I have always had a strong affinity for atlases and islands. Whether a single volcanic rock or one likely to fragment or disappear underwater, each one seems to be calling me, speaking to my imagination. I was fascinated by Thor Heyerdahl’s book on Easter Island and I was very excited when I first saw the powerful head of Hoa Hakanani’a in the British Museum.
I have lived for 60 years on one island and I was born on another; one which I think of every day and which I still feel viscerally bound to. I praise its beauty with all the pride of ownership; its sea, its mountains, its wilderness, its springs and its torrents. Corsica can charm me, annoy me, amuse me, disturb me and delight me.
I’ve travelled widely with my husband, a research immunologist. I’ve given lectures in schools and to French Circles in the United Kingdom. From Mexico to Norway, Corsica has been one of my favourite topics, with the result that many of the people I’ve met end up finding their way to my little village to look up my friend Francette Orsoni and tell her how much they love her illustrated Corsican tales. Everywhere I’ve been, I’ve always received a warm welcome and have made many lasting friends. The enthusiasm others have shown for my island story has spurred my own wish to delve deeper into Corsican culture; to know more in order to share more.
I learnt all the most important things while staying in our village as a child; the language and traditions, cooking, the rituals of arrival and departure. Gifts in a basket covered by a white napkin – the basket always returned with other gifts: three fresh eggs, a bottle of wine or the first figs of the season wrapped in a large leaf. My mother and grandmother drained tomatoes in a white bag hanging over a bucket to prepare a conserve. We put the figs and prunes out to dry. We did the laundry in the river using big bars of soap. Trout would sometimes show themselves and my mother would catch them with a basin or even with her bare hands. There was also the ritual of the strapunta; restuffing a mattress by removing all the wool, washing and re-carding it. Another major event in the village was the slaughter of a pig, or for the less well-off the sharing out of wild boar meat after the hunt.
We would pick herbs for soup, made with a dash of olive oil and cubes of dry broccio cream cheese. On summer afternoons one of my uncles would take me swimming in the river with my friends and in the evenings we would play loto.
As my mother often stayed in town with my father, my grandmother would look after me. My radius was limited, I was allowed to fetch water at the village fountain for neighbours and I also helped to thread needles for those with fading eyesight. At siesta time, my grandmother expected me to do school work; I remember lots of questions about taps filling baths. This was also my opportunity to read. As it was wartime, books were in short supply and there were some very fallow times when I had to resort to the novels of Zenaide Fleuriot or back copies of the periodical Les Veillées des Chaumières.
In winter, it was roast chestnuts by the fire, beignets and polenta and lots of gossip and storytelling. Comic tales of Grossu Minutu or apocryphal stories about the ‘priest’s son’. One Christmas in the village, a neighbour who was a maga, gave me the power of signadora – to dispel the evil eye – something I still occasionally need to use.
Living in the village taught me the importance of gardens and terraces, alternate watering, good manners and never to call on people at meal times. When one did visit, there were often new dogs, cats or donkeys to make friends with and the goats would always take my chestnuts but seemed unimpressed by my efforts at milking them. I observed the power and discretion of the women in the community and learnt the value of listening, of speaking as little as possible and of keeping secrets.
When I arrived in London I was immediately fascinated by the city; its river, museums, buses and parks. No one seemed to know anything about Corsica. My host family showed some interest in it as a tourist destination and we had a fruitful exchange of Jewish and Corsican traditions. As my English improved, I started to go out more, including to the Proms at the Albert Hall where I was able to listen to some of the best orchestras in the world for a modest 2/6. One summer evening, in a Prom queue, some Italian friends introduced me to a young medical student who loved music and France and he introduced me to his mother. She had visited Corsica and had met the famous lawyer Moro ‘the lion’ Giafferi.
‘Ma’ was Jocelyn Playfair, nee Malan, a writer of Huguenot descent and ‘pa’ was a Major General, who had worked with field-marshal Montgomery, there was also a younger brother who was completing his studies at Cambridge. I was immediately adopted by this very British and somewhat eccentric family. Through Jocelyn I met writers and artists as well as people who lived outside London, giving me the opportunity to discover the English countryside. The General was writing a very weighty military history and had contributed humorous pieces to Punch about army life. He also composed military marches, waltzes and foxtrots which he performed with gusto on the piano. I married John, the medical student, and somehow fitted in very well. The contents of our parcels from Corsica were shared widely and elicited much comment. Back home, my parents started to welcome a succession of keen and sometimes very odd travellers, never sure whether to expect a diving enthusiast, an orchestral conductor, a NASA engineer or a former Russian spy. These visitors were all fascinated by the island but knew little of it beyond Napoleon. They hadn’t heard of Pasquale Paoli or the fact that Corsica had been part of Britain for a few years in the 18th century.
Later, I gained greater confidence in myself and in my origins and I was able to take pride in writing in my mother tongue. I met Dorothy Carrington (Lady Frédérica Rose) who wrote about Corsica in Granite Island. Carrington was particularly interested in the condition of women and it was she who realised the importance of the prehistoric site at Filitosa in the South West of the island. She was an inspiration.
Finding myself in a foreign country, I had to learn and understand the culture I was going to live and work in while also blending it with my own. I wanted to share the music, literature and gastronomy of my native island. We waited impatiently for my mother’s parcels and our friends learnt to appreciate Corsican honey and cheese, chestnut flour, orange wine, charcuterie and eau de vie. Before moving to England, I had never worn my national costume but, having been asked, I produced a variation which was more cheerful than the rather drab post first world war version.
We are all aware of our origins and our inheritance. We all have a family history, a cultural, linguistic and political heritage. The Corsican people have a distinctive cultural identity and Corsicans are proud of this distinctiveness. When we leave Corsica, we have to learn to think and act more freely without such strong anchors. We can define being Corsican in cultural terms but it’s also a recognition of the importance of culture to others. To be Corsican is precisely to take into account the world beyond Corsica and to benefit from what the rest of Europe and the world has to offer us.
Corsicans have character and they generally know how to express it. They have little trouble transcending their minority status, affirming their identity or making their way in the world and Pasquale Paoli demonstrated this very effectively in the Enlightenment period. They have learnt to observe with irony and humour and to cultivate the ability to listen and to know when to be silent.
Pasquale Paoli is commemorated in London annually, both at Westminster Abbey on the anniversary of his death and at St. Pancras Church on the first Sunday in February. After mass at St. Pancras, a few Corsicans and local parishioners share a traditional Corsican feast, whose recipes are included in the parish recipe book. We have planted an olive tree at the end of Paoli avenue and dedicated a park bench to mark his time at St. Pancras. There is also a plaque on the house at 77 South Audley street where he spent 3 months. These are memorial sites which serve to remind us of the link between our two islands and to document our diaspora.
My children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all born on this island, will always have part of their inheritance on that other island where the sky is vast, the stars numerous and the mountains rich in tales to share.
Line Mariani Playfair, 2017