Corsica's Cap Corse: Travels With Uncle Berny

Standing in the chilly Puno, Peru train station twenty-three years ago, no two people could have been more dissimilar. Bernard was a swarthy, French communist who didn’t speak English and hated Americans and I was a blond-haired, blue-eyed American capitalist who spoke no French, nor had ever been to France. We both were up before sunrise to buy tickets for the Puno to Arequipa train, a line that no longer runs. Peru in the 1980’s was more dangerous than it is now; local Peruvians advised us to band together for safety while on the train. In Spanish, Bernard said to me, “We can watch each other’s backpacks but we don’t have to talk.”

Despite the inauspicious start, we got along surprisingly well that day and traveled together for another two weeks in Peru before he had to head back home. Since then, Bernard and I have become very good friends. He has taken me on an eight week car trip in France; staying primarily with his communist friends scattered all over the country. I have shown him northern California, taking him to see San Francisco, the Redwood Country, Mendocino and we’ve climbed up the cables to the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome. He met my mother and I when we went to Paris in 2006 and our families spent a lot of time together when we did our Provence house exchange in 2002.

My son and I met Bernard – I call him “Berny” – for a week in Corsica and the first place we went was Cap Corse, the long narrow finger at the northeast corner of the island. I call him Berny and my son calls him Uncle Berny, perhaps as a way to de-Frenchify him, to tease him and make him seem more like a typical suburbanite in the U.S. The teasing goes both ways. He collects interesting knives from around the world and hangs them on the wall of his house in Marseilles. After he finally visited the U.S. he proudly showed me the new knife in his collection: a white plastic McDonald’s knife with its plastic wrapping intact.

The three of us went to see Bernard’s cousin and have a little genealogy lesson. We headed north towards the tip of Cap Corse, driving alongside Genoan watchtowers lining the Tyrrhenian Sea and past French-and-Corsican road signs with the French names spray-painted over. (There is a small independence movement in French Corsica; about 20% favor being independent) We arrived for lunch and Bernard’s cousin Phillipe and his wife Andre greeted us. While Andre prepared lunch, Phillipe gave us a tour of the convent. The convent was large, (perhaps 50,000 square feet), cavernous and cold. Uncle Berny can trace his family back to 1500 in Corsica and the family has been living in this renovated wing of the run-down convent in Rogliano for the past 200 years. The convent was taken by the state during the French Revolution and one of Uncle Berny’s family members had the foresight to buy it from the new government.

Uncle Berny and I communicate using a mélange of French, Spanish and English. When he suggested a year ago that we meet in Corisca, he wrote (in English) “It is very beautiful and the thumbs of my family are in the garden.” Thumbs? Was Uncle Berny a member of the Corsican mafia? A little clarification revealed that he meant “tombs.” We visited those tombs before lunch. They were in a modest plot overlooking the sea with long green grass starting to overtake the space. My son and I watched Berny lay down some flowers on the main tomb and we both wondered what it was like to have such a connection to a place.

Lunch was simple and typically Corsican. We started with warm figatellu sausage in a baguette. The intense flavor, seasoned by herbs from the local maquis that covers the island, was delicious even though it had a barnyard-like smell. Pasta with mushrooms from the local forest along with salad was eaten and washed down with a local Corsican rose. For the cheese course they brought out brocciu, the local specialty. The smell, just as intense and barnyard-like as the figatellu, was mitigated by the sweet fig jam that we spread on the cheese. It was a great meal and a great first day in Corsica.

My son and I envied Uncle Berny’s heritage and his connection to the past. Beyond the grandparents on both sides of my family, I know very little about my extended family. Perhaps this is why he has the ‘Uncle Berny” moniker; so that we can share a little of his connection to the past.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing story of humman connections and relationship. It is heart warming that people can relate and be friends despite political and culural differences. Would it not be a much better world if we could all do that: respect and treat each other well, with all our differences and diversity!

    Deep down we all want friendship and community. That is what really makes us happy. Unfortunately we seem to think that power and money does that.

    Thank you for sharing this.