(Please click on the images to see them at their full size.)
First part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 1: City By The Lake
Third part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 3: A Village In The Mist
Fourth part of the series: Listening For Pyrene’s Echo 4: Sanctuary Between the Rivers
Geneva had proved to be less enchanting than I had dreamed of since I was a boy. I had imagined white streets lined with big trees and fountains, sage do-gooders assembled at the United Nations to take on the world’s evils, mountains of chocolate, and people walking about with open-hearted egalitarian ideals printed on their t-shirts. Instead I found dirty, disorganized and harshly noisy streets, a marked discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots, tourist boxes of chocolate in kitschy gift shops, and the poor in their jeans and cheap jackets while the rich walked about in sunglasses and Luis Vitton handbags, all neatly separated by the Rue de Mont Blanc running right through the middle of it. On the second day I was mugged on the bank of Lake Geneva, by an Arab man who pretended to be asking about my background, announcing himself as Brazilian. He suddenly started pretending to play soccer with me, grabbed me, and knocked me off balance, while slipping my wallet out of my pocket. Luckily I immediately noticed what had happened and managed to grab my wallet back before he got away, but it shook me up badly for the rest of the day. All I wanted to do was get out of Geneva.
So on the third day in Europe I woke at 4:30 in the youth hostel, packed in the dark, and walked with my train ticket the 20 minutes to the train station. The train left at 5:30, just as the sun was coming up, and I was off, finally taking the next step toward the big walk in the Pyrenees. But first, for the first leg of the traveling, Lyon, Marseilles, Toulouse. It would be a very long day on the trains.
(I had to get up at 4:30 at the youth hostel in Geneva so as to make the 5:30 train heading for Lyon. It was a chilly morning, with mist hanging over the fields outside Geneva and northeastern France.)
(After two stressful days in Geneva, including getting mugged along the banks of Lake Geneva (but luckily I caught the pickpocket in time and got my wallet back), I was finally off toward the Pyrenees, ready for the long walk that was the purpose of the whole trip. Lyon was the first stop along the very long TGV ride first down along the eastern border of France to Marseilles, then west across to Toulouse, where I would spend two nights.)
(I’d always wanted to see Lyon. I’d heard many good things about it. Though I was only there for 2 hours during the wait between train connections, it was a bright-feeling city, with lots of trees and quiet back streets. I’d love to go back and take it in more slowly. There were also huge numbers of destitute Roma (Gypsies), too, though.)
I almost slept right through my transfer at Lyon, one hour into France. If it hadn’t been for an annoyed passenger whose seat I was still sitting in at Lyon station, I wouldn’t even have known I was in Lyon. I jumped up and frantically gathered my pack and photo bag, while pushing through the boarding crowd. I made it out just in time, as the doors of the train closed behind me.
With two hours to spare, I decided to take a stroll through the streets outside the station and see what this northeastern French city was like. I’d heard about its pleasant climate, good food, wine, and laid back atmosphere, but nothing compared to actually getting out there and seeing what I could for myself. It was only two hours, and still very early in the morning, so I’d not be able to get much of an impression, but just having my feet planted on the sidewalks and walking past the beige colored buildings would give me more of a feel than reading any book. I kept to a straight line away from the station and made an hour and a half loop, before heading back to catch the next train for Marseilles.
Lyon was a bright, airy city, with lots of tall plane trees and people who greeted you with a nod and singsong “Bon jour!” Away from the station it seemed very business as usual, with people getting ready for work and commuters boarding and getting off the buses with their brief cases and backpacks. At the station, however, there were Roma (gypsies) everywhere, begging and looking destitute in that way only people who are ignored and despised can be. Seeing these people made me realize that Europe still hadn’t shaken its medieval heritage, or maybe it was just more honest about its problems than Tokyo, where the homeless have all but disappeared after the local government swept them out of sight into northern Tokyo. Japan only seems to be free of poverty and injustice. No one wants to believe it actually exists.
(I never thought I’d ever see Marseilles. What presented itself upon emerging from the train station surprised me; I thought it would be more modern. The train station was boiling over with tourists, most of whom wore sunglasses, many with enormous suitcases. The biggest impact, though, was the heat. It seemed to envelope the entire city.)
Marseilles was a surprise. My only images of it come from movies from the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s, when Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Sean Connery, Grace Kelly, and Cary Grant drove around too fast in their Triumphs, Sunbeam Alpine Sports Roadsters, and Austin Martins. I had barely an hour, so I stuck right by the station, but looking out over the city I was surprised by how vernacular the city was, without all the modern luxury buildings I was expecting. Notre-Dame de la Garde church stood on a hillock overlooking the town, while I hid as much as possible in the shade provided by the station entrance… it was stiflingly hot. Why anyone would want to roast themselves on the beach of the Mediterranean in this heat, was totally beyond me.
Back on the train, the rest of the day passed through the dry, baked landscape of Provence, with its huge vistas and long, rolling hills. For a few minutes the train stopped by in Arles, the town where van Gogh had lived just before he took his life, and where I had visited in 1988. Not much resembled my memories of that time. Instead I saw a train station riddled with graffiti, and many more apartment buildings than I remembered.
It was late afternoon by the time the train pulled into Toulouse. Since nothing had been online in terms of youth hostel information, I had to hope that the train station would be able to provide some information for either a youth hostel, or some other cheap accommodation. As always, arriving in a new town without a fixed place to stay always brought on tension and worry. I didn’t relish sleeping on a bench in the train station or in a park. Not at 52 years old.
(Toulouse is known as La Ville Rose, or the Pink City, because of its characteristic red brick buildings. In the harsh summer sun and heat, when walking along narrow streets, the pink color gives the streets a cheery and cooled-down effect. The writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who wrote “The Little Prince”, was supposed to have had an apartment right around where these buildings are, though I didn’t know it at the time.)
(A city should have fun with its buildings. People live here, after all, and buildings express who they are.)
(I love the way French people interact. There is a very strong sense of being in things together, and in general an insistence on showing respect and politeness, while at the same time often expressing a lot of passion. I was surprised (even though this was the 8th time I’d been to France) by how hushed people were on the trains, while being quite friendly and talkative at the same time. Very unlike the restrictive silence on Japanese trains (unless you’re in a drunken group) or the pell mell noise of American trains …though that was often a lot of fun.)
I did manage to track down a so-called youth hostel (more of a youth center that also had accommodations), a somewhat run-down and very basic place, with hordes of noisy high school students roaming the hallways. Luckily the friendly manager of the place put me onto a floor of my own, away from all the noise. I deposited my backpack in the room full of empty bunk beds, and went out for an evening stroll into the city.
Little did I know that the area that I wandered ignorantly into was the poor section of town, so my first impressions of Toulouse, with all those hookers and drug dealers on the street corners, violent drunks sitting about on park benches, and hole-in-the-wall souvlaki joints made me feel alienated and vulnerable enough to forget about finding a nice restaurant to sit and write in, and just buy some groceries at a supermarket and head back to the youth hostel. I sat by the window of my room, staring outside at the street lights and listening to a drunk singing at the top of his lungs, and feeling very far from home. Such times make you wonder why in the world you ever decide to leave home.
(This is what first greets you in the streets of Toulouse, the pink façades. I love the uneven walls and lack of clean, straight lines. Very human.)
(One thing I really miss by living in Japan: flirting. Men and women hardly make eye contact here, and sitting on a train can be a profoundly isolating experience in Japan. But in France, people flirted all the time. It made me feel like I was still attractive and that men and women actually lived in the same world. This woman above, while kissing her boyfriend, kept looking over at me and smiling. Being a man of course it went to my head, especially because she was gorgeous. But it ended with that smile and she never looked back. Which is just how flirting should be. A lot of fun!)
(Cities that grew out of human dimensions, instead of the larger and more rectangular and open requirements that cars demand, have much more of a sense of intimacy. It is in such images that one can see why cities originally formed, the idea that by working and living together, more could be accomplished, and greater safety and supplies guaranteed.)
(Little details the make up a city and give it character, like street lamps, color of façades, shutters, iron boot scrapers, sewer grills, and even manhole covers all make up something which either shows that the inhabitants care about where they live, or are indifferent to it, and thus help to promote how a newcomer might feel in the city. Toulouse was magical.)
(What would southern Europe be without flowers?)
The next morning I met a young man from Britain manning the reception desk, and he waxed poetic about the beauties of Toulouse, and encouraged me to visit a few of the sights, even taking the time to draw a detailed map of the best places to go. Talking to him lifted my spirits, especially when I heard that he had taken his summer vacation off to work in Toulouse, because of how much he loved the city. I sat eating (an awful, carbohydrate drowned mishmash of Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops, sweetened yoghurt, baguette with jam, orange juice, and chocolate pudding) breakfast with a warm and cheerful French woman named Caroline who had until recently lived in a yurt near the Pyrenees, and was now starting her life over living in the city. She sat on a couch in a simple cotton dress with her legs crossed, and spoke with a soft, comfortable voice that harbored no hurry or sense of strife, so that I immediately relaxed when we started speaking. Her warmth and courageous way of living melted away any last doubts I had, and with the constant succession of jokes, made me cheery enough to venture out again into the city, and walk all day long, viewing the beautiful architecture and delightful back streets.
(All the streets of the central and old part of Toulouse radiate out from this central plaza, the Place du Capitole. I love the way the owner of the bicycle just, on a whim, decided that this was where they wanted to park the bicycle, right smack-dab in the middle of the square. Street vendors had set up their stalls to the right of this picture, selling flea market fare.)
(Wandering through Toulouse was a delight, because of all the tiny winding streets. You never knew what you would find around the next corner. This street led down past a beautiful courtyard, where a woman came out and greeted me with a big smile and asked if I was enjoying the city. I told her I thought the city was lovely, and she beamed. Further on, the street dropped down to the Garonne River.)
(I was actually not intending to take this photo, but without knowing it at first, I had been photographing the gate of the main police station (which was actually quite beautiful). I suddenly noticed the security camera and the two guards beyond the entrance, so I quickly swiveled to appear uninterested. This was the result.
(Anyone who says that Europe isn’t diverse ethnically, hasn’t been in Europe recently. Minorities are a very big part of everyday society, and there is much more of a sense of integration than I ever felt in the United States. I saw a lot more mixed couples and non-whites were as common up in the mountains as anyone else. In America you rarely see blacks or Hispanics up in the mountains. There were lots of problems, too, though, particularly with the Roma (Gypsies). My French friend Thierry told me that several years ago France had attempted to flush the country out of the Roma, by shipping them all to Romania. Because Romania is part of the European Union, though, legally they couldn’t be kept out of France, and they returned. Some of the anger I heard from French people shocked me. It’s persecution at its worst. And the Roman that you see on the streets truly are destitute. It’s hard to look at.)
(Ah, French women! What more can I say?)
I walked all day, flip flops padding along the cobblestones and my eyes flicking from one architectural delight to the next, my camera constantly out. The old wonder of being an architect and seeing how historical buildings were assembled, what thought had gone into creating this space, why this color and that were chosen to work together, the magic that a certain use of materials can evoke, blossomed in the enthusiasm to look closer and take the camera out. The whole city, called La Ville Rose, the Pink City, reminded me that people could live together and express their creativity and joy in what they build. Everyone I asked about the city smiled and their eyes lit up before they proudly said, “Beautiful, isn’t it?” When I ask people about Tokyo, the only response I get is, “Convenient.” No one lives here to live within beauty and pride at being part of it.
(This was as far east as I got in my walk across central Toulouse. It was a welcome respite from the oppressive heat. People lounged in the shade under the trees, reading, eating lunch, napping, and conversing.)
(After a long, six hour stroll through the city and getting very hot, I finally swung around to the banks of the Garonne River. In the background you can see the Pont Neuf (New Bridge). It took almost a hundred years to build, planning started in 1542, foundations started to be built in 1544, and finally the whole thing was finished in 1632. I wonder what it was like having to live all your life next to all that construction noise!)
(Tourists wandering through the Place du Capitole, Toulouse. It was so hot no one wanted to be out in the open for long. Thankfully there were small eateries on every corner selling cold bottled water.)
You can’t visit France and not step into a church, so in my strolling through the city, I wandered into the churches that stirred my architect’s curiosity. After many years of one church after another (and in Japan, temples upon temples) one church begins to look a lot like another, but two of the churches here managed to evoke the awe that give a special place its otherworldly character. The Basilique St. Sernin and Toulouse Cathedral suppressed the urgings to dismiss the hubris that automatically arise in me when I see Catholic ostentation, and I walked through them filled with sorrow and gladness at the capabilities of humans, how much of the sublime and sorrow we bring about. The churches embodied this, whatever one might believe in or however much one criticized the history and actions of the Church.
Meditating within the hush and reverence of the two churches turned me upon myself and my purpose for taking this journey, until words fell away. It became apparent that it wasn’t so much about me stamping about discovering a new world, so much as about keeping my eyes and ears open and just letting time wash over me. I emerged from Toulouse Cathedral with a different pace of time. It didn’t matter so much how far I walked or whether or not my goals were met. I would just take this journey as it presented itself and walk when I could, sit still when that is what was asked of me, and let go when it seemed too much. It wouldn’t be worth it to travel if I gave in to loneliness and let that determine how I approached each day. I was ready to take the next leg of this journey… finally stepping into the mountains themselves.
(I love doorways and some of the ways doors were designed and built in churches always get me to stop and take a better look. Many of them tell whole stories.)
(It being France, churches were inevitable, and after a while many of them begin to look the same. But Basilique St. Sernin held me a little longer than most of what I have seen over the decades. The interior quite moved me.)
(The Basilique St. Sernin is a Romanesque church, predating the more famous and iconic Gothic style. Romanesque churches tend to be darker than Gothic churches, and more heavily built. The technology of buttresses hadn’t yet been invented, and so there was more limit to how high the buildings could be built, and the heaviness was due to the weight bearing limitations of the stone. Many Romanesque and Gothic churches collapsed in fantastic disasters when the structures were tried beyond the load bearing capacity and became too daring for the technology.)
(It is very expensive to maintain a cathedral these days, so much of the splendour and color of the past has been lost. Many churches were destroyed or badly damaged during World War 2 and the rebuilding didn’t match what had been originally built. In Germany, for instance, because so much had been destroyed in the bombings, many restorations had to use concrete instead of stone, because stone was so expensive, or simply that the original stone was no longer available. If you look closely at some of these restorations, you can see the stone painted in to simulate the original real stone.)
(Because they were usually built over very long periods, often centuries, and often collapsed or were destroyed during wars, cathedrals often were built in sections, with new master builders for each part. This necessarily incorporated different styles and ideas, the results being that asymmetrical spaces and uneven materials and colors all came together under one roof.)
(Toulouse Cathedral is in the Gothic style, with its airy and lacy stonework. The interiors were, however, never this bright. The stained glass windows kept a much more subdued atmosphere inside, serving to add to the feeling of mystery and imagination. No matter how many times I see them, Gothic cathedrals always leave me in awe at what humans can accomplish.)
(Buttresses, and later flying buttresses are what allowed Gothic cathedrals to get so tall and elegant. The epitome of stone technology.)
(This church still used real candles, probably because enough visitors helped to pay for upkeep, but many of the churches that I visited in France during this trip were using electric lights disguised as candles. The effect was different.)