Dispatch from Toulouse, 19 December 2001

David G. Novick

I visited Toulouse again for a day and a half in mid-December. The city was still reverberating from September's horrible fertilizer-plant explosion that killed 29, injured hundreds, left buildings in twisted wreckage, and shattered windows for miles. Factories near the blast site remain closed indefinitely. Coming ten days after the terror attacks on New York and Washington, the explosion was a crushing blow. And now, in mid-December, the city bundled up as best it could against the lowest temperatures in ten years.

The city, despite its tragedy and the cold, made a good effort at festivity. This year more downtown streets than ever had Christmas decorations. Even the usually sullen rue Pargaminieres was festooned with a large number of new, rather techno holiday lights hanging across the street. The rue Pargaminieres even had the kind of traffic jam one would have expected in normal times but not on freezing Sunday night. The cause soon became evident: there was a Christmas fair on the Place du Capitole, consisting of brightly lit log cabins selling holiday crafts.

My hosts were a family whose son would be the first of the family to earn a doctorate, in this case from the prestigious national university of aerospace engineering. The son had succeeded in tracing the family's regional genealogy back as far as the 1600s. Father and son took me to visit their ancestral village in the Aveyron. Houses where previous generations had been born were still standing or, in one case, in ruins. The village clung midway up a steep slope above a small river winding its serpentine path through deep cuts in the region's limestone plateaus. The valley below the village was narrow and deep enough that, while the village received what there was of the southerly late-afternoon sun, it was apparent from the solid white frost of the fields in the narrow valley floor that they had not had direct sunshine for days.

The village had once been home to over a thousand inhabitants but now sheltered only six year-round residents. Many of the remaining houses were owned by absent Dutch and English vacationers who spent a month or so in France each year. One of the inhabitants was an older relative of my hosts who was, they concluded, out hunting that afternoon.

The houses, like the terraces and retaining walls that hold the village on the slope, are constructed entirely of the local stone, a warm-toned dark rock. The houses mostly clustered around the village church, built of the same stone. Without parishioners, the church is nearly disused. It sees services only three times a year: at Christmas, Easter and August 15.

Most of the village's roofs are built of lauze, which are thick rounded tiles hewn from the same stone as the walls. Some roofs had been replaced with inauthentic slate. My hosts noted that the slate tiles destined for one house, still in their packing crates, were probably Spanish because they were thin and too wide. The more typical lauze roof weighs literally tons and requires a correspondingly sturdy structure of roof-beams to hold it up. My host family had purchased the town's presbytery, easily the village's largest building after the church. The presbytery's huge beams and rafters dated from the 17th century and were hewn from solid chestnut. The previous owners had partially completed some ill-advised attempts at renovation. Despite this, the building had immense character and charm. Ascending a tower's wooden circular staircase, you could reach windows with spectacular views of the valley, the millpond, the valley's opposite slopes, and ridges along the river overlapping into the graying distance.

The only people evident in the village were a French-Dutch family who had spent many years in the US. They mentioned that activity in the village had been notably high that day--ours was the third car they had heard. They seemed particularly pleased to meet my hosts because they were the owners of the building across the lane, and also to meet me because I was someone with whom they could converse in American. They insisted we join them for coffee and cookies, and I got an inkling of how lonely it must be to live in such a remote, isolated area. They were going to move back to the US in March, to St. Petersburg, Florida, in fact. Quite a contrast.

My own move from Toulouse to El Paso in 1999 wasn't such an epic difference. I tell people that Toulouse was a Latin metropolis of about 700,000 people, overwhelmingly Catholic and just north of a large Spanish-speaking country, while El Paso is Latin city of about 700,000 people, overwhelmingly Catholic and just north of a large Spanish-speaking country.

The food is different, though. My arrival in Toulouse shortly before noon on Sunday drove the point home. The doctoral candidate picked me up at the airport. I knew we would be heading that afternoon to visit the village, so I asked if we could get some lunch before starting out. Well, we could: his mother had prepared a remarkable Sunday lunch. The meal started with plentiful slices of foie gras, accompanied by an Alsatian muscat. The main course was a beef filet en croute (!), accompanied by chestnuts and apple, with a Bordeaux. This course was followed by a salad, then an assortment of cheeses. These were in turn followed by a homemade apple tart, accompanied by champagne. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed. And that is when, of course, we started out for the village.

My hosts were receptive of the Dutch and English who were buying houses in and moving to the Aveyron. We passed a country inn at an isolated cross-roads that had been purchased and was now operated by a Dutch couple. Their presence was a good thing, my hosts felt, because otherwise the inn would have closed, as had so many other businesses in the area.

We left the village after 15 minutes with the Franco-Dutch-Americans so we could see the town of Najac before the sun set. I'd been to Najac before on sunny summer's days that welcomed the tourists on which the town now depends for its survival. Najac's setting is spectacular. The town follows a ridge high above a river meander, down the ridge and then up to the promontory where a 13th century fortress commands the valley below. This cold winter's day Najac was practically deserted; I think we saw two other people at most. It was like seeing a theater's stage between performances: the scenery was still up but the life brought by lights and actors was missing. You could see the bare sets on which the show would be based. We walked downhill along the town's one street, peering down mouldering steep-staired side passages and gazing up at the fortress as the orange sun blazed its last and disappeared behind the ridge on the other side of the river. We took a moment to survey the view, then turned back to Toulouse, some 90 minutes away.

The doctoral candidate's defense the next day went well He gave a fine talk to an audience that must have been about half academics and half proud relatives. The university's policy--very French, this--is that doctoral committees are not permitted to award highest honors, so we awarded the next-highest honors. My own talk that afternoon went well too. Where my rusty French broke down (How do you say "scroll bar," for example), my colleagues in the audience supplied the missing terms and were polite enough not to mention my other mistakes. The day concluded with a "pot"--a sort of informal reception of drinks and snacks--organized by the new doctor's family. The snacks were vast sheets of quiche and vast sheets of fruit tarts and brownies and the drink was Champagne.

I departed the following morning on a 7:00 a.m. flight, still on Mountain Standard Time.

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DGN, June 18, 2002
Copyright 2001 David G. Novick