We have taken our vacations in Corsica for the past 3 summers, never having expected to become quite so attached. We go to Nonza, a tiny village built into a cliff high above the Mediterranean, in the Cap Corse — the skinny part in the North of the island that looks like an extended index finger. They call this part of the island “the mountain in the water,” as the cliffs seem to have burst right out of the sea. In the winter the population of this village is under 60, in the summer it swells to a couple of hundred. Still, it’s small village life by most people’s standards. There is one café, one boulangerie, one tiny grocery store (if you can call it that), two little restaurants, and a post office. All open from Easter to Toussaint, in November.
We rent a house which is a short walk from the place, or town square, through the winding paths of the village, far enough that we are not woken by the church bells in the morning. We have been woken, however, by the braying of the village donkey (this year we arrived to find that the donkey had been given away to someone in a neighboring village, which was big news here). The views of the sea and the arid landscape, the smell of the maquis (thyme, rosemary, myrtle, juniper, savory, and many other herbs and plants growing wild in the surrounding mountains), as well as the pace of life, are soothing after a year of New York stress and craziness. There are no organized playdates, classes, or appointments to keep. We all stay up late, and nap in the heat of the day. We go to sleep at night, leaving the front door wide open, to let in the breeze. Of course, there is still the cooking, cleaning, occasional scraped knee, and breaking up of sibling fights, but that seems somehow manageable in the absence of phones, computers, deadlines, and the high-drama of elementary school politics.
We have gone at a slightly different time in the summer each year, and shared our house with different friends or relatives for portions of our stay. One day two years ago, our Brazillian friend, Bia, who, with her husband and 5-year old son, shared our house for short periods over the last two years, came in from the garden with her arms full of ripe grapes. We made grape juice when we couldn’t eat any more. We picked figs almost every day that year. When we arrived this year, in July, the grapes and figs weren’t yet ripe, but there were peaches on the little peach tree in the garden and a lime tree bearing fruit. Fresh tomatoes and melons, peaches, apricots, and small green and yellow plums make up a large part of our diet while we’re here.
Amazingly, we are somehow really accepted into the life of this village. Everyone gravitates to the place, adults as well as children. One of my favorite moments of small town life is the camionettes, or little vans, that pass through the village and set up shop for a half-hour or so on the place to sell their wares: fruit and vegetables, meat, fish, or other groceries. In fact, until this year there was no fish monger passing through. The lore has it that there was one for a long time, until 10 years ago when an apparently-short-sighted person from Nonza grumbled that his prices were too high – and he packed up and never came back. So this new fish camionette was more big news. On top of that, we arrived to find that this year the butcher had retired (news, again!), but he did pass by to say hello to all his buddies.
But it is really the children who have the run of the place. Manon, my 6-year old daughter, joins in games of hide-and-seek and red light-green light, or trades the tattoos that come inside bubblegum wrappers with the other kids; my 10-year old son, Jules, plays soccer with the barefooted or flip-flopped local boys; and they all spend most afternoons swimming at the local beach together, or jumping off rocks into deep swimming holes in the nearby river. Evening finds them running up and down the ancient steps of the village, finding hidden nooks and paths that, if they took them that far, would wind eventually down to the sea. This is the only way my children will really become immersed in the language and culture of the place. We speak French at home in New York (Papa is French), but English inevitably finds a way to seep in. These local kids make the language cool – it’s much more interesting to speak with them than with their parents!
To top it off, the autonomy they have here, compared with our life in New York, is liberating for them. They play with their friends while I go back to the house and start dinner, and are responsible for coming back at a certain time. Jules often gets up in the morning and goes to the boulangerie to buy bread or croissants for our breakfast. Manon was allowed to go back and forth from the place this year for the first time without her brother. There is only one road that goes through the village – Jules knows how to cross it, and Manon knows not to.
Even if I am not around, the villagers are always looking out for all the children. After all, as that small-town cliché goes, most of them are related in one way or another! So they’re accustomed to feeling responsible for the kids around them. Many of the people who come to Nonza for the summer are people whose lineage in the village goes way back. Maybe they grew up in the village, and now live elsewhere but bring their children every year; or, their parents or grandparents have always lived there and they visit them every year. Everyone knows everyone else, and everyone else’s business – gossip is alive and well in small Corsican towns! People find out things about us practically before we do, which we take as a real sign of acceptance into their lives. I’m not sure I’d want to live like that all year round, but for a short time, it certainly has its charm.
A typical day: we get up (late-ish) and have a leisurely breakfast of toast and butter and jam or honey, or beautiful, juicy peaches with yogurt. The kids run to the place and play, and I do some shopping if it’s a camionette day, or we go have a quick dip. Then back home for lunch and siesta – Jules got reprimanded once by a stern Corsican grandma for bouncing a ball on the place during siesta, and he didn’t do that again! Around 4, after the real heat of the day, we head to the local beach, which is covered in smooth black stones, and swim in the warm Mediterranean; or we opt for the cool river, dappled with sunlight and shaded by Eden-like green foliage.
If we’re feeling adventurous, there are many other villages to visit in the Cap Corse, each with its own ancient tower, and slightly different landscape. The roads wind precipitously from village to village, with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other. We see huge rock formations that look like they could topple into the sea, and small canyons. The scent of the maquis changes with the changing landscape. The area is protected from new construction by the government, and Corsicans are too proud a people to allow foreigners to come in and build big hotels, or even private homes that don’t fit into the architectural vernacular. As a result, the villages feel frozen in time.
I think it is this feeling of visiting a bygone era that is so compelling to us. More than anything else, I love the idea that I can give my children an experience that is a completely departure from their everyday lives. They are able to participate in small village life, life closer to nature, life in another culture, and life reminiscent of another time in history, and have opened themselves up to a small sampling of a world of possibilities, even as we return to the New York life we love.
Deborah Donenfeld is a photographer living in New York City.