“It looks just like the Epcott version!” I excitedly told my dad over the phone. I was describing Toulouse, a lovely city in the south of France where I’ll be living for the next few weeks. After the anti-American protests at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis last week, the State Department has insisted that we relocate here until the political situation stabilizes.
Sitting at a street side café with a “café crème et un pain au chocolate, s’il vous plait,” on my table, it’s easy to see that I’m not quite in Tunis anymore. Even though a half-century of colonialism left Tunisia with a decidedly French-flavored culture, the differences here are striking.
Of course, there are the little things: the wine is better, the food is twenty times as expensive, and the language people speak is just a touch snootier than it is in Tunis. Instead of stray dogs and cats everywhere, Toulouse has rats and mice.
On a deeper level, there seems to be a fundamental difference in how people interact. Women are more visible — I can order a coffee at any café without worrying that I’ve unwittingly stepped into one of the men-only establishments still common in Tunisia. There are more homeless people too. Even though France has a much higher per-capita GDP than Tunis, there are enormous homeless colonies on the banks of the Garonne River, the likes of which just don’t seem to exist in Tunis.
I’ve been struck by how visible – nay, encouraged – public drinking seems to be. Toulouse is a college town, and since public universities will open for the semester next week, the streets ooze drunk, carefree college students nearly every evening (and well into the morning). It’s an odd change after spending a few weeks in a country where alcohol is legal, but somewhat illicit.
There also seems to be a much stronger affinity for American culture and style. One of my favorite games to play at bars and cafes is to count the number of American flag t-shirts, dresses, and scarves that French young people are wearing (completely un-ironically). I never saw that type of fashion statement in Tunis. To be fair, Tunisians tend to have less money than Frenchmen, so they are also less likely to have taken a vacation in the States and picked up an Old Navy t-shirt. Still, it’s easy to feel like I’ve moved very far West, just by popping up North to France.
Most poignantly, I’m no longer surrounded by images of Islam and Muslim culture. My home outside of Tunis was right next to a mosque, so I’ve become used to waking up with the call to prayer and marking time by watching the ebb and flow of men flocking to the prayer hall.
Though a few people here wear headscarves and others appear North African, there aren’t many symbols of Arab-Islamic culture in Toulouse. Indeed, some controversial regulations in France have minimized open displays of religiosity, so no one hear wears the niqabs and burkas that have been resurging in Tunis.
Perhaps just because I’m living in a monastery while I’m in Toulouse — the Institut Catholique — I do see plenty of Christian religious symbols. Nuns in traditional head-coverings and priests with crosses swinging from their necks are constantly streaming through our gates.
Being here in a culture and society so fundamentally different from Tunisia and closer to my own has actually been somewhat useful (though of course I sincerely regret that people had to die at the U.S. embassy protests so that I could be here). It’s let me rediscover, from afar, just what Tunisia is and what the environment meant to me.
And it’s made me even more eager to get back soon.