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Saturday, 8 June 2013

En Route with Andrew Hamilton: IV

Cutting Edge
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
Bastia, Corsica
I took an afternoon ferry from Nice to Bastia at the north end of Corsica. You never leave the sight of land, which I imagine is mostly the coast of Italy and then snow-capped mountains in Corsica, snow-capped mountains looming out of the wine-dark sea, in April. Italian ferries mostly, out of Genoa, exactly like the Aurelia, a Genoese "student ship" I took from France to New York in 1967, except that the five-hour trip was not long enough to have an amateur night where the waiters sang opera, and there was no saxophone band playing "Capri C'est Fini," or returning junior-year-abroad table mates talking about how they would never go to Berkeley because of all the Reds on the faculty.

Corsica, there must be four substantial towns there, real cities as big as maybe Sète or Béziers on what they refer to as the continent, and nothing but wilderness and small stone villages in between the cities. I could see going to Corsica and staying for years. First thing off the boat in Bastia I noticed that there were five tabacs in two city blocks. The main tourist souvenir or memento, sold in all the tabacs, and all the souvenir stands, and more seriously in the several amouries and many hardware stores, is folding knives. There are two kinds of knife, the couteau de berger, which is the shepherd's knife, and the couteau de vendetta, which you know what that is.

The local food specialty in Corsica is charcuterie made from pig or wild boar shoulder muscle, and it's edible, strong against the teeth and palate and in no way effete or lower-intestinal like a lot of your pig preparations on the continent.

The Cosican sausage should be cut with a couteau de berger, which has a strong curved blade with a top swage end like a Bowie knife, and folds back into an arabesque curved handle like Peter O'Toole, but without a bulb on the end. The couteau de vendetta is straight from tip to butt end and has a long thin narrow blade that looks like it would be perfect for slicing rounds from your hotel-room goat cheese. But they say it is best used for washing insults in the blood of rivals.

The couteau de berger is, to my eye, a prettier knife, although less dramatic in purpose. A traditional material for the handle is the wood of an old olive tree, which has a special name that I forget. I just asked for an olive one, and the old man in the hardware store said, ah, olivier, voilà, celui-ci, and gave me one like the one in the window I had picked because it didn't have any tourist-memento slogans on it. I looked at it doubtfully and said this blade is inox, stainless steel, and he lied and said nobody makes a carbon-steel blade any more, except for a few cheap Opinels for cutting melons and boiled eggs at a picnic. All the knives are made for software engineers from the continent who don't know any better. He said this was a special stainless that is soft and easy to sharpen. I was pleased that he understood I wanted rusty carbon steel that I could sharpen myself, like a real Corsican or maybe someone in Arkansas in 1932, so I bought it anyway.

There was a ferry strike the day after I arrived in Bastia, and the ferries stayed in port all day and the restaurants were mostly empty. I had just made it. The French and perhaps Italian seamen were upset because one of the companies was bringing in a Greek ship for the summer trade. The guys in cafés and hardware stores were all apparently talking politics, quite excited, but I couldn't follow the patois and couldn't tell whether it was about the strike or real local politics or just who they were going to stab and drop into the harbor attached to a large rock.

People in Bastia were mostly courteous and respectful. One grizzledy old pirate in his grocery store was nasty at me, and insisted on putting the goods in his own plastic bag even though I told him I had my own plastic tote from the Super-Econo in Nice and didn't need bagging services. I had thought that bringing my own bag would set me up as a worthy shopper, because some of these larger places charge you three sous for a bag, but he seemed to feel that I was out of line, and I ought to follow his own customs in his own goddamn store. It's soothing to be worthy of a Corsican shop-keeper's contempt, and not just some old doofus shuffling around trying to score orange juice.

The town of Bastia, it was the hardest place to get to the beach of any coastal town I've ever been in. You had to take a city bus to the end of the line where it turns back on itself and there's no way of knowing, and then walk to a secret tunnel under the railroad tracks, the meter-gauge Corsican Rail that used to be famous because it was like a railway in Ecuador but now it's like a fast streetcar over the mountains.

So you find your way under the National Autoroute to the train tracks, nothing but fenced unkempt farmland all around, and cross the tracks and walk about a quarter mile back toward the city on gravel with no apparent trail, or on the steel railroad ties, and come to a set of crumbling cement steps, and walk down to a dirt road with a bunch of closed resorts with three or four hard guys standing around by the gates giving you the stink-eye. Wander around and you find a tiny parking area and there's a pretty good sand beach and the Mediterranean. I brushed up on my Corsican good talking to random citizens while trying to find the beach, and only got good directions finally from a bunch of high-school boys ditching school. Absolutely no services in April, nothing to eat or drink because the water is still nippy and there are no tourists, just a few locals getting an early tan.

That Corsica meter-gauge train runs fast and smooth like one of the new streetcars through sclerophyll-scrub foothills up through mountains covered with snow in April, maybe three or four hours from Bastia and down into Ajaccio, which lies on an alluvial fan with gradations of what might be called farmland on it. Parts of California look just like most of Corsica, less a few thousand years of rock-wall building and isolated stone shacks and a few picturesque villages. All of Corsica looks like primo wild pig habitat, most of it way too steep for anyone but a dedicated hunter or swineherd, so it's not covered with summer homes. This maybe explain why they can afford to eat wild-hog shoulder meat instead of trying to make offal palatable as they do on the continent.

That afternoon I was wandering around Ajaccio, locating the beach, and saw a kind of Stalinist Art Deco beach-front building and it was the municipal casino. WTF? I went in, although it looked sort of exclusive, like the casinos in Monte Carlo where you have to pay and wear a dinner jacket, or maybe promise to have a dollar slot-machine rolled into your room like that Republican who used to write the books about virtue, what's his name? Sort of a heavy-set proto-teabagger type, I think he was Education Czar or Drug Czar in some Bush administration? 

I asked if I had to pay, but the man at the desk said no, I just needed to show ID, and I happened to have my passport. So they let me in. None of the card games were running yet. The only people there were a few old ladies putting money in slot machines and some big mean-looking guys in dirty tuxedos, like the old-time waiters at the House of Prime Rib on VanNess Street in San Francisco, where my in-laws used to go when Chinatown was closed.

I felt more at-home and comfortable than in any other casino I've visited, so I bought chips with a couple of 2-euro coins. They were 50-centime chips and I fed all eight of them in and got nothing back, just spinning dials like every other slot machine I ever dealt with.

Who the hell was that guy? William Bennet. A kind of hefty soft-jawed guy who was Secretary of Education and later drug czar under George H.W. Bush. Wrote something called A Book of Virtues, uplifting stories instructing the youth of America. Turned out he was a gambler, but not a real gambler, just a guy who had high-stakes slot machines wheeled into his suite in Vegas, poured a million dollars into them. You hear of him in stories about who is appearing on Fox News every now and then, like that guy who was a famous flack for Jesus and turned out to be cheating Indian tribes, Jack Abramoff.

I can't figure what those guys saw in slot machines, or why the city of Ajaccio should be running slots now. Maybe Ajaccio allows only continentals and other foreigners to go inside, and if I had a local address I couldn't get in. That must be why I had to show the ID. My grandfather had slot machines in his faro parlor in Redding way back in the day, and he said each machine had a dial inside that you could turn to adjust how much it paid out, and you turned it according to the quality of rubes you saw coming in the front door. You have to admire a municipality that runs an operation like that, or at least you could pause in awe for a moment.

(Andrew Hamilton is The PJ's travel editor. A picture of him is located in the right gutter).