Bricks and Mortars

Land of adventure

By Lawrence Reichard | Nov 17, 2017

It's time for another break from the relentless barroom brawl of politics.

Some places are just given to adventure. One is the Mediterranean island of Corsica, with its ancient pastel villages, pristine beaches, and mountains of unsurpassed beauty. In summer, extended families camp in coastal campgrounds in big tents and small pull-behind camper trailers after disembarking from big ferries that come from mainland France and Italy. In one of these campgrounds I began my 1981 visit.

In a local shop I bought a manual fishing spear attached to a thick elastic band, and with spear in hand I took to the sea and emerged some time later with a small octopus. As I crossed the campground a portly middle-age woman waddled up to me and burst out with questions.

“I'm sorry,” I said in French, “but I speak very little French.” “What do you speak?” she asked in French. “Anglais,” I said. “Je parlais Anglais.” She thought for a moment and said in heavily accented English, “Um, one minute. My daughter.” She waddled off and returned a few moments later with her teen daughter.

“My mother wants to know whether you know how to cook the, uh, poulpe,” the girl said. “No,” I said, “I don't.” “Well,” the girl said, “give it to my mother and at six o'clock join us for dinner at that tent over there.” “OK,” said, and I did. And with all manner of relatives lining both sides of various folding tables strung together, I, the hunter, was the guest of honor.

The wine flowed like water and the next morning I stood a little worse for wear on a crowded platform waiting for a train to take me into the island's interior. I wanted only two things: a seat on the train and a cup of coffee. I got the seat, but not the coffee.

It was the last available seat, and I assumed the young backpacker next to me was European — I hadn't seen a single American in a week on the island. He looked more interested in sleep than conversation, so I left him alone. But when we pulled into another crowded station, he said, “Oh, crap.” A rare American on Corsica. And so began one of the more remarkable conversations of my life.

He said he was a student at Macalaster College, and I told him I had studied in Bogota, Colombia, with Macalaster students. He asked me whether I knew his best friend Jerry, whose last name I forget. “Yes,” I said, “I took over Jerry's room in the old colonial quarter of La Candelaria when Jerry went back to the States.”

And then he asked me whether I had known another Macalaester student whose name also eludes me. “No,” I said, “I don't think I did.” “Well,” my newfound friend said, “I'll tell you a story about him, and maybe that will jar your memory." And so began his story.

Every semester the Bogota program went on a field trip to San Agustin, a fantastic town in southern Colombia that is the foremost archaeological site in the country, and one semester this student went along, and when he got to San Agustin, he proceeded to ingest every mind-altering substance then known to man. In the process, the student so impoverished himself that he was unable to buy food for his hunger, and so he tried to sell the T-shirt right off his back to local indigenous women.

In the small, remote Andean town of San Agustin, no indigenous woman had ever seen anything quite like that, and so the local constabulary was fetched and the student was tossed in jail.

As I heard this story unfold, I could scarcely believe my ears, for back in San Agustin, the shirt-vending student was of such another mind that he later couldn't remember what had landed him in jail, and the only way he found out was that I had witnessed the entire episode and told him about it after his release from detention. The story was mine. Two years later in another hemisphere, in an old dilapidated one-car train, my story was being told back to me by a stranger in the seat next to mine.

Some time later I arrived at my destination and made my way to one of the island's world-class hiking trails. My destination was Lac de Melo, a high alpine lake.

On my hike to Lac de Melo I passed an etched marble plaque. It was a poem, and in my pidgin French I was able to make out that it was about a young man who had come to that place to enjoy the wonders of nature, only to be caught by surprise by the force of nature, and he perished in a sudden storm. His name was Laurent, French for Lawrence. He was born the same day as I, and he died exactly two and a half years before I stumbled on his memorial. I hiked carefully the rest of the way to Lac de Melo.

The lake was spectacular. It was nestled in a bowl, surrounded by thick, lush green grass, beyond which rose 360 degrees of jagged, rocky peaks, and there was but one other person there, a Corsican woman whose name embodied the history of Corsica. Gracieuse Ienco: French first name, Italian last name. She taught at the University of Pisa, and we stayed up all night talking and watching entire constellations of stars cross the sky. It was the most romantic night I've ever had.

And so ended my Corsican adventures, but I wasn't the only one in my family to have Corsican adventures. In World War II, my father ran bombing runs over mainland Europe, taking off from Sicily and southern Italy and crossing over Corsica on the way to targets. On one such run, the plane found itself over Corsica in thick cloud cover with a broken altimeter — the crew didn't know its altitude. And when the cloud cover finally broke, the first thing my father saw was a Corsican cow. “Up! Up!” he shouted to the plane's pilot with great energy.

Like I said, a land of adventure.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.


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