We were Christmas shopping in Toulouse yesterday. A day in this, the fourth largest city in France, is always a treat. It’s affectionately known as ‘la ville rose’, because of the predominant building material, a deep pink brick. Elegant long tall terraces of town houses, public buildings, hidden courtyards wait to be discovered and re-discovered on every visit. We have so much more still to find and explore. There are fabulous churches and museums, wonderful and often quirky independent shops, appetising restaurants and bars to suit every budget and taste. The River Garonne and the Canal du Midi pass though the city offering a feeling of space and fresh air.
By about half past three, we’re footsore, weary and confused like Aesop’s poor dear Country Mouse who decided the simple, yet safe country life was preferable to the riches and dangers of life in the city. We want to go home.
I was always a city girl. Raised in London, I had a childhood enriched by Sunday afternoons at the Natural History Museum or frenetically pushing buttons at the Science Museum. We’d go to watch the Changing of the Guard at Horseguards Parade, nose round hidden corners of the city, still scarred in those days by the aftermath of wartime bombing. We’d go on our weekly shop to Sainsbury’s: not a supermarket then but an old-fashioned grocery store, with young assistants bagging up sugar in thick blue – er – sugar paper, or expertly using wooden butter pats to carve up large yellow blocks of butter. If we were lucky, there would be a Pearly King and Queen outside collecting for some charity.
It was Manchester for my university years. I loved those proud dark red Victorian buildings celebrating the city’s 19th century status as Cottonopolis, as well as the more understated areas once populated by the workers and managers of those cotton mills, but developed during my time there as Student Central. I loved the buzz of city life, the buzz of 60’s student life.
Then it was Portsmouth. Then Wakefield, and Sheffield, and Leeds. City life meant living with up to 750,00 neighbours. And I thrived on it. I never felt too far from wide open spaces, yet a short bus ride brought me theatres, cinemas, exhibitions, shops, choices of schools for my children. When we moved in 1997 to Harrogate, with a mere 75, 000 inhabitants, it felt small.
Then we came to the Ariège, to Laroque, population just over 2,000. The largest town in the whole area is Pamiers, with a mere 19,000 inhabitants. How could we still think of Harrogate as really rather tiny? So we needed to change the way we saw things. We’re accustomed now to at least recognising most of the people whom we see round and about. We enjoy the fact that we count many people in the community as friends, and that we all turn up to the same events. We relish the space, the more relaxed pace of life, the sense of belonging that we have here.
Now, as we plan our return to England, the idea of the clogged roads of the Harrogate rush hour is unattractive, the busy streets unappealing. Ripon, where we more recently lived is much more like it: 14,000 people. But we ask ourselves – is even a town this size too big and scary for Country Mice? Should we continue as we’ve started? Perhaps we should look at Galphay, Gargrave, Greenhow or Grewelthorpe, average populations about 400? Or Masham, about 1,250? All of these are near our centre of gravity, Ripon.
So much to think about. But wherever we end up, we’ll still want the odd sortie to The Big City. Toulouse hasn’t seen the back of us yet.
Photos 4, 5, 6 0f the Toulouse series; the Pearly Kings and Harrogate’s Valley Gardens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons