Dispatch from Toulouse, 7 September 1999

David G. Novick

Our neighborhood is not a tourist magnet. It is an oasis of relative calm near the center of the city. Things interesting to the visitor lie along the neighborhood's periphery: the Canal de Brienne, the Place St. Pierre, and remnants of the old city walls. For locals, there is a suprisingly soulless park, a small boulodrome marooned amid a triangle of intersecting boulevards, a down-at-the-heels modern indoor mall, and a scattering of neighborhood bars and restaurants. In the 18th century, this area lay just outside the city walls. There were fields and a cemetery. In the 19th century, there were two military barracks, and the neighborhood is still named after them, despite the fact that they were replaced in the 1980's with the shopping mall.

The Canal de Brienne is one of Toulouse's great glories, a popular circuit for walkers and runners. We've spotted our doctor, for example, running along one of the tow paths. Lynne walked along the canal religiously, so regularly that we found out that the staff of a restaurant barge became concerned when they hadn't seen her for a while. The canal, only about a kilometer long, was built in the 18th century to link the Garonne River to the terminus of the 17th-century Canal du Midi. Their intersection became even more important in the 19th-century when the Canal Lateral a la Garonne was built, thus linking the Mediterranean and the Atlantic entirely by canal. There is a working lock at each end, as the Canal de Brienne is a route for excursion boats. The canal is lined on both sides with majestic 200-year-old plane trees that provide reasonable protection from rainshowers in the spring, welcome shade in the summer, and a glorious show of golden colors in the fall. Before WWII, mansions with gardens lined the streets along the canal. Most of these were torn down, replaced by high-rise concrete apartment buildings. A few of the mansions cling to their lots. Some beautiful brick and stone bridges span the canal, their gracefulness reflecting a long-lived French sense of the esthetics of everyday things. Even the most modern bridge, built last year to replace an awkward floating bridge, is an elegant miniature suspension design.

The Place St. Pierre, a five-minute walk from our apartment, connects a bridge across the Garonne with a narrow but busy street that leads to the center of town. One half of the place is a rose garden, which four to five times a year is carefully encircled with tall cyclone fencing. The Place St. Pierre is a lively center of student life, and is a key spot for youthful celebration of big events, like rugby championships or the annual music festival. Thus the roses survive. The place is lined with restaurants and bars, the rowdiest of which is Chez Tonton, reputed as a gathering place for rugby players and fans. During our stay in Toulouse it had been shut down twice by the police for the excesses of it patrons. The reason the place is called St. Pierre is that it is adjacent to two churches, both named St. Pierre! One is St. Pierre Chartreux, which had been a nunnery; the remnants of the church's former cloister are now a garden of the nearby University of Social Sciences. The other is St. Pierre des Cuisines, recently renovated and reopened as part of the Toulouse Conservatory as a performance space for music and dance. When it opened, militant Catholics placed a large wooden cross in front of the church as protest against making something sacred profane, as if somehow Toulouse, the "city of a hundred churches," lacked Catholic places of worship. This sort of practical conversion of religious buildings is certainly not without precedent in France. The French revolution was deeply anticlerical as well as antimonarchist, and virtually all the Catholic churches in France were taken over by state. Mobs knocked the heads off of statues and desecrated tombs. Even the most awesome cathedrals were used as armories and stables. I understand that most of these buildings were returned to the control of the church in the mid-19th century.

Our street, the rue Lancefoc, named after an old Toulousain family (the etymology is something like "launch jib"), sounds embarassing or awkward to Anglo-American sensibilities. The rue Lancefoc runs for about 400 yards, starting at the Canal de Brienne and ending at the main boulevard that encircles the heart of Toulouse. At the canal end, there had been, for about a year, an ill-defined computing/Internet-access store that was becoming more and more of an impromptu café in order to keep up business; the streets on both sides of the canal are almost entirely residential or academic. Along the rue Lancefoc are mainly a series of townhouses and small apartment buildings. Many of the townhouses are of the style of building called a "Toulousaine," which is a one- or two-story house with rooms symmetrically placed around a central hall. I think most of these were built in the 1930's. When you see, no matter what the neighborhood, a real-estate listing for a "vraie Toulousaine," it's almost always "à renover," that is to say, to renovate because it lacks modern plumbing and wiring, houses kitchen appliances that are almost but not quite old enough to be antiques, and features gloomy, out-of-date wallpaper. At the boulevard end of rue Lancefoc, a clutch of small businesses line the street, hoping to draw traffic. The boulevards were built in the 1860s, along the track of the city walls that they replaced. A few stretches of wall remain, one on the edge of our neighborhood. The walls were built of flat, Roman-style red brick, with guard towers every 100 meters or so. Houses were often built using the city wall as a back wall, and some old parts of the wall on the south side of the city still carry the plaster and paint defining the rooms of those now-demolished houses. Our neighborhood's stretch of the wall has been restored, so it looks quite serviceable. It comes as something of shock when the wall comes to an abrupt end as it reaches the boulevard, terminating in a jagged line of jutting bricks, like a post-modern architectural feature.

The little businesses near the boulevard reflect both personal and national stories. The bakery was owned by a husband and wife, and the awning carried their names. When they divorced, they sold the bakery. It's a pretty tough existence, getting up at 3 a.m. to make bread that you have to sell at traditionally low prices. Like many others, this bakery made ends meet by selling sandwiches and salads at lunch. The wife, we gather, left the bread business to get a life. The husband moved to their other bakery, about three blocks away, which he runs with his son. The son wants to go to North America, and is working on moving to Quebec. The shop they sold, on our street, was bought and renovated by a young couple, whose names now grace a sign in front. The butcher's shop a few doors down the street is a wonderful example of the sort of shop that once was numerous and now exists for the most part only in smaller towns. The butcher is an actual artist of meats, and it's amazing to see him cut a chunk of meat off a huge side of beef and find that it weighs within a gram of the customer's order, or to see him tie a roast using moves as precise a magician's. The neighborhood butcher, though, is increasingly threatened by the commercial dominance of suburban "hypermarkets," which offer one-stop shopping from seafood to computers. We too stopped buying at our local butcher's, but in our case because we found an organic grocery that had a meat department. The decline of neighborhood butchers, like the perceptible decline in street markets, is due to the car, the development of suburbs, and the growing percentage of two-income families. It's a lot easier to go on a weekday evening or a Saturday morning to a hypermarket and buy everything you need for the week than it is to take time off during the morning to go the marché. Like residents of other countries, the French too make choices about what is important for their quality of life.

On the Fourteenth of July, we were not in our neighborhood but rather in the countryside just north of the Dordogne River. By the way, if you talk about "Bastille Day" with a French person, you're likely to get a puzzled look: The French refer to their national day only by its date. We were staying on a former tobacco farm, deep in la France profonde, not far from the town of Les Eyzies de Tayac, famous for its caves with Cro-Magnon paintings. There are lots of caves in the area because the topography, like that of much of central France, is built of limestone plateaus on which falls a lot of rain, which penetrates the limestone as it descends to the valleys of rivers like the Dordogne and the Vézère. We'd been dodging rain showers all week; luckily most of the rain seemed to fall while we were touring caves. Yet the night of the 14th arrived with clear skies, and after dinner we strolled on the lanes through fields up to the top of the rolling plateau. And there, far from any city or town, we saw not only the vast expanse of stars overhead but the profusion of fireworks exploding in the distance all around us, as each good-sized town in the valleys below celebrated being French.


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DGN, April 4, 2003
Copyright 1999-2001 David G. Novick