The Streets of Toulouse

Did I mention that Toulouse is really old (i.e., 23 centuries)?  One implication of that fact is that the streets are generally very narrow in centre ville (city center), where we live.  Many of the streets are 1 lane wide and are paved with brick or stone.  Another implication is that the streets are definitely not laid out as a grid or in any other systematic pattern that I can detect.  When you combine these two observations, you can explain many of the differences between French and American culture.  On the one hand, you have a French city with narrow streets that wind all over the place; on the other hand, you have the wide avenues laid out in grids in American cities.  Many implications follow from these differences, including: 

  1. Sidewalk cafes are a critical part of the culture of France; sidewalk cafes are where we relegate smokers in America.
  2. The French walk a lot; have you checked the latest obesity data for the U.S.?
  3. The French use mass transportation when they aren’t walking; what’s mass transportation?
  4. The French are still neighborhood-oriented; I remember American neighborhoods… from my childhood.
  5. The French work to live; Americans live to work.
  6. Wine, bread and cheese; wine-spritzers, white bread and Cheese-whiz. 

Allow me to elaborate a bit.

Sidewalks cafes.  This is simple.  How can you enjoy a relaxed meal at a table on the sidewalk if 4 lanes of traffic are whizzing by the entire time?  But it’s more than the width of the streets.  When the buildings that line the streets are all 4-5 stories tall and the distance between the buildings on opposite sides of the street is one car lane and 2 wide sidewalks, you have shade.  Of course, you can put up your awnings and umbrellas and produce shade, but you still don’t have the intimacy that it created when the buildings are closer together and people are walking by constantly (mostly in the streets because the sidewalk cafes limit access to the sidewalks). 

Walking.  Big American streets discourage walking because they create large distances between destinations.  And it isn’t pleasant to walk along busy roads out in the sun or wind or rain or snow (see above).  French streets encourage walking basically because they discourage driving.  In centre ville, all the streets are one-way, they wind all over the place, and they are crowded with pedestrians.  If you need to move a mile or less, you can always manage that faster by foot than by car.  So walking is simply the more practical alternative in France, whereas driving is the more practical alternative in the U.S. 

Mass transportation.  As just mentioned, cars are of limited utility in a French city.  They are fine for getting from one ville to another, but not so functional within a city.  Hence, mass transportation.  (OK, there is the matter of taxation on gas – I spent $85 for 12 or 13 gallons of gas a couple of weeks ago.  On the other hand, my rental car was getting about 11-12 miles per  liter, or over 40 miles/gallon.) Mass transportation only works in the most congested American cities because – as in French cities – driving a car is the slowest way to get from point A to point B.  Not to mention the most expensive way to travel.  So the conditions that lead to mass transportation really are very similar in France and the U.S.; those conditions are just much more prevalent in France. 

Neighborhoods.  A few factors – all stemming from the narrow, winding streets – combine to explain why neighborhoods continue to exist in France. One is the already mentioned encouragement to walk.  If everyone’s walking, then you actually encounter your neighbors with some regularity.  Which leads to getting to know your neighbors (and which ones to approach and which to avoid).  If everyone’s driving (i.e., U.S.), then you might get an occasional honk or wave if your neighbor has learned to recognize your car.  Another factor is that the narrow streets + 5-story buildings + winding streets of a French city mean that it takes years to develop a spatial map that extends more than a block in any direction from your home.  You can’t wander too far from home for fear of not finding your way back.  So love the one you’re with. 

Living and working.  So you’re walking and meeting your neighbors at sidewalk cafes and in boulangeries.  Life is good and the slower pace (i.e., walking) means you actually have the time to notice that fact.  And you think: “Hey, life is good.  I think I’ll take a break and have un verre and chat with my neighbor, who really is an interesting person.  Why work more than 35 hours a week?  I have all I need.”  The U.S.?  You can drive to the local Starbucks and that can be a nice respite, but they don’t serve wine and you’re probably stuck inside because the sidewalk café is either not very appealing or the weather is too hot and humid.  And you really can’t afford that much time from work unless you’re retired or independently wealthy or a student.  So work more, make more money, then use your money for a vacation. 

The basic things in life.  There are boulangeries on every street corner in France because what is more basic than bread?  You buy bread every day because yesterday’s bread is stale tomorrow.  In the U.S., there are shelves of processed bread in every supermarket.  The shelf life is about a month.  In France, the making of cheese is an art form; the consumption of cheese is a ritual (have I mentioned how one must eat cheese?).  In the U.S., artisanal cheeses are currently the rage.  Still, processed cheeses are the choice for sandwich-makers throughout the country.  Your chain sandwich store in France offers ham and brie on a baguette; Subway offers ham and provolone or American slices on limp bread.  And wine?  To be fair, the U.S. makes respectable wines, especially on the west coast.  But every region of France produces wine.  The vin de pays are quite acceptable; the AOC wines are great. Du pain, du fromage, du vin…did I mention the French perspective on love?  Maybe in another blog.