Au Revoir, Toulouse
This circle is closing awfully quickly: 1 week away from completing a full year of living in Toulouse; 1 week away from leaving Toulouse. It has been a year of adapting to life in a country with a different language and different culture. It has been a year of travel. And it has been a year of professional development.
I know the question I will hear most often when I return is “what did you like best?” The simple answer is: “living in a foreign country.” But there is no simple answer. Of the many places we visited, I can’t even say which city we visited was my favorite. There was something to take from every place -- from the sublime to the mundane. But we are our memories and I’ve stocked mine with quite a few this year: A dinner of pork and spaetzle with a good dark German draft in a small eatery around the corner from our hotel in Munich; a less successful -- but equally memorable -- meal in a beer hall in Salzburg; the contrast between the serene setting and the history of Dachau; the Anne Franck house in Amsterdam; the canals of Leiden; White Nights in Turku (for those who don’t worry about their biological clock); Walking the same streets Mozart walked in Salzburg and Vienna; Everything about Prague; Climbing a hill in the highlands of Scotland to gaze out over Loch Lomond; Climbing up to Park Guell to gaze out over Barcelona at the Mediterranean Sea; Roma with the family at Christmas; walking towards the Spanish Steps as the New Year rang in; Ostia Antica; Firenze; Venizia with Rachel; the Musee D’Orsay in Paris; the medieval village of St.-Cirq-Lapopie and the nearby prehistoric caves at Pech-Merle with their amazing paintings; and that awesome repository of Anglo history, Westminster Abbey.
What did I like best? I think I’ve answered that. Which was my favorite city? None of the places I visited. My favorite city was the one in which I lived – Toulouse. I hope the travel agents never discover Toulouse. Last night was “la fete de la musique.” All over France, bands set up around the city or town and showed their stuff. I went out at 9:30 and spent 90 minutes walking from Place St. Georges to Place du Wilson to Place du Capitole and back home – a circuit of around 1.5 miles (about a mile). The streets were jammed the whole way with teenagers, college students, families with young children, and old folks like me. There were local bands playing at every street corner, down every alleyway, and multiple bands in every plaza. Some were good, some were less good. That’s really not the point. The point is that the whole city turned out on a Thursday night to enjoy the event. I’ve been on the subway in the middle of a week getting from point A to point B when an empty car suddenly filled up with college students in ridiculous costumes blowing horns and singing at the tops of their lungs. I’ve gone to the park to discover the gazebo full of people doing swing dancing. Toulouse is a city of about 1,000,000, but there is a sense of community. The city has the depth of culture you would expect of a European city with a long history but it also has the vibrance of a community that cares about quality of life and takes time to enjoy it.
So what have I learned? I have learned that the only way to understand the extent to which one’s culture shapes a person’s thinking is to live outside of that culture. I have come to more fully appreciate that growing up in America means learning a certain approach to life. As a group, Americans have a wonderfully positive problem-solving approach to life’s challenges. It is why the rest of the world looks to us to lead (OK, that and the whole military-industrial complex thing). That mindset is most definitely not universal. It is culturally born and bred. But although I value that aspect of American culture, living in a different culture has made me aware of the tradeoffs. We say that “the only constant is change.” That belief prepares us well to identify challenges and take them on. But in the process, we often neglect the consequences; we fail to evaluate what we are giving up when we change. Is change for the sake of change good? Sometimes, perhaps; sometimes, not. We are so forward-looking that we fail to appreciate what we are giving up until it is gone. When we eat lunch at our desk or skip it entirely, we gain some work time. When we leave work late and go home to finish our tasks after a quick dinner, we gain further productivity. When we rush through the mega-grocery store and stock up for a week, we are making efficient use of our time. Better if we pick up several pre-made meals. We don’t often stop to ask ourselves what we give up in the process. We don’t often stop at all. Most of the time, I live in a world that is pretty fast-forward (my daughters will laugh at that claim). This year, I have lived in a world that takes its time. For me, I think the right pace is somewhere in-between. In 7 days, I return to my old world. I’m a good enough psychologist to know that context is a powerful determinant of behavior. I hope that knowledge will serve me well.
Soon I leave Toulouse. It will never leave me.