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Well it was inevitable. Christmas has come in all it’s commercial glory. Decorations hung in the streets and at school. I had my last day of school for the year today. Most of my class came for the one hour of class we had in the morning, but thanks to vacation plans and for a general dislike for learning establishments, my lycée was a little empty.

IMG_0002 [LD]I live with my host family in Saint-foy-d’aigrefuielle, about 15 minutes from my High-school in Saint-Orens, a suburb to the very south of Toulouse. I’m saying this to show that I rarely get to travel into the city centre, and that is where today’s story comes from. I was feeling a little out of touch with my city. So after my 1 hour of class I decided to rekindle the romance and head back to my grand beloved. Like I said, my school is on the very outskirt of the city proper, and as a result we are the final destination for 4 bus routes, so I can usually catch a bus every 5 minutes. Of course like I have plainly stated before, this is the French system and seems to hate me so it’s a matter of chance if I can actually get back on time. Today was no different and the bus I was meant to wait 5 minutes for never came. But all was not lost. I had lovely company from 3 jeune filles from my English class who waited with me the 40 minutes until my next bus.

Eventually,  my bus came and left and we headed north. I was preparing myself for the Christmas Spirit with some music I found, while I patiently tried tried to calculate exactly how much time I would be spending in the bus so that I could work out how much time I could spend in Toulouse. It didn’t look good. If it took me 40 minutes from school to Francois Verdier station, I would only have only about 20 minutes in the city (Taking for granted the bus would actually return). I thought about how my city – like a siren – pulled me in with it’s promises of beauty, while making me traverse unnecessarily long bus routes.

Meanwhile we arrive and I get off my bus where I assumed I was close enough to the capitol, lured my the promise of Christmas Cheer. I knew exactly what I wanted:  I wanted decorations, I wanted Lights, I wanted Music and snow and fake Santas and choirs singing carols in the streets. And I was willing to risk a missed bus to find it.

IMG_0043 Stitch [LD]

I took my chances and ventured into that concrete jungle. Walking pass churches and the homeless I arrived at my goal, Capitol Square. I always end up here. Thy had put a lot of effort in – that was obvious – but I never saw any references to anything Christmassy. No Santas, Jesus, reindeer or the like. Nothing but a lot of stores and a lot of money changing hands. All this commercialism using Christmas as a selling point. I realise that as I grow up, that this is what Christmas will become to me. We all have to lose that childhood innocence eventually, right? We become thee people who don’t mind paying overinflated prices on unwanted Christmas Gifts, but giving a dollar to the homeless is just a little too much. It’s a much repeated story, but it still pisses me off.

IMG_0068 Stitch [LD]

Lost in trying to find my Christmas Wonderland, I realised that once again I had missed my bus but I promised myself that it would pay-off. 20 minutes later, scanning my bus ticket, I had still found nothing. I arrived at school later than I had expected, and so was sure that I had missed the Repas de Noël – A special Christmas lunch the school puts on near Christmas. I hadn’t missed it, but I had missed the queue and didn’t have to wait. It was yum.IMG_0087 [LD]

From my table I had a view of the entire cafeteria and felt a little better. I could see our German correspondent, Lukas, at a table with his host-brother and friends. Despite it being his last day, they all looked remarkably happy. This was the Christmas spirit I had been looking for and I didn’t even need to go looking for it. It had been here all along. I smiled to myself. Christmas is sooooooo cliché.

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Joyeuses Fêtes

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Two Months In. No Way Out

Well I have been living with my host family now for exactly 2 months, and boy has it been enlightening. I am so used to trying new things now, that even before I do it for the first time, it doesn’t seem entirely new.

Just yesterday I went ice skating for the first time. I remember when I was young I used to get really nervous whenever we did swimming for P.E. It wasn’t because I couldn’t swim – I was just as good as everyone else. What made me nervous was the thought that we might be doing something new, and that I wouldn’t be able to cope with it. Specifically for me it was diving, because somewhere inside my brain there was a self defence mechanism that told my body my body not to through my body headfirst into a pool of water. I knew that if I didn’t judge it perfectly, I could slam my feet into the side of the pool, do a back- or belly-flop (insult to injury), dive too deep and head-butt the bottom of the pool, or worse, I could get water up my nose – And we all know just exactly how painful and humiliating that is. So I still can’t dive. But the difference with me now, is that I can safely say I have matured. I believe that one of the symptoms of maturity is getting to a point in your life when you stop fearing new things. You know you are going to be hurt or humiliated, but you go through with it anyway, for better or worse. My whole experience here has been like that in a way.

Blury, but smiling and somehow upright!

This is where the ice skating comes in. I don’t know if any of you have ever been ice-skating, and if you have I hope for your sake that it was in your glory days, where everything was Hip and society was still the man. Anyway, I new – even before I was on the ice – that this was completely unnatural*, and I was destined to failure. I didn’t know how long it would take me, but the only thing I could be sure of was failure. But I gave it a shot. How does the saying go? ‘when in doubt, follow your nose’? Well I had a hard enough time staying upright, and following anything was way down my list of priorities. But I did it: I stood on ice. I waddled a bit like a duck on ice. Which eventually turned into a kind of walk on ice. Then I kept on doing that until it kind of passed for a glide. Soon I got into a sort of running-glide. Which didn’t last long. I got over-confident and my feet flew out from under me while my arms were flapping and waving around so much I thought I might take off. Sadly, no. And I limped (there’s no word for that particular way of bipedal motion I exhibited) with my tail between my legs and my heart in my hand out of the rink.

I wasn’t nervous before I started because I knew I was destined to failure. But as I sat there by the side of the rink, watching the people glide past me as graceful as birds, I started thinking. One day, centuries ago, someone gave physics the finger, put blades on the bottom of his hiking boots and walked out onto a lake. He didn’t know what he was doing. He didn’t know that he could skate, that it was even possible. So with no instruction, and no motivation to get up again, he tried to skate. And he fell, and he kept trying without knowing how long he would have to try until something meaningful happened. Eventually he could skate. He taught his friends and eventually they could skate too. But it was never quite as amazing as the first man to skate. He had no objective. Just a slight idea that might be possible, and a goal to keep trying until something happened.

So that’s what this experience feels like to me. Setting out into a scenario which I know nothing about, and accidentally stumbling onto something incredible. All the while knowing full well that it’s only a matter of time before I slip up. So that’s what I’m doing. And I won’t stop.

P.s.
I just realised that the whole diving story could be made a lot more dramatic, but you know I’m not an author. Maybe involving ice-skating? It’s just a thought

*I checked the Wikipedia article, and apparently, no-one can explain exactly why skating works. Yet another thing American politics has in common with ice…

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School’s out

So I haven’t written in a while, mostly because not much has happened but also a little bit because I am notoriously lazy. But I might take this opportunity to fill in you all a little on my life here.

The Transport:
Have to say this is definitely one of the ‘NO’s here.
*sigh*

I say that because, although it is well managed and reasonably priced, it still baffles me. I get lost, wait for buses that never come, (accidentally) steal travel, catch the wrong buses and always end up being late for class. That goes without saying that is always partly my fault, and the fact that a city with only a quarter of the population of Brisbane has 4 fully functioning metro lines gets me pretty pissed.

The City:
The beautiful city of Toulouse is given a name by the people who live here: La ville rose. Literally it means, The Pink (rosy) City. It may not have been clear from my previous photos, but when they say pink city, they mean it.
When the romans originally arrived here hundreds of years ago, the only building supplies they had were wood, Riverstone and this marvellous pink clay.

The School:
Honestly, my school has everything you could want in a well funded education system:

  • 10 hours of class a day (except Wednesday when i can sleep)
  • Hot lunch
  • Capable teachers
  • copious amounts of homework
  • enough frog dissections to satisfy even the most sadistic of small boys
  • Freedom of expression in your choice of clothing
  • an actual sports education programme
  • Internal heating…oh god that’s good
  • Public transport (seriously I cant get enough of it)
  • about a million other things but i think 10 dot points is enough

The family:
If you’re related to me directly, I suggest you scroll down to the next entry, or at least get a box of Kleenex.
I really love my family. And it’s hard to say that about people you only met (not even) 2 months ago. To agree to care for someone like me, pay for my food (which is French and therefore delicious) and generally put up with me, I think is quite an achievement and I praise them for it.

The Country:
France still continues to amaze me. It’s beautiful, the people are friendly, and the cheese is not as bad as you might think (I’m legally required to tell you that by law). But in all seriousness, I really am enjoying it. I mean the blend of city and country life that is everywhere is a new experience for me, and the cultural diversity still surprises me.

The language:
And finally, we come to la langue de les francais:

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It’s pretty funny.

I’m on vacation for the next week, hopefully I’ll be able to post again.

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Ye old whatever…

This is my first blog on the new website, so it’s a little exciting.

France is an amazing place. Don’t get me wrong I Australia to bits, but there is something here that I think Australia does not have:

histoire

Yes, Of course Australia has history,

but I sit here and struggle to think of anything other than oppression, and stories of men who spent years trekking through barren landscape with the hoping to find water, forests, something.  Instead, there was nothing.  There’s spirit in Australia, but there isn’t history.

I discovered this myself this weekend when my family took me out.  We left our house and headed away from Toulouse. it was a road I had never seen before,  and I half expected it to turn into one of those bad action movies where they put a black bag over the guys head and take him out to the middle of nowhere. Of course I was mistaken.  Unlike the Australian you don’t instantly disappear into the wilderness as soon as you drive over the first hill. Things were pretty desolate but I wasn’t worried because we were still on the GPS.  We kept on them burst through a village into the welcome sight of the AutoRoute.

We kept driving.

I pressed my face against the window and drifted off into my head.  The gentle vibrations calmed me.  The music playing, on my iPod kept me ignorance to the outside world.  Suddenly I felt my headphone wrenched out of my ear.  It was painful like an umbilical cord being ripped out of a small child. I was a new-born suddenly realizing that I didn’t like the outside world so much anymore.

“Ned, regarde (look)”

I sat up slowly, turned my head, and was instantly confused. Firstly, because everyone was so calm. Secondly, because pleasure in the middle of the town was a preteen girl’s fantasy house. A real fucking fairy-tale castle. My stomach dropped, like someone I had met a few times but hadn’t seen for too long had just died.  It wasn’t right.  It couldn’t be true.  We headed around a bend in the AutoRoute and it was gone.

Within half an hour I had walked across the drawbridge and through the gatehouse of carcassonne  There I stood sandwiched between two rows of buildings and probably 30 tourists.  From my vantage point they seemed almost as tall as the walls (the buildings that is not the tourists). The slope of the ground looked unstable and they slanted worryingly. I had to remind myself that they had stood for centuries and probably a dozen wars.  We ate lunch and were walking through the village when I started to get pissed off.  Past every place we walked was filled with something sickeningly commercial. Storefronts assaulting us with the phrase “made in China”.  I imagined a knight walking out through one of the houses and becoming enraged.  Even in this sanctuary, commercialism had prevailed.  The walls had finally given way and the results were devastating.  I tried not to show my upset, as we kept walking.  Before too long we were gazing up at the strangely castle like eglise (kind of church), with its own towers and walls just as thick as the battlements.

When I pushed open the door I swear I could feel the spirits rush past me. The air was cold and dark, and there was silence. Apart from the few tourists in felt genuine.  This was warts and all history.  Martyrs, witches, crusades. . .  All that death in the name of god right where I stood. I noticed the floor was uneven and dangerous and probably not wheelchair accessible.  The walls seemed unnecessarily high.  Then there’s the windows.  To me it’s a mystery, and I hope it stays that way.  Beauty like this should not have explanation. Unnoticed by me and group of men had gathered in front of the altar.  They sang, and my body shuddered.  A wave of noise flooded the pews, splashing off the too-high walls. I was saturated from head to toe with sound. There were only five men but I could have been hearing hundreds more, the accumulation of generations of choirs. Never have I really been religious, but this was something special. I should have prayed, done something. Something symbolic. Something to outwardly express my utter surrender to the power of this place. I wanted to fall to my knees and cry.

It was time to leave and we met with our tour guide. Over another moat, through another wall, right into the heart of the castle keep. Even though the tour guide only spoke French, I have probably studied the middle ages at least three times so I had general idea about what he was saying. Occasionally, Patricia
(my host mum) would fill me in on what he was saying. I like to use the word ‘Histoire’ because it’s a bit more correct.  Literally it can mean history or also just stories.  No one alive really knows the truth anymore.  For example here’s a quick story about emperor Charlemagne:

Charlemagne decided he didn’t have enough castles.  So for five years he besieged this one. Almost everyone in the castle died. There was famine, pestilence and cabin fever so after the King died, his wife took drastic action. She took the the last pig and had its stomach  stuffed with the last of the village’s grain. And then she loaded it into a catapult and had it hurled over the war. It hit the ground and exploded everywhere. When Charlemagne saw that the village still had food to waste, he realized the siege was futile and ordered a retreat. As he was leaving, the Dame sounded the bells as a sign of piece. Charlemagne returned and gratefully accepted the cease fire.

There’s a particular part of the tour I found particularly unnerving. We were walking along the tower walls and came to another gate. For those wishing to enter it spelled disaster.  Not by the way of a “guard dog on duty” sign. This was the real deal. More appropriate would be a “attempt to enter and you will have you face melted off with boiling oil and be covered faeces while we fire at you.” I couldn’t decide which was more horrific, that someone could wish this on their worst enemy, or that knights would be willing to sacrifice their lives like this for the good of their kingdom.  Greed is a dangerous thing in the hands of anyone, but out it in the hands of a militant, and you get war.

Towards the end of the tour was this theatre:

The amplitheatre

Some parts of the castle (like this) were from Roman times.  But – like with the stores – the chairs were new and didn’t fit.

Despite my negativity, I really enjoyed my time and found it quite insightful. When I started writing this I had no intention of writing so much or from this perspective, but I guess that’s just freedom of expression.

I’ll leave you with  this thought to ponder on:
The whole point of building castles was to protect the citizens from barbarians.  But if this exchange has taught me anything, it’s that we are all the same race, on both sides of the wall.

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