The Primitive Island of Frioul

It’s leap day! The calendar’s rare, four year occurrance. The last ferry has left Ile du Frioul. Rene and I are seated at the at the end of the quai, where we have the whole restaurant to ourselves. The manager or, I presume, the family that runs place just kicked up the volume on the jazz, to which he’d been humming to a few moments ago, and I am inspired to write.

I had a good idea as to what I would appreciate on this near-deserted island of 150 odd inhabitants. The idea of Rene and I being together, away from the city, with time to take stock of her experiences over the past month appealed to me.

Getting to the island was no joy. Rene and I hauled our luggage though the streets like immigrants and waited at the end of a long line of tourists hoping that we would not have to wait for the next ferry. I slept halfway through the passage and woke up only after most the other passengers had already departed to the Chateau Def of Alexander Dumas fame.

We walk down the pier, past a long line of varied, personal seagoing crafts. The studio is absolutely cramped. Rene and I have dinner of camembert and prosciutto and baguette. Afterward, Rene persuades me to insert a Golden Girls DVD into the laptop, while I curl up on the couch next to her and sleep.

And sleep we do, with gusto and in abundance. We wake up in the morning, and it’s Noon. After breakfast, we pack up our bags and, with Alfredo in tow, head out to explore the east end of the island. We walk towards the abandoned hospital on the hill, and as we follow the windy roads, then paths, the details of the clear ocean water and the many private, pebbled beaches emerge.

Rene has her iPhone out and is using it as a divining rod to uncover any free wifi zone that the island might choose to present. Sadly, all wireless zones that she finds are secure and private, locked against any tourist who might be in need of email.

We arrive at our destination, a hospital which, in its day, served as quarantine facility to safeguard the city of Marceille against epidemic, and peering though gates at every entrance meant to keep the place off limits into what, to me, seems like a dusty movie set for an unimagined genre, what one might describe as a neo-classical western.

But really, at every direction, the lure of the view inward to the walled buildings is more an excuse to discover different outward views of the full expanse of the coast of Marseille or the changing light and shadows on the Chateau Def midway cross the bay.

Early on in our walk, the batteries in my camera fail, impressing upon me, at this beginning point in my trip, the need to keep a backup set of alkalines handy. Rene comments that it’s fair play, that she should be without wireless, and that I should be without the ability to take photos. This point is soon underscored in a way which I will soon convey.

After a picnic lunch on the hillside overlooking a hidden cove, we meander back to town. I comment to Rene how I like the scale of this island, how in under an hour you can be out in nature where your focus sharpens on unexpected details, like the numerous tiny bleached sea-bones littering the high cliffs and how your imagination seeks to reconcile how they made their way to where they now rest. There is an urgency to spending these few days on the island, devoid of television and radio, of cell phone and internet. An urgency of falling back onto our own thoughts and our own time together, to discuss and refine our thinking, to evaluate and plan the coming weeks… and then some.

Taking the back way up the hill to our apartment, I stop next to the caserne (the firehouse) and what appears to be a municipal building whose windows are plastered with flyers and announcements for various island groups and events. I check the door handle and it opens. I can hear people talking and a man enters into the foyer. I try out my best bon jour and ask if he parley vous engles. He gestures, one moment, and another man comes out from the back. He offers us a comfortable, “hello” and I ask if I might ask him if he could tell us if this is a municipal building. He explains that the building is not municipal, in that it is not owned by the city, but that it is a community space in that it is here where all the groups of the island meet. He explains that this is a meeting place for various constituents from residents of Marseille, to residents of Paris who make their second home on the island, to expats from any number of countries (such as Holland which is where he is from). I ask his name, he introduces himself as Berting. We shake hands. He tells me that this meeting space is used for all sorts of groups from bird watchers to hydroponic farmers, from rock climbers to cartologists to politicians who all take their place among the 150 residents of the islands of Frioul. He tells me that the particular group which is now using the space is debating whether to participate in an event about “acting locally and thinking globally”. He explains that some of the members are saying that “they’ve done this before” in years past, but he confides that “you have to continue to represent Frioul”, to keep the islands fresh in people’s minds (we learned last night in the guide book that military and medical use have kept the island mercifully free from poplulation growth and development) and it is likely this obscurity acts as something of a double edged sword that the community groups have to contend with by both raising their profile and self interests on one hand and protecting their unique and isolated way of life on the other. He hands me their latest pamphlet (of which the previous six flyers we saw taped to the window next to the door). We thank him for his time and walk across the vacant lot to the group of apartments we call home.

Berting (Second from the left) and the Association Frioul un Nouveau Regard

Once back in our tiny studio, we settle in for the night. Alfredo is taken for a walk. We take a side trip to the grocery store which is more like a hollowed out store front with a few dozen shelves stocked with the barest essential items an island dweller might want. We pick up two bottles of beer for later on and a package of ham and a baguette for the morning.

As we get ready to head out for dinner, Rene translates Berting’s pamphlet aloud. It’s amazing. It’s a work of public relations that is both outlandish and indulgent to an almost ridiculous degree. It’s a philosophical and poetic tract about how the island is isolated and how, by extension, visitors to the island become isolated and are thrown back onto themselves for answers. I find this amazing in that it hits the nail on the head about why I thought it would be good for both of us to spend time on the island in the first place.

As a postscript, in an appropriate gesture, the island further communicates its desire to isolate us from our accustomed comforts through blowing a fuse and eliminating, save for a single light above the bathroom mirror, that is all the power we have left in our apartment. We laugh at the irony of this, and for the last hour of the evening look to each other and to ourselves for laughter and conversation and personal truth.