Friday, March 28, 2008

Toulouse for teh win!

It is time… long past time, in fact, that I sat down and actually wrote down an update. Sorry I didn’t get here sooner, but I find that it is very difficult to write about things as they are happening. It’s not that I can’t find the time, but the words to sort things into proper order and make sense of everything that’s happened escape me. So here I am, at the end of a chapter, so to speak (though to be sure it is only just the first or second chapter of the book), and quite a chapter it has been.

After my first wonky week in Toulouse spent mostly at hotels, I begun my couchsurfing adventures. What a brilliant invention! It occurs to me as my generation’s solution to the fact that the world is no longer so safe that we can hitchhike across the world and stop to ask strangers for lodging. For those of us, even in these dangerous times, who refuse to give up the freedom (and literally FREE-dom) such things provide, we have created a new solution using the modern technology available to us. Technically, I suppose I can’t take any credit for its creation, but it is certainly the participants who make the network possible.

Couchsurfing, for those of you unfamiliar, is a website that networks travelers for the purpose of meeting people and providing free lodging. Everyone has a profile where they tell a bit about themselves and receive references from those who have “surfed” with them in the past. The references make it a safe way to find strangers who have a couch available to crash on for any number of days. My task since I’ve been in Toulouse has been to search weekly (and sometimes daily) for folks available to host me. So far it has gone amazingly… sometimes tricky to find hosts, but those I have found have been wonderful. I definitely recommend checking out the site, whether you travel or not, it’s an interesting gig:

And so I begun couchsurfing, making the rounds through folks who turned out to be awesomely cool and helpful. The first French gals I stayed with let me stay for almost a week on incredibly short notice. After that I moved on to a place with three roommates and hung out with them for an incredible six days. Every morning I would wake up to Vincent making coffee, “Je fais du café, t’en veux?” To which the reply, of course, is always “Eh, oui merci. Pourquoi pas.” Somewhere between hot drinks in the morning and cold (okay, room temp) drinks at night, I’ve become friends with these quirky French folk. I was invited to hang out on the weekend and got to meet their friends, who remind me an incredible amount of the crew back home. They drink like the kids in San Diego and play games (cards, dice, charades, you name it, they play it) like the kids in Ashland. We have a total blast!

The only way I really know that I’m not hanging out with my friends back home is that EVERYTHING is in French. In fact, I am living my entire life in French right now! The only time I speak English is when I call family or friends back in the states. This is quite different from my previous sejour en France during which I had many American friends and could easily slip into my mother tongue whenever I got tired of trying so hard. This is no longer possible. I wake up in the morning, speak French all day long, and when my brain is exhausted and craps out on me, I’m out of luck and no one understands me. This has been amazing for my language practice and my comprehension is now better than ever. Here in Toulouse, for the first time, I hang out with groups of French kids and actually understand everything going on!

The only hole in the couchsurfing plan is that I’m completely dependent on finding people to lodge with, and when couches in short supply I find myself prone to “abusing the system.” It’s been difficult lately to find hosts right now. If it’s not one thing, it’s another… first it was midterms for all the kids in school, then they all went on vacation, and upon their return seem to be inexplicably occupied with various projects of mysterious import. Or so I have been led to believe by numerous replies giving a simple, ominous “I can’t right now.” This has left me in many an awkward predicament staying at someone’s house with no idea where I will be going next. My solution to this has been quite obvious: I have doubled up, repeated, and nearly worn out my welcome at the houses of those folks with whom I have already surfed. The girls I’m staying with now are the same I first couchsurfed with and this is the third time I’ve stayed there, and every time I really have no idea where I will stay, I call Vincent. The advantage of this is that I have a few places in town I’m quite familiar with and people I can count on. I keep my fingers crossed that they won’t get sick of me and that I’d actually be able to read French subtlety and tell if they were.

So with the lodging question solved (most nights), my efforts turned to finding work. Miraculously enough, it was couchsurfing which solved this dilemma as well. (I should get a job being a spokesperson for couchsurfing.) I arrived with my bags, one evening, to a new place just as my host was finishing up dinner with some friends. I joined them and regaled my story… “I studied in France last year and absolutely loved it, now I’m here to look for a job and hopefully live for a while, but the problem is I don’t have a visa, blah blah blah.” Well it turns out that my host’s friends are the owners of a little restaurant and they were looking a server for a few hours a day. A few days later I went in for a trial, et voila! A job! It’s not a ton of hours, but it’s a great start, and it guarantees me the money to stay here couchsurfing until I can find something in addition.

It’s a wonderful little job. I’ve never worked as a server, but they are very patient in training me and understanding of cultural and language barriers. It’s an adorable little restaurant completely run by a young French couple. Cecile works the front and Cyril handles everything in the kitchen. Called “La Boutique à Croustades,” they serve nothing but quiches and croustades (a kind of quiche-like pie food thing) and really emphasize local products and regional specialties. I love working there and my bosses are great. I’m actually learning to be graceful (little by little) and learning the service industry in France is like … forgive me my lack of brain power at the moment, I’m babysitting and it’s almost 1am.
All in all, life is progressing quite well here. I’ve got a job and friends, I’m beginning to know town fairly well, I’m working on a babysitting gig that may turn into regular work, and besides the fact that I don’t yet have any place to live, things are pretty amazing. Every day, I wake up (usually reasonably late), walk about 20 minutes through the adorable winding roads to work, and spend my afternoon chatting with Cecile, making coffee (which I get to drink for free), and trying not to drop things on customers. From work, I wander around town running errands and enjoying Toulouse’s beautiful weather, often stopping to sit for a while in a little café or one of the many adorable plaza’s around the centre ville. Evenings are spent cooking and dining with my hosts and occasionally going over to friend’s places or down to the local.

Well with a little picture of my life at the moment to set the stage, I’m moving on to just the highlights, which for a while at least will probably be how I handle the blogging (to make sure I get to writing something at least).

Highlights: Feb 13- Mar 24

I stopped in for a little coffee and to write for a minute at a little café by the river. The outside tables overlook the Place de la Daurade, a great little grassy area by the water only a block from work. I’d never been to the Café des Artistes though I’d walked by it many times and was happy to sit inside with my coffee and my notebook. The man next to me was painting with watercolors and I looked at him and smiled a bit stealing a glance at his painting. A few more swift peeks showed he was painting the woman sitting at the table on the other side of me, quick and practiced stroked gave her jawline, the collar of her blouse, short red hair. I smiled to myself and my amazing surroundings and sat back to my writing, but it wasn’t long before he’d finished his drawing and was on to another. My stares had become slightly obvious by this point, at least in a country as subtle as France, but as the lines appeared I couldn’t help but watch… the profile of a woman, dark curly hair. I giggled to myself as I wrote and pretended I hadn’t noticed anything. When he had finished his drawing, the artist got up and asked me on his way out if I would like to keep the sketches he had done. His French was quick and embarrassed, and I understood very little, but he set the paintings on my table and I thanked him, stunned, as he left the Café des Artistes.


Tarot! Nono, not divination… in France it’s just a card game, and a darn fun one at that. I have fallen upon a lovely group of friends with whom (the Ashlanders would appreciate this) I play games! Dice games, card games, even word games, but especially tarot. What could be better on a sunny Sunday afternoon than heading out to the Japanese Gardens with a couple of beers, a sac of pain chocolats, and a deck of Tarot. Get ready, I’m bringing it back to the states with me.


For the past two years I have been nervous knowing that I would be all alone in Europe on Easter. Last year I was traveling by myself in Munich and ended up having a perfect Easter picnic in the park with kids from all over the world. This year’s luck was no different. I am couchsurfing at the most wonderful place right now, three awesome roommates who I just adore. We had a soirée fondue on Saturday night and went to a great concert down at the college and Sunday I was invited to eat magret de canard at the home of a friend of my host. I can’t believe how well I eat here in Toulouse!

I’m going to leave you with that for the moment and hopefully I’ll be back soon with more highlights. There’s always more to tell, the trouble is getting to writing it down. Hope everyone is well back home, feel free to drop me a line, I’d love to hear les nouvelles.

Friday, February 8, 2008

La Ville Rose

My first days in Toulouse have been a bit wonky, but I suppose it is to be expected. I have discovered, probably a very obvious truth, the things that challenged me on my last trip are no longer difficult. Changing beds every few nights, not knowing exactly where I am going, carrying heavy bags, figuring out foreign transportation systems, and feeling comfortable in strange places now come very easily to me. In Toulouse, however, an entirely new set of tasks stands before me: finding a job and an apartment, making long(ish)-term friends, and making a home in a strange city by myself. I find myself as bewildered as I once was learning how to catch a train and get off at the appropriate stop. I suppose there is much hope in the fact that it is a similar feeling of confusion as with those things that I now breeze through easily, but it is never comfortable to feel in over one’s head.

Though I got off to a bit of a rough start, unable to get in touch with the folks I was supposed to stay with and having to pay for hotels, things are definitely beginning to look up. This morning, I experienced the most difficult moments of my time abroad so far. The hotel I was staying at is evidently closed on Fridays (who’s ever heard of such a thing), so I was kicked out of the cheapest hotel in town with no place to go when all I wanted to do was go back to sleep and have a sure place to leave my loads of luggage. Tired and frustrated, I found my way to a new hotel, dropped my bags and headed out to look around the city. As if in direct response to my prayers, I met a young American gal who has lived here 4 years working with a Christian association. We got to talking (I shared with her my woes of the day) and ended up exchanging information and I’ll be staying with her tomorrow night. The world works in miraculous ways.

In the arena of good news, Toulouse is beautiful!, I am having a fairly easy time making contacts (6 phone numbers in 3 days isn’t too shabby), and if I don’t run out of money first it looks like this will be a very nice place to get a job and a little place for a while. All the buildings are of lovely pink brick which shines in the sun of southern France, truly earning the city’s title “La Ville Rose.” The weather has been absolutely gorgeous since I arrived and it is a great place to simply wander around. Miraculously, unlike almost every other city I’ve visited, it is almost difficult to lose yourself in Toulouse. If it were probable to be lost in a city, I would be counted among the first to accomplish the feat since I wander off in random directions (ask anyone that’s traveled with me), but *knock on wood* I have yet to get lost here. The maps are fairly terrible but the city is so well designed that everything seems very straightforward, and so far all roads have eventually led back to my hotel room.

All in all I have been very lucky. My time in Paris was amazing. Toulouse is a wonderful city, and I am beginning to sort my way through the language and cultural barriers. Over the next few weeks I am looking forward to becoming more and more comfortable with the city and finding a more permanent place to live (wouldn’t take much to be more permanent than what I’m doing now). The perfect people keep crossing my path and I have found myself blessed by even the most trying circumstances. I will be happy to settle down, hopefully relatively soon, and begin to explore la vie en rose.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Encore Paris

I have officially been in France for a week, to the hour nearly, and what a trip it has been already. This journey seems to have begun without any adieu whatsoever, skipping straight over any typical travel structure I have ever known and moving right into one unknown adventure after another.

It all started in a little town called Conway, Arkansas, about a half hour outside of Little Rock where I stayed with two dear American friends who studied with me in France the first time. There I found an entire community of friends, most of whom I had been hearing about for eons, waiting to show me a good time. From staying at their school’s “French House” where nearly everyone spoke français and had studied in France to a party scene the likes of which rival any I’ve seen, I stayed up late chatting and playing away the hours with dear friends. It was a marvelous send off, meeting my fellow adventurers who knew me best at the heights and depths of my time in France. If anyone was placing bets on whether or not I would actually succeed in creating a life abroad, I’d give my dear Lindsay and Rachael the best odds of anyone at actually knowing what I’m up against and what I’m capable of.

I love you my darlings! Thank you Hendrix for a fantastic time!

After a dry county in Arkansas, no where could seem weird, and all my apprehension melted away the morning I awoke for my flight to France. Little Rock to Charlotte, Charlotte to Philly, and finally it seemed I might actually be on my way, Philly to Charles de Gaulle Airport, Paris. Alas, not all great schemes are executed without a hitch and two hours out over the Atlantic, the pilot announced a problem with the plane and we turned back to Philly. Come to find out that the navigation system had gone down and we sat on the runway two hours while the plane was fixed before heading out again at 2:30 am!

Always one to make the best of the situation, I had struck up a conversation with the lovely young man next to me, who it turns out was doing much the same as me. He was doing an internship in Philadelphia and returning to France to do his visa paperwork. We hit it of splendidly. He spoke English and I French, both of us practicing and correcting the other. It was wonderful to begin to get in the mode of speaking French (which at this point has overtaken me so completely that I had to keep reminding myself this afternoon to speak English with the German girl at the hostel). We entertained ourselves while the busy flight attendants refused to tell us what was going on, and included everyone in our seating area in our complaints and jokes that the reason we weren’t leaving yet is that the wing on the other side of the plane had fallen off and we just couldn’t see it. (I hear it took them a while to find the super glue.) Eventually, though, we were back on our way, and though we arrived several hours late, we neither fell out of the sky nor became eternally lost over the Atlantic. Quel chance!

Returning to Paris for the third time, I went immediately to my favored quartier and checked into the hostel I stayed at on previous visits. It is always a strange feeling going back to the rue Mouffetard. As I walk down the street strung overhead with blue lights, down to the Place Contrescarpe, everything is familiar, the cobblestones, the crèpe-makers, the cornerstones of the buildings. It is why I come back. What is inevitably missing, however, is the presence of all the wonderful travelers who I have met and roamed with there. With every step I expect to see their faces and so often I recognize someone who is not truly here. The loneliness of being alone across the sea was deeper and more tangible for the fact that it seemed like it aught not exist, and I knew it would probably be my last time at the Young & Happy hostel.

My room was the same I had called home when first arriving in the City of Lights and I made the most of my time there, eating at all my favored places and frequenting the local student bars. Rather than adopting international travelers, I found myself befriending a wily troop of local Frenchmen. Slightly graying and ever-polite, they were very encouraging towards my plight to find a job, a place, and perhaps a bit of a life here. Another perfect opportunity to practice my French, I laughed late into the night with these fellows before heading off to Ramouillet, a small town an hour outside of Paris and home of dear friends Barbara and Francis.
My time in Rambouillet is hardly describable. While I ate plentifully, drank constantly, slept in a big bed, and was spoiled rotten by things like bathtubs and internet, my hosts were as charming as one could ever imagine. They have truly become my French family and their little place a home away from home. Standing in the garden, all the tension of travel slides from my weary frame and I could sit talking to Barbara forever. An American who has chosen to spend her life in France and truly a sister in spirit, we rambled for hours upon end about everything this life has to offer and more. It was for me a safe haven in the midst of strange faces, heavy baggage, and constant transport.

Coming back to Paris for a few nights before heading down to Toulouse, I have been quite lucky, not only to have met up again with an old friend from Rennes, but also to have found what may quite possibly be the cheapest hostel in France. With nigh-German prices at 13 euro a night for a bed near La Place de la Bastille, I find myself now on my final night in this grand city, resting comfortably (and more so because of the price), surrounded by travelers (not an American in site), and am sitting now at a lovely little café overlooking the huge monument to the French Revolution and preparing for a Mardi Gras out on the town (thanks to Britt for reminding me). I have overlooked most things touristic this time around in favor of wandering, discovering, and enjoying. I spent my first day in Montmartre trolling cafés, peeking in shops, speaking French at any opportunity, and soaking in the delicious energies of Sacre Coeur, a beautiful domed church dedicated 24 hours a day to prayer for world peace. I met Michael (the guy from the plane) there and we went to the Salvador Dali museum, my one tribute to tourism and walked around on the lovely hill of Montmartre enjoying various views of the city.
My trip thusfar has, in fact, been devoid of any of the usual stories of interest worthy of capturing in blog form, but it has been the people that have highlighted my journey with their wisdom, their company, and their spirit. I therefore send out into the void a grand internet tribute from me to Michael, Olivier, Barbara, Francis, Pascal, Alexis and all those I have yet to meet who I know will light up my world.

Tomorrow I leave for Toulouse… I have no idea where I will stay (I should get on that!), I have yet to buy my train ticket, and I have never set foot in the city before, but there it is. Much in the style of this entire trip, I set off (rather unprepared) into the unknown with adequate French comprehension, too many bags, and an utterly unrealistic surety that everything will work out. If you are ever in doubt of your capacity to accomplish something, remember that the momentum of optimism is shocking and it will propel you towards feats otherwise un-thought of. And so it is I go, armed with optimism, to the city where I search a life (for a while at least). The Parisians keep telling me that I absolutely must life in Paris, but je m’en fou! Off to Toulouse!