Tuesday, February 24, 2009

History, heritage and tourism

Last week, Natacha phoned to suggest that I might watch a TV evening on Corsica. Although she has always lived in her native Provence, Natacha is linked to this unique island through her maternal ancestors, and she has often looked for superlatives to tell me about the magnificent landscape and the spirit of Corsica.

"All they're ever asking of visitors, " explained Natacha, "is to respect scrupulously the Corsican people and their culture."

That sounded fair enough to me. In any case, although I've never set foot in Corsica, and have no current plans to go there as a tourist, I decided to drop in on the TV evening about the place that is often designated as "the island of beauty". Well, I ended up watching in amazement a splendid documentary (I said already, in my previous post, that French TV can be incredibly good) that obliged me to reflect upon the bundle of themes summed up in my title: history, heritage and tourism. And the outcome of my reflections was both novel (for me, that is) and positive.

To my mind, these three concepts are different but closely linked:

— In general, history should interest and concern anybody who agrees with the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in The Life of Reason: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." I realize, of course, that many people are totally uninterested in history. They would never go out of their way to visit a place solely because of its links with the past, nor would they lift a little finger to contribute to the conservation of historical edifices, artifacts and archives. They do not seek to understand, let alone appreciate, the past. In fact, they want to have nothing to do with it.

— What we refer to as heritage might be thought of as the particular subset of history that has unfolded, as it were, in your back yard. Not necessarily your geographical backyard (so-called local history), nor even your biological backyard (genealogy), but at least a backyard that you've personally "adopted", in the spirit of a foster parent who has decided to take care of, and bring up, a child.

— Finally, as far as tourism is concerned, most often it lies outside the domains of history and heritage. People don't visit Disneyland or Las Vegas, nor even the French Riviera, for reasons linked to history or heritage. But countless serious tourists (I prefer to refer to them by means of a lovely old-fashioned term: pilgrims) visit various precious spots on the planet in a quest for vestiges of past events, past constructions, past societies, past individuals...

The TV documentary that Natacha advised me to watch was entitled Gardiens des trésors de Corse (Guardians of the treasures of Corsica), and it concerned the guardianship of three different kinds of Corsican treasures: exotic specimens in the marine sanctuary of the Lavezzi Isles, ecclesiastic architecture and, last but not least, Corsican haute cuisine.

In the first domain, the guardian is, to a large extent, a maritime policeman, constantly on the lookout for tourists whose incursions into the protected site might harm the precious fauna and flora. In the third domain, cooking, I was struck above all by a variety of Corsican beef cattle with striped tiger-hued hides, which devour the foliage of wild olive trees. Apparently, the meat is pure nectar, but the proud grazier refuses to sell his beasts to mainland butchers unless they drop in personally at his property. Then there's a variety of fat little black pigs, who run around freely on the slopes. Transformed into smoked hams, their creamy fat is said to be even more succulent than the red meat. As I write, my mouth waters...

The part of the documentary that most impressed me concerned the restoration of ancient churches in the Castagniccia (chestnut) region, south-west of Bastia. This work is supervised and financed to a large extent by the republican authorities in charge of old buildings. But the profound sense of the word "heritage" is made manifest by the involvement of the local people, whose attitudes towards the restoration projects are expressed superbly in the documentary.

Many of these rural Corsicans are religious in an old-fashioned Mediterranean fashion, which involves the adoration of statues, the kissing of painted icons, and colorful processions through village streets. Needless to say, this kind of fervor leaves me cold personally, because I wasn't brought up in that kind of atmosphere and, even if I had been, I would have surely abandoned such practices as soon as I grew up. But the marvelous aspect of this relationship between the Corsican folk, their religious traditions and their ecclesiastic heritage is the fact that, in their minds, all this is strictly "for real". They're not putting on a show for tourists. They probably don't give a damn about outsiders, leaving that for hotel-keepers and restaurant-owners. And we hear constantly about the ways in which the local folk often react to new settlers from the mainland. To my mind, that's the right of these native Corsicans: their birthright. To a lesser extent, I've encountered the same kind of reactions since settling down here at Choranche.

Corsicans look upon the history and the heritage of their island and their culture as if they were taking care of a dearly-loved child, protecting him from harm and teaching him to grow up in the best imaginable circumstances. Admittedly, it's easier to appreciate history and heritage when your native cocoon happens to be a green island in the Mediterranean, rather than a sad wasteland. The TV documentary made it clear that there is much natural beauty in Corsica, but countless generations of Corsicans have no doubt enhanced that beauty through their works. Today, they are justly proud of their past. They have nothing to prove to anybody, no excuses to make, no lessons to receive. In a nutshell, they're authentic.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment