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.