September 13, 2011

Taylor: my first near glimpse of Corsican scenery

The Leghorn steamer slid smoothly over the glassy Tyrrhene strait, and sometime during the night came to anchor in the harbor of Bastia. I sat up in my berth at sunrise, and looked out of the bull's eye to catch my first near glimpse of Corsican scenery; but, instead of that, a pair of questioning eyes, set in a brown, weather-beaten face, met my own. It was a boatman waiting on the gangway, determined to secure the only fare which the steamer had brought that morning. Such persistence always succeeds, and in this case justly; for when we were landed upon the quay, shortly afterwards, the man took the proffered coin with thanks, and asked for no more.

Thus begins the travel sketch "The Land of Paoli" by Bayard Taylor, describing the visit to the island of Corsica. Taylor was a poet and prose writer from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, but his travels took him across much of the globe (he ultimately died overseas in Germany). Nevertheless, it was in the United States that he sent the manuscript of "The Land of Paoli" to publisher James T. Fields on September 13, 1868. Hoping to see it published in The Atlantic Monthly, Taylor promised it wasn't too long: "I think it will make about fourteen pages, but not too much for the subject."

Among the observations and incidents he relates in his sketch, he relates his first interactions with native Corsicans:

We entered a bookstore, to get a map of the island. While I was examining it, an old gentleman, with the Legion of Honor in his button-hole, rose from his seat, took the sheet from my hands, and said: "What's this? what's this?" After satisfying his curiosity, he handed it back to me, and began a running fire of questions: "Your first visit to Corsica? You are English? Do you speak Italian? your wife also ? Do you like Bastia? does she also? How long will you stay? Will she accompany you?" etc. I answered with equal rapidity, as there was nothing obtrusive in the old man's manner. The questions soon came to an end, and then followed a chapter of information and advice, which was very welcome.

The same naive curiosity met us at every turn. Even the rough boy who acted as porter plied me with questions, yet was just as ready to answer as to ask. I learned much more about his situation and prospects than was really necessary, but the sum of all showed that he was a fellow determined to push his way in the world. Self-confidence is a common Corsican trait.

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