France’s fourth largest city is a great place to hang out next to a stent seller
Under the English sign of the Toulouse School of Economics, the Canal de Brienne takes a graceful autumnal turn. Surface of floating pointillist leaves, it flows into the Garonne. Undergraduates sit on the socially distant cement cubes coincidentally that punctuate the riverside as seats rather than markers. They look each other in the eye: the love of students forever. The river is still. Peaceful. Beautiful. Without an ounce of energy.
The fourth largest city in France is perhaps nestled under the wings of its aerospace industry. But air transport modes do not penetrate deep enough into the global imagination. No icon lodges Toulouse in the general cultural consciousness. No turn. No bridge. No view. Nothing easily comes to mind. But he is known for his food.
The wheels of the city’s eponymous sausage are rolled up like snakes on the butcher’s counters. Duck breasts which rise tempt the passer-by. The legs of the same bird are embalmed in a fat as white as the beans with which they will then be slowly cooked in the emblematic cassoulet of Toulouse. This is the Victor Hugo market. The owner of a wine bar surrounded by such fine raw fish and meat is hungry for the idea of having to use a credit card just to have two coffees. It’s Friday afternoon and he’s tasted his own wares.
A metal-capped staircase twists to the first floor. Behind a closed door hides the kind of functional hallway that can only lead to a toilet. And that’s the case. But beyond that, there is a bustling line of restaurants. Like a half-dozen mutually supportive dominoes, they’re each a hearty lure for the occasional bon vivant.
Small gaps between each rival establishment demarcate the property. Such discrepancies also feed excess clientele to a long shared balcony. In these bursts between each crowded restaurant, resigned queues are formed. They wait for the next table to become available.
Here you have the Magret, the Attila, the Louchebem … Each table declares temptations of fish and meat typically in the form of a three-course menu at 22 €. Try the foie gras, the gesier salad, the slices of duck with a porcini mushroom sauce, the duck thigh with sautéed potatoes. Is there still tarte tatin? The last two installments please. More wine? No. (Subtitle: Yes.)
Some unlikely guys carry hard guitar cases to a bar not far from Japanese gardens. They emanate the threat of laid-back, jazzy doodles or cut-price Charles Aznavour, the type of boring music that might characterize the November vibe of this unbridled city.
This circular box contains a top hat, the oblong one a keyboard. They settled in the back, the bassist contenting himself with a view blocked by pillars. But within hours, darkness descends. As the bar fills up, they get going. Creepy and blinding in whimsical US lingo, they toss mind-boggling tunes from The Ramones and The Trashmen’s Surfin ‘Bird. Then White Riot from The Clash. Their other songs struggle with the inherent flaws of the French language and the way its diphthon oohs and aahs can musically fall flat, their round pronunciation not much exceeding the emerging mosh pit.
Vinyl records are stuck in the front of the bar, between the counter and a cast iron ramp of torn car cables. The stickers reject fascism and the Nazis. We say “Trotsky & Hutch”. One urges us to “Legalize Intelligence”. Another “Hey! Ho! Let’s go! ”A motorbike’s engine hangs from the ceiling. There are skulls and masks. A small but dedicated audience stages the chaos that music can cause.
All hell is breaking out. Jump and push. The beer spills. A guy is kicked out for leaning over the counter in an inappropriate manner. A certain frenzy connects to the larger world here, far from aerospace lines and one-off streetcars. The songs merge and produce smiles that transcend the phonetic strengths and weaknesses of any language.
But back to a three course lunch above the market. A good wine is indeed very velvety. Each sip of its full-bodied 14.5% flux carries foie gras at least as well as beef carpaccio. The rich, fatty dish slides off deliciously. Suddenly, in this Toulouse world with its fatty poultry and heavy meat cassoulets, a conversation with a man at a nearby table takes on a funny turn.
Do you really sell stents? Manager of the South West region, he proudly declares that he works for a manufacturer of medical devices. He’s a lovely, friendly guy. I show food then my heart. Stents? In these anxious times, we laugh out loud at a joke almost as heavy as the food we eat.