My 9 months working in Toulouse during 1972-73 changed me in so many ways. I was only 19, and still maturing (slowly) so it played a big part in shaping the end product. It is difficult to remember all those ways, but I have come up with a random selection.
For the first time I enjoyed working and having a reasonable salary in my bank account every month. Before that I only had summer jobs. We were paid the equivalent of what a newly qualified teacher was earning in Scotland. The cost of living in France was higher than in Scotland, but school lunches and dinners were subsidised. Going back to being a student after it ended was not easy.
I had the opportunity to travel around that part of France with the rugby team for our away games every two weeks. Sightseeing was not possible obviously, but it was fascinating anyway. As well as Carcassonne and Castelsarrasin, I remember going to Thuir (near Perpignan in the Catalan area), Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees (on the route to Andorra), Cahors to the north, and St Girons – also in the Pyrenees but towards Lourdes.
My food and drink horizons changed out of all recognition. Southwest France is a gastronomic heartland of a gastronomic nation. Pastis and Armagnac were new experiences, as well as the huge range of high quality local wine which never goes for export. Even school lunches and dinners, or the occasional student refectory meal, were a massive step up from the food on offer in Scotland in the early 1970s.
Coffee was another eye opener. Having been limited to Nescafe most of my life until then, French coffee was a revelation. It took the UK 30 years to catch up.
My salary also gave me the chance to travel a bit. I went for a long weekend in Barcelona in early February, decades before the city became a compulsory weekend-break destination.
At that time Franco was still in power, and as compared to France and Britain it had a real police state feel to it.
On my way back to Toulouse from Barcelona, I took the slow, scenic train through the Pyrenees with an overnight stop in the Spanish ski resort at La Molina. That was my first close up experience of a real mountain range.
For my Easter holidays I was invited to Morocco by Moroccan friends who were studying in Toulouse. I took an overnight train to Madrid, followed by another overnight train to Algeciras. Then it was a ferry to Tangier, and another train to Casablanca.
It was great to be met by friendly faces off that train!
After a night or two in Casablanca we drove to the family farm (dairy and oranges) outside Marrakech. We had several nights there and then went we went to their home in Azilal, 1,350m (4,430 ft) up in the High Atlas mountains. Their father was a local governor, so the compound was guarded by army sentries. One day he went off in a helicopter and returned with a couple of dead “bandits”.
Their hospitality was extraordinary to me, but just normal to them.
I remember two downsides to my time in Toulouse. The first was everyone (me included) being conscious of my presence being very temporary. It meant making close friends was not easy.
The other was breaking my wrist playing rugby. Fortunately it was in the last game of the season in mid-May, but it meant I have my arm in plaster for the last 6 weeks of my time there. I was not allowed to work but I could not go back to Scotland either – I needed passport stamps showing 9 months in the country when I resumed university.
It was a difficult time, with most of my daily activity – work and rugby – gone.
I have visited Toulouse several times in recent years, staying in Airbnbs in the St Cyprien neighbourhood where I lived and worked over 40 years ago, and just loved soaking up the local way of life again. I hope I can do it again.
ⓒ iain taylor, 2020
Enjoying your reminiscences! I discovered good coffee in France too, in 1971 on a school exchange visit 🙂
Thanks Sarah. As intended, these trips widened our horizons!