Thursday, August 27, 2020

No ordinary island

Pandemic be damned, it’s summer. And summer means vacation. Because this is France, and liberté-égalité-congés payés is what. As for myself, I may never truly be on vacation again because I am self-employed, but Covid-19 has suddenly placed new emphasis on the free aspect of freelance, so sure, bailing for several weeks is fine.

Normally, my parents were due for a visit this summer and we were all going to Ireland, but the whole 2020 pangolins-bats-yada yada-cough cough-touch nothing-go nowhere-viral armageddon kind of threw a wrench into that. Plus President Macron told us to behave and stay (relatively) close to home.

Us: Corsica is technically in France. Let’s go to Corsica!

When in Corsica, one definitely needs a car. So we decided to cross nearly the full length of the mainland and take a ferry docked in Nice, thus keeping our car and avoiding the airport. The very thought of the airport sends my cortisol levels through the roof. Maybe because of multiple experiences such as this one.

Sure looks good from here.
Parking on the ferry was interesting. Its staff for some reason was made up of 100% irate Italians, barking barely recognizable orders as we maneuvered our way onto one of the lower decks. I don’t know what madman came up with the parking plan on this thing, but the cars were crammed in so closely together that we couldn’t so much as open either of the doors on the right-hand side. Weird. Somewhat barbaric. Borderline panic-inducing. Oh well!

The crossing took six hours, which maybe would have been OK with the kids if the on-board activities and attractions had been open, but thanks to our pal Coronavirus, everything was closed. The whining commenced almost immediately.

Dear son: Mom this boat sucks so muuuuuuch! There’s nothing to doooooooo!
Me: Do you know what you sound like right now? Like an overprivileged white kid with first world problems. You are lucky and I mean really lucky to be voyaging across the Mediterranean with your sister and two parents who love you while other kids out there are hungry or homeless or caught in the midst of war—do you hear me?WAR!  
Dear son: *stares blankly at me*
Me: Oh never mind. Here’s half a Twix.
Dear son: *smiles*

Exiting the boat was hellish. Actually, scrap the -ish. It was straight-up hell. Dark, hot, crowded, airless, and definitely not compliant with social distancing measures. It was bad. They really need to rethink that whole park-on-top-of-your-neighbor concept. But we lived. Next.

The first week, we stayed in Lumio, a charming hillside town overlooking the sparkling Bay of Calvi, and also the home of supermodel Laetitia Casta (who knew?). The rental was fab:

Each day, we explored northern Corsica to the best of our abilities. We took twisty windy hold-onto-your-faith-with-both-hands cliffside roads with breathtaking (and potentially life-taking) views. We discovered the UNESCO world heritage site of Scandola, with its turquoise coves and rainbow rock formations:

The kids dug it:

We ventured onto secret beaches and swam in natural pools. We enjoyed picnic lunches and al fresco dinners. We caught some lizards and a few sea critters. We scraped the finish off the side of our car on a giant yucca. We ate some exceedingly pungent cheese. We visited perched villages in the 90° heat.

The kids dug it:

Northern Corsica is rugged and wonderful, surrounded by turquoise water and vegetation that looks surprisingly similar to that of San Diego (represent!). It also has simply incredible rock. Quartz, limestone, rare pink granite, basalt. Gorgeous. Every river, every beach, every natural pool is a treasure trove of multi-colored boulders and pebbles:

I’m hooked on macro photography, for better or worse.
Only downside: the heat. I don’t do heat (I don’t really do cold, either, but that’s a topic for another day). In fact, the older I get, the less I do heat. At least when it’s cold, you can put on an extra sweater. But when it’s hot, all you can do is stand in front of the A/C or go swimming. So we stood in front of the A/C and went swimming. A lot. I actually ended up with a tan, which totally flies in the face of the whole Scandinavian vibe I usually have going.

At sunset, we would climb up to our rooftop terrace with a view of the bay for apéro, every surface still radiating the day’s warmth, crickets chirping, the lights of Lumio twinkling on the hill behind us and the stars sparkling above. It was otherworldly.

Then suddenly, a whole week was over and it was time to head south. Despite its modest size, Corsica has a remarkably rich and varied landscape; we traded the golden cliffs and Californian vegetation of the north for the sandier, balmier, more Côte dAzur feel of the south (which is somewhat bizarre considering we were farther than ever from the actual Côte dAzur, but OK).

Our next rental was also nice, although less “authentic” than our first. It had a little cubby hole kids’ room accessible via a really dangerous-looking ladder, a classic example of what the French would call a fausse bonne idée (an idea that seems good at first but is actually a curse in disguise). The A/C was right on the money, though, so we just upped our level of vigilance by about 200%:

What lawsuit?
Our “mini villa” (*grabs dictionary, looks up oxymoron*) was also in close proximity to some of the world’s most beautiful white sand beaches, so we hit the beach and I mean HIT IT. Lots of sand and sun and more sand and more sun! I got even tanner! My pale-faced ancestors were surely spinning pirouettes in their graves!

We also visited the southernmost tip of the island, a splendid city called Bonifacio. Magnificent scenery. I took roughly 200 photos because how could you not? Many of them were macro shots of flowers and the famous Corsican maquis, but I will spare you!

One of the “musts” in Bonifacio is a staircase carved into the side of a cliff known as the Staircase of the King of Aragon, which is a secret passage to a natural spring with fabulous views of the sea. According to legend, it was built by said king’s troops during a siege one night in 1420, although the truth is that it was probably built by monks (which is just the absolute opposite of the legend, but whatever!). In any case, after donning protective gear and completing the visit, I came away feeling highly dubious that any king, legendary or otherwise, ever huffed it up and down this killer staircase. Pity his servants and water-bearers, although I’m sure their rear ends were as finely chiseled as those 187 steps.

The kids dug it, bien sûr:

And lest I forget a personal highlight, mountain child that I am: Corsica is also blessed with absolutely glorious mountains. In fact, so mountainous is the island that it is often referred to as une montagne dans la mer (a mountain in the sea). So many ridges and peaks to choose from! We explored just a smidgeon, but I’d gladly have lingered far longer. I mean look at this:

An extraordinarily magical, mystical land altogether. Being a fervent admirer of all things Tolkienian, and in the midst of reading The Silmarillion with the utmost relish, Eru Ilúvatar, Varda, Ulmo et al. were on my mind quite a bit throughout our travels.

Corsica or Middle Earth?
In conclusion, and if I may wax profound for just a minute hereCorsica took my breath away. I have been travelling around France for nearly 20 years now, and have discovered countless things to love, but this island had an entirely different, deliciously unique feel to it. In Corsica, the imprint of French Civilization is far less overwhelming than it is on the mainland, where art and architecture speak passionately and eloquently of human history, of human achievement. In Corsica, the roles are reversed: structures, however handsome, are ultimately mere props; Nature is the true star of the show. Polychrome rock. Spirited wind. Fiery sun. Crystalline water. They spoke deeply and powerfully to me on this trip, cutting through the layers of suppressed anxiety and accumulated mental clutter. 

In these strange and often surreal times, the “new normal” for many of us is one of uncertainty, of disorientation, and a gnawing fear that the Covid-19 crisis is but a warning shot. Yet these timeless elements of earth and air, fire and water, which existed long before we arrived and will endure long after we have departed, are a reminder that perhaps our view of our own lives has itself become too “macro.” Perhaps we need to zoom out, shift our focus off of our little selves, forget our all-important problems for a while, and remember that we are part of a much larger picture. We and All That Is are made of the same stuff—are works by the same Artist. Checking in with the heart, reconnecting with the present is simple: hear the rustle of wind in the trees. Slip one foot, and then another into a cool brook. Close your eyes and feel the sunshine on your face. Ultimately, what makes me feel safer, healthier, more in touch with life itself: checking my Twitter feed for the umpteenth time, or lying in silence on a warm boulder, listening to the sound of water flowing over pebbles? Maybe the key to soothing a weary soul really is as easy as that. Contentment doesnt have to be fleeting. 

Someone should tell my kids.

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