We purchased a copy of L'Express, which looked a little like a tabloid, but turned out to be a business magazine. The cover story was 'Who owns Bordeaux -- and also Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille, Nantes, Lille?' The topic was absentee landlords, who evidently own vast amounts of downtown property. Under French law the owners must pay a heavy tax if they wish to bring the buildings up to code and rent them out or sell them; so the owners instead have done nothing, and the buildings now sit unused and slowly falling apart. The French are aware of the problem, but there is a big tradition against eminent domain and other forfeitures of property, so the solution will be slow to develop.
We thank David Epstein for confirming that movements sociaux are in fact little mini-strikes by the SNCF employees. They don't upset the big through express trains, because they don't want SNCF to get a bad name. So they slow down and sick out and whatever to just degrade the service on the local trains. This of course means that all the workers commuting on those trains will be late or absent from work. Those workers can then blame the movements sociaux on the trains, while the train workers unions can also claim that many other workers stayed home or were late out of sympathy with the SNCF union. Pretty smart, eh?
This morning we were early to the station as usual; this time because of well-intentioned but false warnings about heavy traffic. There was a blockage at the gare due to police activity; we speculated they were rounding up drifters. There was a sign today that there would be minor perturbations, not strong ones, due to movements sociaux. We were taking the TGV to Toulouse so it wouldn't bother us. While we waited for the train, we watched the engines working strings of passenger cars in the otherwise quiet railyards. They moved them up one track and back on another. We tried to figure out how they did the movements sociaux; what was going slower today?
Our comfortable TGV seats faced each other with a sturdy table between, good for our laptop. We rode through vineyards and apple orchards, spotting an occasional chateau or picturesque ruin on a distant hilltop. The houses are stone and sometimes stucco, with lighter clay and brick beginning to be seen especially as we approached Toulouse.
The Toulouse Tourist Bureau has permanently closed its office in the train station; so we got the best guide we could find at the Kiosk as well as some train timetables, and headed for our hotel, which turned out to be super.
We'd picked the Mercure Atria, located right next to the convention center. The price is right, the rooms quite comfortable and internet friendly, the location convenient, the staff quite helpful, and the food is great! We arrived in time for their luncheon of regional specialties: roast duck, and a plate with three kinds of pate de foie gras, followed by prune ice cream in a crisp pastry shell for dessert.
As we finished dessert, the lounge bar filled up with people and smoke. When we emerged from the restaurant, tables were set up for a two-section duplicate bridge tournament. French bridge players in 2000 look the same as American bridge players in 1964.
The front desk provided us with a transportation map, so we walked downtown. We went through the district surrounding the University of Social Sciences, which was filled with bookstores, bars and cafes, and two thriving game stores. Perhaps social scientists have more fun! We liked the city right away; for some reason the bricks of the old buildings are not blackened or crumbling as are the sandstone buildings of Bordeaux. Possibly the problem is all due to the large amount of ramshackle property in Bordeaux in the hands of absentee landlords. In any event, Toulouse immediately seemed like a happy, vibrant city.
Suddenly we came into Place du Capitole. It is just gorgeous, a broad square bordered by imposing brick buildings, including at least one colonnaded side and the Capitoleum, a centuries-old building now the city hall. The tourist office is lodged in the restored donjon, where the city archives are kept, and we could see why they moved out of the railroad station!
We stopped at the English Book Shop for another city guide and a couple of books to read, and then at a basement-level supermarket adjacent to the hotel. The French woman ahead of us at the cheese counter, hearing our English, asked us (of course) about Bush-Gore and wished us a happy visit in France.
Back in the room, we looked out our window and saw tens of thousands of small birds swooping and flocking and sailing through the sky, rising from the trees in the park next door and flying in intricate patterns in a twilight festival. When they banked away from us the sky grew dark with all their bodies, hundreds of them rising from trees and joining in. Lovely!