Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thoughts from a Metro Ride

(I do promise I will eventually stop being fixated on public transportation, but they’re such useful vehicles for blog posts.)

(Also, pun totally intended. You’re welcome.)

I spent most of yesterday being rather jet-lagged—and by rather I mean lying on the couch drinking Diet coke and eating crackers because that was all I could keep down and I needed to eat something if I was going to take ibuprofen for the killer headache that I also had. Wonderful first day in the culinary paradise of France, non?

Today was much more productive. I got my loyalty card for Auchan (a large, reasonably priced supermarket near the outskirts of Toulouse) and my metro card. Then I was off to the metro to go spend some euros!

During my ride up there, I realized just how much you can learn about Toulouse by using its metro system and paying attention to the symbolism it uses and the way it presents itself. There were four major points that jumped out at my during the train ride.

1. La Carte Pastel- The metro card for Toulouse is a pretty blue color and roughly translates as “Woad Card.” As it turns out, during the Renaissance, the city of Toulouse was actually quite prosperous, in part thanks to the cultivation of woad, a plant used to produce blue dye. This led many wealthy merchants to construct huge houses in the city, called hotels particuliers, many of which have engravings of the woad plant to honor the dye that brought them such success. However, this prosperity didn’t last long. The arrival of indigo from the United States beginning in the late 17th and early 18th century put Toulouse out of business. Indigo was cheaper to make, produced a truer blue, and also didn’t involve human urine in the production process. (No, I am not kidding.

2. The announcements in Occitan- In Toulouse, the announcements of approaching stations is done at least partially in two languages. The first, obviously, is in French, but the second is in Occitan, a mostly dead Romance language that sounds a little bit like Spanish. Up until the 1200s, in fact, Toulouse was not part of France. Most of the South was a very loosely allied confederacy of states that get called (with more or less accuracy) Occitania or le Midi. It was a fairly progressive society for the Middle Ages, permitting women to hold property in certain cases and to pass down their names. There was even limited tolerance of a heretical sect of Christianity called Catharism—which eventually led to the area’s downfall.

The Roman Catholic Church was losing power in the South—mostly to the nobility, but also in part to the Cathars. Clearly, this did not make them happy, so they turned to the King of France and offered him papal sanction to invade the South in the first crusade ever led against Europeans.

The Albigensian Crusade, as it was called, had some incredibly nasty consequences, including the birth of the Inquisition, massacres still known for their brutality, and the destruction of a flourishing literary culture. The Crusade has left scars that still remain to this day. You can find Toulousains who still resent the North as an invasive entity. There’s an entire mythos built up around the Cathars and of course, Toulouse now speaks French, instead of Occitan.

As to why there’s still Occitan in the metro, in the late 19th century, there was a renaissance of Occitan literature, particularly that of Frederic Mistral, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature for his work. Although this movement weakened during the first and second world war, it continues to this day, with Occitan poetry contests, Occitan-speaking preschool centers, street signs labeled in both French and Occitan and of course, the announcements on the metro.

3. The rugby-themed courtesy signs. Toulouse may be the only city in Europe that is not crazy about soccer. Instead, it’s crazy about rugby. The local team, Stade Toulousain, is considered to be among the best in Europe, so perhaps that’s understandable. Also, for those of you who don’t know too much about rugby, it’s a bit like the bastard love child of American football and soccer. What I mean by this is that someone had the brilliant idea to let people play football without any pads, time-outs, or stopping and starting. It’s an incredibly exciting game, honestly. I had the chance to see one match when I was here last time and hope to see more!The courtesy signs have rugby players on them showing what to do and what not to do on the metro. I suppose it makes sense—the saying goes around Toulouse, after all, that while soccer is a gentleman’s sport played by hooligans, rugby is a hooligan’s sport played by gentlemen.

4. The anti-immigration stickers slapped on the doors. This is the least positive of the four aspects of Toulouse you can see on the metro. Toulouse is pretty far to the south, and thus receives a lot of immigration from Arab North Africa. There’s an entire neighborhood (around Boulevard Strasbourg) that’s majority Arab and there are more kebab places than pizza places. Which is okay in my boat, since kebab is wonderful. However, this leads to a lot of tension between them and the “native French.” Essentially, if you take a lot of the discourse you hear about Hispanic immigration in the States and substitute the word “Arab” for Hispanic, you’ll get a sense of what Toulouse is like.

So there you go! Toulouse 101 in a five minute metro ride! Also, to follow: the grocery store and how wonderfully cheap good wine is here.

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