Dispatch from Toulouse, 7 May 1998

David G. Novick

Lynne and I spent a February weekend learning about and singing Gregorian chant at Toulouse's Institute of Sacred Music. This music arose out of the Jewish cantorial tradition, and its central works are settings for the psalms. Of course all of the words were in Latin, so we hardly understood any of it. This was the first workshop on Gregorian chant that the institute had given in something like 20 years. It turns out that the institute's leaders had been reluctant because Gregorian chant had been closely identified for quite a while with the most conservative elements in the Catholic church, for whom chant was a back-to-basics thematic banner. None of that radical Palestrina! I'm not sure how the monks of Santo Domingo de Silos fit into the scheme. Actually, a couple of monks from a monastery near St. Emilion were part of the group as teacher and participant. They wore heavy brown robes and, despite the winter cold, sandals on bare feet. At the monastery, the monks still chant every few hours, day and night. Anyway, the workshop ended with an afternoon public concert of alternating organ and chant, with we students performing well enough that the audience actually stayed.

At the other end of the musical scale, Lynne and I attended a combined concert of the Toulouse National Chamber Orchestra and Catherine Lara, a former violin prodigy turned pop-rock singer-songwriter. Lara is a big national star known as "la rockeuse de diamant"; she even had a television special last Friday night. Her pairing with the chamber orchestra arose because she'd been at the Paris conservatory at the same time as the orchestra's director, who is a truly great violinist (and former concertmaster for the Orchestre de Paris) but doesn't seem to be a rave-party kind of guy. The Halle aux Grains was decked out with massed plants, special scenery and clever lighting that gave the impression that one was in a garden on a summer evening, albeit a garden decorated with banners for the Crédit Agricole. In the first half of the concert, the chamber orchestra played some moving renditions of familiar favorites such as Barber's Adagio for Strings. After the break, they played back-up orchestra to Lara and her band. Lara, who is an energetic, slightly built and silver-haired woman, kind of resembled my Ph.D. adviser Sarah Douglas, but dressed like Johnny Cash, wearing black patent-leather platform shoes and clutching a black electric violin. Her band included a bass player who resembled a long-haired Erik Estrada attired in a Michael Jackson outfit. The crowd knew many of the songs by heart, so that for her final encore Lara got people in the audience to sing her song "Imagine" (not the John Lennon opus!) a capella. Actually, it was a terrific concert, full of musical imagination and warmth.

The political situation here is too complex to describe adequately. The mainstream conservative parties are in complete disarray and are fast fracturing into increasingly tiny splinters. The time is ripe for a unity movement among conservatives, so naturally there are at least three of these, each with its own leader, unwilling to join with the others. The center-left coalition government is doing quite well, and has been remarkably restrained in making fun of the right-wing chaos, perhaps partly because the conservatives are quite capable of looking foolish on their own, and partly to avoid encouraging support for the National Front (FN). I'm pleased to report that FN just lost their only parliamentary seat, losing to a feminist Socialist in a by-election in Toulon by 33 votes. Other rancorous affairs include the official investigation of the current head of France's highest court for possible receipt of kick-backs when he was a government minister; various ex-ministers getting in and out of jail on corruption charges; and an ugly dispute, with no end in sight, between the mayor of Paris and most of his city-council colleagues who tried to stage a sort of coup and were consequently tossed out of their appointed offices. One gets the clear impression that the cult of personality rather than matters of policy forms the cornerstone of political parties here.

Our work schedules have kept us from seeing much of the region for the last six months. The other day, though, we took the weekend to visit part of the valley of the Lot, between Villeneuve and Cahors. Toulouse, for all its southern charm and ingenuousness, is a busy, noisy place. The Lot river is about as far from anywhere as one can get in France. It cuts between limestone cliffs and hills and it rushes west out of the Massif Central to join the Garonne, its waters flowing past Bordeaux to the Atlantic. Lynne and I walked along a dirt road as it traversed up a hillside on the south bank near Touzac. We gained about eight hundred feet in elevation, leaving riverside houses behind, rounding bluffs covered with scrub oaks, and listening to songbirds. As we climbed, we could look out on the valley, remarkably green and dotted with tile-roofed hamlets. On the plain at the summit we made our way past a series of barking, snarling dogs in fenced farmhouse front yards until we reached an ancient church, built to serve a small riverside town long since abandoned to ruin. We wandered around the tombs in the churchyard and then walked back down to the valley. On the drive home on Sunday we stopped, if only briefly, at a remarkable succession of villages still standing. Each had its own character and charm. One village above the Lot had its town hall/library high on a cliff overlooking the river. Another centered around a village square--triangle, really--surrounded by medieval arcades and host to a serious pétanque (i.e., boules) tournament, with Crédit Agricole banners to lend an official air. We've just purchased a set of boules so that we can join in the fun.

As one travels through France, you see a lot of names of towns. These names give rise, naturally enough, to adjectival forms. Residents of Paris are Parisiens, for example. People who live in Toulouse are Toulousains. Some cities and towns end up with adjectives that are not so obvious. There is a ski resort in the Pyrenees called Font-Romeu; the residents are the Romeufontains. The residents of nearby Foix, capital of the Ariege department, are the Fuxéens. And the inhabitants of Pau are the Palois, which makes the local rugby team the Section Paloise. There are a ton more of these. The French versions of the Michelin green guides often give this information so that you don't make a faux pas by calling, for example, a resident of Saint-Etienne a Saint-Etiennais instead of, more properly, a Stéphanois.

When we visit other cities, Lynne and I increasingly think of ourselves as Toulousains. Yet, despite what was predicted by books on culture shock and adaptation that we'd read, we still get waves of homesickness. They're not bad, but they do occur. Some of this is due simply to missing friends, relatives and colleagues. And some is due, oddly enough, to the constant reminders of the U.S. that confront you in everyday life here, including television programs, English slogans on billboards, and discussions of trends in American technology and management. The U.S. plays a big part in the consciousness of the French, whether they like it or not. Many, many French people would like to work in the U.S., at least for a while. We helped the son of our neighborhood baker try to find a job as a bread or pastry chef in California. (I think he's still looking; let me know if there's anyone in your area who needs a terrific, rather shy, artisanal baker.) The French press is attentive to American attitudes toward France. The fact that the Wall Street Journal recently reported that the "French Malaise" was dissipating as the result of improving economic conditions was picked up in the news here. The classical-music radio network has a daily review of the "Anglo-Saxon" press. One of the two local art-movie houses is decrying the potential implantation of yet another suburban multiplex cinema by an American company as a dangerous "Yankee" invasion. Lynne and I are pulling for the art houses.

I went one Sunday to an American-style football game, played in the rain on an increasingly muddy field in the Toulouse suburb of Fenouillet. The Toulouse area actually has two teams, the Comètes and the Bears. The home squad for this game was the Fenouillet Comètes, our national top-division team, whose roster is entirely French. The Comètes' uniforms resemble those of the Dallas Cowboys. The Comètes, unfortunately, were soundly defeated by the visiting Thonon-les-Bains Black Panthers, who hail from somewhere near Geneva, I was told. This is full-tackle football, played on a semi-remote field, with a small covered set of stands on one side of the field. There were the usual striped officials, the various attendants holding the yard markers, a Black Panther mascot, and cheers from the crowd. The overall effect resembled my idea of a small-college football game. The Thonon-les-Bains people must have come on a bus with the team, because there were a fair number of them, yelling "Lehts goh Pahntserz!". The players are all out there just for the fun of it and they have to buy their own (hugely expensive here) equipment and uniforms.

The big sport here in southwest France is rugby. The Toulouse area boasts two teams in the top division, which would be something like both Portland and Hillsboro having major-league football teams. The Stade Toulousain, which is the team of Toulouse proper, has won the "Buckle of Brennus," symbolic of the French national title, four years running including an upset win in the finals last year. They're going for their fifth title this month. The other team is from surburban Colomiers, which is in this year's playoffs too. Area fans are hoping for a Toulouse-Colomiers finale. Rugby players in France at the highest level are still semi-pro; they work in banks, attend university, etc. Professional soccer players may be high-paid stars, often matinee idols imported from Italy, but pro rugby players here are cauliflower-eared regular Joes. One player for Clermont-Monferrand, with grizzled broken-nose looks, is known as the "Massif Central."

One interesting aspect of professional sports in France is that the line between amateur and pro is hazy. Rugby, soccer and basketball teams, no matter in what division, all compete in a national league for their sport. Teams climb into or drop out of higher divisions based on their record over the year, so it's possible--at least in theory--for a purely amateur club that plays somewhere in the boondocks to rise in a few years from obscurity to the top division. There's a national tournament in the soccer league that pits teams from the several divisions against one another. Most years there's an amateur team three divisions down that will capture the national imagination by making it heroically to, say, the quarter-finals before being ejected from the tournament bracket by a professional team like Paris or Metz.

France promises to be pretty much impassable for much of June into early July due to the soccer World Cup. Hotels are hiking prices substantially and seats on airplanes are scarce. I actually managed to snag tickets for us to a couple of games in Toulouse. All it took was a credit card and about 4,000 attempts to call the French telepbone number handling reservations. The lines were notoriously jammed, as there were far fewer tickets than people who wanted them. I heard that there were tens of millions of attempted incoming calls from all over the world. Somehow I beat the odds and got through. As far as I know, I'm the only person at EURISCO to have made it. So if you're watching the Nigeria-Paraguay match on television on June 24, and see what appear to be a couple of non-partisan, non-smoking fans in the cheap seats, it's probably us.

Postscript: A good source for serious weekly updates on news of France is the Tocqueville Connection, which is a kind of clipping service aimed at helping Americans understand France. The Tocqueville Connection site posts articles translated from the French press with political, economic, social and cultural news. The site is updated every Friday. And more information than you need about the 1998 World Cup is available through links at the site of the Federation International de Football Association.


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DGN, June 2, 2001
Copyright 1998 David G. Novick