Friday, October 30, 2009

Toulouse, France

Let me describe Toulouse for you as best I can. I am sitting at an internet café right now, the remnants of a croissant scattered across the table, an empty coffee cup begging for a refill. To my front is a steady stream of traffic, the sound of heels clicking upon the cobblestone street. The people here are more fashionable, especially when it comes to the eyeglasses that they wear. The fall fashions are out.

The most persistent color in this city is red. The stone that carpets the city is a muted gray/red, the buildings are a brighter, brick red (probably because they are brick). Everywhere I look, there are iron-wrought railings, especially those that border the old balconies above. My friend, Sara Feuerstein, calls it charming, and she’s been here in France for two years. I’ve decided that this is the most encompassing word to describe the places that I’ve traveled in the last few months. There certainly is not a lack of fountains or churches. It seems that everywhere you go, there is an angel, a lamb, or a mythological creature spitting a steady stream of water into an oxidized bronze basin or stone bowl. Perhaps the most interesting to me at this point, though, are the churches. After reading “Pillars of the Earth,” by Ken Follett, I can’t help but think of the history behind these structures that took sometimes centuries to erect. It’s so interesting to me to think that a man would devote his entire existence to building one church. Day in and day out, he would breath stone dust trying to leave a legacy in a bleak time (the Middle Ages). It’s no wonder that there is so much to marvel at when you consider that a small army of men’s collective life creativity went into creating the structure before you.

As you raise your eyes away from ground level, you could very well be in another century, except for the few television antennae that are scattered on the rooftops. If you really want to find a place in this city where you’re in a different century, it can be found. More than once have I found myself winding through a back alley, most times at sunset, sidelined by small, squat doors whose purpose are not apparent to me. The stone facades and the shuttered windows do not look as though they’ve been tended to in centuries, the cobbles below certainly showing their age. If you listen closely, you hear the faint sounds of…nothing. Exactly how it used to be. If ever I’ve felt like I’m living a scene from Les Miserables, it was here. Where the candle snuffer is, I don’t know.

People bike everywhere, although not quite as smoothly as on a blacktopped surface. You can see the jowls of older people shaking as they ride about on the brick and cobbles. Little baskets adorn the bikes, leeks and baguettes emerging from their wickered confines. You can see the bikes parked along the narrow streets, the owner sipping on a café au lait in a cafe or ordering a baguette from the bakery. Everyone nibbles the end of their baguette as they walk.

It is sunny right now, the temperature perfect. I’m sure the milling about is accentuated by these conditions. Fall is certainly one of the best times to people watch, I think.

The shops in Toulouse are small. There are lot’s of bakeries and lots of cafes, but there are also specialty food shops like the bustling Italian one by Carmes. There are tea shops, organic stores, little clown stores (odd, I know), bars, butchers, the list goes on, the charm never ceasing to be apparent. Even the one Mcdonalds in town is classy. The inside has classy dim lights extending tableward from the ceiling. In lieu of French fries, you can get potatoes, which are seasoned and lovely. As you can tell, I’ve tried the Mcdonalds, but only because I heard the food is a much higher quality. I had to see and it’s true. They don’t allow crap into these Mcdonalds.

If you head to the riverside, you will find magnificent brick bridges adorned with antique iron-wrought lamps. At sunset, you can see a perfect reflection of the bridge on the mirror-like water. The underside of the bridges rise from the water in brick arches that are lit up different colors at night. My night runs through this city could possibly be as exhilarating as those through the streets of Istanbul.

Although not as prolific here as in Germany, the doner kebab stands are plenty. The Turkish influence pervades Europe. If only they knew of the other kebabs that Turkey offers. Someone needs to introduce Adana and Iskender kebabs over here.

I can’t feed you all the good without the bad, though. That’s disillusionment. Very often will I find myself stepping over a fresh stream of liquid running from the side of a building. A Frenchman has urinated here. It’s pretty common that people pee in the streets, whether day or night, it doesn’t matter. There really aren’t any public restrooms and this could be one of the reasons for the leaky Frenchman, but I think it’s just something that’s ingrained in the culture. Another observable thing here is the use of drugs. The bridge down the street from me serves as a quiet place for shooting up. If you come at the right time you can see the man with the belt wrapped around his arm…I’ll go no further. Apparently the cops don’t crack down as much here as in the U.S.. There are also homeless people everywhere. On a 10 minute walk, expect to see 5 people. The difference is that these homeless people look a little more classy. Damnit France! Why so classy?

Another interesting phenomenon is that many young people where hoodies and shirts donning emblazoned with “Franklin and Marshall,” which is a little boutique store downtown. However, they have no idea that this is actually a little college in Pennsylvania. Apparently someone took that name, brought it here, and then marketed it as a cool boutique brand. Why Franklin and not Hamilton? Maybe I’ll start a boutique store with Hamilton hoodies.

Speaking of school pride, there is none here. The socialized educational system definitely does not produce individuals who love their school or have a fun time learning. I visited the local university and it is completely utilitarian and bleak. The only upside is that you can get a master’s degree for about 500 Euro. It’s a piece of shit, though…so I’ve heard. Whereas I look back on my college days fondly, these French students will not. Sara and I have had numerous conversations that center around how much we love Hamilton College. The stories are endless.