It was dark by the time we made our way past the group of men loitering at the head of the steps of the outlying station and down into the Metro. We were through the barrier and half way along the deserted tiled tunnel when a man came hurtling towards us. Several seconds behind him a woman staggered, in obvious distress, sobbing, “Mon sac!mon sac!” We turned as one to see him leaping the barrier. He spun around, a gun now visible in his hand and pointed it directly down the tunnel. At us. As if Carries disappearance hadn’t shaken us enough already. It was turning out to be a long day.
I was in my 20’s, living in Waterford and I was poor yes, but I had a job as exhibition co-ordinator at the local Art Centre and had recently had exhibited my first work in a show there. But as so often in my life when things are getting set to take off I start getting restless, I can’t see where I am going. In this instance I decided, in the pub one night, along with two friends, Helen and Carrie, that we had enough an that we would buy one-way tickets to France. As soon as the tickets were bought another piece of my life fell into place and I somehow procured that rarest of things in my existence:a boyfriend. A week later we-me, Helen and Carrie that is, left for Toulouse, via Paris for an indefinite period. We decided-or maybe I decided-to call it the Toulouse Experiment.
Why Toulouse?Well Helen had been and au pair there for a woman named Bea and her 8-year-old daughter Charlotte so we figured we’d at least have a contact there. First Paris. We stayed with an Irish boy and his girlfriend in some suburb of Paris. I did what I normally do when I am incredibly stressed and succumbed to and enormous cold-at the time I called it the flu-and dealt with this by becoming inert and moaning. Carrie and Helen on the other hand, hit the ground running and within three days they both had jobs and a studio apartment in the city. I hated Paris, it was grey-even the people wore grey- cold and unfriendly and one had even pointed a gun at us.*
*We got Carrie back by the way, she had fallen asleep on the Metro and when she woke up she couldn’t remember her stop. Some Indian guy found her and somehow managed to figure out where she was staying. By the time myself and Helen arrived back from out excursion to Flann O’Briens she was awaiting for us.
The only thing I managed to achieve in Paris was the promise of room at Flann O’Briens, whose owner was a buddy of my new boyfriends, if things didn’t work out down south. A room over a pub, Paris might not be bad after all. But I still couldn’t wait to get south
The next day we headed back to the airport to catch the connecting flight to Toulouse. Somehow, though both the girls were with me, they both managed to miss the flight. This, I will say here, was not out of character. Despite their efficacy at getting jobs and flats, I have never met such a pair for missing planes and buses, getting lost-demonstrated by Carrie- leaving things behind-Helen had already left her passport on the plane into Paris-getting into scrapes and general flibberty-gibbetyness. Being a bit of a stressed out control freak, I guess it was this that made them so attractive to me as friends while causing me no end of palpitations. So I knew what they were capable of and as a precaution I had taken Beas number from Helen in case I ended up in Toulouse alone. Which is exactly what happened.
Though I was in my 20s I had the emotional age of about 7. I was also very new to travelling, had not one word of french despite-or because of it being force-fed to me in school, very little money and nothing even resembling a map. I was flying blind and I knew it. To say I was stressed out was an understatement. I spent the flight praying that the plane would crash.
I arrived at Toulouse and immediately called Bea to tell her the girls were held up. She said fine and to contact her when they arrived and then hung up. I was alone. Somehow I made my way into the city. I still remember my horror at seeing all the buses there with their incomprehensible destinations. Bear in mind that I had come away from a recent trip to Belgium thinking all the pubs there were called Stella Artois and you will understand my terror.
All I knew was that I had to get to a youth hostel, and I knew that in french it was an Auberge de Jeunesse. Somehow I got on a bus that left me off in the general area. I was standing on the street wondering what the hell to do when a woman stopped in her car and asked if she could help. At least I think she did. She could speak no english, I, no french. All I could do was parrot “Auberge de Jeunesse!”She cut through the crap by throwing my rucksack in her car, and driving me right to the door. Toulouse was definitely not Paris.
When I got settled in the near empty dorm, I finally started
to relax despite the young muslim, on duty, Friederik who kept appearing in the room unannounced-I presume of catching me in some stage of undress. He didn’t. I did meet him on the streets in Toulouse though, which will give you an idea how small the place is-or maybe that he was stalking me. Still, that night I had the best sleep I had in weeks. The next day the girls arrived and somehow, in those pre-cellphone days we were reunited.
Bea(pronounced bear-well that’s how I pronounced it anyway) was a small dark-haired dark-eyed lady who lived with her daughter Charlotte. She was separated from her husband. Her boyfriend was a french soldier based in Tahiti which explained her penchant for wearing sarongs.
Charlotte was an adorable, intelligent and very pretty 8-year-old. To put this in perspective, at the time I took a very dim view of children, possibly because I was till smarting from being supplanted at the age of five by a younger brother who was, it seemed a lot more cherished than me. I did make him pay for it of course(sorry about that Johnny)but still, children were to be viewed with suspicion. That I took to Charlotte straight away will tell just how much of a sweetie she was.
The girls stayed for a few days before heading back to Paris. Me, I felt a lot better in Toulouse and it was decided I stay with Bea and Charlotte until I found a job. In the mean time I could look after Charlotte.
We fell into routine, me and Bea. I would get up around 11am at which point lunch was nearly ready. We shared a bottle of wine at the meal. I bought the beer for the afternoon, which was entirely necessary as it did get quite warm(the weather that is). Often we would have a few pastis(Pernod to you) before dinner at which point we laid into the wine again rolling away from the table around 1 or 2am. I would have to say I never really had a hangover while I was there nor did I ever really feel drunk. All in all it was a very salubrious life.
I did, however have to find a job. First port of call was the Irish pub, the Dubliners, where I befriended, against her will I think now, the bar maid Victoria, a lass from Scotland. Victoria lived in a very funky apartment on the Rue de Senechal had a boyfriend back in Scotland and one in Toulouse, a gorgeous boy called Fabian, who she didn’t seem to be enthusiastic about which was incomprehensible to me. It was Fabian who introduced me to the French habit of kissing people you barely knew, a habit that has unfortunately been picked up by smelly hairy, middle-aged Irish men involved in theatre(and probably other things) here in Ireland. Still, that knowledge was in the future and Fabian was a fine thing. I was starting to feel I could live here.
The children were mediocre, whiny things. If I had not have met Charlotte I would have thought that was only my warped perception but I was now armed with the knowledge that I could like kids and I didn’t like these ones. Still, I am a stayer and I stuck to my end of the agreement to the letter. I minded the creatures and I did the agreed amount of housework . But of course an hour was not enough to get through all the ironing for both the house and the restaurant and so as I sat each evening watching the incomprehensible TV the pile of ironing grew and grew. This, I did not feel was my responsibility after I had done my hour. I can be a bit pedantic I guess.
That job lasted 10 days and I ended up back at Beas where we fell back into our routine. Having traipsed the streets looking for a job, I realised my lack of ability with even the most basic french making me unattractive as a prospective employee so in between the beer and wine and pastis I took to reading Asterix comics in french.
Though my french has improved immensely since I left France, according to the law of paradoxy that governs my life, the only french I remember from Asterix is “Ils sont fou, ces romains!”(They are crazy, these romans)
The spring was turning into summer and still no job. I was eventually forced to the streets- sketching and taking black and white photos. Toulouse, has an abundance of churches and ruins not to mentions twisting back alleys and courtyards, all in the warm brick of the south. The Garonne runs through it thick and brown and fast-moving in the spring, putting m in mind of Waterford and home. As the Irish used to be, the people in the south are friendly- at least they were then-maybe because it’s not as over run by tourists as Provence. I remember one nice old man stopping to talk to me and by then my french had improved enough to know what he was saying when I told him I was “Irlandaise”. “La Guerre, quel dommage.” (The war, what a pity)
The south is different from the north. Much of it encompasses the ancient duchy of Aquitaine, the birthplace of the amazing Eleanor of Aquitaine who married Henry of Anjou who became Henry the second of England and gave rise to the Plantagenet dynasty. Even in those days the people of Aquitaine were considered wild and overly sensuous with their penchant for courtly love and hanging out making up poems and composing music and Eleanor was viewed with suspicion. I think they sounded like fun.
Eventually I got a job painting a sign on the local Irish shop, An Siopa Beag. It was owned by and Irish guy, John and his wife who was a staunch Irish Nationalist and fluent gaelic speaker. I can’t imagine she thought much of me, not only not able to speak french but ignorant of even my own native language. I never really took to school. Still they were nice to me and I enjoyed the painting. Everyone on the street, or so it seemed, came over to ask what I was doing, who I was where I was from. At least I assume they were. Maybe they were trying to run me off. Last year I met Johns aunt who it turns out lives in Tramore and in the way of Ireland and all things Irish, she knew who I was and knew about the sign writing so I guess I made some sort of impression.
Soon enough though that job was over and it was back to the plan. I knew drinking and reading comics wasn’t going to improve my job prospects much-but it was the only plan I had, in fact the only plan I’ve had for most of my life except for the times I had no plan at all, so I thought I better stick to it.
NEXT:COWBOYS AND INDIANS, GALLOPING WORMS, SOME GENERAL HISTORY, CATHARS AND IRISH ARTIST, MICHEAL FARRELL.