When I told one of my friends who had been to Toulouse that I planned to spend three and a half days there he said, “ok, you’ll see the city in the half day. What are you going to do the other three days?” Though Toulouse is bigger than Minneapolis by population (439k vs 392k), like French cities that aren’t Paris, the actual city limits are quite small. Knowing this, my plan for Toulouse was not really centered on tourism. It was more so to just hang out in the city with my friend Gabriel, enjoy being in France, and maybe recover from the preceding week in Morocco and Barcelona.
I met Gabriel three years ago when I studied abroad in Montpellier. He went to the English conversation group organized by the university. When we first met, I was certain he wasn’t French because his accent was too good. He ended up being one of the few French people I befriended abroad. We managed to keep in touch over the intervening years. Now, he’s a master’s student in translation at the university in Toulouse. We mainly talk to each other through email or IM, so it had been about three years since I had actually heard his voice. On the train ride over, I found myself wondering if he had kept his British accent.
Before arriving, Gab sent me a rather long email saying he would meet me on the platform, then detailed a bunch of contingency plans for if I didn’t see him there. Thankfully, as the train rolled into the station, I saw him waiting on the platform, just as he promised. After dropping off my stuff at his place, he made lunch. I was a little surprised when he offered me wine with the meal since it was only 2pm. Why not? It’s France.
We spent my first half day exploring the city, and that was pretty much all that was needed. Toulouse is the former capital of the Pays d’Oc, the historic region encompassing most of southern France. For this reason, the street signs in the center are written in both French and Occitan – the regional language that sounds like a mix of French and Spanish. As the capital, Toulouse is also a historically bourgeois city. The ubiquitous brick buildings give the city it’s nickname, La Ville Rose (the pink city).
After seeing the city’s highlights, I pretty much just hung out with Gabriel and his friends. I have always known that Gabriel’s English is far superior to my French. Like I said, when I met him, I thought he was British. I’m pretty sure nobody could mistake me for a native French speaker. When we were alone, we spoke English because it was easier. However, when he introduced me to his friends, I had to use my French.
By “use my French” I really just mean try to follow what they were saying. Most of the time we were with them, there was music or other noise in the background. That combined with the fact that they spoke quickly, used slang, and sometimes talked about cultural references or inside jokes, made me realize how bad my French actually is. I didn’t end up talking much because when you barely know what’s going on in the conversation, it’s hard to add to it. The only times I was really able to follow were when we were playing games. At least then, there are visual cues and you know everyone is talking about the same thing.
One afternoon we played pictionary at his friend Lya’s place over coffee. We started with films but switched to songs after realizing most movie titles change when they cross the ocean, even if they stay in English. For example the film Cool Runnings about a Jamaican bobsled team becomes Rasta Rocket. The Hangover is Very Bad Trip.
On my last night, we went down to the banks of the Garonne to watch the sunset. After dusk, we started playing a game that can best be described as bilingual Name that Tune. Most of Gab’s friends are from his cohort so they all speak English pretty well. To play, you take a song and translate it literally into French or English. Then, everybody had to guess what song it is. For example:
En premier, j’avais peur, j’étais pétrifiée becomes the first verse of I Will Survive.
go, come my lord. You sit at my table is Edith Piaf’s Milord.
This would be a really fun game to play in the US, but I don’t think I have enough friends who are bilingual in the same languages. The game is actually kind of hard because a) literal translations sound really weird – especially profanities and idioms, b) it’s difficult to recall more than a few lines of lyrics to any song. You realize how often you chante en yaourt (sing without actually using the words), and c) my French music vocabulary is pretty much restricted to the mix CD Mme. Rettler gave us in 2007. Even then the songs were somewhat dated.
During one of our other slow afternoons, Gab imparted French culture onto me by way of comedy. One comedian, Gaspard Proust, has a smart, dead pan routine rife with cultural references. Gab stopped the video after virtually every joke to explain the cultural context. Sometimes comedy is universal. Other times it opens a window to what stereotypes, archetypes, and values are present in a culture. I’m making this sound way more intellectual than it was.
I haven’t been publicizing my blog on social media and according to my site stats, there are about 10 people who read it semi regularly. I know three are family members. Dana and Ian – these comedy links are for you:
10 minutes à perdre
Though Toulouse was definitely my least busy destination, it was the most exhausting. Thinking takes a lot of energy. Thanks to Gabriel, I had a great time soaking up la vie Toulousaine.
Next stop: Bordeaux.