I am stuck in France. Here is a poll for you to guess the reasons why.
Why am I stuck in Toulouse until Saturday?
The ducks are holding me for ransom for gastronomical crimes against the brethren.
The vintners are holding me for ransom for drinking ALL the wine.
The scientists are holding me for ransom until I release the FGM data.
The French have gone on strike.
I would show you photos, but my camera's USB connector has decided to start misbehaving and won't let me download anything. I forgot to bring my SD card reader. So you'll have to make do with words.
I arrived in Toulouse on Monday evening, just as the sun was setting. The sky was clear all through the flight, so I spent most of it staring out the window because when you're afforded a crystal-clear view over the Channel and of the descent into the Pyrenees, it's criminal not to appreciate it thoroughly. I managed to conduct exchanges with a kind taxi driver who, despite detecting that my primary language was English, kindly stuck to French throughout, pronouncing his words slowly and accompanying them with helpful gestures. As he drove me through the Pink City, I glued my nose to the window and watched it glow in the sunset. The camouflage bark of the plane trees caught the light and threw it onto the canals that crisscross the city and the river that bisects it. I checked in and dashed up to my room, unpacking quickly and tossing my camera in my handbag.
I decided to walk around the northern section of the ring road as a first pass at exploring the city and then cut back to the hotel through the centre of town. As all ring roads seem destined to be, this one was pretty desolate. Though the tree-lined river ran along its western edge, it still managed to be devoid of all but the most depressing signs of humanity. Dog poop and rubbish bags dotted the pavement. There were no shops, no restaurants, no bars - nothing but well-barricaded windows and triple-locked entrances to unlit stacks of flats. A door suddenly swung open five paces ahead of me, letting out a shaft of light, a flying kitten and a swearing woman in quick succession. As I neared the scene, I noticed the woman shaking her hand, onto which the kitten had been peeing liberally. The kitten landed in a pile of fallen leaves. Tail raised, it continued its business, seemingly unaware of the woman's wrath. I walked on. Two groups of men asked me for directions. I was glad that I looked as if I knew where I was going, but was also peeved to have my cover blown by my halting (and unhelpful) French responses.
I reached the bridge over the rail tracks before the hill leading to the cemetery, which I knew was likely to be closed but wanted to peer at anyway. A homeless woman perched on a mountain of jumbled possessions leaped up to bar my way. I stopped, alarmed, as she reached for my arm. Half of her head sprouted a mass of blonde dreadlocks and the other half had been shaved some weeks ago. She was very sane, je vous assure, and she had to warn me about the moon, at which she pointed with a certain urgency. Oui, oui, I said. Merci, bon soir. At this last she shook her head and returned to her previous position, muttering darkly. Au revoir, I called tentatively. She waved her hand dismissively, letting me know that I was far too dim to evade the pernicious lunar influence.
The cemetery was surrounded by a fifteen-foot-high ivy-covered wall that even a nimble cat had trouble surmounting. I gave up and trudged back down the hill, pausing to buy three enormous shiny red apples and a bottle of fizzy water.
The bricks that comprise most of the city's buildings exude warmth in the sunlight, but at night they appear dingy and grey. It needs the patterns of neon and graffiti to illuminate its narrow streets and give it life. I dodged the herds of babbling teenagers and dazzled tourists to get to the complex surrounding my hotel. In the car park, rollerbladers had set up cones and obstacles and whizzed around videoing one another's fancy footwork. I watched from the shadows until my ears went numb with the cold.
I'd write more now, but I have to go to bed since my talk is the first one tomorrow morning. The meeting is over at 3 PM and then my time is my own. I have to decide what I'm going to do with my extra day. The Musee des Augustin, housed in a gothic convent? The Cite de l'Espace (Space Museum)? Or perhaps a train to Carcassonne, the beautifully preserved medieval city? What do you think, internet?