August 3, 2011
Corsica: the (not-so) hidden gem of France. It’s that droplet in the Mediterranean, the little spot on the map that’s always got better weather than you. It’s a small island spattered with tiny coastal towns, separated by mountains with winding roads so narrow, a pair of mountain goats would have to walk single-file. My girlfriend’s people come from there, so we decided to take a trip to discover this place, these people, and if possible, avoid any mild-mannered political arson that might come our way.
Now, to imagine a Corsican, take a French person who talks like an Italian and spends all day at the beach, et voila! Corsican identity is fierce. You can’t find a store, street, or product that doesn’t bear the proud Corsican flag. Corsicans admit they’re known for being a bit lazy, but certainly not lacking in ambition. A common postcard has a Corsican flag running up the Eiffel Tower with the motto: “yes, we can”.
As you could assume from the place that brought us Napoleon (the dude, not the dessert treat), Corsicans are tough. You’ve never seen so many serious faces relaxing at the beach. There’s also quite a bit of mafia down here. The term ‘vendetta’ was basically started in Corsica – or Sicily; there’s actually a pretty serious vendetta going on about who really started it. On the flip side, Corsicans are a genuinely welcoming people – all you need to win their affection is to share their appreciation of their homeland.
And luckily, it’s impossible not to love the tiny enchanting towns, lonely seaside highways, orange mountains driving from the edge of the sea, and neighbors who bring you fresh tomatoes from their gardens.
Rather than list the litany of Corsica’s invaders, suffice it to say that the island “has been occupied continuously since the Mesolithic era”. So on occasion they’re known to welcome summer vacationers with some good-natured quirky local antics, like spray-painting over French versions of town names, or setting houses on fire. On our visit, we happened to be downwind of one of those fires.
The first and only time I saw a concerned look on the face of a Corsican, which shall henceforth be known as a universal cause for panic, I knew there was trouble. The smoke plume emitted a fierce heat and orange glow from the house just across the street. Time to go, right? So we grabbed the important stuff and got the hell out of dodge. While gawking just beyond the path of the flame, a white SUV slides to a stop and the driver says, “I’m your cousin, come with us”.
Watching the smoke rise from his patio not far away, I realized that you have to act like a family here, even if you aren’t. If the easiest way to put out a fire is with an airplane, you may have a while to wait before the French authorities make their way over. In the meantime, your neighbors are all you’ve got. In the end, the house was spared, just barely. The fire took a curious turn away from the house, crossing a small street and a highway and avoiding the houses on our side and a chicken coop on the other. Our mysterious cousin took us back home where we returned our ‘important items’ to their places – for me, computer/camera/passport, and for my girlfriend, clothes/makeup/other clothes.
We never found out if it was arson and we probably never will. But you learn more about a place in a time of crisis than you do confined to the walls of Club Med. Corsicans are defined by their shared isolation, but also by their fierce solidarity. Plus, they were smart enough to stay put in paradise. So if you’re crazy enough to ever leave, you’re not Corsican. But if you’ve seen this place, worked up a decent tan, eaten a perfect meal and stared out at the sea with the powerful urge to do nothing, you’ll at least understand a little bit of what makes Corsicans tick.
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Written by Charlie Almond
Charlie Almond met a French girl two years ago at his housewarming party back in the states. Now he's living in Paris and trying to sort the rest out.