My Features, My Smile, My Eyes

by Jourdan Abel | 7/3/01 5:00am

We climbed the stairs off of the ferry from Italy on our mid-FSP break. It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day wafted from the ship stereo, my stomach knots of this is Corsica, this is where I'm from interspersed with how am I going to get in touch with my family? I've never been here before. Outside the boat we were stunned by the bright Corsican sun and sharp salt air, and soon I was staring into round beetle-eyes I'd seen in pictures of my great-grandmother, a smile crinkling below those eyes, and a booming too-fast French voice: Les trois filles americaines? I am Karl. Who is Jourdan? Ah, you are Jourdan. You resemble exactly your mother. And we were tugged along by his stringbean-thin, eggplant-haired, fabulously-frocked wife with her too-fast metabolism that increased the speed of everything she did: eat, drink, talk, smoke -- Marie-Ange.

On a break-neck tour of Nonza -- this is the house your great-grandfather was born in -- Marie-Ange pulled us around every square inch of the 50 by 60 foot town center. "Ah," she said as we rushed across uneven cobblestones, "Roman! Roman, viens-ici! Jourdan, this is a relative! His great-grandfather is the brother of your great-grandfather! Roman works at this restaurant. He'll take care of you, won't you, Roman?" And there he was in the middle of the square, my age, my blood, promising to watch over me these next four days. "Ah, we are here." And we were handed the keys to a three-story villa with views of the multi-blue-hued ocean on all sides, a beautiful dusty pink house with green shutters and a balcony and a grapevine-covered terrace. "Everything is okay?"

On a tour of Cap Corse, the northern nook of Corsica where Nonza is, Tonton Barbu, black beard painted white at the tips, eyes sparkling after 50 years of salt-scrubbed life, pulled his lime and turquoise Renault off the road, hopped out, and plucked a wiry green stalk, quickly stripping it of its leaves and tying a slipknot at one end. "We caught lizards with these when I was a boy." His salt-crusted Corsican demeanor cracked, we glimpsed quiet happiness inside.

Tante France decided that her weekend activity was to feed us on a near-hourly schedule. She invited us for dinner, warning us to close the patio gate so the mountain goats wouldn't eat the flowers, and left us to prepare. She served polenta in Grandma-sized portions, doling out polenta-full spoon after polenta-full spoon, stopped at my plate by my pleas of ah! C'est bon, merci. Alas, Holly's politeness and total lack of the French language prevented her from stopping the mountainous piles of cornmeal quickly overtaking her plate, her eyes wide with terrified fear at the prospect of finishing each new polenta plop on her dish. She settled herself in, my tiny, kids' menu-sized friend, and pushed forkful after forkful into her mouth. We finished our servings without exploding. And then I heard the words that struck fear in my heart: "Do you think we need new plates for the second course?" And out came the Procession of Overabundance -- four more courses of chicken with cornichons, capers, and mustard, cheese, fruit and cake.

After we could move no longer, Tante France brought out a book of old Nonza photos. Her finger brushed a little girl in pigtails: "she is a grandmother of five;" "he died in the Great War" at a solemn 1904 photo of a boy in a wagon, big eyes staring at the camera. "This is me at 16:" a smiling girl in a rowboat, bikini-topped and short-shorted, arms thrust behind head in a pin-up pose, and "that is Andre, your grandmother's brother, my husband, may he rest in peace", directed at a shadowy grin in the corner of the photo, Andre entranced by saucy France's legs and smile.

There are 70 full-time residents of Nonza. Five families. Everyone's lineage is carefully kept track of, partially, I can only assume, to avoid incest and birth defects. The town was carved out of a heaped-upon cluster of mountains, houses built into each other and the mountain, sharing walls and views of shockingly blue waters 400 feet below, crashing white into black jagged rocky peaks. These days there are more tombs dug into mountainsides and precariously crammed into sea-side caves than residents. Les montagnes et la mer, became our most common refrain -- the mountains plunge into the sea, with little in the way of flat land or beach between the two. The terrain allows breathtaking unobstructed views of the sea and mountains, and of Nonza -- the houses, the square. But also -- the unobstructed views mean you can be seen wherever you are. Little wizened people watch from windows, see every wrong turn, every meandering, longer-than-necessary route home. Tante France asks how we liked the views from the Tower because she saw us up there. There is something oddly comforting about this, but also constricting. As I walked through town, heads snapped to windows, following me as I passed. I left a wake of whispers: "She is the American Burini girl. The daughter of Tante France's niece."

Deciding that the best way to thank people who loved to feed us for their hospitality was to make them dinner, we invited the whole family, three generations, eight people, to a meal at the villa they gave us for the weekend, prepared by three American 20-year-olds, whose major culinary achievements thus far involved either the microwave or the Hot Pot. Eric, Tonton Barbu, brought us to the grocery store and stood in the middle of the produce section, between the lettuce and the lemons, next to the cart, as the three of us raced around, collecting ingredients for rice and beans, brownies, salad and chicken. Each time I returned to drop something in the cart, Eric smiled at me dubiously. I imagined him sending an S.O.S. message to Marie-Ange: "Bring a back-up meal! The Americans are serving us beans and flour!" Dinner was made and our guests arrived, each holding a quiche or gratin or a platter of Corsican specialties -- our culinary abilities were not trusted. But as Tante France lipsmackingly reached for another piece of chicken, we smiled and poked each other's ribs (what we could find of them after days of seven-course meals) in success.

Repeatedly, all of them, over polenta or pastis, walking around the square or on tours of tombs etched into the mountains, called me "Josiane," my mother's name. They would shake their heads and hold my chin up to the light and say, "the resemblance is remarkable." Tante France dusted off an album from 1971 of my mother and her siblings at home in Miami. My mother, head back in easy laughter, long straight dark hair winding around her shoulders, stared at me from the pages with my features, my smile, my eyes. My mother at 20 surprised me with myself from the 200-year-old house my great-grandfather, her grandfather, was born in thousands of miles from our lives.