Des aventures toulousaines – Part 6: The First Noël

As the city was starting to prepare for Christmas, the historic buildings surrounding the city’s main square, Place du Capitole, were draped with net lights, enclosing the Christmas market, which consisted of homemade crafts, products and produce sold in small rustic-looking lodges, with the winter aromas of cinnamon, mulled wine and Nutella pancakes in the air. We can try to imitate “Continental” markets as much as we like in Britain, but nothing compares to the real thing.

There were some notable differences about Christmas preparations in France. One thing is that the city puts up Christmas lights all around its suburbs as well, whereas in the UK it’s usually only in the city centre, meaning that for people like me we get to enjoy them more than just the one time, when we do our Christmas shopping. Another thing is that Christmas doesn’t seem as commercial in France. The city streets weren’t notably busier with Christmas shoppers like they are back home and there were no adverts on TV in August trying to get us to buy the latest doll that can walk, talk and go to the toilet. What’s great about Toulouse, and indeed most big French cities, is that there is only one shopping centre in the city centre, and it’s not very big. British city centres are overshadowed by several massive glass and steel constructions filled only with chain shops. Toulouse therefore had more room for smaller, independent shops in ancient buildings with character. One has to venture very far out to the suburbs, right to the very end of the metro line, for the huge monotonous shopping malls.

The vast Gothic cathedral in Albi

No winter is complete without ice-skating. Toulouse, surprisingly, had no seasonal outdoor ice rink, but this meant a trip to another town called Albi with some friends where there was a rink. We spent the afternoon wandering around the medieval town, dominated by its piercingly high Gothic cathedral, allegedly the largest brick building in the world, before taking to the ice rink. No matter how many winters I had been ice-skating, I always seem to forget how to ice skate the following year, so I actually spent the evening crashing into the sides of the rink.

One December morning, I woke up to see the whole city covered in deep, lush show. I always loved this as a kid and still do to this day. Unfortunately, I still had to go to work. On Thursdays, I had to get up at 5.30 a.m. to take the metro into town and then get my bus to work for 8 a.m., a journey that takes around an hour and a half. Soon after the bus had left the city centre, the wonderful announcement came from the bus driver: Mesdames, Messieurs, nous regrettons que la circulation des bus et du métro soit annulée à cause de la neige. So, everyone was kicked off the bus as there was too much snow, and there was no other way to get to work. Quel dommage.

With the metro stopped too, it was too far to walk home so I undertook the challenge of hiring one the city bikes and piloting it through the shin-deep snow. This was actually quite exciting until I lost control on a downhill section and fell off, but I made it home in one piece and went back to bed.

Oh dear, too much snow to go to work!

The snow continued on and off for the rest of the month, but the transport system seemed to cope better further down the line, except when my flight home for Christmas was cancelled. Luckily, I managed to get a flight the next day, but another flight cancellation the following Easter led to a 24-hour journey back to Toulouse that took me across parts of Europe I had never seen…(see next week).

The Year Abroad is the year of opportunity. It is the making of every language student, allowing us to try out new things, see new places and to relive past adventures. Toulouse is ideally situated – set on the beautiful river Garonne, surrounded by lush green countryside, and close enough to the coast and the mountains. With the latter in mind, this was a great chance to go skiing. Having only been once, ten years earlier, I had always dreamt of going again. It’s not just the thrill of travelling downhill at 40 mph, it’s the spectacular scenery at the top of the mountains, being above clouds, and gliding over untouched mounds of snow that is truly breathtaking.

Breathtaking landscapes in the Pyrenees

What was great was that my friends and I were able to go skiing fairly cheaply. A combined rail-ski ticket was about €30 and equipment hire was barely €25. As for the clothing, I fashioned up a ski suit using waterproof trousers over jogging bottoms and just a rain jacket over a hoodie.

After a two hour train journey one February morning, we arrived in Ax-les-Thermes in the Pyrenees. We started off on the easiest slopes naturally, which actually turned out to be terrifying after I realised – on the middle of the slope – that I had forgotten how to stop when skiing. But I soon picked it up again and we took to more adventurous slopes throughout the day. We even went back for another day on the slopes the following month, but that time I had neglected to take sun cream – resulting in an extremely red face, with a nice big white patch where I’d been wearing ski goggles. Needless to say that my students found it hilarious.