Throughout my last year in Toulouse, every weekday afternoon at 15h I would join a dozen other nannies, moms, and the occasional dad at the primary school gates just a short walk from my flat. We’d wait together until the doors were opened and children would rush out into waiting arms and strollers.
After two years, some of my little charge’s classmates and their parents still thought I was her mother.
I wasn’t. I was her nanny, her person. And together, we conquered Toulouse.
I pretty well had full reign of her schedule. Where we went, what we did and at what time was all up to me. We took the Metro and the city buses under the river and over the many bridges. We danced through every park. We took a train to a swimming pool and got lost on the final leg on foot. I knew I had left my indelible mark on the three-year-old in my care when she paused on a street corner, put both hands in the air and asked in a perfect Newfoundland accent, “Sure, where we to?”
We were in Toulouse. Our city of roses. That was ten years ago.
I spent two years as an au pair. The family took me on holiday to Tunisia and Turkey, flew me to Paris dozens of time, and took me skiing for my 18th birthday. We got along well, but I was never truly part of their family and so I’m not saddened that we’ve lost touch. I don’t even know if they are still in Toulouse.
But that city – La ville en rose – remains in my heart. It’s where I first bought wine, ate goat cheese, met my farmers and my fishmonger and my baker. Where I learned about long-distance love and suave men. Where I developed my expensive taste in tights and cosmetics. Where I tagged along on the stunning good looks of my friend and fellow nanny – a Colombian – and learned that beautiful women really do lead easier lives. Where I discovered cherries don’t all come in a bottle labelled Maraschino, and true licorice is a sensory delight. Where I saw alcoholism eat away at my neighbour, she who loved Celine Dion so much, and where I bought my first and only pair of high heels a full size too small just because they were so darn pretty.
It’s where I learned about fetal death and efficient French appendectomies and health care in general and cycled with Laurent Jalabert. It’s from where I launched several adventures to see the Tour De France, and ended up picnicking with strangers on the side of a mountain as men in coloured jerseys raced by.
It’s where I had this memorable conversation that told me more about Quebec separatism than any of my highschool textbooks:
The fish merchant was advertising Canadian lobster for some exorbitant price, but seeing as I was homesick that day (and love nothing more than a feed of lobster) I decided I would shell out the Euros if it was Newfoundland lobster. I went in to enquire about the origin of the shellfish.
“Excuse me, what part of Canada is that lobster from?” I asked.
Only he thought I was wondering where Canada is.
“You know Quebec?” he asked. When I nodded, he continued: “Well Canada is right next to that.”
I quickly caught on and tried to explain that no, Quebec and Canada are one and the same, but he was having none of it. Did I want the lobster or didn’t I?
“Non, merci. Bonne journée.”
I can still call up the scent of La Garonne and the thick mud left behind by the spring flood, and the crazy vent d’autan that I’ve written about before. Occasionally I would get up early and walk down to the river to see the morning mist over the water, the closest thing to fog I saw for two years. Sometimes I was homesick, but for the most part I was too busy exploring and just so damn excited to be there.
I left Toulouse to go to University and study journalism. I could have stayed to do the same – I had a place in the École De Journalisme De Toulouse, and it actually would have been cheaper to study there as a foreign student than pay Nova Scotia’s outrageous tuition fees, but I thought I was in love and so I moved back to Canada. I’m certain my life would be different now had I decided to stay, but I’m not sad I came home. In fact, I’m more than happy about how it has all worked out so far.
But today, I’m saddened for my European hometown. They’ve suffered an unspeakable tragedy. And while many cruel acts of violence are playing out all over the world at this very moment, it’s the ones that have some relevance in our own lives that affect us most.
And Toulouse, for taking on a somewhat naive and awkward 17-year-old girl and making her the more worldly, less awkward but equally bookish version of myself that I am today, is very relevant to me.