Dispatch from Toulouse, 31 July 1998

David G. Novick

In the middle of summer, Toulouse goes into a drowsy state, a kind of hibernation caused by warmth rather than cold. Normally the parking spaces below our apartment building are filled with the familiar cars of our neighbors. For the last few weeks, though, almost all the spaces have been empty. Toulouse, like the rest of France, is on vacation. Entire business activities come to a stop. For example, our newspaper's archives department is now closed for a few weeks. The subscription service for the local symphony orchestra is closed until late August. Many shops have a hand-lettered sign in their shuttered windows indicating when they will reopen. The opera house has shut down entirely: there's an exhibition of costumes in the lobby but it turns out to be pointless to ask to see the Italianate auditorium because the space is covered in protective canvas drop cloths for two and half months. In fact, all of the main performing arts groups seem to be on vacation. It's a good time to pause for a citron pressé at a sidewalk café in a little square in the old part of the city and enjoy the passing scene.

For those who venture out of town, there are big summer music festivals in several cities here in southwest France. Among the most celebrated are the jazz festival in the otherwise unknown town of Marciac, and the classical music festival in the ancient village of Saint Bertrand de Comminges. Those of us still in Toulouse have been enjoying the city's summer music series, which is a palliative to tide over the culturally starved until the fall. About half of the concerts are jazz, which is very popular here. More precisely, the concerts have been oriented around early jazz from Chicago and, especially, New Orleans. Most of the pieces we've heard were composed before 1925. Although the groups have American names, almost all the musicians are French. One jazz band's name is a cross-linguistic pun: "Hot Antic," pronounced with a French accent, results in the French word for "authentic." The musicianship is wonderful and the performances are involving and amusing. Almost all of the concerts are held in a side chapel of a medieval cloister, with the crowd overflowing the chapel, through three enormous arches, out into the graveled aisles of the cloister itself.

Over the last few weeks we've heard many top French jazz performers, combining energy, humor, and sheer musicality. The two American performers in the wave of Gallic jazz were the vocalist Reverend Lucien Garrett and the pianist Brian Lewis, both of the First Baptist Church of Vacherie, Louisiana. They performed spiritual and gospel songs, joined by the Vintage Jazzmen--who are, of course, French. The performance was terrific. Garrett resembled, both physically and vocally, James Earl Jones. He was dressed in a bright red jacket with shoes to match. We chatted with his wife, Ella Garrett, who recorded much of the concert on a camcorder. She was a warm person, rather happy to talk with a couple of Americans. She sings with the church choir, whether back in Vacherie or on tour in Italy a couple of years ago. On this trip, she was along for the fun. The group had performed in the rather remote town of Millau (pop. 22,000) the night before and were playing the following night in the Basque coastal city of Bayonne (pop. 40,000). Toulouse was the biggest crowd they had seen, and in fact they were summer's biggest draw here. The musicians evoked a huge response from the audience, drawing even the most reserved, chic, well-coiffed women to clap spontaneously in their closing numbers. We waved for Ella Garrett's camera during the excitement.

Toulouse was one of the ten host cities in France for the World Cup. The city was washed with consecutive waves of color, such as blue for Argentina, green for Nigeria and, above all, orange for the Netherlands. The Dutch fans were not hard to spot, wearing orange pants, orange shirts and, often, orange wigs. The night before their playoff game here, they hung out in front of the arcades of the Place du Capitole, Toulouse's vast main square, stopping cars so that they could sing some sort of cheer. In the 40,000-seat stadium, huge sections--most of the place, actually--were orange. The red, white and blue Yugoslavs had one section.

The 33 days of the World Cup closed with France, host and champion, delirious with joy. The unexpected French victory swept away memories of the Air France strike that nearly paralyzed the country, the hilariously boring opening event involving four glacially sluggish giant robots representing the world's races, the tens of thousands of fictitious tickets that had been sold to Japanese fans, and the English and German thugs. For five days, the front pages of newspapers across France carried enormous, full-color pictures celebrating reaching the finals for the first time in history, playing in the finals against defending champion Brazil, winning the finals, celebrating the championship, and celebrating Bastille Day as champions. The day of the game, thousands came out just to cheer the team's bus as it left the training center for the stadium at 6 p.m. for the 9 p.m. kickoff. They mobbed the bus and waved flags. One woman carried a flag that she had last flown for the Liberation.

Game day found us in Sainte Enimie, population 500, a medieval town on the banks of the river Tarn. Here in its upper reaches, the Tarn has carved deep gorges through the region's limestone plateaus. Eventually the river joins Toulouse's Garonne river heading toward Bordeaux and the Atlantic, but here the culture is like that of Oregon's McKenzie River, a sparse thread of towns running through a largely unpopulated, almost wild area. Like on the McKenzie, several towns have river outfitters who rent canoes and kayaks that let visitors see the sights from the water. Campsites line stretches of the water's edge. Along the Tarn, though, there are also ruined castles on crags, chateau hotels perched along the banks, towering limestone cliffs, the occasional topless sunbather or boater, and Dutch teenagers jumping off rock faces into the river.

Sainte Enimie, a Merovingian princess and sister of King Dagobert, founded a monastery in the town in the late Sixth Century after her miraculous cure from some kind of skin disease. The town, built entirely of stone along lines that could have inspired M.C. Escher, climbs the steep slope from the river bank to the monastery's surviving structures. Along side the old chapel is the town school, whose recreation yard overlooks the town and the river below. Lynne and I had an early dinner of salad and crepes, washed down with a carafe of local red. The restaurant was in what might be called mid-town: above the river and below the monastery. Even as shadows lengthened, the day was hot and patrons flocked to the restaurant's outside tables, set on a stone street between stone buildings with potted red flowers spilling over balconies. A little before eight p.m. we headed down to the town's festival hall, a large room in the daylight basement of the tourist office. I'm glad we got there when we did, as a crowd was already forming. The room was equipped with a large-screen video projector and a cable running along the floor to a satellite dish attached to a railing on the sidewalk. Normally the room would seat 120 people, but tonight it was packed with 320 people and an equal number were turned away. Just playing in the finals against heavily favored Brazil made it an historic day, and it seemed like everyone who lived in the area wanted to share the moment. There were children of all ages, almost all of whom had their faces painted in red, white and blue. The crowd did the wave, from front to back. Everyone sang the Marseillaise, loud enough to drown out the television, and we finished enthusiastically two beats ahead of the on-screen band of the Garde Republicaine.

As the song fades, play begins. Incredibly, unbelievably, France's best-known player Zinedine Zidane scores the game's first goal by heading in a corner kick, and the place erupts. Then France leads 2-0, on a second Zidane header. Mass elation. Midway through the second half, a French defender is ejected and the team will have to play the last 20 minutes of the game one player down. Rising tension. Remarkably, heroically, the French hold in the face of the Brazilian firepower and, as the last minute ticks away, actually score a short-handed goal. Delirium. And the game is over, 3-0 France. Pandemonium. Most of the kids bolt directly to the streets to yell and to bounce cars passing along Sainte Enimie's main drag, which is the river highway. We stay to watch the game's aftermath from Paris: the Brazilian players stunned, the French players crying in joy, and Zidane's face projected on the Arc de Triomphe as a million and a half French people mob the Champs Elysées. Lynne and I celebrate with a pastis on the terrace of a café overlooking Sainte Enimie's main street, watching cars go back and forth honking horns and streaming flags as jubilant fans yell encouragement.

The next day, the Champs Elysées were mobbed again as the team took a kind of motorized victory lap in an open-top, double-decker bus. Protected by a phalanx of police, the bus crawled from the Place de la Concorde to Arc de Triomphe as the players lofted the World Cup trophy. The crowd was so heavy that, despite a would-be flying wedge of police cars and officers, the bus eventually had to escape on side street, short of the Etoile. The glory of the nation had been proven on the field. The multi-ethnic cast of players proved victorious against xenophobia and racism, too. It is a wonderful thing to be French, at least for a while. The popularity ratings of President Chirac and Prime Minister Jospin have climbed to stratospheric levels.

A teenage friend told me that the celebration in Toulouse was huge, too. He was there as thousands of people jammed the Place de la Capitole. Now, two weeks later, the banners and flags are mostly gone, the special World Cup bus shelters removed, and the temporary outdoor restaurants dismantled. Everyone has left town, traffic is light, and my commute is much improved.


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DGN, July 31, 1998
Copyright 1998 David G. Novick