“So how did you get into such a mess anyway?” We both looked down at my bandaged knees and horrendously blistered feet, clogged with shreds of zinc tape. “It’s a long story.” “Well, you can tell it to me over a beer.”
Grégoire, a log cutter from Orto, one of Corsica’s remotest villages, had picked me up at the bottom of the Liamone valley, hobbling north towards the pale grey needle peaks in the distance. This corner of the island’s wild interior, ringed by miles of granite mountains, is renowned as a nationalist bastion (the goatherd who gunned down the French governor a few years back is still believed to be at large in the hills hereabouts), and I was surprised to be offered a lift at all, let alone one to the end of the road.
“Just don’t talk politics,” my host warned me under his breath as we stepped into the village bar. Plied with draught chestnut beer and chasers of myrtle liqueur, I spilled out my story. In two months of rough walking, I’d run into one setback after another: knee injuries, nocturnal wild boar attacks, a mouth abscess, a mad dentist who’d broken an anaesthetic needle in my gum and, finally, a root canal filling that had cost more than my flight.
“No doubt about it,” he nodded, “Evil Eye. Quelqu’un t’as fait la mauvaise oeuil, mon pote.” I’d read about The Eye, l’Occhiu, in old ethnographies – how it was believed someone could cast a malevolent spell with the wrong kind of look, a jealous comment, by saying how well your children looked or praising the appearance of your horse. But I didn’t see what any of this had to do with me.
“Don’t worry. I know someone who can sort you out. Come.” Draining his glass, Grégoire led me back out into the glaring light of the square and through a series of winding alleys to an ancient stone house with pots of geraniums growing from oil tins on its window sills. A knock at the door was answered by an elderly woman with purple-tinted hair and a gleam in her eye. Grégoire muttered something in Corsican, and I was ushered into a shuttered front room that smelt of church and woodsmoke.
The woman, Grégoire explained, was a Signatora, a ‘Sign-Maker’. “She’s going to find out if you’ve got The Eye.” I watched as a candle was lit, a shallow bowl filled with water and drops of oil poured into it. Closing her eyes and lowering her head, the Signatora began to murmur verses in what sounded like Latin, pausing occasionally to make the sign of the cross over the bowl. After two or three minutes, Grégoire’s eyebrows raised steadily as, on the surface of the water, the unmistakable form of an eye began to take shape. There were knowing looks and more exchanges in Corsican. “She’s going to cut some of your hair, to break the bad spell later,” he said enigmatically. “Don’t, whatever you do, thank her, OK?” So I merely smiled and waved goodbye as we stepped back into the sunlight of the street.
Now, I’m not a great one for superstition. But I have to admit that from the time I left that old lady’s house I felt unburdened in some profound way. Suddenly life felt like a freshly oiled bicycle wheel again. Having said farewell to Grégoire (being careful not to thank him either) I flew through the forest to the top of the valley and the mountain hut I’d limped down from a week before, without so much as a twinge from teeth or toes. More amazing still, at the refuge, munching his way through a packet of Hobnobs and a cup of PG Tips, I came across my old flatmate from college, who’d just happened to have arrived – a chance in a million.
Who says there’s no magic left in travelling?
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