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!