It’s the end of our third week in Toulouse and we are on a train to Barcelona. It’s all Estelle’s fault but more about that later…
It has been an exciting and challenging few weeks with equal measures of frustration and triumph. Our triumphs may have been small but you wouldn’t know it, we celebrated receiving our new french cell phones as if it were a successful moon landing.
France has not lived up to many of the stereotypes you might know. Here are a few items for discussion:
- Language: If you have it in your head to spend an extended period of time abroad we have one piece of advice for you – study the language! We have studied French sporadically over the last year and now communicate like not-so-bright children. If you want relationships with people that go beyond grunting and pointing you need to be able to talk to them.
- The French are rude: This is absolute hogwash (try saying that in French). It is true that they are more reserved with strangers in public. They don’t walk around with big stupid grins on their faces (that’s me and Diane) greeting everyone they pass. But given any reason to interact with someone they do so with politeness and generosity. These are of course gross over-generalizations and individual mileage may vary.
- It may take years before you are invited to a French friend’s house for dinner: Also material for laver le cohcon. We have already been invited to the houses of two French couples. Both have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome. They have become fast friends and have been incredibly generous.
- The French are lazy and never work: As noted above, our observations are generalizations. There are always outliers, we’re describing what we think is the meat of the bell curve. This topic came up with our friends Herve & Estelle. Compared to the U.S. The French do have an exceptional amount of vacation time. It’s not a matter of laziness, it’s a matter of priorities.
I worked at the same profession for almost 20 years, the last of which I was given two weeks of vacation. A typical worker in France might get 5 weeks with another two weeks of holidays on top of that. I don’t think anyone could make much of an argument against the value of hard work. I too have had those 70 hour weeks and felt like I had accomplished something afterwards.
There is a nobility in work and sacrifice. There is also a cost. I’m now unemployed on a train somewhere in Spain because I couldn’t take one more day of nobility. We all say our family and community are our top priorities, the French insist on it and will strike to ensure it.
Community is something we missed in NYC. We lived in a 100 unit building in Battery Park and the only people we interacted with (doorman, concierge, maintenance) were paid to do it. There was a woman on our floor who wandered the hallways looking for someone to talk to, looking for a community that wasn’t there. We had good friends in NYC, just not enough time to spend with them.
- But… There’s always a but. There are a few things we don’t think we will ever assimilate to. The French have ideas about smoking, dog poop, and scarves that we just don’t get. Well, Diane seems to get the scarf thing.
We’ve spent two intensive weeks at the Langue Onze school learning just how little French we actually know. Our instructor, Yaël, was an exceptional teacher with infinite patience and mad charades skills. We shared some laughs with other students from Japan, Sweden, Germany, Qatar, Venezuela, and Lichtenstein and might have even finally understood the l’imparfait verb tense. But… maybe not.
Our host family for two weeks was exceptional. We were spoiled in a beautifully renovated four story townhouse with a private suite that was occasionally visited by a gigantic Maine Coon cat. Madame’s cooking was délicieuse and we didn’t eat the same thing twice. Every dinner included entrée-plat-dessert. Mouthwatering goodies like magrets de canard, saucisse Toulouse, ratatouille, and crème brûlée, were enough to allow us to resist the gigantic farmer’s market with roasting chickens just outside the front door. Paris has been called a moveable feast. The same is true for Toulouse and it’s moving slow enough that you can try a little bit of everything.
We will eventually have to stop eating at restaurants, we’re not happy about that. Every restaurant we’ve wandered into has been good. A few have been excellent. I may have cried a little bit in one because I didn’t know tomatoes could taste like that. Diane was a little nervous in one because she was sure her potatoes were subjected to some kind of delicious witchcraft. We’ve also had no problem acquiring the d’habitude français of enjoying a glass of wine with lunch, and dinner, and whenever. The cheese? That deserves its own post but I was tempted to slap the face of the server who introduced me to warm chèvre with honey.
So why are we in Spain? Our new apartment will not be ready for us until June 16th. Diane has enough hotel points to put us up at the Marriott near the Toulouse airport for that entire time. And then our friend Estelle says “Why stay at the Toulouse airport when you could stay at a hotel in Barcelona?”