We’re getting three bites at the French cherry on this trip. Toulouse is our second taste. Since our first introduction to France in Royan, the terrible attack in Nice happened. Here, in the third largest city in France, we experience some of the fallout. Heavily – and obviously – armed soldiers patrol the streets at random intervals. They are not always there, but every time I see them my heart stops for a moment. Despite having grown up in South Africa at a time when there were running battles in township streets, I do not recall ever encountering armed soldiers in the streets I walked. Going into tourist attractions our backpacks are searched, and yesterday in the city’s cathedral there were two policemen having a quiet look around. None of these men and women are aggressive or threatening, but their subtle presence is a reminder that all is not well.
Being as far south as it is, Toulouse is home to a mixed population. People generally have darker complexions, there is a great variety of “ethnic” restaurants and informal eateries selling Moroccan, Middle-Eastern and Asian food, and mixed-race couples are a common occurrence.
Do I feel unsafe here? Not at all. Not for a moment. Toulouse is beautiful and has a lovely, relaxed vibe.
As was the case in Royan, the long lunch hour is a given here. Shops and businesses close for at least an hour over lunchtime; sometimes as long as two or even three hours. They also close as proprietors take their summer holidays. To me this sends a remarkable message about how the French (at least those in Toulouse) view life. It is okay, as a small business owner, to not work yourself to death, to take a proper lunch break and to go away on holiday. I don’t know if they agonise about losing business while the shop is closed, but I’m pretty sure they are happier and more balanced than many small business owners in other parts of the world. I love how a handwritten sign on a shop door communicates a belief that it will all still be here when I get back. And these really are the small businesses – just around where we stay a few restaurants, a butcher shop and two dry-cleaners have notices on their doors. Granted, Toulouse is not a massive tourist destination, but it still takes courage and a certain worldview to lock the door behind you and go on holiday for a week or three.
I appreciate the lesson I feel I am being taught here.
Another observation, on a different note, is the unexpectedly high number of beggars and people who appear to be homeless. A large proportion of the beggars have pets with them. Without exception, the animals are well looked after on the face of it and there is always at least a bowl of water for them. One tends to think beggars are confined to our street corners and traffic lights, but it’s not the case. Even in affluent, first-world France there are people who get by without the bare necessities.
Speaking of animals, the French appears to not appreciate the need to clean up after the dogs they so like to take for walks. Arriving back home with clean shoes requires some fancy footwork. Thankfully the street cleaners keep the problem at bay (even if they do so at 06:00 in the morning using the noisiest equipment you can imagine!).
Fresh from my cookery course, food is on my radar and Toulouse does not disappoint. The fresh produce market that springs up every morning along one of the main thoroughfares offers an abundance of fruit and vegetables at the most astoundingly low prices. Even the little supermarket around the corner has an excellent selection of cheeses and “specialist” ingredients like gelatin leaves and vanilla pods (but not lemons, for some unfathomable reason!).
Getting around the city is easy, given that its sights and attractions are within walking distance of each other and of our accommodation. The city encourages cycling with cycle lanes everywhere and a public transport system that includes bicycle stations all over where you can pick up and deposit bikes once you’re registered on the system. Toulouse is of course not the first city to introduce this scheme, but it’s the first time we’ve used it and what a pleasure it is. Imagine linking such a system to the Gautrain, or finding a way to make it work in our metros and even smaller towns. Yes, I know you can think of a hundred reasons why it won’t work but consider, just for a moment, the impact on people’s lives of having public transport option available that is cheap and convenient, and where your safety is largely in your own hands.
On a lighter note, despite bicycles being everywhere, they are not the rulers of the roads here as in Amsterdam. The onus appears to be on the cyclist to stay out of trouble. Pedestrians step into the street or wander into the cycle lanes without looking and cars refuse to yield if, in the driver’s opinion, the cyclist is in the wrong – such as crossing an intersection at a traffic light instead of using the underpass. In all fairness, though, drivers are really careful and considerate when passing cyclists on the road.
Like every other place we’ve been over the past two months, Toulouse is opening my mind a little more every day, and I absolutely love it.