Corsican Ordeal (I)

This happened

A rocky beach topped by the ruins of a fort, with a ferry in the background

The old port of L'Île-Rousse, Corsica. Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT CC BY-SA 3.0 (Mods)

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June 16th at 7:32pm

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Zero Shoulder Bumps

We formed a loose circle in the middle of the bar.

This is Part 1. Part 2 is here.

No one jostled us as they laughed with their friends or called out to the waitress. We drank in silence, unmolested.

"Hey, you're American," one guy finally said. "You'll like this." He reached into his pocket and pulled out something wrapped in cloth.

I suppressed the urge to widen my eyes or swear. "Well, look at that," I said. "You've brought your gun."

A strike. In France. Huh.

The day before, I had been in Marseille, in a phone booth - it was 1992 - talking to an employee of a regional ferry line. She informed me that the transport union was on strike and no ships were leaving any ports from here to Nice. Crestfallen that my younger brother and his friends might not see Corsica on this trip, a high school graduation present from their parents, I hung up and called my travel agent.

Somehow I managed to buy the last seven tickets on a plane to Ajaccio, a city on the opposite end of the island - but at least it was on the island. We rushed to the airport, ran like fools to the gate, and scrambled to our seven middle seats distributed throughout the plane.

Two young men leaning against a wall in front of a huge chateau

My brother Craig and I at Chambord, in the Loire Valley, a few days before this story took place. Jul 1992

As they closed the doors to the aircraft, which was silent as only a sold-out flight in Europe can be, someone called my name. I poked up my head like a gopher and looked behind me.

A man who looked like Tony Soprano screamed at two kids wearing spiked gloves, buzzing past on mopeds.

"How are we getting to L'Ile-Rousse?" one of my brother's friends asked. He held up a schedule. "The last train just left Ajaccio."

Our fellow passengers were all staring at us.

I crossed my fingers. "Rent a car…?"

An hour later, I stood at the counter of the Ajaccio Airport Hertz - the only agency still open - and gladly signed for the last car in inventory: a Renault Super Cinq.

An unimpressive white hatchback

A Renault "Super Cinq." Photo by Sven Storbeck GPL (Mods)

Missing: Floppy Shoes

The car was built for four people, maybe five - not seven with fourteen pieces of luggage. I drove. One guy sat on another's lap up front, and two more sat in the backseat, with a person and luggage in their laps. I couldn't see out the rearview mirror, the trunk would only shut after repeated slamming, and the air conditioning didn't work.

The car quickly smelled like beer sweat and armpits. Saint Peter tallied multiple violations of the Third Commandment. From the backseat it was moved and seconded that the punishment for surreptitious groping would be severe.

Somehow I managed to buy the last seven tickets on a plane to Ajaccio.

We encountered almost no traffic as we meandered along the hilly coast. We drove slowly through many hairpin turns. At one point, thanks to a herd of goats stretched across the road, everyone got out of the car and walked for forty-five minutes while I coasted behind them.

We accompanied a spectacular sunset over the Mediterranean. We noticed the shape of Corsica - a vertical line with a triangle protruding to the left - painted on rocks along the highway. We stopped in the village of Cargèse and watched some of the Euro 92 soccer tournament. In the dark of night, we relieved ourselves on the side of a state highway - a gravel, one-lane road with no lights and no guardrail - and all jumped in surprise when a cow walked by.

We finally checked into the hotel at 11pm. The car's brakes were shot. Everyone wanted to move and stretch, but I went to bed. I think we dodged a bullet, I told myself as I dozed off.

We Did Not Dodge a Bullet

A few hours later, I jolted awake. My brother and his best friend were growling, smacking each other in the face, and flexing in the mirror. Another guy from our group walked in after them. His left eye was swollen shut.

Just then, all hell broke loose in the hotel lobby.

Apparently, my boys had eaten a late meal and then went to a nearby park - composed of a few concrete picnic tables - to relax before returning to the hotel. The area happened to be the hangout of teenagers who didn't like tourists and wanted to control a few square meters of their hometown, so they confronted my group. Voices were raised. Insults were traded in French, Corsican, and English. Punches were thrown.

Just then, all hell broke loose in the hotel lobby. We ran downstairs to see the rest of my group on one side of a large plate-glass window, with shirts off and middle fingers extended.

 Corsican Ordeal (II) Planning Itineraries 

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