Sunday, August 26, 2012

To Corsica, from Provence

Just spent a few days in Corsica, visiting friends. The boat, whether to Ile Rousse or Bastia, takes between 6 and 10 hours.

I foolishly thought I would 'think' on the outward journey so I took nothing to read and ending up reading the Corsica Ferries safety regulations. Local Emergencies included 'running about on board'. When a Local Emergency gets too much (too much running about?) the captain may call Abandon Ship. In which case you must go to the lifeboats but on no account throw yourself overboard.

There was in fact lots of running about as we were still in school holidays and so the boat was filled with families. Of the 2000 or so passengers on board, around 1000 appeared to be under 5. And very noisy. Pretty much my idea of a Local Emergency. More interesting was the ship's crew. Entirely Eastern European – Romanian at a guess – they spoke heavily accented French and Italian and, between themselves, their own language. When I asked one of the waiters what nationality he was, he said Italian. From Napoli. I used to have a Neapolitan boyfriend and this guy’s accent was not Neapolitan or any kind of Italian. Of course, he could have Italian nationality, just as I might have French if I jumped through the requisite hoops, but here were dozens of men and women wearing badges with Italian names - Antonio, Giovanni, Vasco, Franco, Carla – whose country of origin was clearly elsewhere and whose mother tongue was clearly not Italian. So why the pretence? Maybe a tax issue, or an employment issue? It seemed bizarre that in Europe today a ship’s whole crew could be openly faking, presumably having to fake, an identity not their own. And more bizarre that they were quite visibly and audibly not what they were pretending to be.

Minor questions of national identity were still rattling around in my head when we drove from Ile Rousse to Canari in Cap Corse. Corsica doesn’t, to me, feel like France and many Corsicans, as is well known, do not feel French. Islands almost always have their own identity and Corsica’s feels squeezed between its French and Italian history and its current incorporation in the French state. The Corsican language (again, just my view) is like a Sicilian dialect, heavy on the U’s. A product is “Fatu en Corse” rather than the Italian “fatto” or the French “fait”. "Le" is replaced by "U", so you have U moulin instead of le moulin. Words often tend towards the Italian rather than to French. Corsica’s university is not a French universit√© – it’s (Italian) a universit√†.

My partner and I stayed with friends of his who are also French but live in California most of the year. The wife in the couple has had a family home in Cap Canari all her life. A large house on five levels, it has several terraces that look directly out to sea and on the first night a bunch of us ate out as the burnt orange sun sank far in the west, apparently beneath the sparkling Mediterranean sea. The Corsicans who were present joked a bit about France and the French and also about Corsica and the Corsicans. The famous 'Corsican' charcuterie they said, was mostly from elsewhere. If all the Corsican charcuterie that was exported came from Corsica, they said, there'd hardly be room for humans on the island. All the available space would be taken up by pigs. (We were interrupted at this point by seven wild boar who arrived on the restanque beneath the terrace, rooting around for vegetables to eat.) It seems that it's true however that much soi-disant Corsican charcuterie hails from elsewhere. We bought some the next day and a Corsican guy said with a laugh that it was a genuine Corsican product from Spain....

You can sense the antagonism of many Corsicans towards the French. It's there in the regard and the tone of voice. And yet although the population is tiny they have plenty of tensions within their own community too. Just a few weeks ago, in the ongoing feud between mafia gang members, a local crime boss was shot to death in broad daylight. He was buying....charcuterie in a butcher's shop and the assassin chose to gun him down with a rifle used to shoot wild pigs. Not enough to kill the guy, you see - there had to be an insult delivered as well. The tit-for-tat murders have been going on for years now.

I preferred to shift my attention to fish. The local village restaurant serves fabulous fish, but wildly expensive. On the rocks by the sea, I thought I understood why. Fishermen would return from individual fishing expeditions, small harpoons or lines and hooks in hand, with two or three fish at a time. The fish you see as you snorkel around the coastline are beautiful but small. You can swim with a thousand little anchovies or a few small bream or wrasse but the larger fish are further out to sea. You need a boat and an early morning or night expedition to supply the Bon Clocher restaurant with chapon, rascasse or daurade. Still, swimming around with fish in the sunlit water was a real pleasure. You forget the world of noisy kids, national tensions, commerce and gang warfare. Instead, you float on a warm and tranquil sea with hundreds or dozens of shimmering fish just out of fingertip reach, and you have a profound sense of wellbeing. Sunlight filters down to the rocks around you and you feel perfectly removed from everyday life. You are snorkelling on the Corsican coast and the world beyond is not your concern. Sure, it will drag you back in but for now who cares? The only thing that counts is the sun on your back and the little shoal of fish flitting behind a bank of rock.

I wrote Present Tense a few years ago. But look, it's still available to buy and read: