3: France & Toulouse

The official name for France is La République Française. France is the largest country in Europe and covers an area smaller than the size of the state of Texas and a little more than twice the size of New Zealand. There are approximately 60 million French, 10 million of whom live in Paris. France’s last king, Louis-Philippe, abdicated in 1848. The head of state is the President who is elected every five years in a general election. The current President is Nicholas SARKOZY (UMP) who was elected in 2007. France is divided into 95 departments, each having a name and a number. This number is present in the last two digits of a car’s license plate and in the first two digits of every code postal (postal code).

The country is also divided into regions: Toulouse is in the Midi-Pyrénées region in the Haute-Garonne department, number 31. The Préfecture and Mairie represent the national and local governments respectively, within each department. The Préfecture is able to enact certain laws, and acquire and spend funds as it chooses. The Mairie is headed by le Maire (the Mayor), and is equivalent to a town government. French elected officials can hold several offices at once.

Although France is the largest agricultural nation in Europe, it is also known for other fine products. Besides crops such as sugar beets, wheat, potatoes and barley, France, along with Spain and Italy, shares the title as the world’s foremost wine producer. France is also the world’s second largest producer of cheese. No one outranks France in the production of perfume. French cars (the Renault, Citroen, and Peugeot) are known the world over.


On the whole, the French are a very private people, proud of their country and close to their friends and family. They see success as a combination of their level of education and the reputation of their family. They love conversation and are a very social country, although usually only with close friends and family. They are seen as patriotic and as being very proud of their culture and French way of life. Most French enjoy talking about anything in depth, including politics, art, and history. The people of the Toulouse region are generally polite and friendly, yet reserved. Although it is not easy to establish a friendship with the French, once you do, it is for life.

The French people are primarily Roman Catholic, the majority of whom are non-practicing, with the second largest religion being Protestant. Two percent of the population is Jewish and Islam is practiced by over a million French people, most of whom are North African immigrants.

The French are usually very helpful with a foreigner’s attempts at speaking French. They will correct mistakes as a matter of course, most often with a kind smile. Most French people are more tolerant of poorly spoken French than of well-spoken English. Despite the widely held misconception that English is well known in France, most French people will not admit to speaking English even though they may understand what is being said. Their reticence is cultural, and largely due to their desire to do something perfectly, or not at all. However, like many other countries in the world, France is becoming more open to practicing English. This effort is most evident in the younger population, although people of all ages who know some English will often try to speak it when they hear French being spoken well, but with an obvious anglophone accent.

Many of the frustrations English-speaking people experience in France are a direct result of being unable to speak and understand the French language. The ability to communicate basic needs and desires in French will make a tremendous difference in the speed of adjustment to the culture and lifestyle.

Learning the language may seem overwhelming at first, but it is a near necessity if staying in France for any length of time. Being surrounded by the language and its use makes this task easier. Speaking the language in public is difficult at first, but with practice becomes increasingly easier and rewarding. Grammar will be automatically corrected by some, which is a great help, for you eventually repeat what you hear, accent and all. The fastest way to learn a new language is to take lessons and then use as much of the language as you know, and frequently. Language courses are offered from a variety of established schools and from private tutors. Books and tapes also offer additional support and practice. Whichever the method, do try to learn at least enough of the language to allow polite interaction with the public in shops and restaurants. It will not only make you feel more comfortable but will make your experience with France and the French people more memorable.


  • If at all possible, take French lessons before coming to Toulouse. Doing so will greatly help during the settling-in period and will significantly increase self-confidence.
  • Carry a small English/French dictionary at all times, and look up words that are seen and used frequently.
  • Enroll in a course, or take lessons from a private tutor as soon as possible. Use phrase books, tapes and books to supplement learning and help with understanding French grammar. (Alliance Francaise at Place Capitol in the center of Toulouse, Institute Catholique in Toulouse, Croix Rouge in Toulouse, the M.J.C. Pont de Demoiselles in Toulouse are examples of places that offer French classes)
  • Vocabulary will increase daily as a result of shopping, ordering in restaurants and talking to people. Try to learn a phrase each week and use it frequently until it is known. Listening to French television or radio helps one become accustomed to hearing the sound of the language and the accent.
  • Go to the movies to see English or American films subtitled in French. They are a good exercise to review everyday language and learn even more. See Chapter 23, “Leisure” for movie theaters specializing in foreign films.
  • Join a French cultural/social group to meet French people who speak both French and English. This will help to not only learn the language, but also the culture, and to make friends as well.
  • Meet your neighbours and the parents of your children’s friends.

TOULOUSE (La Ville Rose)

Toulouse is an attractive, fast growing, historic city with a great deal of character and charm. It is the gateway to the Pyrenées Mountains, the natural border between Spain and France. It is often called La Ville Rose (the Pink City) because the buildings are mostly made of red brick as stones where hard to find in the area. Founded in the 4th century BC, the city has prospered and enjoyed periods of political independence. Today, it is committed to low-rise construction, while conserving and restoring its fine old public buildings and churches.

Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France (behind Paris, Marseilles and Lyons) with a population of more than 390,000 inhabitants downtown, and 741,000 inhabitants in the greater urban district. It boasts the second largest university city (after Paris), with over 100,000 students. The first metro line (subway system) serving Toulouse center was opened in 1993, and the network is being expanded.There are extensive suburbs, which offer modern housing and large shopping centers for the ever-expanding Toulouse population.

Immediately surrounding the city is rich agricultural land. This region is best known for the locally produced gourmet specialties like magret de canard, foie gras and cassoulet, and there are also some very good local wines. The Canal du Midi, which runs through Toulouse, is famous for its delightful, shaded bicycle path. The Toulouse area is also renown for its fierce pursuit of the French rugby championship. Ardent rugby followers might try to convince you that the game originated in a local village, and it should be known as la souple.

Toulouse is a town for music lovers. L’Orchestre Symphonique du Capitole de Toulouse is part of the international scene. It also has an opera house with opera, dance and ballet companies. There are several concert halls including an 18th century hexagonal edifice and a newly built theater. Quite a number of organ concerts are held throughout the area’s centuries’ old churches. One of the principal musical events of the year would be the series of piano concerts at the Jacobins in September; the concert pianists are world-renowned and the acoustics perfect in this 12th century cloister. There are several established museums and a new Musée d’Art Moderne (Museum of Modern Art) complex, which opened in 2000.Toulouse competes in various high technology industries such as aerospace, aviation, telecommunications, and electronics.

Useful Web Sites

  • ‘www.mairie-toulouse.fr’ gives maps, a list of main events in the city, a list of employers in the area, and other links to more specific websites. You can find parks and facilities mapped here too. For example tennis courts, pools (piscines)
  • ‘www.unesco-toulouse.com’ offers a virtual visit of Toulouse with 360° pictures of La Place du Capitole and other highlights. Down load QuickTime and enjoy the ride.
  • ‘www.cdt-haute-garonne.fr’ (Comité départemental du tourisme) for visitors; presents the main touristic attractions of the Haute Garonne, gives a list of tourist offices and phone numbers, cultural events, tells legends, and offers a quiz to test knowledge of the area!
  • ‘www.toulouse.aeroport.fr’ all about flights in and out of Toulouse.
  • ‘www.tisseo.fr’ map of the current underground line, schedule and info about the new lines.
  • www.sncf.fr (and there ter.fr) will give you information about regional trains and the part of the metro that goes between Toulouse Arenes and Colomiers using the ter train.
  • ‘www.ac-toulouse.fr’ (the official site of the academy of Toulouse for education and schools) presents school curricula, calendars, and links to primary and secondary school web sites – including Lycée Internationale Victor-Hugo (Victor Hugo International High School).
  • ‘www.augustins.org’ Toulouse’s largest museum.
  • ‘www.onct.mairie-toulouse.fr’ for music and ‘www.theatre-du-capitole.org’ about performances at the Capitole theater.
  • ‘www.cite-espace.com’ the space park located off of the Périphérique.

And last but not least: ‘www.francophone.net/gtremb’ don’t miss the visite guidée (virtual guided tour) of the Saint Sernin church; almost as good as the real thing!!!

Toulouse Aviation History

It all began in the 1920’s when France’s first International Postal Service, called Aéropostale, was set up in the Toulouse area. Their first destinations were Morocco, Dakar, and other Colonial outposts. Soon service was expanded to South America and other points, which encouraged the development of great French aviators such as Mermoz, Guillaumet and of course, Saint-Exupéry (author of “The Little Prince”) who was shot down and lost over the Mediterranean Sea in 1944 while flying for the US Airforce.

AEROSPATIALE, together with the corresponding firms from Britain, Germany and Spain, form the international consortium known as Airbus, which is part of the EADS Group. These big companies have attracted an onslought of national and international companies that design, service, and supply parts/services to the aerospace industry. This trend is ever increasing as the Toulouse site is building the new giant A380 plane.

Toulouse hosts the major French companies involved in space and satellite activity: AEROSPATIALE, ALCATEL SPACE and ASTRIUM / MATRA MARCONI SPACE. The French Space Agency CNES manages the research and development of launch systems and satellites.

Toulouse, a European hi-tech stronghold, is the:

  • European leader and world #2 in aeronautical activities
  • European leader in space
  • Leading French region in robotics and automation
  • French leader in microbiology and medical electronics (active components)
  • Home to the 2nd largest private pharmaceutical group in France
  • Third largest plant of biotechnology production
  • Second largest region in France in information technology and technical ceramics with 670 computer science engineering and service companies, with 2 worldwide leaders in data storage: STORAGETEK and ATG CYGNET
  • Leading region outside Paris for software engineering and active components
  • Leader in France in leather goods and seed production
  • Has 10,500 people working in more than 400 research units

Some of the preceding information was taken from the website Toulouse GALILEO Midi Pyrenées ‘www.webcom.com/galileo/midi_p/midip_e.html’.


Toulouse is also the capitol of the very scenic Midi-Pyrénées Region. The area has easy access to Bordeaux, Lyon, and Spain via the autoroutes (toll highways) A61 and A62, which link the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea and the A64. Paris is 5 hours away by high-speed TGV train, 9 hours by car, and 70 minutes by plane.

The regional climate is temperate. Winters are generally mild and rainy (however, expect a certain number of days/nights of freezing temperatures and an occasional snowfall) with summers being rather warm and at times hot and humid. Spring and autumn are normally sunny and sometimes windy. August is THE holiday month in France, mostly due to the predictably hot weather, although July has become increasingly popular. (It is important to note that July 1st and 15th, August 1st, 15th and 31st are the worst travel days in France. As the French tend to take their month-long vacation in either July or August, or mid-July to mid-August, try to avoid traveling on those dates!) During spring and autumn the weather can change quickly, being cool in the morning, hot in the afternoon and cool again after sunset. It is a good idea to dress in layers during these months so as to be prepared for the change in temperatures.


Degrees Fahrenheit (°F) Degrees Centigrade (°C) (Celsius)
Boiling point of water 212 100
100 38
90 32
80 27
70 21
60 16
50 10
40 4
Freezing point of water 32

TIMEFrance follows Continental European Time (CET), as do most European countries (with the exception of England and Greece, which have their own time zones). Clocks are advanced one hour the last Sunday in March and turned back the last Sunday in October. Toulouse is six hours ahead of New York time, nine hours ahead of California, one hour ahead of England and nine hours behind Sydney, Australia. The 24-hour clock system is used for quoting time in France and will be utilized throughout this publication. Rendez-vous (appointments), deliveries, reservations, schedules, shop hours, etc., will always be on the 24-hour clock system. For example, shop hours might displayed as 09.00 à 17.30 (9:00 am to 5:30 pm).


The French write the date in the format of day, month, and year (DD/MM/YY). This may be confusing for those who use the month, day and year (MM/DD/YY) format. One way to keep the numerical confusion to a minimum is to use the DD-MMM-YYYY format, e.g., “13 mai 2001” for May 13, 2001.


The ground level floor is called the rez-de-chaussée (or simply “RC” or “RDC”), the next floor is the premier étage (first floor), which is called the second floor in other countries, though is similarly named in the UK.

Most lights in common areas, such as hotel or apartment hallways and restaurant bathrooms, are on timers to conserve electricity. If suddenly found in darkness, do not be alarmed, just locate the light switch, which is usually illuminated for easy access in the dark. (Be careful not to ring someone’s doorbell!).

Not all hotel rooms have a douche (shower) or bain (bath) and WC (toilet, for “water closet”). Many hotel rooms have common shower and toilet areas. Rooms with private shower or bath and toilet should be requested when making a reservation.

Many public bathrooms have separate toilets for men and women, although they often have a shared wash basin. The men’s room will have either a picture of a man or the word Monsieur on the door, and the ladies’ room will have a picture of a woman or the word Madame. If the door simply says WC or Toilettes then it is a shared toilet, to be used by both men and women. (Sometimes the men’s urinals are in full view!) Toilets are known as les toilettes or les WC. Some public places have a Turkish toilet, used while standing. It is a good idea to always carry tissue with you.

Water faucets/taps in bathrooms are either color coded blue for cold and red for hot, or marked “F” for froid (cold) and “C” for chaud (hot). Frequently, they both deliver only cold water, despite the color codes.


French Independence Day (Bastille Day), the 14th of July, is celebrated with an impressive feux d’artifice (fireworks) display over the Garonne River. As part of the national Fête de la Musique, Toulouse celebrates the evening of June 21st, the first day of summer and the longest day of the year, with live bands on practically every street corner for the entire evening. On the third Thursday in November, the French celebrate the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau wine. The Parc des Expositions hosts many varied exhibits throughout the year, with a popular Antiques Show held the 3rd week in November for antique enthusiasts. For an up-to-date list of annual festivities, visit the Tourism Office, Syndicat d’Initiative, Square Charles de Gaulle, Tel: 05 61 11 02 22, just behind the Place du Capitole.


Most shops, banks, and post offices close on the actual day of the holiday, although bakeries often remain open. Below is a list of the main public holidays:
January 1 — New Year’s Day (Le jour de l’an)
Monday after Easter — Easter Monday (Lundi de Pâques)
May 1 — Labor Day (Fête du travail)
May 8 — Victory Day (end of WWII) Le huit Mai
End of May/Early June (varies) — Mother’s Day (Fête des Mères)
Five weeks after Easter (variable) — Ascension Day ( L’Ascension)
Monday after Ascension (varies) — Pentecost Monday (Lundi de Pentecôte)
June (varies) — Father’s Day (Fête des Pères)
July 14 — Bastille Day (Fête Nationale, or “le quatorze juillet”)
August 15 — Assumption Day (L’Assomption)
November 1 — All Saint’s Day (La Toussaint)
November 11– Armistice Day 1918 (L’Armistice, or“Le onze novembre”)
December 25 — Christmas Day (Noël)


January Les Rois – – Epiphany: eat galette (Kings’ cake) and look for the fêve
February Chandeleur — Candlemass: eat crêpes
February Carnaval — fancy costume parades
Mardi Gras — “fat Tuesday”: last day before Lent
March, last weekend — Daylight Saving Time (clocks “spring” forward)
March Foire Internationale de Toulouse (Toulouse)
March or April Paques (Easter — Easter Egg hunt in Château de Merville (Merville)
May — Fêtes des Berges et du vélo: (bicycle day)
June 21 — Fête de la Musique: all kinds of music in the street (all of France – nice activities even in small villages))
June Garonne Festival — river theme event (Toulouse)
July 14 Fête Nationale (Bastille day) — fireworks (all of France)
July Medieval days (Cordes)
August Medieval month (Carcassone)
AAugust Jazz Festival (Marciac)
August Fête des Fleurs (Luchon)
September, 3rd weekend Journées du Patrimoine — state buildings opened to visitors (all of France)
September, last weekend — End of Daylight Saving Time (clocks “fall” back)
November, 3rd Thursday — The arrival of the Beaujolais nouveau — taste the “new” wine
November Antique Fair (Toulouse) as well as Christmas and Crafts Fairs begin (various towns)
December Salon des Artisans d’art & Art Fair — handmade jewelery, pottery, paintings, great Christmas presents


Attitude will make a big difference in how one views France, or, for that matter, any other country in which one lives or visits. A positive attitude will not only help in the enjoyment of the country, its people and its customs, but it will also support you on the days when nothing seems to go right. The task of settling in and becoming familiar with the customs of a new country is stressful and at times seems overwhelming. Learning to see and accept a country for what it is makes for a smoother, less frustrating transition. Every country has its good and not-so-good points. Constantly comparing this country to “home” and seeing only what is lacking, and not adapting to change, will only make your life more difficult.

Learning to give and take, seeing things in a different perspective, slowing down your pace of life and living in harmony with your environment is a learning process which takes some time. If this is your first venture abroad, give yourself time to adjust to the newness and change around you. Take the time to meet new people, enjoy the sights and settle into your new lifestyle. Try to avoid very negative people and situations. Instead, learn from your mistakes and appreciate the experiences for what they are in the here and now.


When first arriving in a foreign country (that you know nothing about), everything seems strange and incomprehensible. Much that you have taken for granted for years is now unacceptable or misunderstood. Although learning a country’s customs takes time and experience, here are some helpful tips to get you started:


Counting – If you want to signify the number “one”, use only your thumb. The index finger and thumb held up together means “two”. If you signal with just the index finger, the French will be confused and probably think that you mean ‘two’.

Snapping your fingers at a person is considered rude.

One or several fingers circling at the temple means fou (crazy).

Holding one’s nose with a closed fist and faking a turn is like saying “il est saoûl” (He’s drunk)”.

Kissing the tips of one’s finger means delicious.

Pulling the right cheek downward at the eye means “mon oeil” (my eye – I don’t believe it).

Thumbs down is bad and thumbs up is super.

Shaking the right hand fingers in front of the chest means a great surprise, positive or negative, and is often accompanied by the words “ooh la la” or a puff of air through closed lips.

The fingers flat against the lips with eyes open means “Oops, I made a mistake.”

The finger tips rubbing together with the thumb up, as if one were feeling fabric, means “cher” (expensive).

Using the back of fingers to stroke the right cheek as if feeling a beard means “quelle barbe” (What a beard – What a bore).

Both hands up in front of the chest with palms out mean “je ne sais pas” (I don’t know).GREETING BY SHAKING HANDSThe French typically greet someone, who is not a close friend, by shaking hands, both in business and socially. It is also used when parting. Be sure to include everyone in the room or, if in a restaurant, everyone at the table. Shaking hands is a simple light grip with a single quick shake. In greeting, say “Bonjour Monsieur” for a man or “Bonjour Madame” for a woman. An overly firm pumping of the hand is considered impolite. Sometimes a Frenchmen will offer his elbow or forearm to shake if his hands are wet or soiled. This is natural and you must simply grip the elbow or forearm lightly, for a moment, as acknowledgment of the greeting. Young children usually will not shake hands; they usually greet with the double kiss.


La bise or le bisou (kissing) is used between close acquaintances and family members for both greeting and parting. For people under 30, you may be kissed immediately upon being introduced to someone. A kiss on both cheeks is normal and usually starts with the right cheek. You may notice that often the lips never make contact with the cheek (kissing the air). In some areas, such as Albi or Bordeaux, it’s not unusual to kiss three times, or in Paris four times. Men usually do not kiss each other in this manner unless they are family or close friends who haven’t seen one another for quite some time.


As you enter a shop always greet the merchant by saying “Bonjour Monsieur/Madame” (Good day sir/madame). When you leave say “Merci, Au Revoir Monsieur/Madame” (thank you, good-bye sir/madam). In fact, the French usually say a general “Bonjour Messieurs-Dames” to everyone when they enter a shop, a doctor’s/dentist office, a travel office or other places of business. In this case, you are not expected to return the greeting.


Toulouse is not Paris and thus the fashion and style of dress is much less sophisticated. Toulouse is also a city with a large number of students, adding to the casual dress style seen throughout the area. However, this being said Toulouse is still in France and the French have a way of wearing their clothes, casual ones included, with ‘style’. For the most part, learning to dress in Toulouse is just a matter of observation, of both what people are wearing and what is being sold in the shops. The best advice, no matter where you are, is to use common sense and avoid extremes of dress until you are sure it is acceptable in both place and situation. ‘Smart casual’ is an acceptable mode of dressing and will probably be acceptable anywhere except the most formal occasions. For women, this would mean a dress, top and skirt or top and classic trousers in a contemporary or classic style; for men it would mean jacket, trousers and shirt or a casual suit in a contemporary style but not necessarily with a tie.


There are a few things the French seem to have developed into an art. Eating is one of them and conversation is the other. Sally Adamson Taylor speaks extensively about the French and their methods of conversation in her book Culture Shock: France (see Chapter 27, “Reference Books”). Her information is not only helpful but necessary in order to understand the expectations the French have of you.

First and foremost, the French love to talk. As you become aware of the normal everyday life of the French, you will notice a woman leaning out of her window talking to a neighbor, couples or groups of people drinking coffee and talking at their beloved sidewalk cafes, or people just standing in the corner, talking. The great lengths of time people spend at a meal is, after all, simply a way to have a long conversation … while eating.

The French have rules about their conversations, as does every culture. Some of the most important ones to remember:
* Avoid talking about age, money, and, to a lesser extent, profession. (The last is especially significant for Americans and British, as often in our culture the leading question at most social events is, “What do you do?”.)
* Keep conversation away from personal matters and discuss instead the state of the world, history, art, food, travel or recreation.
* It is inconsiderate to generalize concerning the French. Sentences that start with, “Being French, you are…”, are not taken kindly.
* It is important to moderate your speaking voice whenever you are in a shop, restaurant, or any public place. Talking at a normal volume is not only considered very rude but also as an invasion of other people’s privacy. Speaking in a normal tone of voice (or louder) in public is what the French find most unattractive about tourists. Subtle and gentle tone of voice is the first rule of conversation in France.

Additionally, it is quite easy to fall into a normal speaking manner if you are speaking to a French person in English. However, you must remember that English is not their mother tongue and normal speaking speed for you may be close to impossible for them to understand. You should try to rid your speech of clichés and slang expressions. Try to speak normally, but with a slow rhythm and pronounce your words well, but without affectation.


Being invited to a French person’s home for dinner implies you are highly thought of by them. Usually, invitations are reserved for very close friends or family, as the French home is traditionally considered very private. Do not feel offended if, during your stay in France, you are not invited into your French friends’ homes. Besides feeling that their homes are private, some French people may feel unsure about your customs and manners and how to entertain you.

However, many French people, especially those who have traveled, will welcome the opportunity to entertain foreign guests and will be delighted at your acceptance of their invitation. For information on what to expect, you may also want to look at Chapter 19, “Food and Dining”, particularly the sections covering meals, dinner parties, and table manners. Here are some guidelines been taken from Taylor’s book Culture Shock: France to help you feel more comfortable and enjoy yourself:

* When invited to a French person’s home, arrive at the appointed time but never early! Do not be surprised, however, if French guests arrive from fifteen to thirty minutes late. In Toulouse, this is known as the “quart d’heure Toulousain”. The announced time is the first possible time at which to arrive, but not the time the host really expects all guests.

* If you know your host and hostess well, you will know their style of dress, and should dress accordingly. If you do not know your host and hostess very well, dress as if going to a restaurant (smart casual).

* Bring a gift (See Chapter 20, “Gifts”), or, at least flowers for the hostess. Gifts could oblige your hosts to reciprocate, so be sure you have that sort of friendship between you.

* When offered a drink upon arriving, do not ask for wine, as red and/or white wine will be served at dinner. Ask for an aperitif or a cocktail and stand to receive it.

* Hors d’oeuvres will be served, usually nuts and crackers, but restrain yourself, as you will soon be expected to eat a large meal. In Paris, meals are usually smaller but more elegant than the country meals served in other areas of France. For more information on meals, see Chapter 19.

* The French home will not be “on show” and, as a general rule, guests are not given a tour. The doors to all other rooms will probably be closed, including the bathroom and toilet (calles the “WC”), which are in separate rooms. These will be the only two rooms you will be expected to see.

* You should not follow your host into the kitchen or any other part of the house unless expressly invited to do so. (You may ask, “Je vous/te suis?” or “Voulez-vous/Veux-tu que je vous/t’ aide?” – “Should I follow you?” and “Would you like me to help you?”, respectively.) Your request to help in the kitchen most often will be refused. You are the guest and it is the pleasure of your host and hostess to serve you.