Tag Archives: Corsica

The World Laughs With Travel Writers

laughing monksBy PAT HARTMAN
News Editor

In the Davidsonian, Katie Lovett gives an account of a recent lecture delivered by travel writer Doug Lansky. (This Lansky character, by the way, turned down the offer of a steady gig from The New Yorker, so you gotta know he has a sense of humor.) Lovett says of Lansky:

His big break as a travel writer came with the syndication of his humor-adventure column “Vagabond”… “Vagabond” chronicled the seemingly fearless Lansky’s global exploits which included braving hotels in third world countries, mastering white water kayaking in Chile and pony trekking in South Africa.

He also goes to tamer places, like the world’s biggest indoor beach, which happens to be located in Japan, within walking distance of a real beach. He also rode an Australian ostrich and tried a little sumo wrestling, if such an expression can be used of a sport so imbued with largeness.

As we’ve seen over and over again in literature, travel and humor seem to go together like popcorn and butter. Mark Twain was hip to their compatibility, as are several contemporary writers including F. Daniel Harbecke, who offers a fascinating look at the similarities between travel and improvisational theater at Brave New Traveler.

Many seasoned travelers warn against canned humor. Most jokes just don’t translate. What does translate is a nifty attitude of openness, and willingness to be the butt of other people’s jokes. So, did you see “Zang-e-Khatar” the other night? This is almost impossible to believe, but Afghanistan is now the source of TV shows that satirize the country’s own government and government wanna-bes. Of course, some of the TV stations are owned by medieval warlords – but if you’re the Kabul version of Larry the Cable Guy, you’ve got to work with what’s available, and Afghan humorists seem to be doing just that. This report from Christian Science Monitor correspondent Issam Ahmed is a real ray of sunshine. And while we’re recommending links, here’s a funny story.

But the best stories (no, we’re not the least bit biased) come from Kevin Dolgin in The Third Tower Up From the Road. Well, the darn book had better be good for something, being as how the author promises that it contains “pretty much no practical advice.” In fact, Kevin can be downright unhelpful, as the following paragraph will illustrate:

Midnight swims are nice anywhere, but nowhere more so than in Corsica. There are no big beaches on the island, only a succession of little coves, more or less difficult to access, most of which you really have to know about in order to reach. I know of several, and, of course, there’s no way I’m going to tell you how to get to them.

Thanks a lot, Dude! But we forgive him, because he does provide plenty of tips you’ll get nowhere else, like a bar bet you might be unfamiliar with — you’ve got to finance that trip somehow, right? And the directions to an interesting locale that “could serve as a kind of polar opposite to a Zen rock garden-a place to come and screw up your head.” Irresistible, no? Within these pages are sightings of unorthodox taxidermy, the secret recipe for giant bubble liquid, and much, much more.

But it’s not all fun and games, oh no. Do you appreciate integrity? Kevin’s got it. For instance, only if he has personally test-ridden a merry-go-round will he report back to us that it’s a great merry-go-round. You can’t ask for fairer than that! On the other hand, he does tend to be the teensiest bit of a complainer once in a while:

French mountain dwellers have an inconvenient habit of roofing their buildings with corrugated metal, for the unconvincing reason that the snow slides off it nicely. How dare they ruin my aesthetic experience for the sake of mundane practicality!

But then, we’re talking about a guy who gets his kicks from accosting total strangers in foreign climes and saying silly things about hedgehogs. So, consider the source.

photo courtesy of Swami Stream , used under this Creative Commons license

Corsica, France: Wild, Splendid and Retro

News Editor

Sure, a lot of the places mentioned in Kevin Dolgin’s book haven’t been covered yet in these pages. On the other hand, Corsica is his real-life Utopia, so why not have another go at the magical island? Especially with the words of George Semler to inspire us. In the pointedly titled “Wild France,” a piece found at Saveur, he praises all that makes Corsica less civilized but more civil than the places people escape to it from. On a good day, from the right spot, you can maybe see the mainland, and that’s how the Corsicans like it. Semler is a professional appreciator of food, who says:

The Corsican specialties that I had been dreaming of since my last visit…get their unmistakable character from the maquis. The scrub also provides ideal grazing for game as well as for free-range pigs, cows, sheep, and goats-all of which forage at their leisure, resulting in especially aromatic and flavorful meats and milks.

According to Semler’s bio, he arrived in Madrid in 1970 from Vietnam, where he’d been an officer in the Marines. He’s published two books about Spain and written about a remarkable variety of subjects. Here, he talks a lot about the maquis, the mixed thatch of fragrant shrubs and herbs that covers much of the land — potpourri on the hoof, some would say — and permeates the fantasies of natives and visitors alike. The vegetation is so fierce thanks to mountain peaks that scrape the rain right out of the clouds.

He visits the wonderfully named Fromagerie Casanova, an establishment where cheese, and we would never have guessed this, is made by shepherds. And reveals more than some might wish to know about a cheese called casgiu merzu. He gives the historical reasons why the Corsicans, strangely for an island people, are not very much into fish. But “chestnuts are another story,” and he details the process for making pulenda, which sounds strenuous. And don’t get him started on Corsican wines. Or rather, do. This stuff is fascinating.

“Corsica is the third wine-producing island in the Mediterranean,” we are told by Marcel Michelson, who has been with Reuters since 1986 and is now Chief Correspondent. Which is why there could be trouble ahead for the island’s vintners, a dire possibility which is explained here in great detail. In The Telegraph, veteran travel writer Sasha Bates follows the Strada degli Artigiani, Artisans’ Route, which sounds like the most fabulous open studio tour of all time. There’s also, inevitably, a wine route.

corsica-erbalungaThere are aspects upon which we have not yet touched. For instance, did you know that Corsica is the home of many nudist colonies, such as Chiappa? Everybody knows Napoleon was born in Ajaccio, but few realize that the mythical character Ulysses lost many of his ships to malicious destruction, and his crew to cannibals, at Bonifacio. Did you know that in 1941, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., made a movie called The Corsican Brothers? Or that there’s a 6,000-year-old castle at Arraghju?

It’s a place where circuses are very popular, and drivers still pick up hitchhikers, and the people are buried in mausoleums. “Corsican cemeteries, therefore, look like little cities,” we learn in The Third Tower Up From the Road, where Kevin also tells a story about spending the night out in the maquis. It’s illegal to sleep in the forest, where the wild boars roam. Why? Some people find out the hard way. Kevin says:

The pigs won’t hurt you, but it can be a traumatic experience to be awakened at 3:00 am by a hairy snout snuffling around your head trying to find the source of that Camembert odor that unfortunately is still on your breath.

By the way, Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote the something called the Constitutional Project for Corsica, and we would be very grateful to anyone willing to give a paragraph or two on the meaning and implications of that. Please.

ship photo courtesy of gripso_banana_prune , used under this Creative Commons license,
tower photo courtesy of aslakr , used under this Creative Commons license

The Most Beautiful Place on the Planet

News Editor

“Lost Among the Gods: A family tempts fate on an ancient footpath near Delphi” – what an intriguing title. This story comes from Marcus Gee, via The Globe and Mail. Gee, who has been with his paper since 1991, has written extensively on foreign affairs and Asian business, and also contributes columns and articles such as this one about a Grecian holiday, which says:

It is quite simply the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. The site of the Delphic sanctuary clings to the southern flanks of Parnassus. Limestone cliffs rise above it, glowing gold when the sun goes down. Below, a deep valley filled with olive trees sweeps down to the Gulf of Corinth, sparkling in the sun.

The mom and dad and three kids set out on a lovely hike, and amuse themselves by speculating on which actors should play which roles, if they were making a movie of a Greek myth. Well, we don’t want to give away the whole store, but there does come a time when the mom and dad are wondering if it would be a good idea to email somebody in North America to call the Delphi police.

The most beautiful place, according to Matthew Zaleski, a 19-year-old who has made a feature film, is in Australia, “that portion of the country located on the Gold Coast about 500 miles north of Sydney…” This article, by Cindy Leise, is really about how Zaleski got his movie project underway and accomplished. At a blog called The Line Stepper, Chris Sisson visits Boracay in the Philippines and says it is “the most beautiful place we have been to so far,” followed by an extensive description of exactly why. Mary McKinney names Grand Teton National Park – to the point where all four of her daughters married there. But really, the most beautiful place is SavuSavu in the Fiji Islands, in the eyes of Jacqui at Blooming in Japan.

Easel painter Jim Tait Lerwick, a.k.a. The Artistic Curmudgeon, believes that a place called Brugarth, which doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry, but is in the Shetland Islands, is the one. At GlobeStompers, Jared, formerly a fashion sales executive, now travels without a deadline and thinks perhaps the Amalfi Coast, a part of Southwest Italy, could qualify for the title. And Mrs. B., at Confessions of a Pagan Soccer Mom, goes for St. Thomas, in the Virgin Islands.

Michael Forbes believes the most beautiful place on earth is his property near in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, located in the middle of where Donald Trump wants to build a golf course. This is a real interesting story.

Need we reiterate the opinion of Kevin Dolgin? Yes, we need. And he’s a bit sly about it, stating first only that Corsica is “the most beautiful island in the Mediterranean.” While he admits that “there may be other places that rival Corsica in terms of natural beauty,” we suspect he perhaps doubts it. And sure enough, a little while later, he comes out with the truth: “Corsica is, indeed, the most beautiful place in the world.”

Or not. There is certainly room for other opinions, right here at our handy Comment facility.

Delphi photo courtesy of Mendhak, used under this Creative Commons license

Corsica: Small Island, Many Facets

News Editor

In The Washington Post, Tracy Dahl reports on the Walla Walla Sweet Onion Festival, and if you’re wondering, “What is the possible relevance to Corsica?,” just wait till you hear this. The story of the sweet onion began, Dahl says:

[…] in the late 1800s, when a French soldier found a sweet onion seed on the island of Corsica and brought it to Walla Walla. The Italian immigrant farmers there were impressed with the onion’s winter hardiness, and they began to cultivate it. Years of selecting each crop’s sweetest and largest specimens for seed harvesting made “Walla Walla” synonymous with huge, sweet onions in much of the Pacific Northwest.

Science pop quiz: If they all sprouted from a single seed, where did the genetic diversity come from that allowed sweeter onions and larger onions as time went on? Sounds like a rural legend. Maybe the soldier found, like, a handful of seeds.

Another product of Corsica was, of course, Napoleon. In The Seattle Times, Associated Press writer Ron Todt gives us an overview of the hundreds of Napoleon-related items on exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia through early September. As Todt points out, this is the man who sold the United States 28,000 square miles of land for a nickel an acre.

All the artifacts are from the collection of Pierre-Jean Chalençon, who was interviewed for The Wall Street Journal by Julia M. Klein. Chalençon, who is a scholar as well as a collector, calls Napoleon a visionary because he liberalized the treatment of the Jews in the territories he conquered and tolerated gays in the military. The patron/curator also says, “Of course, he sometimes made some mistakes — nobody’s perfect.”

At Drapers Online, Sushma Sagar tells us about a “boutique festival” in the Corsican town of Calvi (pictured), a four-day music event with a lot of bikini beach action, the whole scene being “reminiscent of Ibiza ten years ago.” She mentions the non-commercial, sparsely-sponsored ambiance of the festival but, with a nod and a wink, suggests that “any brands wanting a fast track to the hippest kids in France might want to take a look.” A self-described brand courtesan, Sagar says of the brands in her past that she “was always faithful and genuinely loved each one at the time.”

And does Kevin Dolgin write about Corsica? Why yes, quite frequently in fact — at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, where he contributes one column per year in praise of that loveliest of islands, in amongst all the other places he writes about. And of course there’s plenty of Corsica in The Third Tower Up From the Road, where he says, “While on a map Corsica looks very small, there are whole worlds packed into that island.” Truer words were never spoken. Kevin is partial to a certain town with 29 buildings, and does not fear “roads that are more like glorified, semi-paved mule tracks.”

It’s worth noting here that another travel writer of renown, Paul Theroux, has said, “There are no bad drivers in Corsica. All the bad drivers die very quickly.”

And, as long as we’re doing quotations, Kevin Dolgin quotes his native Corsican father-in-law: “When a Corsican tells you that he’ll kill you if you do something, it’s usually best to believe him.” And maybe there’s some validity in that old saying, “An armed society is a polite society.” The Corsican people are also characterized by visitors as among the most sincerely welcoming hosts on earth. Go figure.

One writer theorized that there are four Corsicas, but that seems to be an underestimation by far. Please report in on your favorite facet of Corsica; we’d really like to hear about it!

photo courtesy of urbandigger.com, used under this Creative Commons license

David Foster Wallace, Travel Writer


News Editor

As multimedia books journalist for The Guardian, Alison Flood writes profusely on all things book-related. In “David Foster Wallace biography snapped up by Viking”, she tells us about, well, the biography of DFW that will be published by — you guessed it — Viking. One reason Flood is good: she knows when to stop being a writer, and quote somebody else. Here, she quotes DT Max, who signed up to write the book:

You have a guy who came to play a larger role in culture than maybe what his sales would indicate…. Most writers’ intellectual lives are very contained, but that’s not true of David. If he went to the laundromat, it posed an interesting moral question, and that’s what I want to capture.

Marco Ursi, editor of MastheadOnline, calls DFW “ridiculously gifted” and reflects on his words about dishonesty in the media, specifically the blending of essay-type prose with promotion. Hmmm.

Just as Eric Johnson is a guitar hero, David Foster Wallace is a narrative non-fiction hero. His take on the porn industry is brilliant. And on the illness of political systems, and the inimical nature of “political correctness,” oh, any number of things. And then there’s Infinite Jest, the mega-novel that has inspired a whole lot of people to join a virtual book club in order to accompany one another in reading this summer.

Was DFW a travel writer? Absolutely. There’s the Caribbean cruise, and the Illinois State Fair, for instance. His method was to research intensely, listen to people on the scene, and maintain plenty of both subjectivity and attitude. In “Consider the Lobster,” he traveled to the Atlantic coast to cover the Maine Lobster Festival. Did you know that lobster used to be considered lower-class food, like chitlins or hog maw, that people only ate if they had no choice? Did you know that Maine used to have a law saying lobster couldn’t be fed to institutionalized people more than once a week, because that would be cruel and unusual? We didn’t either.

Picture this. Gourmet magazine hires a guy to write a piece on the famous lobster fest. He hands in a rant about the erroneous claim that lobsters don’t feel pain, and about the eating of animals in general. They publish it anyway. Could anyone but David Foster Wallace get away with this?

Strangely enough, Kevin Dolgin also wrote about lobsters. There’s an essay called “Odysseus and Grilled Lobster: Bonifacio, Corsica, France” in The Third Tower Up From the Road.

These two guys remind me of each other in some elemental way, and there’s more to it than both writing about lobsters. Reading one of their travel pieces is like going to the event with your best friend, with a controlled substance involved. As David Foster Wallace put it, there’s “a kind of persona or narrative voice that will have qualities that the reader will like and find engaging.” This type of writer processes the thing through the filter of his or her brain, and what comes out, when partaken of by the reader, is even better than being there yourself. You get all the best parts of the experience, without the expense of buying a plane ticket. You gotta love it.

photo courtesy of Wolf Gang , used under this Creative Commons license

Beer and Cider, France Has Both


News Editor

Today’s visiting expert is Caroline Morton, who is in charge of the UK branch of the Food and Drink Department of France. In a piece called “French Trade Commission to showcase Beer and Cider from across the Channel,” Morton tells us that on July 2, 2009, her department will host a beer and cider tasting event in London. Convivial gatherings of this type often foster international understanding and accord, as well as the opportunity to set out some proud facts, such as the ones Morton cites here:

In 2007, France produced 15.1 million hectolitres of beer, of which 1.8 million were exported. Beer is produced in many regions of France, from Corsica to the Alps. French cider, on the other hand, is mainly produced in the west and north-west of France. In 2007, France exported 266,726 hectolitres of cider, of which 67,733 were sold in the United Kingdom.

How’s that for cooperation between two nations so long and so frequently at war over the centuries?

One of the trade show exhibitors, Brasserie du Mont Blanc, makes beer from Mont Blanc glacier meltwater. Another beer exhibitor is Brasserie Pietra, which creates a specialty beer tinctured with fragrant herbs from the wild vegetation called maquis that covers the Corsican highlands. Another of this brewer’s specialties is one understandably called Pietra, which is made with chestnuts along with malts and hops, but no chemicals. The chestnuts come from Corsica’s Castagniccia Forest, a beautiful place in an island full of beautiful places.

In the Columbia Basin Herald (Washington State, USA), staff writer Matthew Weaver tells us about an entrepreneur who makes dried and roasted chestnut chips available to home brewers through the mail. It’s not only that chestnut beer is considered delicious by its many fans. There’s a great social benefit in action here. In the United States today, one out of every 133 people is gluten-intolerant, and that is a real miserable condition to have. Chestnut beer can be enjoyed by the gluten-intolerant, and for that discovery, we have Corsica to thank.

By strange coincidence, Corsica is a place for which Kevin nourishes a very great fondness, as demonstrated by that region’s near-ubiquity in the pages of The Third Tower Up from the Road. He tells us of a town near his home in France, where a shop called l’Epicerie de Longeuil is “the store Ali Baba would have founded if he had been a grocer.” It’s an old family business and, although the French as a rule abhor root beer, this store carries it. He also reveals in the book that he doesn’t particularly like Corsican chestnut beer.

France makes a lot of good cider, too.

Sagres photo courtesy of *madalena-pestana* – half of me , used under this Creative Commons license

Glass photo courtesy of russelljsmith , used under this Creative Commons license

In Search of Madame Bovary: Normandy, France


News Editor

Wanderingeducators.com is just what it sounds like, a cyberplace for peripatetic pedagogues. Okay, enough of that. The thing is, Wandering Educators founder Jessie Voights has posted an interesting article there: “Book Review: A Journey into Flaubert’s Normandy.” And what a journey it is.

The book that Voights tells us about is a visually opulent and sublimely literate travel guide focusing on Gustave Flaubert, author of Madame Bovary. In photos both contemporary and archival, it covers Rouen (pictured here), where the great French novelist was born, and nearby Croisset, where he lived for many years. The book’s author is Susannah Patton, a longtime student of French literature and political science, foreign correspondent for Time Magazine, and writer on business topics for CIO Magazine. Francophile Patton is also a part-time resident of Normandy, the district inhabited by the spirit of Flaubert.

There’s a great interview with Patton in the article, but I’m not going to spoil it for you. Except for this one part where Patton says of Flaubert:

On the one hand he closed himself off from the world to write, yet his close friendships with fellow writers sustained him at times also. His life story is full of unexpected intrigue, passion and pathos.

There’s a reason why clichés become clichés. Because they happen over and over again. The frustrated wife. The unsatisfactory husband. The attractive stranger. As Werner Erhard pointed out, everybody’s life is a soap opera. And there’s a reason why the classics are the classics. Because they’re freakin’ great, that’s why. And Madame Bovary is definitely one of them.

Did you ever notice that the name even works as an English pun, of which Flaubert himself may or may not have been conscious? Bovary. Bovine. Ovary. But isn’t that exactly what Emma, the story’s protagonist, was trying to escape? The dreary fate of a cow-like, fleshly incubator of babies?

Flaubert, incidentally, was an ambitious traveler. He liked to hike around in Corsica, and went on a long journey to Greece and the Middle East. One of his hobbies was the collecting of examples for a proposed Dictionary or Encyclopedia of Human Stupidity. He was a connoisseur of cognitive dissonance, the ability of the human mind to hold two opposite ideas at the same time.

Anyway, I read Madame Bovary not long ago, and it blew me away. In the novel, we find one of the all-time primo quotations. Here it is, from Gustave Flaubert:

Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars.

photo courtesy of Rob Lee, used under this Creative Commons license