There was something surreal about Corsica. Maybe it was the juxtaposition of mountains and sea, and the way tiny villages cropped up out of nowhere someplace in between. Maybe it was the simple way life existed on the island, as if completely independent of the world. Or maybe it was the fact that we subsisted on cereal for more than half the trip and it was just our hunger that deluded us into surrealism.
I traveled to Corsica in 2009 with my brother, Daniel, and my friend Katherine. It was meant to be a camping trip over the Easter holidays of a semester in France, but it turned into something much more adventurous. We arrived in Bastia, one of Corsica’s biggest cities, and planned to move on by bus to a campground on Cap Corse, a mountainous region with a long, jagged coastline that is said to be the most scenic place on the island.
Catching the bus to find un camping on Cap Corse was a shot in the dark. It was April – still early in the season – and we knew many campgrounds wouldn’t be open yet. We were just hoping against hope that we could find something from wherever the bus dropped us. If not, we had to make sure to get back to Bastia for the weekend, so as not to be marooned on Cap Corse, where – we had been told – wild boars roam free. Upon boarding the bus, our journey was suddenly complicated when we found that a road closure would cut our route short. In semi-comprehended French, we understood the basic gist that, if we got off this bus at the terminus, we would be dead-ended somewhere on Cap Corse with no idea where to go next or how to even get there. So, without a plan in the world, the three of us naturally stepped off at the very last stop, determined to continue our journey on foot. Sometimes, the combination of midday sunlight and youth can be enough to make unsavory possibilities – like not finding a campground, missing a bus back to civilization, or encountering a wild boar – shrink to the back of your mind.
The very last stop was Erbalunga, a tiny haven of civilization tucked inside the sauvage mountains of Cap Corse. By this time, we hadn’t eaten a substantial meal since catching the ferry to Corsica from France the previous afternoon, and we ran for the first restaurant we saw – a small pizza shop. Even in this country town, the French had not lost their fashion decorum, and we looked ridiculous in sweatpants and tennis shoes, with our tent, sleeping bags, backpacks, and camping supplies in tow. Pouring over guide books and sheets of information that Daniel had wisely printed, we tried to calculate how much farther we could safely venture. Studying our dwindling food rations, which consisted of a box of cereal and a bag of Monster Munch, we realized we had to find both a camping and a supermarché in our travels if we were to survive until dinner without scrounging for edible insects and berries. And, based on the few amenities that Erbalunga offered beyond pizza and human contact, it seemed unwise to hope that we would find much else on Cap Corse.
Suddenly, an English-speaking voice broke into our worried discussion. Daniel, Katherine, and I turned around in unison at this welcome interruption of comprehensibility. He sat at the table behind us, smoking a cigarette so casually that we had mistaken him for a Frenchman. He was a tall, tan rail of a man with rakish, graying hair that was grappled into a ponytail in untamed, wavy tangles. He did not quite have the look of one who had just sprung up out of the dirt, like old men tending fields on the uneven Irish countryside. Rather, he appeared to have simply taken on the topography of the land in his skin through years of exposure; he had become Corsica. He had a woodsy British accent, and when we asked how he ended up in Corsica, he said he had needed to figure some things out and, after 50 years on the island, he still hadn’t gotten around to figuring them out yet. I was intrigued and somewhat chilled by how haphazardly his life seemed to have unfolded. At 20, I did not realize that life often refuses to unfold in any other way.
He was a wealth of information for our beleaguered brains. Apparently, the next town was called Sisco. He recalled a campground being nearby but couldn’t be sure that it existed or would be open; however, there was certainly a supermarket. We could reach this Mecca, he claimed, in just a few miles. And then, with a quick nod of good luck, he was on his way to what we could only assume was another adventure. So onward we tramped, with the sun sneakily burning through the afternoon behind us.
The miles between each outpost were desolate, yet friendly. We followed a circuitous coastal road, framed on one side by green mountains, which dropped off dramatically on the other into the depths of an aqua-blue ocean. Drivers and cyclists waved as they passed. Each bend in the road brought renewed hope of a sign or an advertisement – anything to indicate that we were not searching for a phantom town with a phantom supermarket, but we walked for more than an hour with nothing. We knew we couldn’t continue searching indefinitely; at some point we would have to turn around to make it back to Bastia.
Another bend brought no more reassurance than the last. We sat down and divided the rest of our cereal between us and vowed to turn around in the next unsuccessful 20 minutes. Then, around the next curve, as if it had just sprung up for no other reason than our requirement, a seaside town became visible. Sisco di Marina is embedded in a green valley that opens up to the sea. Mountains rise up on either side and, farther inland, you can see the roofs and steeples of the official Sisco. A two-way street passes through the town and then sends you on to the next one, several kilometers away. It takes about 10 minutes to walk through the entire village. To our delight, there was a Cocci Market (we silently thanked the haphazard Englishman) and a billboard advertising a campground, A Casiola, which we found out was open.
We had a moment of blind celebration before we ran straight for Cocci – once again desperate for food and fearing a waning sunset. While we were greedily unloading our wares at the checkout, we heard a familiar voice behind us. “So, you made it to Sisco!” It was the haphazard Englishman, looking as though he had walked into Cocci expecting nothing less than to meet us there. He gave us the smiling nod we’d seen before and walked out of the supermarket in a jaunting lope. We stood in stunned silence upon meeting him again at random. We’d only come about five kilometers from Erbalunga, but in our uncertain journey, we felt we might have crossed the face of the earth. That was the last we ever saw of him.
On that first night, we took our dinner and a bottle of victory wine out to a hill that Katherine had found behind the campground. On either side of us, two broad mountains rose up, covered in rich green. The gray clouds in the darkening sky hovered in misty shadows over the mountaintops, and as it got darker, the little twinkling lights of the inland Sisco became like a solitary beacon of civilization. We sat for a while, watching the scenery fade to darkness and all the greens and blues disappear in shades of black and white.
Sometimes in life, there are places we go to which we feel an instinctive and inexplicable connection, as if we’ve belonged to them for years without having even known of their existence. Sitting on that hill, alone in the world, watching civilization meander through the tiny streets below, I suddenly realized how the Englishman had come to belong to Corsica. In the mundane everyday, I can rarely feel my life unfolding; most often I seem to be running after it, cursing it, and trying to make my way around the roadblocks it leaves in its wake. But in that moment, I was living. Whether haphazard or not, I knew the future would unfold and it was worth all the hardship and pain that awaited just to see a bright day fade silently into night and to feel, for even one minute, the depth of infinite possibilities ahead.