I know it is unfair to write down a 4 months adventure in 1 post. Yet this post serves to remind myself of the most extraordinary experiences I had and to share my insights about the French culture. I had the most memorable time in Toulouse for I was eager to make the best of my time abroad by blending myself into the Toulousian lifestyle. I hold no regret of not having ‘experienced’ or ‘learned’ enough from this trip, unlike my previous trips abroad.
My time in Toulouse was not “relaxed, chilled ” as I had imagined it to be. There were periods of frustration and loneliness. It was the challenge of adapting myself to the place that kept me inspired. To get out of the rut and try different things, even when I didn’t feel like it, say ‘yes’ to every outrageous experience was something I could never have tried had I stayed in my comfort zone.
The Jolimont observatory across the Garonne in Toulouse
I still remember the very first description of Toulouse on my first day from a Marseille student I stumbled across. I still remember his words “tres joli et tres vivant” (very beautiful and very lively). The troubles of the first day certainly did not make it feel lively. Yet the excitement in his voice; made me hopeful that there was more to this city. This made the day end on a happier note, especially after I found that even Cambodians in Toulouse were more comfortable with French rather than English.
Things got no easier the first month as every day there arose a new problem. No doubt, change is fun and adventurous but prolonged change can be frustrating and energy sapping. Cooking, listening to lectures in French was difficult as it is. Desperate to get out of the routine, I found a Table Tennis club in Toulouse and was surprised to find their email reply in perfect English. Gradually I had enrolled myself for more things than I could handle. Thanks to my classmates and some English speaking friends who organized get-togethers almost every week, I was having difficulty keeping up with the various events that took place. It felt good to be productively busy.
A view from my room
The first month and a half ended with a feel-good factor. One of the main reasons was also that I had started understanding French and even began speaking. The Toussaint vacations were around the corner and so was the much anticipated Swiss-Italy trip.
My time at Geneva was perhaps the best. My first achievement- asking for help at the Red Cross Museum in perfect French, no hems and haws. The museum seemed all the more better after that. To end my day, I had a lively chat over drinks(non-alcoholic!) by the Lake Geneva with a Nepalese man. Thanks to him, I have some excellent photos of the sunset at Lake Geneva with the Alps in the background. I completed Geneva on my return trip by visiting the UN Headquarters within a 5-hour window.
Italy gave me the first chance to solo travel and I messed up at a lot of places(expected !). One of them was getting lost in Venice after I started following a German group. I bade them the most polite goodbye possible and went out looking for my own way. Thanks to an Italian family(who spoke only Italian) I was out of the maze in a jiffy. They dropped me to the exact point I wanted to reach even though they were headed in a different direction. Help needs no language.
Coming back to Toulouse was a battle of sorts. Apart from exams( which happened every week), I realized I had totally lost my grasp over French and the confidence to speak. I was no longer charmed by the language nor any more determined to learn it. Yet I felt that I had become more observant about the surroundings around me. A metro ride in a town always gives away a lot about the people of the place. I was pleased to see that the French promote reading and practice it. Moreover, they prefer in-hand hard copies rather than digital versions, which I believe is the truest form of reading. The preference of seats for survivors of World War 2 caught my eye. I could never have seen it in India, for India has been fortunate to never experience a destructive war of such sort. It was in Europe that I felt even the present generation is deeply connected to World War 2. It was surprising that the Europeans respected their martyrs and the brave through such subtleness.
The French love classical music and as a part of appreciating and understanding the culture, I was ready to try that as well. This came in the form of watching my first over orchestra by the Toulouse Philharmonic. I no longer felt obliged to visit Vienna, the home of classical music in Europe. I had a chance of experiencing the French “fierté nationale” as well when French astronaut Thomas Pesquet left for ISS, with the public braving the cold to watch his take-off on the giant screen.
I started exploring some of the random college events going around Toulouse. I was surprised to find various English quizzing and debating events taking place. As far as my table tennis was concerned, I saw no benefit in continuing after I was told that the minimum fees was 250 euros to take part in tournaments !!! This was no surprise because the rankings worked in a systematic way. Once I am inducted into the rankings after paying the money, I shall be ranked on the points I earn through each tournament I play. I felt that it was a fair and result-oriented ranking system, perhaps one of the reasons why France consistently produces top-10 rank players in TT, despite the sport being less popular than in India.
To increase my French learning, I finally managed to find a speaking partner, Anthony. It was good to have someone appreciating my French. Further, my classmates egged on to continue speaking in French and not revert back to English, as they (somehow) perfectly understood me. But I am sure they had their own interests as well. So I was finally able to do small talk in French. This also reminds me when I asked for directions in Spanish in Barcelona(more of forced to speak in Spanish), “Donde está la estación de metro Barceloneta?”. Following some incredulous looks, I was answered in English (I had first asked the question in English to which the bunch of guys kindly refused). I also experienced my first rugby match in Toulouse. Toulousains say that a visit to Toulouse is incomplete if you do not watch rugby here; however ‘ungentlemanly’ the game might maybe.
Getting ready for the rugby match
I experienced the true beauty of Toulouse besides the Canal du Midi. Strange to say but the UNESCO World Heritage was just a 200 meters walk from my room. It was a coincidence that as I was returning to my place from one of the ‘events’ that I had to take up the route besides the Canal. Walking along it and watching joggers, runners, cyclists go by, I felt I had been missing to enjoy the peace and the charm alongside the canal. It was so beautiful that I took up jogging to savor its charm.
The Canal in all its grandeur
I consider myself fortunate to have experienced both the ‘tres joli’ and the ‘tres vivant’ sides of Toulouse. Sure enough, it was not easy getting through had it not been for the people I met. It takes some time to understand people, but acceptance eases the process. I noticed that I had stopped judging people based on right and wrong. Judging people closes your mind to accepting new norms and traditions. Coming back to India, I realize that I can view the Indian culture with a different perspective now. I feel that perhaps with the knowledge and wisdom I have gained, I can better understand my own culture without being judgmental.