilled out of plant boxes and women shook rugs out their windows. The traffic in the streets was light and no one seemed to be in a hurry to get anywhere.
“I have a good feeling about this place,” I said to Sara, beaming, as we made our way through the streets, all of which seemed to pay honour to Corsica’s favourite son. We passed by rue Napoléon, crossed the cours Bonaparte, then took a right onto the avenue de la Grande Armée. We were looking for the bed & breakfast listed on the accommodation pamphlet we had picked up in the lobby of the ferry. ‘Quaint and calm, just steps away from the main square, recommended for its typical Corsican hospitality’ the pamphlet read.
We arrived at the address and found an immense wooden door with an iron knocker. Beside the door was a sign indicating that we were indeed at the right address. The sign said to push the door open and go to the third floor. We entered a dusty entrance hall that had been grand in its time, with its black and white marble floors and intricate ceiling mouldings, but had not seen a mop in a while. With only the sunlight dimly streaming through the dust-caked windows of the circular stairwell to light our way, we climbed the stone steps worn into shallow crescent shapes from centuries of passing feet. At the third floor we rang the buzzer of the only door on the landing. Nothing. Sara rang the buzzer again as I pressed my ear to the door. “There’s definitely someone home,” I said. “I can hear feet shuffling around.” After a minute or two, just as we had decided to give up and had turned to leave, the door opened and a woman cautiously peered out. She was of an indeterminable age; perhaps in her sixties, but just as easily in her eighties. She was short and squat, and these features were accentuated by the oversized black cardigan draped over her shoulders, partially hiding the shapeless black dress she wore. her bowed legs were camouflaged in thick black tights and her feet were encased in pink house slippers. She turned her low and bushy brow up to us, but kept her mouth turned down.
Squinting at us, she waited. “Bonjour,” Sara and I said in unison, smiling. She did not respond. We then showed her the pamphlet and she grunted an acknowledgement. We were ushered into a dark, overstuffed living room. Pictures of people, some smiling, many not, crammed the walls. Statues of the Virgin competed for space with vases of plastic flowers on the mantle and the numerous side tables were covered in lace doilies and countless porcelain figurines. This was as much as I could take in, however, as we were briskly pushed through to a hallway that lead to a small room. It was clean enough, and happy just to have a place to set down our backpacks, Sara and I nodded that we would take it. We were then instructed that check-out was at nine a.m. sharp and that she didn’t want to be woken up by two girls coming in at all hours of the night. With that, she handed us a couple of threadbare towels from the closet shelf, a role of toilet paper and a key to the front door, and retreated down the hall, snapping the door to her room shut. “If that’s typical Corsican hospitality, I think it’s going to be a short stay,” I said with a mixture of disbelief and amusement . “Oh, forget about it,” Sara said. “Let’s go have a coffee somewhere and figure out what we want to do next.”
What we did next is something of a blur. After an uneventful night in Ajaccio and an abrupt wake up call the next morning by our gracious hostess, we hopped a bus heading south through the mountains to a little town we had read about in our guide book. Bonifacio promised beaches, spectacular sunsets and a laid-back pace. As Sara slept, I stared out the window at this magnificent landscape. Rough granite peaks jutted up all around as our bus wound up and then down one mountain road after another. We arrived in Bonifacio around noon, found ourselves a comfortable little hotel along the main road leading into the port, flung off our bags and headed out to explore the place.
It was love at first sight. Bonifacio is divided into two parts, the basse-ville, or lower town, and the haute-ville, the upper town. The lower town is concentrated around the port. Large and small yachts bobbed up and down along the docks. A little further along the quay, fishing boats were tied to their slips, every single last one of them flying the Corsican flag with its strong black profile of ‘The Moor’s Head’ on a stark white background. We would notice this emblem of pride flying everywhere in the days to come. We passed souvenir shops, restaurants and cafés to find the pedestrian route to the upper city. From the bottom it did not look like so many stairs. After climbing a hundred and nine cobble stone steps, however, we were ready for a drink. We crossed a wooden drawbridge, passed through the only pedestrian gate into this fortified part of Bonifacio and rested a moment within the coolness of its stone walls. We emerged into a little square. Though there were lots of people, tourists and locals alike walking this way and that, it was strangely quiet. Then we realised there were no cars. Most streets in this part of the town are too narrow for any car to pass. Not surprising considering the citadel was built over the thirteenth century and, as it sits atop a limestone cliff, there’s no room for expansion.
We settled ourselves on a terrace on the edge of the cliff and enjoyed a beer as we took in the view of the sea. “I like it here already,” Sara said as she slumped further down into her chair and put her feet up on the low stone wall of the terrace. “Me too,” I said as I closed my eyes and listened to the waves crashing on the rocks below. We continued our little tour of the city after finishing a few more beers and a large bowl of mussels, and when we had wandered through the twisting streets and around the ramparts, decided that this place was worth at least a four day stay. That was six weeks ago.
Now I lie here in the tent I bought from the camping equipment store in town, shielding my eyes from the sun that pierces the canvas. It’s already hot inside the tent and so I unzip the flap and crawl outside onto the sand. I look at my watch and see that I still have a half an hour before I have to be at the restaurant, so I wade into the cool water and dunk my head. I float on my back for a few minutes, letting the sun dry my face, then decide I’d better hurry if I don’t want to face the wrath of Babia yet again. Yesterday she threw a plate at Geraldine, the restaurant’s only waitress, just for mixing up an order. I towel off, throw on a tank top and skirt and sprint down the beach, past Sara’s tent. She doesn’t have to be at the café where she waits tables until eleven, so I let her sleep. I’ll meet up with her in the afternoon when we take our breaks.
When I walked into Babia’s little restaurant on that forth day of our planned stay over a month ago, I didn’t really know what I was doing. I had decided that morning after another great night spent in Bonifacio’s restaurants, cafés and bars that I wasn’t ready to leave this little town with its daytime medieval-fishing-port feel and its nigh time buzz. I left the hotel, climbed the steps to the upper town, and walked into the first place I saw on the main square, ‘le Crep’ Coeur’. It’s all well to have determination and a perky smile, but what was I going to say if asked about my previous experience? The sign in the window said they were looking for a full-time cook. My culinary repertory at the time consisted of a passable spaghetti and meat sauce and a lethal shrimp curry. “Don’t worry about that. I will show you what you need to know,” Babia said, not exactly smiling, but not unfriendly either. She was a tall, strong, handsome woman who, judging by the creases on her brow and around her eyes, the rough texture of her hands, had worked hard for this little piece of Bonifacio in what was otherwise a decidedly macho world. “I need someone reliable who can take orders.” I assured her that I was as reliable as they come, blinking back thoughts of the many times I’d arrived out of breath to a rendezvous with friends, who, tapping their feet and pointedly looking at their watches, would cross their arms as I came hurrying down one Toronto street or another. She offered me the job on the spot, telling me that I would start at nine o’clock Monday. With that, she picked up the clever she had been holding when I walked in and resumed chopping the bloody meat on the cutting board. After about thirty seconds, I realised the interview was over, and also that Babia was not what you would call ‘chatty’.
I memorised the menu quickly and even got compliments on my moules marinieres by the third day. I had no choice, really. Babia did not allow mistakes, of any kind. I learned from Geraldine that I had replaced Christal, a girl from Grenoble who had made the error of flirting with one of Babia’s three sons. Babia chased her out of the restaurant, and the last they had seen of her she was running down the steps to the lower town, and presumably, to the next bus back to Ajaccio.
Over the passing days and weeks, I came to realise that the people of Corsica are what the French mainlanders like to call spécial. Proud of their beautiful island, they feel invaded by the hoards of tourists who descend upon them from May until September, yet depend almost entirely on this industry to make a living. It is perhaps the resentment at this very dependance that makes them seem stand-offish, surly, even hostile to outsiders. Reading the daily ‘Corse Matin’ one morning over my coffee, I was amazed at the number of crimes reported in its pages as being the latest episode of one vendetta or another. Sensing Babia was in an unusually talkative mood, I asked her about the front page headline. “Oh, that old story. Those two families have been at it since my grandfather came to Bonifacio from Porto Vecchio eighty years ago.” Turning the page and pointing to another story she huffed: “I thought that would have fizzled out when old man Renucci died last year.” Apparently vendettas were a way of life here. People settled their problems, or promulgated them, as the case may be, with the old eye for an eye solution. No one ever made a complaint to the local police.
I was still pondering this bizarre business of family vendettas when, one afternoon, Babia walked into the kitchen and saw the disastrous mess I had made in my attempt to get through a particularly hectic lunch rush. She grew an alarming shade of red, balled up her fists, and started ranting so fast and so loudly in French I don’t think I even caught half of what she was screaming. She stormed out of the kitchen, through the restaurant door, and lit up a cigarette on the terrace. Convinced that not only had I lost my job, but that I would find a dead snake pinned to my tent the next morning, I set about tidying up as quickly and as quietly as possible. Fifteen minutes later Babia returned, still clearly in a disagreeable mood, but carrying a plate of oven-baked lasagne from the Italian restaurant next door. “Lunch was hard today. Sit and eat this. You’ll need your energy for the dinner rush,” she grumbled as she plopped the plate on the counter. I knew that that was as close as I was ever going to get to an acknowledgement of my hard work, but that was fine with me. There was no need for expressing forgiveness or apologising profusely. Between Corsicans a moment of discord could very easily turn into a drama that will last generations, or it could be forgotten and never spoken of again. All it took was a single, symbolic act. Here in Corsica a buried hatchet is worth its weight in gold. With this realisation I smiled to myself. I had broken through the first layer of the thick Corsican shell, something few visitors to this island ever succeed in doing. I ate my lasagne with particular relish that afternoon.
I am now quite adept at getting everything ready for the lunch rush. I start my day by by cleaning mussels while sitting on the terrace, the same one, in fact, that Sara and I sat on our first day here. Not a glamorous job, and rather smelly truth be told, but looking out to sea while doing this otherwise tedious task, listening to the greetings of shop keepers to delivery men and neighbours to shop keepers in the streets behind me, feeling the warmth of the morning sun on my shoulders, fills me with a giddy sense of satisfaction. I came to this island looking for a little sun and sea, and I stayed, intrigued by this place where I was always in limbo, at once a part of the landscape and still too new to understand it in its entirety. Tonight There’s a big party in the main square to celebrate the end of the season. I’ll go with Sara, have a good time, but I won’t stay too late. I’ll make my way back to my little tent on the beach and fall onto my mattress. I will leave this place soon to return to Canada, and I want to enjoy as many dreamless sleeps as I can before I do.
After being made to attend French school for twelve years by her French-Canadian father, Lise Charlebois is a reluctant francophile living and working in Paris.
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