Click here to see a slide show. It was a salami sandwich that brought us back to Corsica. Or, to be precise, it was a few thin slices of dried beef, a bottle of olive oil, and a baguette. We got it during a brief, dreamlike appearance in the town of Calvi. It lasted a mere afternoon. To say I had never before been to Corsica would be an understatement. I had never thought about it, hardly knew of it, in spite of the fact that it sat in the Mediterranean, just south of France, off the northern coast of Italy. I didn’t even intend to be there. I was brought there, without any intent of my own, by boat.
At the time of the salami sandwich, Elizabeth and I were on a cruise, which I had won. Winning the cruise was a strange thing. I didn’t believe I had won such a substantial prize at first, and then for a long time I didn’t know what to do with it. I tried to give it away as a gift several times. But no one wanted the cruise. The thought that I might actually take the cruise myself was slow to dawn on me. But eventually I got a “use it or lose it” ultimatum. Elizabeth and I embarked at Nice for a week of sailing around the Mediterranean.
It was a strange experience. When we got on the boat in Nice we had already spent some time traveling, mostly in Italy, and we were under the impression that our Italian and French adventure would now continue by sea. But this was not the case. The boat was American. I don’t mean American-owned or -operated, exactly, but rather in its flavor and mood. Its aesthetic of luxury was that of gleaming, deracinated newness. At first I thought this gleaming was part of the nautical theme—there is something very tidy about the mythology of boats, the whole fastidious world of knots, swabbed decks, white uniforms, and so forth—but I gradually realized that what we were inhabiting was a kind of floating Marriott.
Therefore, we came to regard the boat as an extremely luxurious prison from which we were always trying to escape. Every morning we docked at a new and exotic location that we might never have found on our own—Byron’s grotto at Porto Venere was especially notable—and returned in the afternoon to the floating Marriott, and for the first time I understood the whole yachting concept—it’s not so much the boat as the places it takes you.
One of the places that boat took us was the town of Calvi on the western coast of Corsica. We bought those memorable sandwich ingredients, and for the next few days we lived like stowaways, carefully unwrapping the treasure of our baguette, dried beef, and olive oil in order to be transported back to the smoky world of Europe, where things tasted really good.
It was with this very positive association in mind that Elizabeth and I, when ruminating where to go on our honeymoon, decided on Corsica. It was the sandwich and also the memory of mountains as we motored away from the shore back to the cruise ship—barren, forbidding, and therefore somehow inviting.
To get to Corsica this time, we took a ferry from the Italian port town of Livorno. It was a bright blue morning, and the mouth of the ferry was wide open and admitting a stream of little Renaults, Elfs, Peugeots, and Fiats. The visual vocabulary of European cars is so different from their American counterparts, a parade of commas as opposed to exclamation points.
We walked onto the ship with our bags amid the slow-moving cars. For a moment, feeling the heavy industrial vibration of the ferry under my feet and smelling the exhaust fumes, I felt as if I were walking into the Holland Tunnel with a suitcase. It was the sort of image one might encounter in a Fellini movie or a Donald Barthelme story. Or maybe a honeymoon. All are narratives where the imaginative metabolism is slightly sped up, and the mind turns back on itself to say, “This is really happening. Right now. And now. And now!”
The ferry floor tilted almost imperceptibly, giving notice that we were no longer on dry land, and my thoughts flashed to the unbelievably graphic, engrossing account of a ferry going down in the Baltic Sea in William Langewiesche’s The Outlaw Sea. In that incident it was the mouth of the ferry—just like the one we were walking through—that somehow came loose, admitting water. What followed was a kind of nautical Hieronymus Bosch scene of murder, mayhem, sobbing, and drowning.
But that doomed ferry was a night ride in the cold Baltic. Now we struggled with our bags up onto the sunny deck, where the morning air was briny and we had a view of the port, and those morbid thoughts disappeared.
The ship’s horn sounded twice, an incredibly wonderful, low, mournful foghorn sound. We slowly moved out of port, past some of the other gigantic ferry boats headed to other ports. The one to Naples was festooned with Warner Bros. cartoon characters, and so I said goodbye to Italy by staring into the face of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck.
My research into Corsica had been limited to a guidebook and the memory of that baguette, and so in Rome I made inquiries. The information I gathered about Corsica was a little cautionary. For one thing, there were the maps. All over town, touristy looking maps of the Mediterranean were for sale, and on each map Sicily and Sardinia were seen to be voluminous islands, crisscrossed with roads, possessing mountains and valleys and little lakes. They looked verdant and lush. Corsica, just to the north of Sardinia, was depicted as a fist of rock. Small and barren and a little forbidding. But these were Italian maps, I rationalized. Corsica was a French island.
More reliable, and ominous, was a remark by Christopher Matthews as he stood above me slicing truffles onto my plate in his excellent restaurant, Il Coccodrillo. Matthews was a Reuters bureau chief in Rome for decades before giving up journalism to open his restaurant on the gorgeous, cobblestoned Via Gulia, behind the Piazza Farnese. He’s English, but he’s got an Italian chef, the food is excellent, and if you’ve met him once, he’s sure to bring you a glass of wine gratis or at least go crazy with the truffles, which he seems to enjoy more than anything. When we told him that we were heading to Corsica, he remarked that it was a pretty place. “But,” he added. “The locals have a habit of blowing things up. You know, developments on the beach, that sort of thing.” Then he added, as though in consolation, “But they never actually blow up any people.”