Corsica ’08: Arriving in Bastia

Written: November 3 2008

Bastia, October 25 2008

Once we got off the boat in Bastia, we were supposed to meet “Felipe” — “In front of the port across the road there is a tourist office, very well known place.” Um, ok. Our ferry was late, and with the rain, it took us that much longer to get out of the port and find the tourist office (obviously closed on a Saturday night). Once we got there, I called Felipe, and within seconds, I turned around to face a man wearing a dark leather hat, a long trenchcoat, gripping a cellphone while a grin slowly moved across his face and turned into a welcoming smile.

“Felipe?”
“Hello!”

I introduced Rebecca and he introduced Jean-Mathieu. A short walk away to their parked car, we were on the road to the village. My journalistic instincts kicked in and I started firing away with questions. Jean-Mathieu is Corsican, Felipe is from Colombia (somewhere outside Medellin) but has been living in Corsica for the last seven years, as he was married to a woman whose family was originally from Corsica. They moved back to the island together, got divorced, and Felipe stuck around. “We’re still friends,” he says. He’s been a WWOOFer before, having lived and worked for many years in Australia, where he met his wife. Felipe met Jean-Mathieu through another Corsican, Paul, who lives in the same village as Felipe. Jean-Mathieu and Paul work together and specialize in trimming and cutting trees in the region — they know how to identify and treat some of the local varieties that are succeptible (or have already succombed to) disease.

Jean-Mathieu is a third-generation charcutier, who was actually discouraged from continuing in the family practice by his father — he implied that his father thought that the work was too hard, too difficult and wasn’t worth it. He used to work in IT for Xerox in Marseille for four years — and got to the point where he could have been promoted and sent to Valence (between Marseille and Lyon) — but, as he explained “if I had done that, I never would have come back to Corsica.” So, he traded in his keyboard for a butcher’s knife and never looked back. “Maybe I didn’t make the right choice, I don’t know.” Felipe and I reassured him that he had. (I found out later that Jean-Mathieu makes the bulk of his money from trimming trees, although he’s trying to start making money selling artisanal cured ham and chestnut flour — hence the WWOOFers.)

Jean-Mathieu speaks French and Corsican, while Felipe speaks Spanish, English and French, and understands some Corsican — which sounds a lot like Italian. Ok, maybe like 75 percent Italian with some Portuguese-esque sounds mixed in. I asked how many people in Corsica actually speak Corsican, and Jean-Mathieu said that, obviously, the older generation spoke it more and that whenever he meets new Corsicans, he tries to speak to them first in Corsican and if that doesn’t work, then French. Still though, his kids attend a bilingual school.

So how many people live in the village?

“10. Maybe 50 in the summertime, but otherwise 10.”

And how many pigs do you have?

“About 50.”

At some point, we turned off the highway and headed up into the hills, with their twisty roads. What Jean-Mathieu lacked in speaking volume, he made up for in driving speed. He took turns on essentially pitch-black roads with the ease and confidence of someone who has spent a lifetime driving up and down the same sets of roads. After about an hour of driving, I started feeling a little nauseous. As a kid I used to get car sick on roads like this fairly frequently, but haven’t in some time. Of course, it didn’t help matters that I hadn’t eaten much that day, nor the fact that I had thrown up three times the night before at our couchsurfer’s place — a well libated party accompanied by not much more than crêpes had taken place. I figured that if I’d made it an hour, that we were almost there, but nonetheless, my stomach really wasn’t taking too well to the rise and fall of the roller coastering of these mountain roads.

“Hey, Felipe, how much longer until the village?”

“Oh, about two kilometers.”

Ok, I could handle two more kilometers. Jean-Mathieu upshifted, and slid down into a little village, accelerating as we descended around a corner.

“Hey, Jean-Mathieu, would you mind driving a little slower?”

He slowed down without saying a word.

Felipe looked at me.

“Are you ok?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll be fine.”

He glanced up excitedly — “Hey, they’re here.”

Jean-Mathieu drove past a little roadside bar and pulled over.

“Becks, I really need to get out of the car,” feeling my voice grow more urgent with each word.
“Ok, ok, I’m trying,” she said, slightly exasperated, trying to get the front seat where she had been sitting, to swing forward so that I could climb out.

“I’m really not feeling well,” I said, hoping I could hold my upset stomach together until at least I got out of the car.

She finally got the seat pulled forward, and I hopped out, taking about two steps to the right side of the road and promptly vomited — ok, a few times — into the weeds. After trying to spit the taste out of my mouth, Jean-Mathieu had come back from the bar with a paper towel for me.

“Sorry about that,” I said, sheepishly.

“Forget about it man,” Felipe chimed in, ushering me towards the bar.

Jean-Mathieu smiled and we all headed in.