Sunday, April 17, 2011

Toulouse, France - end of the line

Toulouse is the fourth-largest city in France, in the south-west above the border to Spain and halfway between the two coasts. It's also where Emile studies architecture, a guy who lived in the Wairarapa on AFS from 2008-2009.

Just a note here, if I've convinced anyone that getting involved in AFS is a good idea, either by volunteering so you get to meet these awesome people from all over the world or hosting one yourself (I swear they don't party as much when they are younger and living in NZ!) then give AFS a call on 0800 600 300. Pretty cool organisation, not only did I get a life-changing experience as a teenager, and then several years of learning new skills as a volunteer, but I also just got three months free accomodation out of it!

Emile and I
 I arrived on Sunday afternoon and met Emile at the train station, and he graciously took the much-hated backpack from me. We met a couple of his friends, I made the social faux pas of trying to give three kisses on the cheek rather than two, and then we went for coffee. I'm used to the obligatory kiss on the cheek thing from Costa Rica, but that was only ever one. Since I got here its been hard to keep up, in Germany it was one (actually I don't know if it really is just one or that was just me being a weird foreigner) and then I got to Spain and had to switch to two, which requires some tough distance-judging while two people are both moving opposite directions if you don't want to miss and kiss the air, or get them on the nose, both of which I did many times. Belgium and the first half of France it was two, and then it got confusing with three in Switzerland, two in Marseille, then back to three in Avignon, so who can blame me for trying to plant three on this poor guy in Toulouse? Luckily, he is Emile's flatmate and speaks perfect english from growing up overseas, so I could apologise!

We went for coffee at a cool cafe that actually looked like it could have been a cafe back in Wellington, all modern rather than typical-french. I revelled in my speculoos addiction by buying a speculoos-flavoured hot chocolate (it didn't actually taste like speculoos) and a speculoos and banana muffin (it did taste like speculoos). The thought of going back to speculoos-less Spain is horrible! We then walked a little way, so I could see the River Garonne that the city is built on (have I ever mentioned that I like the way almost all European cities are built on a river?) and the view of the buildings lining the sides, Toulouse is called the Ville Rose, or pink city, for the colour of all the buildings, but honestly it looks more like a kind of browny-orange to me. Still pretty though, and very different from Avignon and Marseille. We headed back to Emile and Joe's apartment, in kind of the Newtown of Toulouse if you're from Wellington where I was introduced to Seraphine, the depressed turtle that had come for a vacation at Emile's house to see if it improved her mood. She has since developed her own facebook page, so I guess she has. Emile made a great chilli con carne for dinner, I loved that he made it out of the Jamie Oliver Ministry of Food cookbook, but the French version. Little things like seeing a familiar cookbook entirely in French amuse me.

Pont Neuf, or 'New Bridge'
Emile had class for the next day, so I slept in until he came home for lunch, and then went off to explore. I walked around the Basilica of Saint Sernin, the biggest romanesque church in Europe and the main city square, and then wandered up and down the narrow streets in the middle filled with all of the shops, trying to buy myself a new handbag and all of those last minute gifts and souvineers that I needed. They had some amazing places and I could have brought myself some really beautiful things, but I kept reminding myself of how much I hate carrying my possessions on my back and of how I no longer have my own house in NZ anymore anyway. Eventually all the shopping wore me out and I stopped at one of those little french bars with the tables on the sidewalks and had a beer while reading my latest book, I picked up one back in Avignon just because the title, A year in the Merde (shit, for those who don't speak french) appealed to me, its about a guy who moves to France for work and his awesome rants about all of the not-bad-just-different-but-secretly-we-know-its-bad things he encounters there. Struck a chord with me, and the first one was quite funny, although the following three got progressively more stupid. Finally, I went to get a better view of the Pont Neuf, or New Bridge, a funny name considering it was built in the 16th century. It's a nice bridge, but after the one in Avignon, I don't really get why its famous too.

Emile, Joe, and thirteen drinks
We quickly ate that evening and then went out for the evening, to a venue called The Chapel that they boys had been recommended but hadn't gone to before. Took us ages to find it, we kept asking for directions and getting told to go the opposite way, but eventually we got there and found out it was an actual church or chapel or something, I don't really know the difference. Its now a venue for an alternative crowd that serve dirt cheap meals and drinks until 10pm while bands play, this night a couple of guys with a guitar and drum set. They were quite good, and it was just one of those chilled out gigs where everyone sits around tables chatting. We then went to another bar which was not so chilled out, on Monday nights (yes, Mondays) they sell 13 drinks for 13 euros ($2NZ per drink), both beer and spirits provide you take them all at once and give them their tray back right away (ie drink ridiculously fast). Again, I had to question NZ's reputation for bad drinking culture, I can't imagine anywhere in NZ running the same promotion and getting away with it.

Toulouse - see what I mean, not really pink!
 The place was packed, we watched a couple of fights erupt, one over an allegedly spilled drink (who can blame the guy, trying to hold 13 drinks in two arms is tough!), and eventually ended up sharing a table with the same guy who started that fight. He turned out to be quite friendly, as did the guy beside me who had learnt some english in Australia, but I took advantage of his english skills and drunkeness to make fun of him without him realising for our amusement, at least until I ended up in a similar state myself. The boys also amused themselves adding to the grafitti decorating the table and seeing how many penis doodles they could reach with just one had. Boys.Finally, we finished all of our drinks and headed out to pee in the alleyway and find another bar, but we didn't stay too long and returned home via my favourite method of post-drinking-crap-the-metro-is-closed transportation, the public bicycle hire system!

Emile with his egg-on-mince in the little plaza resturant
 I was not really on top of the world the following morning and again, slept in until Emile finished half of his classes and came back to wag the rest of them, and we used our reciepts from the night before to use the bicycles again, this time back into town for lunch. Turns out I am much better on a bike when I am sober, I was beginning to worry that the old adage 'It's like riding a bike' didn't apply to me and I could in fact forget such things. I had wanted go to a proper french resturant, one where you sit at tables in the little plaza, since I've been here and so as it was my last day in France, we went. Emile did a good job of translating the menu and we both had I guess a french version of steak and egg, but here they put a fried egg on top of what I would call a hamburger pattie, like a round of minced beef. I asked him about that, because I think it would be quite strange to have that without bread, but apparently its quite typical here. Was good anyway, and I even proved how far I have come in Europe buy drinking a whole glass of red wine with my meal, I surprized Hauke back in Austria when I arrived by not being able to handle more than a sip or two of it. See, I did put off postgraduate study to learn important things over here! I also got a lemon cheesecake with speculoos cookie base for dessert, yum.

random street in Toulouse
 We then wandered around the shops for awhile and I helped Emile pick new glasses before we went home to make it in time to the post office. In France they have different sized boxes that you pay one price for and can fill up to a certain amount, so I had my $80 box to post back to NZ (meaning my bag might actually be light enough to get on the plane to Madrid) and some other bits and pieces. I got really annoyed though that they didn't have a box the right size to post something within Europe, apparently not just that this store was out, but full stop. Seems like another inefficient system, you can have a medium-sixed box if you want to post internationally, but not if you want to post within Europe, and no, you cannot just pay more for the medium-sixed international box and post it within Europe, and no they don't have any other packaging options at all, and no I wasn't happy to buy a extra-large-sized Europe box and have my tiny thing inside it get bounced around, so screw you French post system, I will just post it from Spain. We did get revenge however by still being in the shop as they were closing and then trying to buy stamps by inserting our 1eurocent coins in the vending machine, not realising that it would take a maximum of 20 individual coins before it spat them all out again, meaning one poor guy had to stand around and wait for us for another 5 minutes while we tried to get enough stamps.

Finally, we finished off the evening with communal attempts (ie Joe and I were meant to do it while Emile studied, but we couldn't agree on stuff and had to keep interrupting Emile to ask) at cooking Pot-Au-Feu, a traditional french soup. Was quite good. Poor Emile had a huge assignment due Wednesday, so he was up most of the night working, and then he insisted he'd come to the train station with me so we were up early the next morning. When I planned this trip I thought that Toulouse would be the ideal last stop before I hoped over the border back into Spain. Wrong. Turns out the Spanish train system is even more ridiculous than the French one, they use different tracks to all the other countries, so while the rest of Europe is really well intergrated, Spain isn't. You can train to the border, and then try and get another train from the border, but the timing was a joke, I was going to have to spend a night in the middle of no where on the border, and trains within Spain are three times more expensive than in other countries, so in the end I trained back to Paris and flew into Madrid on Easyjet, at $100NZD it was the most expensive flight I've taken within Europe, but it was much cheaper than trains would have been! After flying with Ryanair so much, Easyjet felt really luxurious, and landing at Madrid airport felt like coming home, although after taking four metros, three trains and a plane to get to the apartment, I was shattered!

So therein endith the big tour, or at least the intial tour I had planned. As I said in my last post, glad to stop moving around so much and doing the repetitive tourist-site thing, but sad at the same time that it has all come to an end. The plan is now to get my visa sorted, finally, and then find a job and place of my own here in Madrid, but its kind of freaky to have nothing at all definite on the horizon, not even plans for the weekend, after three months of knowing where I would be every day of the week. But I guess one of the things I have learnt over here is how easy travel is, so I guess Europe's my oyster!

Photos from Toulouse are here.

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