Chasing Matisse: The Book
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August 9, 2003
When does one become an ugly American? This was the question we asked ourselves as we stood on our large top-floor terrace in Ajaccio, which sounds rather cheerful but in reality was a tad dingy with plastic chairs and was eye level with a seedy apartment across the rue. We could see it too clearly-bare light-bulbs hanging from the ceiling, a couple of old dinette chairs on which men wearing wife-beaters sat staring into space or maybe at a TV. The sun was burning hot, and another man smoking a cigarette was leaning out the window over the railing that was rigged to keep it hanging up-barely, or so it looked, as if it might give way and we would be witness to this poor man's plunging death. He stared down at the street and life below. What did he wish for? Where did he want to go?
The hotel was shabby from the front, and I don't mean chic a la Rachel Ashwell. It was worrisome. And the lobby was full of people that I didn't want to meet in the hall. Our room was big, which was nice, but housed an animal-skin chair that appeared to be a club chair from the Middle Ages and could possibly shelter a colony of god-knows-what waiting for fresh blood like ours-juicy spoiled Americans.
I wasn't happy with the whole set-up, but it was the terrace that did Jim in. He wouldn't be able to go out there, he said. He certainly couldn't paint. What were we to do? We were learning to see, but this was nothing Jim wanted to record with his brush. Matisse's oeuvre wasn't downtrodden man, and how lame for us to be in this unfortunate man's face with Jim merrily painting or us having festive cocktails. It made us feel like ugly Americans. Our question was which was worse, which really made us ugly Americans: To not stay at this hotel because of the scene we were confronted with (and our discomfort with this personified poverty), or to stay and let the Corsicans be confronted with us. (We did not want them to stare at us or vice versa. Did we feel guilty about their poverty? If so, why? Would other Corsican or French people feel bad about this view, the man's room? It's real life, after all.) Conflict couldn't be avoided if we chose to stay, and social conflict wasn't on our wish list.
The people who ran the hotel had been nice, and we hated to bail, but we finally decided we couldn't do what we needed to do in this place. We couldn't discover the spirit of creativity that we were on the trail of. Anyway, isn't the momentous notion of being on an island to be looking out to sea, to know that you are separated from the rest of the world by one of the great forces of our planet, to feel this extraordinary power. We'd said this over and over again on Belle Ile. We unloaded only what we had to have in our room. Frankly, we'd only booked this hotel because we couldn't find a reservation elsewhere-meaning by the water. It was a holiday weekend. If you ever plan to go to Corsica (especially Ajaccio, where we were) over a French holiday, book months and months in advance. It's a wildly popular destination.
On the way to park the car, I spotted a sign for the Route des Sanguinaires, which was the location of all the hotels we'd wanted. Let's go, I said, and Jim agreed. Yes! Yes! Hotels on the seaside or Mediterranean views were dotted along the road. We stopped at several, and they all had availability for the following night, when people would be leaving to go home. When we got to the Calle de Sole, it was perfect-on the beach with a fabulous pool, simple yet modern with a cool 60's feel. They had availability, and we reserved a room, which improved our evening immensely. Like jailbirds waiting for a reprieve, we knew we would be sprung the next day.
Why Corsica on the chase for Matisse? He and Madame Matisse spent their honeymoon in Ajaccio. It lasted several months, and the great man was taken with the light and the color. Once the artist found this extraordinary combination of sensory exploration, he knew he was home. He had found himself, his style and expression, the place and way he wanted to live his life.
I can definitely see it. Corsica is amazing. We were there five days, and I wish it had been two weeks. I could spend a summer or fall. It's a sauvage combination of the cool blue of the sea and beach, rocky granite mountains or forests of green, and the intense sweet herbal scent of the native maquis. I should've known this word before. The French Resistance in World War II was referred to as maquis or maquisards, because they traveled in secluded places and hid in the underbrush. But Corsica is where it dropped into my lexicon, and the maquis is a defining characteristic of the island. The maquis is thorny scrubland that the island is made of. It's the scent of the island. Napolean Bonaparte was a native, born in Ajaccio. He is often quoted as saying, "I would recognize my island with my eyes closed, by nothing more than the smell of the maquis carried on waves." I'll say.
The fragrance carries you away everywhere you go. It blows into the Mediterranean and washes up to shore. It's sweet and savory, wild and passionate. It's in the air you breathe and the food you eat. If you're in the lowlands, the maquis is composed of briar, arbutus, mastic and yellow broom, wild garlic, potent thyme, rosemary, and marjoram, and a variety of wildflowers including orchids. Higher up, it becomes taller and thicker with trees and high shrub-land. Wild boars are at home here (supposed to be on menus, but we looked and looked and never found it anywhere). If I could use only four words to describe Corsica, I'd say mountains, sea, maquis, and passionate. Throw in sauvage, and you have a wildly romantic (and not untrue) vision of the island.
The next morning we repacked the car and walked back to the lovely square accented by palm and plane trees to have a coffee. A man was sitting on the corner playing the accordion, a wonderful sound that added to the pleasure of a languid Sunday morning. A pleasant-looking older woman sat nearby waiting for her friends, and when they appeared, she exclaimed, "La musica!" and began singing along with the accordionist. Her friends joined her in verse, and it was another of those moments you can't arrange, that drops as a gift from the heavens. I was transported by the music and their joyful voices.
The market is held every day, and we ambled over to check it out. What a scene, and just exactly how many dead pigs were in all of this charcuterie? We had to buy some. Corsican charcuterie, which tastes of the maquis, is famous for its distinctive flavor. We also purchased some cheese, bread, and wine as well as our breakfast-a brocciu cheese beignet and a canistrelli (anise-flavored) cookie. Ummm.
Afterwards, we drove to our new hotel, moved into our room that matched the colors of the sunset, and sunbathed on our balcony before heading to the pool. This was the view we wanted to soak up, the sounds of the sea we wanted to hear. After swimming 14 laps in the salt-water piscine, I showered. We drank some of the strong red wine and tasted some of the priscuttu and lonzu (pork loin) we'd bought before driving down the road to the Texas Café for dinner. We couldn't resist it. With a menu of cheeseburgers, burritos, spareribs, and the like, it was hard to decide what to eat. I ordered a margarita which was the tiniest one I've ever seen. French size equals Mini-Margarita. It was tasty, but people in the U.S. would have a laugh attack upon having it placed in front of them. The owner was a French musician who'd married a Corsican, and they'd made a great success of this place. Chris Isaac was playing his Baja Sessions on the sound system. It looked like it could be a down-home, bluesy bar anywhere in the American South. This all hit the spot.
I found myself thinking of my brother Brent during dinner. It would have been his 47th birthday, and he would've loved the meal. He loved to eat, and he loved to travel. He went around the world, including spending a year in France, during his student years at Yale. In all his 34 years on this earth, though, I don't think he ever made it to Corsica. I knew he would have adored the maquis, as I do. Happy Birthday, B-poo. I love and miss you.
posted by Beth on August 9, 2003 | View All Diary Entries
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