In the mind of any (non-Corsican) French person, Corsicans are quick tempered and slow moving. They are the kind of people who will narrow their dark eyes at you when you point out that they haven’t really been working all that hard today. In a nutshell, there is a stereotype of Corsicans as being lazy.
This stereotype is not unique to Corsicans; they share it with many other Mediterranean islanders. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between populations that inhabit Mediterranean islands. This came in handy when I announced to my Sicilian grandfather that I would be marrying a French woman. For a variety of reasons having to do with his experience in the WWII (fighting for the United States), he was not thrilled with the idea of my marrying a French woman. “But Grandpa,” I explained, “she’s Corsican! Corsica is a lot like Sicily: they have a similar language, take siestas, declare vendettas… the works!”
It’s the siestas that may be at the heart of the laziness stereotype. If you live on a Mediterranean island, it’s usually a good idea to stay out of the sun just after noon. You might as well sleep. And then, of course, there’s the fact that… well… culturally, Corsicans have a tendency not to be quite as, um, in a hurry as many other French people. Is that culturally sensitive enough?
Nevertheless, I thought that for this year’s Corsican column, I’d set out to discover a hard-working Corsican. So I decided to visit the Prietto farm.
Marc Prietto grows vegetables on twelve hectares (about thirty acres) of arable land not far from the sea in Pinarello (Pinareddu in Corsican—most places in Corsica are known both by their French and their Corsican names). Pinarello is a pretty little town on the side of a bay with white sand beaches and bobbing pleasure craft. For many years, my wife and I have regularly gone to dinner in Pinarello at one of the restaurants fronting the beach. When our children were younger it was the perfect place to go with fidgety little boys, because in between courses they could go running directly on to the beach to meet little friends and play in the sand, returning when called to come for their ice cream.
Even during the day, Pinarello was the place to bring little children. As I’ve undoubtedly pointed out in the past, every beach in Corsica is unique, each one has its own character. In Pinarello, the sand is very fine, which isn’t bad for making sand castles (although the best nearby sandcastle beach is at Fautea), and the water is shallow. It’s shallow forever. You can walk out pretty much indefinitely and the water never gets above your waist. Of course, that’s not literally true, if you go far enough, it gets deeper (if you go far enough, you get to Italy, when it comes down to it), but the slope is so maddeningly gradual that it feels like you can walk to Rome. Furthermore, there’s no current, no waves at all, and since it’s a bay, the water is warm (too warm for my taste—I’m talking bathwater warm).
Put that all together, and little boys are thrilled. Even at four or five years old, they can walk out relatively far from the shore and feel like they’re hot stuff, with the water only up to their thighs (and no, I don’t mean unaccompanied… I used to be a lifeguard, for Pete’s sake, I’m not crazy). It’s highly empowering for them.
We don’t go to the beach at Pinarello any more, since there are some drawbacks… first of all, there’s a fair amount of seaweed and second of all, if you want to swim then you have to walk out for ages before the water’s even deep enough to take a stroke. And, of course, there’s the fact that the place is overrun with little kids.
The Prietto farm is a little bit further up from the beach, in the rocky foothills of the Corsican highlands. When I went to visit, Marc and his workers were in the process of putting one-and-a-half tons of melons into boxes, while his three young children sat in little plastic chairs watching and petting the cats.
The farm is entirely organic. “It’s not an economic question, it’s a question of principle,” he told me. When he went to school to get his degree in agriculture, they learned how to use chemicals to build intensive farms. “That’s all they taught back then,” he explained, “but I know guys who grow intensive corn on the continent—they spend their entire lives picking corn: they can’t drink the water from their wells because it’s contaminated and Monsanto decides what they plant and how they live. I want to control my farm, my life, my health.” So when he came back to Corsica to take the reins of the family farm, he decided to join the new organic movement.
But organic isn’t enough… he also wanted to reduce his ecological footprint. “If you go to the store down the road, you’ll find organic melons grown in Morocco. Sure, they’re organic, but they were picked by people paid pennies an hour and brought here in a ship burning diesel fuel. I’ve gotten together with a couple of other farmers to create our own label, to indicate that not only are we organic, but local.”
“Does it work?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “It makes us feel good.”
Marc Prietto is a dark man: dark hair, tanned, weathered skin, a thick black beard, but his eyes sparkle like the sea under the noonday sun and when he smiles, his teeth seem all the whiter for the tangle of black whiskers that surround them. He smiled when I asked him if he had hesitated before getting into the business.
“Sure,” he said. “I was twenty, once. You think about doing something else. But you don’t leave aside easily what your father and your grandfather built. You don’t leave your land on a whim. And this is a generational enterprise; it’s a long-term thing. You can have the right equipment to farm, but equipment is worthless, it’s a deep-seated understanding of the land that makes it work. And you can do a lot with this land.”
“I suppose you can grow anything here.”
Marc thought about that. “Not bananas. Well, I suppose you could grow small ones. But you have a very fast growing cycle for just about anything else, you can turn things over quickly.”
I asked if that was the case throughout Corsica.
“It’s entirely different in the interior, in the mountains, but even along the coast there are major differences. For instance, you have to be careful about the winters here. It can get cold.”
Knowing, as I do, the area, I expressed surprise at that, but Marc pointed out that they had experienced frost. “For at least four hours in 1996 it got below freezing. But still, I usually have about forty varieties of vegetables going.”
I asked if that required more work. “Of course. We’re always planting one thing and harvesting something else. It’s hard work. You should call this column: ‘The Corsican Who Works’.”
I promised I would. I asked if that means that he takes no vacation.
“Never,” he responded.
“What about the siesta?”
“Well of course we take the siesta. This is Corsica, you know.”
Ah yes, this is Corsica!