My stay in France continued after Paris with a visit to the south in Toulouse. I had several people from France tell me that I need to see more than just Paris. In fact, they would tell me I needed to see the real France which is outside of the capital. My friend Natacha recommended a few places… Montpellier, Bordeaux, Nice or Toulouse. I heard Toulouse was a really good place to see and I even had a hostel roommate from there when I was in Edinburgh, Scotland. After a week in Paris, I booked a train to see what people told me was part of the “real France”. To be fair, I only spent three days in Toulouse, so obviously not enough to judge. Here’s what I saw.
The city has medieval origins and the land was once occupied by the Romans. It’s the fourth largest in France at around 1.2 million residents, and is headquarters for Europe’s aerospace industry. It’s also home for one of Europe’s oldest universities, the Université de Toulouse. It’s still had this small town feel, though, and massive amounts of charm.
Once again, I was able to experience the Christmas markets of another city. It’s been a really cool experience to see all these different cities during Christmas time. The market in Toulouse was setup in the main square of the old town. They had gifts, food, and of course, hot wine. Hot wine, or vin chaud in French, has become one of my favorite things about European travel this time of year. It’s also commonly referred to as mulled wine, and I can’t believe it’s not more popular in the US. I’ve picked up several traditions in Europe that I will bring home with me, and this is one.
I walked the streets at night a couple times and took photos of all the Christmas lights. I’ve the holiday to be a little more subtle in Europe. There are some lights in the streets, and a couple Christmas displays in some shops. However, I didn’t feel like Christmas was punching me in the face every day like I do back home this time of year.
As with Paris, I always started my interactions in French with anyone I encountered. Whether it be a cafe, restaurant, grocery store, etc, I used my minimal French until it failed and then hoped pointing and gesturing would save me. I had a couple interesting run-ins with the locals. The first was in a grocery store when I needed a plastic bag to haul away my food. In most of Europe, bags aren’t free. They usually cost around 5 euro cents and you have to ask for one. This is a sweet idea because it encourages people to bring their own reusable bags. I couldn’t think of what the word for plastic bag would be, but remembered the word for luggage was bagaj, so I used it to ask for a plastic bag. The girl looked at me funny until I pointed. She then held up the plastic bag and laughed at my choice of words… not really in a mean way. I thought it was funny too. She continued to talk to me in French even though at that point, I would think it was obvious I didn’t speak the language.
Another encounter I had was when I went to the post office. I bought these cool art prints of Paris when I was in a street market in Montmartre. I had them in a shipping tube, and wanted to send them home to my sister as a Christmas gift. Lucky for me, there was one guy in the post office who spoke a tiny bit of English and was able to help me out. He was really cool and made sure I had all the right labels and fees paid to ship it out of the country. Two weeks later, they arrived in Columbus. My sister framed them, and I think they look awesome.
On my last full day in Toulouse, I walked past this confection shop and everything looked way too good to not go in. I muddled my way through ordering an eclair and something called mille-feuille which I found out means thousands of sheets in French. The total was only 5 euros, so pretty cheap. The eclair was really good, but the mille-feuille was an endorphine tripping experience.
My big regret with Toulouse was that I wish I had tried to Couchsurf instead of booking a hostel because I really didn’t meet too many people to go exploring with. I was on my own the whole time which bummed me out a little because I had people around me almost the entire time in Paris. Out of everyone staying in the hostel, I think I was the only one who didn’t speak French. No one was backpacking either… just people in Toulouse for work or looking for apartments. However, for my last two nights, there was this guy from Paris named Fred who was in town for work. He was in a band and sang in English, but his spoken English wasn’t that great. He spoke Spanish, though, and between the three languagues, we managed to have a decent conversation. Best of all, we shared some bread, wine and cheese. He got a kick out of it, and told me the next day he mentioned to his family having wine and cheese with an American and they didn’t believe him. Hmmm…. camembert cheese.
That’s about all I have to say for Toulouse. I only spent three days there, and felt like I saw most of what I wanted, but didn’t get a real sense of the city. It’s not really a tourist destination, but it was still a really cool city. I think if you’re trying to learn French, and wanted to emerse yourself in the language, it would be a fantastic city to do it in. The prices were cheaper than Paris, and not that many people speak English, so fewer English language crutches to rely on. It’s home to a major university, so lots of young, smart, and talented people to potentially connect with.