The Horrors of the Rinky-Dink

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On the ferry from Livorno to Corsica we were surrounded by nothing but the pristine blue sea. Matthews’ warnings of explosions couldn’t have been further from my mind as we stared out at the magical blue of the Mediterranean. It was a constant reminder of why we were going to Corsica. To be near the sea. To be alone with it. To have the feeling of being both at the edge of the world and, somehow, at its center.

We had booked five nights at the Hotel Santa Maria in the town of Ile Rousse in the Balagne region on the island’s northwest coast. Ile Rousse was my idea. We had had our wonderful glimpse of Calvi; Ile Rousse was 30 minutes to the north. Calvi had seemed like a little Shangri-La. Therefore, I decided we should not return, an example of a particular kind of twisted and totally faulty logic to which I am prone. The logic is that having glimpsed a little Shangri-La, we should abandon it in favor of some even smaller, more obscure hidden spot 30 minutes down the road, which would somehow be even more Shangri-La-like, by virtue of being smaller and more obscure. The Lonely Planet guide to Corsica, which I would shortly be cursing, had very nice things to say about Ile Rousse, and the Hotel Santa Maria was listed as more or less the nicest place in town. 

Our ferry dropped us in Bastia. It was a two-hour drive to Ile Rousse. We went to Bastia because it was the only town on the island to which we could get ferry tickets; the direct rides to Calvi and Ile Rousse itself were booked. We arrived in the heat of midday, picked up our rented car—a five-gear Peugeot hatchback—and began the drive across the island, east to west. I was happy. We had arrived. The sky was blue. And I’ve always had a soft spot for Peugeots.

We left the sea behind us. The roads became more desolate and windy, the hills turned ever steeper, and the surroundings gradually took on a stark, impressively barren quality. Mountains rose around us, saw-toothed and dry, the color of ash against the bright sky. The mountains were a barrier. A warning. And, by extension, an enticement—beyond us lies paradise, they seemed to say.

“You know,” I said, in the hopes of moderating the giddy excitement that was building up in me, “I think the hotel might be a bit rinky-dink.”

I generally like to let off a little pessimistic steam as a preventive measure against disappointment.

“Why do you say that?” said my wife, who is generally more comfortable with the condition of optimism. “I don’t think it will be rinky-dink.”

“I don’t know. The picture on the Web site and … superstition, I guess.”

“I thought the picture looked nice,” she said.

I looked at her sitting there in the passenger seat looking innocently out the window, and an incredible wave of love and excitement and anxiety swept through me just then as I grasped the awesome responsibility that lay before us—to live! To enjoy! I don’t even know if I was thinking about Corsica or the honeymoon or the rest of our lives. I just knew that it was, for the most part, in our hands, one way or the other. What if we didn’t?

The forbiddingly dry mountains gave way to the sea. Then we arrived in the town of Ile Rousse. No sooner had we arrived than we found ourselves in a traffic jam. The sun was directly above. In the traffic jam, we had time to observe the crappy little beach, where Jet Skis were rentable and the swimming area led directly into a little marina, which in turn had right behind it a huge stinking ferry that we could presumably have been on, had we known to book four months in advance.

We crawled through the little sun-struck town, waiting for the traffic to abate as we neared our hotel. But it did not. In the end, the traffic jam lead directly to … the Hotel Santa Maria. Well, the traffic itself was headed to the port, where the big Corsica-Sardinia ferryboat sat taking on cars. But the road led right past the hotel, which was essentially the last stop before the port. It was pinkish and brand new, and the sun beat down on the car, and the traffic snarled and crawled like something out of Jean-Luc Godard’s movie Week End, except that in that movie the jam is caused by a horrible accident, and in this case it’s just people trying to get on and off the island in their cars. We managed to pull into a packed little parking lot next to the hotel, unload, and check in. Then we were shown our room.

Oh God, the moment we saw that room!

Some modern-dance choreographer, some descendant of Merce Cunningham or Martha Graham, should do a piece called “Honeymooners Arriving in a Hotel Room They Hate.”

In this piece, the dancers circle a bed, perhaps sit on it, bounce on it, stand, wave their arms. One of them walks into the bathroom, then emerges to be met by the other. Their arms fly into the air, land on hips, and everything about the body language of each person suggests a craving to be elsewhere.

Our room was on a lower level. To call it the basement would be unfair, and yet that was the feel, dark and damp. It smelled so strongly of disinfectant that we were sure the thing had recently flooded. It was tiny. Most of the space was taken up by the gigantic floral-covered bed that sagged horribly. The patio beyond the sliding door was the size of half a pingpong table and had a splendid view of the “private beach,” which, in turn, had an excellent eye-level view of about a hundred fuming tailpipes and was the size of maybe two pingpong tables.

As I made my way to the front desk in the hopes of switching rooms, I realized that I had concocted a fantasy that Corsica would be a kind of French Sicily—a slightly wild island to the south of the mainland, set apart in geography and spirit. Suddenly I had to entertain an unsettling parallel prospect: Perhaps Corsica was the French Florida?

Later, with hindsight, I realized we were up against several unseen adversaries. There was the midday sun, for one thing. One’s capacity for coping with any kind of adversity wilts at that hour; the light is a kind of white noise, and you only want coolness and comfort, which was currently available to us only in the form of a very dank, smelly little room that we had booked for five nights at about $200 a night. There was also the traffic.

But most of all, though it took awhile to realize this, we were experiencing a kind of French Resistance. We had just spent five days in Rome. We missed the Italians! We missed their food, their hand gestures, their very shape, which tended to be more lithe and fine-boned than the more Depardieu-like French. In time, we would come around to the French and be happy and French-friendly, but the Hotel Santa Maria fiasco was a low point.

We took the situation in, asked for a different room, and were told by the very polite staff that the place was booked up. We were stuck. Our French was meager, but then so was our Italian—in fact, between the two of us we actually did speak a little French, and we had almost no Italian—but in Italy you can use your hands! You can use your whole body! You can more or less stand there for five amiable minutes chatting with a stranger with whom you share about 10 words in your two combined languages. And now we were reduced to sentence fragments, and I went into a kind of Marcel Marceau mode trying to get us a different room—to no avail, and we stomped into the tiny sunbaked town and collapsed at the one outdoor cafe still serving food. It might have been nice except that it was also playing Euro-pop over speakers, and Euro-pop is an amazingly awful thing, just like American pop music but sped up to sound like it’s sung by The Chipmunks.

Three things saved the situation.

1. Our waiter, Phillip, spoke a little English and was, in fact, delighted to try it out with us. He was even more delighted to hear that we were from New York. “I go there maybe in the fall! My friend, he work for IBM, a lot of mon-nay, you know? And he open a disco-tech in New York, and I manage it, maybe. It’s called Millennium Disco 2010. Come see me!”

2. Ice cream.

3. We went to the tourist office, found a hotel in Calvi with the highly promising and non-rinky-dink name Grand Hotel, and booked it for the four remaining nights.

Back at the hotel Santa Maria, we took our allotment of plush beach towels to the Hotel Santa Maria’s private beach. The sand was coarse, rocky, brown. Once in the water, the magical Mediterranean, we were able to walk about 10 feet out, to a depth that covered the calves, before encountering an unsurpassable shoal. So, we marinated in that kiddie-pool space. By then we were no longer in that hysterical mode of the despairing tourists—honeymooners!—who have come such a long way only to be uncomfortable and unhappy, and whose ability to remedy the situation is impaired by their amazement that the situation is in need of remedy.

Now that we had planned our escape, the situation at the Hotel Santa Maria was kind of funny. And later, as the sun set, we walked along the road fronting the hotel out to the pier. It wasn’t so hellish anymore now that the once-a-day traffic jam had dissipated. In fact, it was pretty. We walked up a steep hill to a fort and then out onto a jagged promontory where the sea was very blue and swirled violently around the rocks below, and we could look back on the town bathed in the light of the setting sun.

The sunset softened the harshness of our earlier feelings, as sunsets often do. Then we walked all the way into town, along the promenade, and past a bust of Pasquale Paoli, who was born here and who was responsible for the one brief, 15-year period of Corsican self-rule, in between periods of being colonized by others—the Moors, the Genovese, and lately the French. We passed L’Escale, a restaurant whose elegant tables overlooked the promenade and where we later had an excellent meal—salade de chèvre and a huge portion of mussels Provençal served in a giant crescent-shaped white porcelain bowl. The town of Ile Rousse, though still rather rinky-dink, seemed pretty and amenable now that it didn’t have to bear the weight of all our hopes for Corsica. We knew we had Calvi to look forward to.