Any one of the dozens of small villages that serve as the human outposts in this area will have a bar or a café where you can stop for a beer or, better yet, a glass of the local aperitif, made of myrtle, which, along with mint and laurel, is a primary ingredient of the maquis, the tangle of pungent vegetation that grows wild throughout the island. In one café, near the starting point for the hikers hoping to traverse the G20 (a two-week trek through prehistoric vegetation and wildflowers), two wizened men yank an immense Campari umbrella from the table it shades on sunny days, and power through a driving, blinding rainstorm to offer their escort to my companion, who, in fact, is so traumatized by the ferocity of the rain that she would have rather stayed in the car. But Corsica is no place to be wimpy, in fact it is not a place to be prim or shy. It’s a place to get drenched, it’s a place to be exhausted, it’s a place to be just a little less civilized than you normally are.
In corte, the principal city of the Corsican heights, we sit in a little, minimally decorated restaurant on a city square, eating what we instantly declare the very best pizza we have ever encountered—a polyphonic blend of contrasting cheeses; a crisp, yeasty crust. Corte was the birthplace of Corsican nationalism, and the place where the revered Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli established a national university in 1765, which was suppressed and shuttered four years after its inception, not to reopen until 1981.
To this day, Corte is a steep, stony town, secretive, even a little stern, with a fascinating ethnology museum, a couple of magnificent promontories from which to survey the surroundings when the weather permits, and little else to entice the casual traveler. In fact, enticing travelers seems the furthest thing from the town’s collective consciousness, which is the case with all of the Corsican mountain towns and villages we visited. Even the ancient mill in Sartène, where olive oil is pressed in the old style, and the San Giovanni-Battista church in Carbini, where, legend has it, the townsfolk were so pleased with the bell tower that they resolved to kill the architect so he wouldn’t build another, seem to accept visitors with a kind of poker-faced equanimity.
The people here, my girlfriend says to me as we eat our sublime pizza in Corte, with the fog shouldering against the windows of the little café, giving the place a kind of noonday intimacy, they don’t seem like the types who go along in order to get along. Around us are mainly men, dark-haired, carelessly shaven, muscular, hardworking guys from the quarries, or the little factories, as well as men who look as if they don’t have anyplace in particular they need to go.
I know why that old leftist shutterbug called me the Little Corsican, I say to her. It wasn’t really a description; it was a prescription. He was inviting me to lead a life of internal exile. Internal exile? My girlfriend smiles. Like the Rasta-haired kids playing Hacky Sack in the park? Sure, I say, like anyone who makes his own culture inside of another culture. Like anyone who doesn’t want to be dominated, or even conform.
Look around you, I continue, my voice rising. These people, this place, no one tells them what to do, no one has ever told them what to do. You look around you, my companion counters, her eyes gesturing toward the window. I half turn in my chair to see what she is looking at, and the moment I do she takes the last piece of pizza off the scorched and battered tray. You could have had it anyhow, I say. Really? She says, rather skeptically. Yes, I say, of course. I feel a rush of self-pride, almost unseemly in its sudden force. My parents were Communists.