Dispatch from Toulouse, 27 December 2001

David G. Novick

Since Lynne and I moved to El Paso, Texas at the end of October, 1999, I've been back to Toulouse three times for periods ranging from two days to a week. Toulouse was hard hit by the fertilizer-plant explosion in September, 2001. There have been other, more minor changes, too. The restoration scaffolding has come down from the facades of Notre Dame du Taur and La Dalbade, revealing in the case of the latter a startlingly bright ceramic bas-relief above the door. The florist's kiosk in the Place St. Pierre has become a newsstand. And a nightclub barge on the Canal de Brienne has been renamed "Hey Joe." Most of the city remains constant, of course. My memories of living in Toulouse, although constant too, are beginning to fade. So this dispatch concerns the memories I wanted to pass along to you.

One experience that remains vivid is getting my French driver's license. This is no trivial matter: your license is valid for life and the examination process is tuned appropriately. This was a matter of some urgency for me, as eventually our car insurance would be invalidated by not having a French license. The test is in two parts. For the first part, which tests knowledge of traffic laws and safety, I had to study for many months. To take these tests you have to enroll in (and pay, of course) a state-licensed driving school. We had weekly practice tests and I studied like crazy at home, buying and memorizing supplemental texts and sample exams. The process was humbling not so much because the concepts were difficult but because it revealed how far my French was from native. The questions often hinged on what for me were fairly subtle linguistic distinctions. Eventually deemed sufficiently prepared by the driving school, my cohort of test-takers and I were driven by our instructors to a suburban test center. I don't think I'd experienced such a level of anxiety since the bar exam. Mercifully, I passed on the first try, although a third of the people taking the test failed. There then followed a few weeks of intensive driving lessons in which I actually learned a lot. The instructors had very specific ideas on how to turn the steering wheel, and so on. We practiced driving especially in the suburb in which I would take the test, as this outlying city is, I understand, the only remaining city in France that retains the old priority-on-the-right scheme for roundabouts, where the cars already in the intersection must yield to cars entering from the right. We navigated in and out, learning the peculiarities of difficult intersections and awkward traffic patterns. There are a lot of non-obvious differences between American and French driving, and I worked hard to make French practice second nature. I had a surprise in my very first lesson. I was driving down a street at precisely the speed limit when the instructor said "Come on, get moving." It turns out, she explained for reasons that are too arcane to present here, that you are actually supposed to drive up to five kilometers an hour faster than the speed limit. If you go the speed limit, she added, then the examiner will think you're too nervous to be unleashed on the roads of France. So when I took the driving test one winter morning, with examiner in the right front seat and the instructor and another student in the back, I pulled out onto the street, sped up to four kilometers over the speed limit, and the examiner didn't bat an eye. Twenty minutes later, after a circuit on city streets, the freeway, and roundabouts new and old, he told me to pull over to park, and that was that. I got my temporary license while still sitting in the car. I breathed several heartfelt sighs of relief. The other student, like fully half of the people who took the test that day, failed.

There are a zillion other stories I wanted to recount about life in France. I don't think I can write them all down--or subject you to them, for that matter. There were our walks around town, the way one shops, our phase of dining on smoked duck and salad, our trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the French labor laws, the way the car is changing France inexorably for the worse, the way the deportation of Jews in WWII still affects how Toulousains regard their train station, the way that Clovis's conquest of Toulouse in the Sixth Century still affects how people regard the Pope, how friendships work, why an Offenbach operetta isn't mere light entertainment but rather politically charged, how tax evasion is the national pastime, the creeping Americanization of French life and the consequent political reaction, the French meritocracy based on skill in mathematics, and why Roquefort cheese is inherently better consumed in France than abroad, just to begin with. Then there are the incongruities that a foreigner notices, like the fact that Air France crews apparently have the freedom to choose their own cabin music, so you sometimes find yourself in a plane accelerating down the runway for take-off to the theme from Star Wars. Ironically enough, the only music played on the phone while you're on hold on for Air France reservations was Nancy Sinatra's "These Boots are Made for Walking."

The memories that are the most important to me are those of connections to people and their lives. Through our faithful attendance at the organ festival we got to know a number of people, including Monsieur and Madame Pech. A couple of days before we moved from Toulouse to El Paso, Lynne, her mom and I went to a concert and dinner with the Peches, who lived down the street from us. The dinner was at an exceptional restaurant, the Michelin-starred Restaurant Michel Sarran, which by great luck happened to be located about 100 yards from our apartment as the crow flies. Monsieur Sarran prepares imaginative cuisine of the highest quality, inspired by the flavors and products of the southwest (of France, of course). Madame Sarran runs the front of the house, greeting us with genuine warmth. And Monsieur Sarran's brother serves as the maitre d'. We wouldn't be able to eat like this in El Paso but at least we'd know what we'd be missing. In fact, the highlight of the evening was the "concert", which, given the exalted nature of meal, you can I hope appreciate as something extraordinary. Monsieur Pech, in his retirement, serves as organist of a church--Catholic, of course--on the north side of Toulouse. Through the graces of a friend who is the regional official in charge of historic organs, Monsieu Pech has access for his practice to the organ at a church around the corner from the restaurant Michel Sarran. This is pretty good, too, because the church, built between 1607 and 1657, is the former convent of St. Pierre Chartreux, whose dome is visible from our apartment's terrace, and whose organ is a 17th-Century classified historic monument that is one of the top two instruments in this organ-happy city. Monsieur Pech opened the church with an enormous ancient key, turned on a few of the lights, and made his way to the organ loft. The audience, in its entirety, consisted of Madame Pech, Lynne's mother, Lynne and me.

I'm sure that Monsieur Pech would classify himself as an amateur but you wouldn't have been able to tell from his performance that evening. He played a wonderful series of pieces, each designed to showcase the organ's various voices. Before each piece, Monsieur Pech would come out from behind the console, lean over the balustrade, and shout down to us the composer and name of the piece and the stops that would be used. Befitting the instrument, the pieces were mostly from composers of the 17th Century. The evening's final work, though, Monsieur Pech announced without reference to composer or title as being in our honor. He returned to the keyboards and, after a few moments where we could here the changing of stops, there sounded in trumpets' voices the opening strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner." And, for the next 15 minutes or so, Monsieur Pech performed a tour-de-force improvisation based on our national anthem. This was his wonderful bon-voyage present to us.

As you leave Toulouse from the air, it doesn't really live up to its nickname of the "ville rose." There are earthy red tile roofs, green and brown fields, with dots of bright blue suburban swimming pools. The city's characteristic brick color makes its appearance not from above but at street level, where the people are. On a warm spring day the Toulousains flood the sidewalks, ambling along the quays of the Garonne, window-shopping along the 19th-Century facades of the Rue Alsace-Lorraine, and wandering from square to square. On a sunny Saturday before catching a flight back to El Paso, I had an extended lunch at a sidewalk table of the one of the brasseries that surround the Place Wilson, Toulouse's most chic gathering place. I was lucky to get a table, as they soon all filled up with representatives of the Toulouse peoplescape: two elegant women, a younger couple, an older couple with their small dog. I ordered a green salad, a cassoulet, and a half-bottle of local red. A cassoulet takes substantial time to cook, so I had plenty of time to watch people strolling by, seeing and being seen. When the cassoulet arrived, hot and bubbling through its crust, I leaned over and savored that irreplaceable aroma of the cuisine of the southwest. "A real Toulousain," commented one of the older couple. I dug into my dish, enjoying the food, the surroundings, the passers-by and the diners in the brasserie. And I leave them all there, with plates being whisked on and off tables next to bottles of local wine, talking earnestly to each other in the sunshine of the Midi Toulousain.


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DGN, December 27, 2001
Copyright 2001 David G. Novick