Sunday, March 21, 2004

Bikeless in the Med

We recently staggered off of a plane from the Mediterranean -- a supposed vacation. Vacations with parents, at a particular point in your life, are not vacations. I never really enjoyed vacationing with my own parents, and spending time -- to me, excessive time -- with Girl Wonder's parents, is pure hell. Fortunately, it does not have any detrimental effect on our relationship, which is a major miracle.

My plan was to escape the family commitments, with or without Girl Wonder, on a rented motorcycle. The family vacation home is situated near Bastia on the island of Corsica, and I had noticed in the phone book that there was a motorcycle rental agency located right at the airport. How cool is that? And even if I couldn't get my hands on a sports or sport-touring bike, there was a beach within crawling distance of the family compound in which you are allowed to ride on the 10 miles or so of beach and trail network through the chaparral between the sand and the mountains. This opened up the possibility of scoring a dual-sport or an ATV in the event that I struck out on my street bike quest.

It was my misfortune, apparently, to have committed some unspeakable acts in a past life, and I was going to have to serve my prison sentence over the next several weeks. I would have to serve it listening to the waves breaking on the shore, and the mosquito-esque buzz of two-strokes churning up the sand -- all whilst I remained trapped in my concrete cell as if I were the Count of Monte Cristo. And making matters worse was the fact that I could see, from my bedroom window, the island where the Count had been held

Newsflash: There were no rentals available until the tourist season starts, April 1st. April fools day and I was going to be the fool in March! I even stopped in and got friendly with the local Honda dealer in hopes of scoring an invitation to ride. The salesman kept referring to California as paradise, but that is not what I wanted to hear. Reality began to sink in: I was never going to get my hands on a bike, short of stealing one.

I know there are worse things than being imprisoned on an island in the Med, in a brand new house, complete with pool and a Mercedes in the driveway. Sure, the Count never had the luxury of a Benz, but the reality is that these amenities and the sun and the sea and the mountains wear thin when you are in the care and control of Pinochet reincarnate (Girl Wonder's father) with no chance of escape. There wasn't even a health club or other sort of place to relieve my stress, replenish my withering muscles and work off my expanding waste line. I am the action adventure sort of vacationer, not a house cat.

To amuse myself between drag-down hair-extracting verbal matches between other French-speaking gladiators engaged in the hourly battles, I cooked and ate myself up to an extra 5 or 6 lbs which seems to have settled in my mid section. These battles were engaged over a variety of subjects from socialism to investing for retirement, and I was able to stay out of 95% of the fray since my French ends at subjects beyond food and drink. With the din of arguing in the house, I whipped up meal after meal of Mexican and Indian cuisine -- something impossible to find in Corsica. These dishes were devoured and soon the word was out. We began entertaining the neighbors, with me at the stove's helm. Biryani, Chicken Tandoori, Chana Masala and Balti Chicken with Lentils; Fish Burritos, Albondigas, Chicken Chipotle Chimichangas and pounds of refried beans... all eaten, inhaled, plates licked clean. Of course, each meal was accompanied by bottles and bottles of local wine and cheeses. Weight gain was inevitable.

While I managed to avoid eating much of the traditional French fare, we did find a wonderful restaurant known as "LE BIPS" at 14 Cours Paoli in Corte, about an hour and a half away. My first impression of the place was less than desirable, but you can't always judge a book by its cover. The restaurant was a bit cave like, sort of medieval in atmosphere. This was further emphasized by the patrons who had obviously opted out of the state-sponsored dental program. Toothless or partially endentured goons, all smoking and eating and carrying on, had packed the small restaurant. It was likely a scene from Michael Palin's "Jabberwocky" that was left on the cutting room floor and now digitally re-mastered for my viewing pleasure -- the only things missing were snarling dogs jumping up on the tables to steal scraps of meat and a spectacular jousting scene staged in the parking lot.

We were warned that they were understaffed, as they had not anticipated all these people who had come for lunch prior to their having to attending a sport competition. Sports? These people? A cigarette in one hand and a fork in the other, drinking and consuming as if this were their last meal? Only bowling came to mind as a possibility, but it turned out that their children were competing in some sort of gymnastic endeavor. They would surely suffer asthma attacks, while catapulting themselves across blue padded mats, from all that second and smoke.

They weren't kidding about the staffing, and while we were promptly seated, we waited at least 45 minutes to get a basket of bread with our wine. I resorted to stealing bread from tables that had yet to be cleared. If I had been anywhere else, I would have left and never returned, but where else did I have to be? On the bright side, papa was keeping his mouth shut and that was a welcome change.

To my horror, I was the best looking man in the room -- sort of like Brad Pitt showing up as the guest speaker for the Wives of Recovering Burn Victims' Support Group. It seemed that all the women's eyes were upon me, which would have been flattering, stimulating even, had it not been for their canine resemblance. The singular exception was this total hottie with conical shaped breasts that defied reason. She was dining with her homely husband and her gaze was riveted in my general direction. Had it been a larger restaurant, I would have stole away to the nearest dark corner to further investigate whether those breasts were shaping her euro-bra, or if her euro-bra was shaping them. Here I am picturing Girl Wonder and this Emmanuelle Beart look-a-like as the ultimate aperitifs in my new home video entitled, "9 1/2 minutes." We are in a restaurant, after all - and I've got enough flash card left in my digital camera for a couple of short movie clips. Hey, when in France you cannot help but have these kinds of fantasies.

Once the food did make it to the table, it was stunning, both in quality and quantity. And fortunately, food does take a man's mind off of his procreative tendencies. We all had wonderful salads -- which would have
been considered creative in America, but were quite traditional for the area -- followed by a variety of Charcuterie, which is seasoned smoked or aged meats that are frequently served as soon as the red wine begins to pour -- Wild Boar pate, and of course, outstanding bread. Then our main courses came; 'Entrecote, sole meuniere, and cannelloni. After the main course came a selection of Corsican cheeses, the plate being passed from table to table. The wine kept flowing, and then finally a we indulged in a brandy-like wine mixed with myrth prior to ordering our deserts. I explained to the owner, who was waiting on our table, that I was quite full and didn't need any desert. "O.K., sure," she said, and then she brought me two: crème Brule and profiteroles au chocolat. I ate them both just to spite her. Also on the table for me to sample were chocolate mousse and an outstanding chestnut and mandarin ice creams.

I expected the bill for the five of us to be in the $250 to $300 area. Yes, it was lunch, but the quality and preparation, and of course volume, were well above any lunch I have ever eaten before. It was not lunch, it was a feast, but instead, the bill was adjusted for our having to endure the slow service: $70 Euros or $85 USD, the gratuity included. I spoke with the owner after extracting myself from my seat, and she invited me to return on Wednesday for another meal. I accepted the invitation figuring it would give me an opportunity to at least partially repay the favor of the reduced check. We did return on Wednesday, and feasted on steak d'autruche avec de la sauce au vin ostrich (ostrich steak with red wine sauce) and fish and
another wonderful assortment of food. The bill? There was no bill. I tried to pay, but she refused to accept my money. All this because of some slow service, and a little bit because she was fascinated with this dashing American.

The drive to Corte would have been perfect on a motorcycle. We took the National, which is wider and reminded me of some of my favorite asphalt in California. If you continue South from Corte, the road becomes even more spectacular. Corsica, like much of Europe, is a motorcyclist's wet dream. The only thing straight is your driveway. There are some caveats to consider, though. There are a lot of unfenced livestock in the countryside - cows and sheep sharing the road with traffic. In certain places there are cattle just wandering around and I had one of them dart in front of me. The little bugger was about 6 inches away being branded by a boiling Mercedes radiator.

On another occasion, I rounded a corner to find an entire herd of sheep running towards me in my lane and then darting sharply to my right as I sat there impatiently waiting for this woolen train to pass. Last but not least, the local police and Gendarmarie do not take kindly to riders doubling the speed limit. Not only are you taking some very serious personal risks, if you get nabbed at felonious speeds, you are going to need to call the American Embassy to help you get out of jail.

There is a different sense of safety and liability in France, despite it having a quasi-socialist government. There is definitely an "every man for himself" attitude. This seemed especially true in Corsica. In example, we were driving North along the Cap Corse (more on the Cap Corse in a few moments) when we, and everyone driving on the road, found ourselves to be moving chicanes in a road race. Yes, there was a road race in progress and the drivers were taking three warm up laps on this relentlessly curvy, narrow road - and the road was still open to the public.

These drivers were serious, dressed in flame retardant suit and helmets, and they would pass you without
hesitation -- even if it meant having to drive on the left shoulder to avoid a head on collision. My advice for anyone traveling to Corsica with plans to tour by motorcycle is to go in March if you are renting bike on the French or Italian mainland, or go as early in the tourist season as possible if you are flying directly to Ajaccio or Bastia. The more people that are on the roads, the more chance you have to become a hood ornament. You are going to want to be in full protective gear, and the temperatures rise significantly
during the summer months, so it makes sense to go early in the year (rental issues already noted, of course).

I did manage to steal one of the family cars and drive the Cap Corse. This is a harrowing drive on winding roads no wider than the car, with rocks on one side and the sea on the other. The drivers on the island, in a word, suck. I often found vehicles headed towards me, in my lane, as I rounded a corner because these people are too lazy or too unskilled or too brazen to stay in their own lanes. But when the opportunity presented itself, I did my best impersonation of a formula one driver. This came in handy later on as I evened the score for having to endure all those arguments.

GW's father seemed to like my driving, but not without criticism. I use the brakes too much... I should let the engine do the braking. I found this particularly amusing since I had taken over the driving duties because the guy cannot park, and had backed up into a tree. His driving method was typically French: no person shall ever be in front of him, and every effort will be made to ensure that -- whether it requires passing up hill in a blind curve with only seconds to spare before being squashed like a fly against the front of an oncoming truck. Well, they have curves in America, and I am accomplished in getting around them.

So after a laid back afternoon of tooling around the countryside, I brought up the matter of the brakes. See, I like to have my corner entry speed just right, so I typically shave a tiny bit of momentum off just before initiating the turn. As soon as I initiate the turn, I start accelerating to stabilize the suspension and not lose any momentum from the tires scrubbing off speed in the curve. Last turn of the day, before having to retire the car and probably endure a few more waking hours of shouting, and I set up as usual. This is a very sharp turn -- one most comfortably taken at 15 to 20 mph, but I am doing about 45. As I approach, I announce that there is no need to worry about the brakes on this one, and I rail through the turn at speed, tires shrieking and papa's arms are flailing about as he tries to grab handfuls of the dashboard and not soil his undies. He even vocalized a little "whooooaaaaahhhhhh." I just looked over at him and said, "Dude,
you've just got to have faith in the machine." It was priceless.

The rest of my days were spent surfing the web at internet cafes, or hanging out in Bastia sipping Pietra, a hand-crafted local beer brewed with a blend of selected malts hops and chestnuts. The people watching was
plentiful, and the weather splendid. Despite the fact I managed to salvage something of my "vacation," I will never again allow myself to be imprisoned in motorcycle paradise without access to SOMETHING, ANYTHING that has two wheels and a motor. Life is short and a few weeks without a bike is an unconscionable fate.


A map of the island: - in French. Motorcycle tour in which they happen to stop at LE BIPS (telephone: