Archive for the ‘Toulouse’ Category

Health Care, Part 2: The Fickle Finger of Fate

May 25, 2010

On a rainy Sunday in late March, I open the refrigerator door and a jar of applesauce falls out and breaks on the tile floor. “Drat.” I clean it up, dump the broken glass into the garbage, and continue on about my cleaning of the kitchen and our tower apartment. An hour later—applesauce forgotten, I open the garbage can to empty a dustpan full of dog hair, dirt and dust swept from the floor. The garbage bag is nearly full, so I put my hand on top of the garbage to smush it down… and slice my right index finger open behind the second knuckle on the broken applesauce jar.

“Drat!” My hand under cold running water, I call Susan to help. The finger keeps bleeding. We wrap it in a clean paper towel, and I sit at the table while Susan runs downstairs to get Rosie for a second opinion. Rosie and Susan agree that it might need a stitch or two, and so the kids pack up some toys and snacks for the waiting room, and we head off to Rangueil, about forty minutes away on the outskirts of Toulouse, to the emergency room. The hospital itself is easy to find—atop a hill above a large city park and recreation area—but the emergency room is mysteriously hidden, with the parking some distance away once we find it. Through a maze of dim and empty hallways—me with my finger still wrapped in the paper towel, feeling a little queasy, and James and Izzy disgusted that they have to sacrifice a day off from school for a trip to the hospital waiting room—we wind our way to the E.R., where we stand in line in a room about the size of a small living room, surrounded by a half-dozen gurneys on which lie clearly sicker folk than I.

I feel a little ridiculous. The ambulance drivers glance curiously at us, and the desk clerk ignores us for a long time. It’s a Sunday, remember. A number of senior citizens seem to be sleeping on their stretchers, a girl hobbles in with a Sunday sports injury, the medics wheel in a young man who appears to have been in an auto accident. We send the kids into the adjacent waiting room, and stand behind the red line, Susan to act as my interpreter.

After about five minutes, the clerk summons us to the desk, where Susan explains my injury and our status as Americans abroad. I unwrap my finger and bleed a little on the ER floor. He explains that we will have to pay for the visit, and that the consult will cost at least €100. “Fine, fine,” we say. We’re here; we might as well have someone look at it, though I do have half a mind to forget it and go home. The desk clerk makes copies of my insurance card and passport, and gives Susan a form to complete, after which we are directed to wait. One of the kids needs to go to the potty, so Susan takes both of them off to find a restroom and the snack bar we passed on the way in. A half-hour later, a nurse or aide comes and takes me into a consulting room, where I explain again what happened. She is very nice, but she doesn’t speak much English, and, of course, my French is terrible. She tells me to wait and returns in a few minutes with another nurse, who speaks English well. They look at my finger on an examining table, soon joined by a young man who tells me that he is a medical student in his fourth year. His English is good, and he and the nurse clean the wound carefully, look into it, and wrap it lightly in gauze. A supervising doctor will be in soon, they say. Other patients are brought into the room—a young man with a gash on his head, a woman in athletic shorts with a hurt ankle. Each is treated by a rotating group of nurses and medical students and residents. I’ve been at the hospital for about two hours now, and I haven’t seen Susan and the kids for an hour. I wonder at how they are getting on. I’m still thinking that eventually someone will just put a stitch or two into my finger, give me a bill and send me on my way. I feel like a dope for not being able to speak French. A woman doctor returns with the medical student, unwraps my finger and opens the wound a little to look inside. She frowns, shows something to the student, and then tells me—in English—that the tendon might be damaged. A surgeon will need to see it. My medical student escorts me to be x-rayed to make sure there’s no glass in the wound. I add another hundred Euros to the bill in my head. I am returned to my table in the examining room where I sit and try to understand the French conversation between the guy with the gash in his head and the young woman who is stitching it up. Fifteen minutes later, the med student, the woman resident and a nurse return with the surgeon, a nice officious man of about forty-five, who takes a quick look at my finger and tells me that they will need to cut it open and fix the tendon.

There’s no consultation with me—the patient—no questions, no second opinions, no hesitations. This is what needs to be done, and I shall take his word for it and follow directions. They ask me when and what I last ate. A Diet Pepsi in the waiting room, nothing else since breakfast, pancakes. It’s now about three o’clock. Have I ever had surgery before? Tonsillectomy when I was twelve—the only night in my life I’ve spent in a hospital—and colonoscopy (as an outpatient) last summer. Have I any allergies? Any problems with anesthesia? Is there someone here with me?

Susan and the kids come in. Izzy and James are crying, worried now, and Susan’s eyes are wide and amazed, which is basically how I feel. For goodness sake, it’s just a little cut on my finger from a broken jar of applesauce!

The nurses have told Susan that it’s unlikely that I’ll be released until morning and that she should go home. I put on a brave face for the kids, laugh and say, “I’ll be fine! It’s nothing. They’ll take good care of me here, and I’ll be fine. Nothing to worry about. They just need to fix my finger,” I tell the kids. “I’ll be home tomorrow, no problem.”

I kiss each of the three goodbye and send them on their way, despite Susan’s worries. “I feel like I’m abandoning you here,” she says. I ask her to write our telephone number on my hand, since all my clothes and belongings have, by this time, been taken away. There’s nothing else to be done. The kids need to get home. The surgeon will be waiting in the O.R. I’m alone with almost no language skills in a French hospital, about to go under the knife! I can’t believe it.

Suffice to say that it was, indeed, all fine. I was wheeled through the endless dim hallways in the weekend-empty hospital to the orthopedics wing, where the anesthesiologist and O.R. nurses—one of whom spoke English—asked me all the same questions again and prepped me for the surgery. They all sympathized about the stupidity of the injury—accidents happen to everyone. Clearly, they thought, any of them might have forgotten the broken jar and tried to smush the garbage down as I had.

It was decided that I would not have a general anesthesia because of the Diet Pepsi, but they gave me something to relax me and then numbed my right arm from the shoulder down. We chatted about why I was in France, my job as a writer—and the necessity of being able to move the index finger to type—and the book on which I was working. Eventually I zoned out, and the surgeon arrived and set to work on the lump of lead behind the drape that was my arm and injured finger. I tried not to think about the cutting, tried not to listen, and eventually heard, “Voila!” from the surgeon.

Soon thereafter, he left me to the care of the nurses, who sent me on to the recovery room, and then, after I was more awake, on to a room, where a kind and funny English-speaking fellow took down all my details and called Susan on his cell phone, using the inked number on my palm. I assured her and the kids that I was just fine and told Susan to just come in the morning after she’d dropped the kids at school.

So I’ve experienced French health care from the inside now. The hospital—like any city hospital—was a little frayed at the edges, but clean and relatively efficient. The quality of the staff was excellent. Every nurse and aide I met—from the gurney-pusher to the food-service staff to the O.R. nurses to the night nurses and nurses’ aides—were intelligent, kind and friendly. Everyone went out of his or her way to find a way to communicate with me. I genuinely felt safe in their hands in what might have been a terrifying situation.

I never saw a doctor after the surgeon’s Voila! in the O.R. It’s clear that doctors have a kind of authority in France that is different from their authority in the U.S. Maybe it’s a kind of trust for their expertise, or maybe it’s just a more traditional patriarchal attitude toward medical authority. Part of me wonders if this is partially the result of having the element of expense and payment removed from the equation? Do we Americans demand more options, more information, and more control in a situation such as mine because we suspect that the doctor might be padding his paycheck with an unnecessary surgery? Do the French, on the other hand, assume more readily that the medical professional is their employee, paid with their tax dollars to attend to their well-being with nothing to gain from giving different care? It’s an interesting question, and one for which I have no answer.

In the morning, I was released with a prescription for pain-killers and a wound-care kit, and extensive instructions for the visiting nurses. Visiting nurses? we asked. What a concept. These wonderful women came to the chateau every other day for two weeks to clean my wound and change the bandage. I had an appointment for follow-up with the doctor, but as it quickly became clear that United Healthcare—my U.S. insurance company, who had sworn they would cover all emergency care abroad after the deductible—were going to make it as difficult as possible for me to collect on my claim, we decided that I could wait until I returned to the States. The hospital bill came to €1600, about $2000 at the current exchange rate, the prescriptions to about $80, and the visiting nurses to about $100. Had we been French, of course, all of this would have been covered. As it is, United Healthcare “might” reimburse me for about a third of the cost three or four months from now, and we are surely going to have to spend a lot of time fighting them for it. The bill itself, for instance, must be translated from French into English by “expert translators” at our insurance company, an expense that we will, no doubt, have to foot ourselves.

And my finger? It works fine. It bends most of the way at both knuckles, though it seems a little stiff. It occasionally gets sore after I’ve been working with my right hand (hammering, gardening, etc.). And, as one of the nurses pointed out, I’ve also got an excellent mark-of-Zorro scar.

Accidents happen: anyone can cut a finger on a broken jar of applesauce on any rainy Sunday morning. In the U.S., the emergency surgery to repair it will likely depend, in part, on your ability to pay. After all, do you really need to bend your index finger if you’re not a concert pianist? In the old comedy sketch on Rowen and Martin‘s Laugh-In, the “fickle finger of fate” was awarded to government boondoggles or famous people for dubious achievements. This year, I win the literal fickle finger of fate, but the winner of the prize should be those U.S. politicians determined to let insurance companies control the debate over whether that index-finger surgery is really necessary regardless of your ability to pay.

Joyeux Noël

December 25, 2009

Our holidays began with about three inches of snow last Friday morning, resulting in cancelation of the last day of school before vacation… a child’s dream come true! We attempted sledding since we’re on top of a big hill, but, alas, not enough of the white stuff, which melted before midday anyway. We were disappointed that the children’s school holiday performance was also canceled, but we baked sugar cookies for the Loto benefit (Bingo) on Saturday night. Susan dropped them off to the teachers, who were in the back room cooking crepes to sell at intermission. She couldn’t stay, but they wished us all well for the holidays. “Joyeux Noël!”

On Sunday afternoon, we drove to Rieux-Volvestre, about 20 minutes east, singing Christmas carols in French in the car, to attend a free concert on a restored 17th century organ in the Cathedral Saint Marie. Some Bach, the Ave Maria, traditional Christmas songs, and selections from Occitan were on the program. We kept the kids still by plying them with sweets. Everyone in the small crowd—families with teenagers, grandparents with a toddler, a group of elderly women who sang along quietly, farmers with mud on their boots—sat happily in their coats and scarves the whole two hours. A clarinetist accompanied the organist for a few numbers, a wonderful mezzo soprano sang, and for the traditional Occitan songs, a man with a traditional instrument called a cornemuse, much like a bagpipe, played along. At the end of the standing ovation, the whole group joined in on an encore, which happened to be the same Christmas carols we had just learned in French in the car. At 4:30 on that clear, cool Sunday afternoon, we spilled out into the narrow streets—cobblestones, waddle and daub medieval houses close in—and wandered toward the center for the Marché Noël: donkey rides, a bounce house, handmade hats and soaps and Armagnac for sale in the covered market. Père Noël in his red velvet suit distributed sweets from a horse-drawn wagon, shouting it out: “Joyeux Noël!”

During the week we finished up shopping, got the kids’ second H1N1 vaccines, played soccer with the dogs, and made more ornaments for our little tree in the tower. On Christmas Eve the weather turned warm and gorgeous—around 60 F and clear. I went for my walk at about 3, and on my way home nearly everyone who passed was dressed up for the holiday evening out. A neighbor slowed and waved, rolling down his window to wish me, “Joyeux Noël!”

We too showered and dressed in our finery, got in the car and drove to Toulouse, stopping briefly at the supermarket to buy Susan black stockings. A supermarket on Christmas Eve is the same in France as in the states, save for the heaps of oysters in baskets in the aisles. And I’ve never seen such a mob of people buying black stockings at once! The check-out clerk smiled as I left: “Au revoir! Joyeux Noël!”

We had decided to splurge and attend the ballet in Toulouse–a first for James and Izzy–and cheap by American standards, €50 for our family of four. We arrived early enough to eat ham sandwiches in a café across the street, glasses of wine for us and lait chaud (big cups of warm steamed milk with sugar) for the kids. We chatted with the owners and other patrons, who admired Izzy, la Princesse in her crown and fancy dress, and James in his red bow tie who stole the crown for his moment. “Au revoir, Joyeux Noël!” we all said as we left.

The ballet was perfect—five short 19th century pieces, lots of tutus and satin, a fine troupe and good orchestra in the beautifully renovated Halle des Grains. At five minutes before the show was to start, the ushers appeared up in the cheap seats, got us all up and re-seated everyone in the empty seats down below. We ended up in the fifth row. The lights went down. The music came up. The dancers thumped onstage. James and Izzy sat forward in their seats, eyes wide, mouths open. I watched them watching the magic of their first ballet. On the far side, Susan too was watching the kids, her eyes shining. James turned to her and said, “I love this!” Izzy turned to me and whispered, “Mom, thank you!” Later, when she and Susan went to the restroom they met the prima ballerina–changed into jeans but still wearing her tiara, just like Izzy, in the hall. “Joyeux Noël!”

On our way out of the city, streets wet and shining, reflecting the blue strings of lights over the streets and the green and red-lit bridges over the River Garonne, we passed a phalanx of about fifty gendarmes around the Cathedral Saint Etienne, preparing for the mobs sure to appear in the next hour for the midnight mass. We drove home to the château through the countryside, farm houses and villages winking with holiday lights, little churches everywhere lit up for the traditional services. We would have gone, but the children were already asleep in the back seat. We arrived home just after 11. Izzy woke up enough to put out the cookies and milk for Santa, who brought scooters to coast down the driveway, and remote-control cars to torment the dogs, and kites to fly on the hill of Latour des Feuillants.

And another gorgeous day in the village.

James and Izzy Dressed Up for Christmas Eve at the Ballet

Joyeux Noël!

Relics

December 16, 2009

In Saint Sernin in Toulouse are hundreds of Christian relics, including what is said to be a thorn from Christ’s crown at the crucifixion, the skull of Saint Edmund, and a fragment of Saint Jeanne of Toulouse’s pelvic bone. Henry James describes being shown the head of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Saint Sernin’s crypt (Chapter 21 of A Little Tour in France), and in Saint Bertrand de Commiges, the body of Saint Bertrand is contained in a walk-through reliquary the size of a small house, illustrated with events from his life and death. The Monastery of Cluny houses both a finger of Saint Stephan and a tooth from Saint John. For the pilgrims on the road to Santiago de Compostella, visiting these churches and viewing the relics housed there was a chance to be closer to God and the saints, a brush with miracles and the divine which might just, with a little luck, rub off. The little casks or caskets (or other holders) in which these holy items are stored are gorgeous too, gold and velvet, carved ivory, marble, and these reliquaries are often all there is to see, the sacred bits locked within. As we visit church after church around southern France, I think a lot about relics, about the things we bring along to mark our pasts, to remember miracles, to bring a little magic into our lives.

For Isabelle, my daughter who is six, the little bracelet made of green yarn gleaned from her baby blanket, “Greenie,” who went missing last April, is the most important of relics. She tears up sometimes when remembering Greenie, and she wears the little fragment of the sainted security blanket when she needs comfort… though it’s not the real thing but a memory of it. Maybe it’s the memory of that time in her life that she is keeping. A touch of divinity in the assurance of safety the object seems to provide.

Izzy also brought with her to France a fragment of a blue robin’s egg shell, carefully stored in a small plastic spice bottle on a bed of Kleenex. She found the robin’s egg on a walk with Ingrid, our next-door neighbor, shortly before we left Vermont. She says it reminds her of home, of the day she found it, that it’s special. What does that mean? The hatching of the creature from the egg, perhaps, the magic of our eternal rebirth into the world.

For James, my son (Izzy’s twin), relics are important in a different way. He wears these days the scar from a dog bite incurred last summer, and it bothers him that his face is not perfect any more. When he sees himself in the mirror he says that he’s ugly. He is not exactly afraid of the dogs we live with here—very sweet Border collies—but he avoids the front door when we arrive home, knowing that they will rush out barking, excited to see us. The scar is a reminder, a warning, maybe something like the bone of a martyr or a grail miraculously survived.

James has been on a binge of collecting “stuffties,” stuffed animals, since we arrived in France, but we’re not sure why. He is six now, an age at which children usually move on to other interests. He buys these stuffties at the many vide greniers (empty-attic sales) we go to on weekends with birthday gift money or money he earns for doing special chores, a Euro here or there. He names each one of the new additions to his family—a puppy named Joe, a lion named Leo, a Tiger named Jessie (also the name of our recently deceased old dog). James brought two bears and an Ugly Doll named Igor from home, but it’s these “new” second-hand creatures to whom he seems most attached. I doubt he will feel the same way about them when we return home, but there is something magic about their place in his world just now, as if he is invoking a circle of friends or children to offset his isolation in this new place. Or maybe they are relics of a future, a way of imagining something elusive or intangible, a matter of faith. James talks to them about their “Poppy,” referring to himself as their father. Maybe he’s preparing himself in the only way he can in this fatherless family for his own future fatherhood.

James did bring his map of the solar system with him from home. When we make Christmas ornaments for our little tree in the chateau, he paints the Styrofoam balls as planets, just as he did in Vermont. The solar system has been an obsession for the last year. He learned all of the planets—and many facts about each—and collected artifacts—models, maps, books—about space. Is he mapping his past, marking the place he left off when we left Vermont? Is he keeping track of his place in the universe, France being—really—just next door to Vermont in the grand scheme of things?

My partner, Susan, brought her art supplies, paints, brushes, pastels, paper, and books. Of course, she buys more books here—at markets, vide greniers, junk stores. These are more obvious objects for working magic—she transforms ideas into art. And they seem to be security for Susan as much as Greenie was for Izzy. Her running things—her shoes, her Walkman, her books on tape—are Susan’s other essential supplies for travel. Susan needs her every-other-day run like the rest of us need air. When she runs, she can leave her body even as she inhabits it fully. Susan’s sneakers and audio-to-go are sacred objects, things she must have to be herself wherever she goes.

I too have brought a few special things with me from home as well—a favorite photo of the children; a stone—black with a magic white circle—from the brook behind our house in Newfane; a few of my favorite brand of pen; my journal. I also packed the Christmas stockings Susan made for each of us over the years, and we unpacked them and have them hanging by the fireplace now. I thought they would remind us of home, that they would help us feel settled—still at home in our own lives even so far away from home.

What does it mean to attach significance to objects? For the pilgrims, these teeth and locks of hair and bits of bone and splinters of the true cross reinforced faith. They were tangible evidence of something that is actually unknowable, intangible, abstract. God exists, these objects said. Miracles happen if you believe.

Home, perhaps, is the abstract unknowable intangible thing for which each of us needs reassurance. Even here on the edge of our universe, out in rural southern France, magic exists, miracles happen. We touch our little talismans and they help us conjure up strength and faith for the rest of the journey. Maybe home is something to do with faith, with believing and knowing that wherever we go—from security blanket out of the nest, leaving the egg behind; from a blue-green planet to the mysteries of fatherhood, the dangers of the world worn on one’s skin; from a paintbrush wand to the comfort of one’s own body moving through space and time; from a little house beside a brook in green mountains to a thousand-year-old château atop a French hill, stockings hung by a chimney with care—we house home in the reliquary of our souls, our imaginations. We take the objects to remember, to believe, to work a little magic. But the things we take are not nearly so important as the box we build to keep them safe.

La Ville Rose

December 8, 2009

La Ville Rose

Here in Saint Araille, an orange glow in the northern night sky marks the location of Toulouse, the fourth largest city in France, about fifty miles away. Called La Ville Rose, the pink city, for the distinctive brick used in much of its architecture, Toulouse is a colorful place with a thriving economy and youthful population. The city is culturally diverse, with a history of progressive thinking and tolerance partly derived from its situation at one of Europe’s geographic crossroads, approximately halfway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean and about three hours’ drive from the Spanish border. Affluent today as the high-tech center of France’s aerospace industry, the beauty of this small city is due to its historical affluence, particularly during the 1400’s when it was the center of export for woad, the plant from which the color blue was made before indigo was imported from India and the Americas. Many of the grey stone streets in the center are pedestrianised, and the River Garonne, Canal du Midi, and numerous parks provide shady green respite. Situated in the south, winters are mild and short here. We have found Toulouse small enough for the foreigner to easily negotiate but large enough to provide all the urban conveniences. La Ville Rose seems to us to be nearly a perfect city.

Toulouse has been inhabited since at least 300 B.C. The Romans established a colony here in 200 A.D., and the city suffered the comings and goings of all the usual suspects of this particular area, trampled by travelers, traders, warriors, and invaders including the Vandals, the Visigoths, and the Franks, not to mention the plagues, famines, fires and wars that marked most of early European civilization. The streets in the old part of the city still follow the Roman paths, meandering and narrow, and you shouldn’t be surprised to happen upon sites marked as ancient Roman temples between shopping in the second-hand stores near the Academy des Beux Arts and dining on the local specialty, cassoulet. As we watch our children in a playground beside the riverbank, listen to college students discussing their textbooks, or sip a coffee in a café, the rich history of the city seems a living backdrop to the contemporary life around us.

The town played a major role in the religious wars the Roman Catholic Church instigated against the Cathars, including hundreds put to death in Toulouse and the surrounding area during the Albigensian Crusade and Inquisition. The area around Toulouse, the Languedoc, was known for literacy and religious tolerance in the early middle ages. The Cathar’s version of faith valued aestheticism and rejected power and the idea of a single god, all cited as “just” cause for the Crusaders and Inquisitors to wipe out Catharism in a series of bloody raids, wars, executions, and occupations. Of course, the fact that the Languedoc was also fertile and lush farmland, a veritable breadbasket, and an important pathway between the continents, meant that conquering such a land added to the physical wealth of the knights and lords from the north (and the Catholic church) who joined the ventures against the “heretic” Cathars. Something of those early roots of tolerance seems evident in the progressive and forward-thinking Toulouse encountered today.

Toulouse is a vital and gorgeous city. For the tourist, the center offers a wealth of distractions. The aforementioned woad plant—the source of the blue pigment so desired by textile dyers and artists of the middle ages—brought prosperity to the region and to Toulouse, where a vital export business was established in the mid-1400s. After fire destroyed most of the city in 1463, using brick instead of wood to build became standard practice, hence today’s “pink city.”  The wealth of the woad traders who dominated the city’s economic and social life well into the 1700s can be seen today in the fabulous hôtel particuliers—private urban palaces—they built. Indeed, a visit to the Renaisance Hôtel d’Assézat, originally built for a wealthy manufacturer, now housing the Bembourg Foundation’s extensive collection of art, should be on every tourist’s agenda. More than fifty more elaborate Renaissance hôtels still dot the city, some accessible via private tours.

The enourmous Capitole de Toulouse—135 meters long—on the expansive Place du Capitole combines an original medieval gate and courtyard with a 1750 neoclassical (pink brick, of course) façade, topped by a bell tower designed by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, the well-known architectural restorer of the fortress at Carcasonne, an hour east. Today the seat of the city government, the Capitole also houses an opera company, a symphony, and the Salle de Illustres, a Baroque hall inspired by the Galleria Farnese in Rome and filled with 19th century paintings and frescoes. On the plaza outside (Place du Capitole), a Wednesday market is good for African handicrafts, fabrics and clothing. During the holidays, we go on a weekend before Christmas for the evening Marché de Noel, where we shop for small gifts and decorations and stand around with hot mulled wine and warm roasted chestnuts under the lights.

A few blocks north of the Capitole, the Basilica Saint Sernin, built between 1080 and 1120 and often cited as the largest Romanesque church in the world, offers a reminder of the role religion played in the history of Toulouse. Saint Saturnin, the first bishop of Toulouse, who was martyred (dragged through the streets by a bull) in 250 when he refused to make a sacrifice to the Roman gods, is supposed to have been interred on the original site of the basilica. At least 128 weird relics—bits of bone, teeth, a fragment of the “true cross,” etc.—donated by Charlemagne are lodged in the crypt, chapels, and ambulatory, which increased the basilica’s popularity as a stop on the pilgrimage route called the Compostella de Santiago, adding religious tourism income to the town and church coffers. The stone that killed Simon de Monfort, a leader of the Crusades against the Cathars, was thrown from the roof of St. Sernin in 1218. The interior of the church is vast and light and open (115 metres long, 64 metres wide and 21 metres high) with vaulted ceilings, a peaceful and spiritual place in the cruciform shape specifically designed with an extra-wide ambulatory so that the pilgrims could see the relics without disturbing any services underway at the time. As we wander the aisles, stopping to stare at the moldering grey tooth of a saint nestled on velvet in an elaborate gold reliquary cask, we wonder how the believer on the road to Spain in 1200 might have felt awe.

A five-minute walk south along the Rue du Taur (Road of the Bull), the Eglise Notre Dame du Taur provides a dramatic architectural contrast to St. Sernin. Tucked between houses, one doesn’t expect the gothic expanse inside from the narrow façade. This church, however, also plays a part in the St. Sernin story, for legend has it that Notre Dame du Taur (literally, “Our Lady of the Bull”) is built upon the spot where Saint Saturnin became detached from the bull that tore through the streets of Toulouse with his body. Others believe that Notre Dame is actually built upon the spot where the Romans sacrificed bulls to their gods, the act for which noncompliance led to Saint Saturnin’s death sentence. Inside is Jacob’s geneology in a 14th century fresco as well as the pictoral story of St. Saturnin’s life and bloody death.

Eglise de la Daurade, on the bank of the Garonne near the Art Academy, built on the site of an ancient pagan temple and then a Benedictine abbey, houses the Black Madonna, Vierge Noire, of Toulouse, a statue of Mary whose face has darkened from candle soot over many years, and who is credited with many miracles. She seems to particularly favor pregnant women. Her outfit is changed several times each year by a special contingent charged with the honor, and it is said that parishioners have solicited new garments from famous designers of French haute couture. It’s hard not to speculate about what the Virgin thinks of her fashionista attire.

The Musee des Augustins offers yet another perspective on the diversity of Toulouse, both religious and architectural. Originally a convent with a beautiful cloister, chapter house, sacristy and chapel, the grounds now house an impressive collection of more than 4000 works of art, including, among other objects, Romanesque capitals and funerary epitaphs rescued from religious sites around the country, paintings that were the spoils of Napoleonic conquests, and statuary from local hôtels particuliers. The cloister garden is serene and orderly, lush with flowers, vegetables and herbs, each labeled and all carefully tended. Here it is easy to imagine why the wealthy might choose to retreat into such a place, to live in one of those tiny rooms in the walls above. If you visit on a Wednesday afternoon, take advantage of free entry and tour, wander the illuminated gardens, and stay to attend the free weekly concert on the restored baroque organ. If you are traveling with small children, like us, come when a concert is scheduled for later and wander through in the afternoon, telling the stories of the huge paintings while rehearsals echo through the halls.

Another former religious house, les Couvent des Jacobins, provides a wonderful example of 13th and 14th century Gothic architecture. The fanned brick ceilings seem like palm trees or huge flowers stemming from the marble columns. The Convent also houses the relic of the body of Saint Thomas Aquinas. Indeed, there’s a detailed inventory of which bones and their measurements on the Convent website: http://www.jacobins.mairie-toulouse.fr/accueil/accjaco.htm . It’s the contrasts that get to you—bizarre scrap collections and majestic constructions to faith; wars and economics and religions overlapping; the best of tolerant and intellectual enlightenment next to torture and inhumanity. We wander the streets of Toulouse, the world, and we discover that we are a strange history, a meeting in the contemporary moment of weirdness and goodness and horrors.

Back on the streets of the city, we stop at Gulps, the candy store on Rue St. Rome, and the carousel at Place du President Wilson before heading back to our car, parked at one of the many underground garages in the center. We will return another day to walk across the Pont Neuf to Les Abatoirs, the Toulouse Modern and Contemporary Art Centre built inside the old slaughterhouses across the river, other days for the range of markets (book markets, vegetable markets, flea markets, toy markets, even “adult” markets—we’ll skip that one), and another day at Cité de l’Espace, the science and space theme park ten minutes east in the suburbs. We’ll visit the Gay and Lesbian Center. If we’re very lucky, we’ll take a cruise down the Canal du Midi, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a 150 mile feat of 17th century construction. But truthfully, we don’t need an excuse to come to Toulouse. We will return many days (and evenings) during our time in Saint Araille. Tonight the glow of La Ville Rose in our northern sky seems positively pink. It’s a city that provides its own diversions at every turn, the past and the future in one location. It is a crossroads that is also a wonderful destination.