Bricks and Mortars

Land of adventure

By Lawrence Reichard | Aug 03, 2018

The Mediterranean island of Corsica is a land of adventure. It is ancient pastel towns, pristine beaches, and mountains of unsurpassed beauty. In summer extended families from the mainland camp in coastal campgrounds in big tents and small pull-behind camper trailers, after disembarking from big ferries that are accompanied to the island by dolphins swimming alongside the vessels. In one of those campgrounds I began my 1984 visit.

In a local shop I bought a fishing spear attached to a thick elastic band, and with spear in hand, I took to the sea and emerged some time later with an octopus of maybe three pounds. As I crossed the campground with my catch, a portly middle-age woman waddled up to me and burst out in a torrent of French. I was just able to make out that she wanted to know whether I knew how to cook le poulpe. In my limited French I said no, I didn't know.

“Well,” the woman said, “give it to me and at 6 o'clock come join us for dinner at that tent over there.” “OK,” I said, and I did. And with many 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 in the entire universe: 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 Macalester College in Minnesota. I told him I had studied in Bogota, Colombia, with Macalester students, and he asked me whether I knew his best friend Jerry, whose last name I forget. “Yes,” I said, “I moved into Jerry's room in the old colonial quarter of La Candelaria when Jerry went back to the States.”

Then he asked me whether I knew another Macalester student whose name also eludes me. “No,” I said, “I don't think so.” And then he told me a story about the second student, in hopes that might spark my memory.

Every semester the Bogota program went to San Agustin, a fantastic town and Colombia's foremost archaeological site, and one semester this second student went along on the trip. When he got to San Agustin, he proceeded to ingest every mind-altering substance then known to man, and in the process, the student so impoverished himself that he could no longer afford to satisfy the ravenous hunger traditionally associated with one of those substances. And so he tried to sell the shirt off his back to local indigenous women.

In that small, remote Andean town 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.

Sometime 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 the poem was about a young man who had come to this 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 my name, Lawrence. He was born the same day as I, and he died exactly 2 1/2 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 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 all manner of constellations cross the sky. It was the most romantic night of my life. So far.

And so ended my adventures on Corsica. But I wasn't the only one in my family to have Corsican adventures. In World War II, my father was an Air Force navigator. He ran bombing missions over mainland Europe, taking off from southern Italy and crossing over Corsica on the way to targets. On one such run, the plane found itself over Corsica and flying blind through thick cloud cover with a broken altimeter. When the cloud cover finally broke, the first thing my father saw out a window was a Corsican cow. “Up! Up! Up!” he shouted to the plane's pilot.

Like I said, a land of adventure.

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


Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.