12.
Toulouse

He who understands me finally recognizes my propositions as senseless.
- Ludwig Wittgenstein


The above picture was taken in Narbonne, where I took advantage of a wait between trains to find an exchange office and convert my leftover pesetas to francs. I know absolutely nothing about the place beyond the name; I hope it's a good hotel, though.

Narbonne is a good-sized town in Languedoc, just inland from the Mediterranean coast; another old town, an important port during Roman times, and supposedly there are interesting things to see, but I wasn't there long enough. I had just enough time to take care of the money exchange, blink rapidly at the sight of Will's Hotel, and grab a beer and a croque monsieur (basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich) before the train left for Toulouse.

Actually I had more time than I was supposed to; the train was twenty minutes late - and when it finally showed up it was already full. The passengers waiting on the platform in Narbonne were not a gang of happy campers, and as we climbed aboard and searched for seats and then for standing places in the packed corridors, we became even unhappier.

Still, we got ourselves sorted out and settled in as the train moved out, with a certain amount of low-voiced grumbling but no open bitching or raised voices. (As there would surely have been in the US, if the US had such things as passenger trains.) I found a place to stand in the corridor, near the end of the car, where I had a good view out the window. To tell the truth, I wasn't entirely displeased with the situation, even though my feet and legs were still a bit achy from climbing those steep streets in Girona. There were any number of attractive young ladies on the train, and quite a few of them had occasion to come down the corridor - going to and from the toilet, or maybe still trying to find seats - which meant they had to pass by where I stood, and it was a very narrow corridor.... One particularly pretty young woman lost her balance, as the train gave a lurch, and fell against me; as I caught and steadied her she blushed and said, "Pardon, monsieur," and I said, "Mon plaisir, mademoiselle," and she laughed and gave me a killer smile before moving on.

Damn, I thought, it's good to be back in France....


Toulouse is a big spread-out city - the fourth largest in France - and, between the university and the Airbus factory, a very busy and lively place. It was an important city even in Visigoth times and on up through the Middle Ages. It got worked over pretty badly during the butchery of the Cathars - one of those alleged wars of religion with scarcely-hidden geopolitical motives, in this case the conquest of the Languedoc country by the central Parisian power - but it survived and recovered; its location made that inevitable.

It was getting late by the time I arrived. There was a cheap hotel right across from the train station; I took a room, dumped my pack, dug out my camera, and hit the street.

Toulouse has a lot of interesting old buildings, as you'd expect with a history like that; but it was too late in the day, and everything too far apart (unlike many European cities which considerately bunch all the good stuff together), to have any hope of seeing it all. I settled for the nearest point of interest: the church of St. Sernin.


St. Sernin was built in the 11th century, for the benefit of pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It is the world's largest Romanesque church. I have no idea what "Romanesque" means but that is what they say anyway. Some of the upper works were added around 1300. I walked around it, admired it dutifully, and then went looking for a place to eat.

(By now, as an experienced Eurotraveler, I had the routine down: get off the train, find a hotel room, go photograph the cathedral, and then look for somewhere to have dinner. There will always be a cathedral, and it will be the oldest or the largest of its type in France or Spain or the world, or it will have the tallest steeple or the widest nave [whatever a nave may be] or something; you have to look hard to find just an ordinary old church.)

The Rue Bayard is a busy street that runs between St. Sernin and the railroad station, and is most conveniently lined with excellent cafés and brasseries and bistros (I must admit I never quite got the distinctions). I picked one almost at random and, feeling an urge to try the local cuisine, ordered a cassoulet. I hadn't been paying much attention to regional specialties so far, and I felt a bit guilty about that.

Sitting at my sidewalk table, waiting for my cassoulet, I marveled at the traffic, which was even worse than Paris. It was so dense that people were actually driving slowly. French people. Yes. A street so jammed that even French drivers couldn't find room to drive like lunatics. It was more like New York traffic, only quieter. (Not that French drivers don't use their horns, frequently and enthusiastically; but New Yorkers are the undisputed pointless-honking champions of the known universe.)

Suddenly, as the light turned red and the traffic ground to a full stop, I noticed the driver of a little gray car over in the far lane. A really cute girl, college age or thereabouts, she was the only person on the street who seemed to be having fun; she had a big smile on her face and she was boogying vigorously, sitting there behind the wheel moving her shoulders and arms and snapping her fingers to the rhythm of some music that I couldn't hear.

And she was wearing a clown nose. A big red clown nose. No other facial makeup, just the clown nose.

Impulsively I started applauding. She turned her head and saw me and grinned.

I blew her a kiss. She pantomimed catching it and pressing it to her cheek. She blew me one in return. I made a big dramatic show of clutching at my heart with both hands: ah, I am smitten.

And we sat there like that for several minutes, doing this ridiculous mime act back and forth across the Rue Bayard, till finally the traffic started moving again and she blew me one last kiss before unhurriedly putting her little car into motion. As she pulled away, looking back, I grabbed my chest and sagged in my chair: my heart is forever broken...and I wasn't entirely kidding; a considerable part of me wanted to run after her and if she'd stopped again I might have done it....

Damn, I thought, it's good to be back in France.

The cassoulet turned out to be even more wonderful than I'd heard: a big crockery pot of savory soup or stew with white beans and various kinds of meat (among other things I found an entire chicken drumstick in mine) served with a green salad and plenty of chewy bread. And a decent red wine to help wash away that evil Spanish swill from last night...the meal was so good that I couldn't get seriously upset when l'addition turned out to have been considerably padded, the only time that ever happened to me in France.

I wandered the streets for a couple of hours, while darkness fell. Toulouse clearly had a considerable night life, and a lively street scene (a bit too lively in places; there were some neighborhoods that looked pretty hairy and I got my ass out quickly).


This place looked almost irresistibly promising, as did several other establishments, but I managed to resist; my funds were starting to deplete a little too fast, and anyway I had to catch a train for Paris in the morning.

Less than a week left. I didn't want to think about that.

Next: Paris again
Previous Page: Girona
Home Travel Page & Contents
Author's Home Page