Are you ready for Chapter 3 of my Life Changing Travel series?
This chapter takes me back to 1972. In September that year I packed my bags and set off from Edinburgh to spend 9 months working in Toulouse. I was 19.
I was studying French and International Relations at Aberdeen University back then, and an academic year in France was a compulsory element of the course. The arrangements were all set up with the French Government such that those of us involved would be given jobs as language assistants in secondary schools.
In my case this had an extra twist. My services were sought by a Division 2 rugby team in Toulouse. Whilst everyone else was just sent randomly to schools all around the country, the president of the team arranged for me to be sent to a school in Toulouse located very close to the rugby club – in St Cyprien, for those who know the city.
Air travel was still a luxury back then, so the journey took me by train and ferry to Paris for a week at the Sorbonne doing an induction course. After that, Sunday morning brought another long train journey to Toulouse. In those days a fast train took about 8 hours.
The school day starts at 8am in France, so I was with my new employer bright and early on Monday. I was made very welcome, and because I was in the English department all my colleagues could help out if I did not understand something in French. In fact they were keen to polish up their English by practising on me.
Tuesday meant my first training session at the rugby club. At the Thursday training session I was told I would be playing on the Saturday – an away fixture at Castelsarrasin. It is north of Toulouse, on the road to Bordeaux.
It was daunting. I was still struggling with the local accent, on top of the inadequacies of 8 years of French tuition which had not produced very good speaking and comprehension skills. I was not very fit either, and of course the weather was about 10ºc warmer than Scotland in early October.
I did not even know the names of all my new teammates, never mind the way they played.
It ended up 25-25, which were big scores back then and reflecting two teams playing an open, attacking style. In was sunny and in the upper 20s, so I suffered badly. It was a fantastic experience mind you, with the game played in front of a healthy crowd in a neat Stade Municipal.
Aside from the nuts and bolts of those first 2 weeks, some things remain etched in my memory. One of the first is the prices in Paris, even staying at the Cité Universitaire and eating in student refectories.
Then my arrival at Gare Matabiau in Toulouse, and taking a taxi to my bedsit across the river in St Cyprien. I could not understand a word the driver said. I decided he was Spanish and his French was not very good. Then I met my landlady and realised everyone spoke like that.
It was a steep learning curve, and it took me about 3 weeks to tune in to the local accent and patois. In fact the landlady spoke Occitan as her first language. French was for Sundays, occasional visits to government offices, and me. When she got agitated – which was often – she would mix the two.
Another eye opener was lunch in the school canteen. We got a two hour break (some colleagues went home to eat) and a 5 course lunch, with bread, wine and coffee. Whilst that may sound decadent by austere British standards (and utterly bacchanalian by presbyterian Scottish ones) the school day was 8am until 6pm, plus Saturday mornings.
The rugby culture was fascinating too. It was semi-professional, as I was in fact. In Scotland you bought all your own kit, paid a match fee for every game plus your share of travel costs for away games, as well as an annual club subscription. In France you paid nothing. All your kit was supplied. At that level, all the players were paid match fees with a bonus for winning.
After the game the teams did not go to a clubhouse – they did not exist – but to a local cafe/bar. Pastis was the drink, and not beer. I had a couple of dreadful hangovers until I got used to it.
Following a few apéros, we would go to the team’s designated restaurant in Toulouse for a 3 course dinner, again paid for by the club. If we won, or got a draw away from home, the president treated us to champagne and cigars. This too caused me some discomfort the next day.
My blogging on this chapter of my life will need more than one post, so this section will close with my second rugby game in France. It was in Carcassonne, to the southeast of Toulouse, and one of the region’s top tourist attractions. Just after half time, the referee was forced to send off one of the home players for “repeated brutality” – mostly against me. This enraged the home supporters. Soon after, we scored a breakaway try to equalise the score, having been on the defensive most of the time. A 6-6 draw was our result in Carcassonne.
After the final whistle some of the crowd wanted trouble. They were known for this in Carcassonne, so the spectators were fenced in and the police were there to keep order. In fact, the police had to escort us and the referee out of the stand after we had changed, and then safely out of town.
Right, that is enough for now. Stay tuned for Part 2.
© iain taylor, 2020