We hope you all had a very nice Thanksgiving holiday and that this email finds you well!
Having had some hectic days preparing for our "big trip", we enjoyed a wonderful and relaxing Thanksgiving up north with Neil's family. The weather was so nice and warm we were even able to have our Thanksgiving meal outside on the porch! And the next day we even played Volleyball at Pismo beach with Neils sister and her family. Trying to avoid big traffic, we drove home early Sunday morning but not without stopping for breakfast in Santa Barbara; the rest of the day was spent with the final packing. Monday morning turned out to be quite peaceful because our flight wasn't until the evening. Neil went to the office one last time and had a doctors appointment and afterwards we went for our last American lunch. At 2pm our private shuttle picked us up and brought us to LAX in 45 minutes, where we were able to check-in before the big crowds arrived. We soon found out that our flight had a 1 hour delay and therefore we made ourselves comfortable at the pub. Between clam chowder, beer and playing Scrabble, the time went by fast, until we were able to board the Boeing 777. Neil was quite excited to be finally flying in a Boeing 777 because he had done some engineering work on this airplane many years ago. Neil was also pleased to find out that we were flying Air France and we got free drinks, good food and entertainment. The 11 hour flight to Paris went by amazingly fast, even though we were both unable to sleep and there wasn't any good movies running.
In Paris we first hand got to feel what it meant when temperatures were around the freezing point!!! Neil responded by drinking Cappuccino and I went for my fleece jacket!
Then, after another short flight, we arrived in Geneva, Switzerland, and loaded our luggage into a cab which drove us through town and across the border into France where a hotel was already booked for us. Also here, temperatures were around the freezing point and the trees were covered with snow.
The next morning - after little sleep and lots of jetlag - a cab brought us to the Parker office where we were taking over the company car. We were anxious to see what kind of car it was hoping that all of our luggage would fit in it!!!
After much waiting, we were finally presented with a Renault Laguna, big enough to hold all our luggage and very comfortable to drive our long route to the South. The streets were fantastic the asphalt felt like velvet - and it felt as if we were flying! Literally: we were allowed to drive 130km/h or 80m/h and soon this speed felt not fast enough especially as the freeway was pretty empty (due to the expensive tolls) and we knew we had a long way to go. In the end I was driving 100m/h to get those 450 miles behind us and trying to arrive in Toulouse by daylight. The news came a few days later when Neil called me stating that a traffic ticket for speeding had arrived!!! Well, I can tell you, its a little more embarrassing when you receive a speeding ticket while you are driving a company car and this ticket arrives at the main office and is then forwarded on to the guilty one with everybody in the office knowing about it!!! Anyway, life goes on. I was just glad that they ticketed us while driving 139km/h and not 160km/h .!!!
The only quick stop we had made during our drive South was in Annecey, a very cute and old town close to the Swiss border. I had been to Annecy several times before but never during winter and it looked quite charming with the bare trees that had a thin cover of snow. We hope that we can stop there again in spring when all the restaurants have their tables outside along the river and the town is livelier.
The first few nights we were located in a hotel close to the Toulouse airport and in walking distance to Neil's office. It first seemed to be a convenient place until we realized that they were doing renovations in the hotel - the drills and noises started at 9am and the workers finished up around 7pm. The hotel staff was not too friendly either; I assume they had received too many complaints from the hotel guests about these renovations! Throughout the first week, we continued not being able to sleep from around midnight to 4am and ended up playing Scrabble or reading in the middle of the night. Neil would then sleep for another 4 hours and go to work at 9am. I was lazier and tried to catch up on my sleep even though workers were right outside our room. Trying to use our coat closet we realized that wholes had been drilled in there and we stared and some bare concrete and some new plumbing showed up as well! We were amazed that the hotel was nevertheless charging full prices and selling every room available!
On our first day in Toulouse, I had to use all my courage to take our car and drive into town. Sure, I had driven us through town and to the hotel the night before but I didnt have to go downtown while watching out for traffic. My only goal was not to get involved in an accident with our company car!!! It turned out that the directions into town were excellent. I knew from the map where about I needed to go and only felt lost once; after I stopped and checked my map I was on the road again and made it safely to the area where our future apartment was. I was looking for a parking space and all I found was one where I had to park sideways well, trust me, it had been many years since I had to park sideways, plus this car is not an automatic I had to use the stick shift and our car is quite big and the parking spaces are tiny!!! I am quite proud to say that I managed this challenge with the second try and then I was able to check out our apartment hotel and the surroundings. While it took me about 20 minutes to drive into town, the way back home took me 45 minutes for the 5 mile distance! Traffic was getting worse towards the evening and the directions were much trickier driving out of the city so that I got on the wrong path 3 times and had to turn around.
The night of Saturday we were finally able to sleep through and in the morning it was time to pack everything in our car and move into our apartment in the center of Toulouse. We were very excited to finally have a "home" again after so many nights in airplanes and hotels.
The apartment is newly renovated and very modern and efficient. We like it a lot and more importantly we have enough space for all of our belongings!!! The hotel even has a separate storage room for bicycles where we can also leave our rollerblades. The complex also has a small fitness room and a relaxing room with a huge TV and several magazines.
We didn't have too much time to explore the city on Saturday because Neil wanted to set up the laptop and internet connection in our apartment and he ended up working for a few hours while I unpacked.
Sunday started out as a sunny day with blue sky and we put on our rollerblades and headed for the town. A part of downtown is closed for traffic on Sunday and so we cruised along the streets, had breakfast along the way and even bladed through a local street market. After lunch, we changed gears and rented bicycles and rode along the beautiful Midi Canal. The Midi Canal is over 200 miles long and runs from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. At some parts, houseboats are able to drive on this Canal. Unfortunately, our bicycle ride didnt last too long as it started raining after an hour and we pedaled back home. The city is wonderful and offers a lot of sightseeing and almost every street has a bicycle lane or a special wide bicycle path. Neil was in heaven realizing how much there is to do! He is even happier after we found out that the city is organizing a rollerblading event every Friday night at 9pm; we weren't able to participate yet as it was raining the first Friday and this past Friday we were sitting in a Spanish restaurant over Sangria and Tapas!
Monday, Neil went back to work and he decided to go to work late as he will be working late in the evenings in order to be able to communicate via phone with his peers in California. It also seems that traffic is better when going to work after the rush hour. We now get up and either use the workout room in our hotel or go swimming in a public pool down the road from us. Afterwards, we go to a café for coffee and croissants and then Neil is cruising to work with the car and I do my things. Most of the time, Neil doesnt start working until 10am and gets home around 7pm or later and then we go to dinner. There are so many wonderful restaurants in this town it would be a shame to cook ourselves and not go out and try the local kitchen. The kitchen here is very diverse and you can taste the influence of the Spanish cuisine there are lots of cute bars and places serving tapas (the typical Spanish appetizers) and also food from the Basque area is popular here. Other than that, the French menu offers a lot of duck, veal, beef, pork, rabbit, fish and seafood, but not as much chicken as is custom in the States. Even though a French meal typically consists of a first course, main course and desert, we never feel stuffed and over-eaten. The portions are nicely small and pretty light. Neil is excited about the French drink Pastis, which is made of anis and he also gets to taste the local vines. While it is still pretty custom in France to smoke everywhere, most restaurants joined the trend and started organizing smoking and non-smoking sections. Of course, sometimes it is not that perfect and it can mean that your table is non-smoking but the one behind you is smoking and you still end up eating with the additional flavor. Other restaurants again put the smokers on the upstairs level and non-smokers downstairs so that it is nicely divided.
My first few days in the city I was spending getting to know the town, running errands and looking for several items for our home, walking through town discovering new places and finding fun restaurants for our dinners. I am usually around on foot being thankful that I dont need to use the car. Driving and parking would be a hassle in this city, especially now with Christmas shopping going on. After having enjoyed our comfortable car during the long commute south, we are now wishing that we had a tiny little car here in the city to get around more easily! The other thing is that our car is parked in the garage of the hotel, four levels beyond ground. It takes about 5 minutes to get down to the garage and drive the car up to street level again wishing we had a smaller car as our car barely fits through our parking garage .
Wednesday I had already walked through town quite a bit to discover new areas and when Neil got home in the evening we decided to head in that same direction for dinner. The restaurant recommendation I had was not serving dinner and closed early and so we continued walking and were taking into a different world by all the beautiful old buildings, churches, water fountains, palaces and other monuments. Needless to say that everything is nicely decorated for the Holidays and almost every street has a different theme of decoration! It turned out that we walked probably a total of 8 miles that night going to dinner and then exploring a different way going home.
Neil and I decided that this town must be even more beautiful and exciting in summer when all the cafes and restaurants have their tables outside and life is happening in the streets and the many public parks along the rivers. This city is very generously built for leisure and recreation, we are quite amazed. We also realized that the location of our apartment couldnt be better. We are about 5 minutes away from the train station (where we can rent bicycles) and about 5 minutes away from the center with many restaurants, cinemas, shops and more.
Since last Thursday I have been under the weather and didnt even go outside all day long. The temperatures dropped significantly from about 50F to around the freezing point. We both came to the conclusion that we are not made for this kind of weather and that we dont like the cold! I also realized that I rather packed clothes for a warmer California winter and left some of my real heavy winter sweaters at home! We both really didnt expect it to be this cold here! As a consequence, we went and got a nice warm down jacket for me on Saturday and that worked fine so far. Locals have told us that this cold weather is unusual for this time; usually these temperatures are custom for January or February. Some say that it might even snow here. We shall see what is ahead of us!
This last weekend, the local Christmas market started and over 100 little wooden houses are set up on a public space where local vendors sell their products. We strolled through it on Saturday and tasted the warm wine punch and more delicious local food and also looked at the crafts. The market was very crowded during the day and the atmosphere was very nice and cheerful and it got us into the Christmas mood!
Sunday we decided to go for a walk again. This means in other words: please allow about 10 minutes to putting on layers of T-shirts and sweaters before packing ourselves in the outdoor attire! This time we first walked along the Midi-Canal going South, passing a beautiful public garden built in 19th century, then crossed the large river Garonne in order to walk on the other side of town and took a different route to downtown. We were gone for almost 6 hours and we had to stop once for something to drink because it was so cold and later on we stopped for dinner. We looked like mummies with our thick jackets, shawls rapped around our faces and gloves!
Today I walked through town again and was wondering where the Christmas music was coming from. It was actually from the decorations in the street, hanging between the buildings and one street has decorations in form of a Merry-go-round with the Christmas songs! We have never noticed them before therefore I believe they might only play the music during the day to soothe all the Christmas shoppers! It worked for me!
We also booked our flights to Switzerland for Christmas but we decided to be back in Toulouse to celebrate New Years Eve. This city is such a special and charming place with very friendly people and wonderful food! As we are currently living here, we also want to celebrate that event here.
Oh, I cant believe that I havent yet mentioned anything about Neils passion for the French language! Considering that he had started learning French the minute he knew we would be leaving, he soon felt optimistic enough to practice his sentences with the locals. I am so amazed how much passion and effort he puts into it and I feel so sorry for him because the locals often respond to his French sentences with some blank stares!!! Or, in other cases they turn their heads to me, looking all frazzled and looking for my help! It is too funny and we have had some major laughter. Often I am trying to stay out of it so that Neil gets a chance to practice with the locals and I only interfere when I see that both parties are stuck. But the locals are so extremely friendly here many times they take some extra time to teach Neil some new expressions. So, who knows, the next report might come from Neil in French!
Take care and a bientot,
Neil and Denise"
"Last week, another engineer from California arrived in Toulouse and I helped Neil entertain him in the evenings or in other words: as some restaurants dont have any English speaking waiters, I made sure that we got some nice meals for dinner! Traffic into Toulouse downtown was getting worse every day due to Christmas shopping and therefore we decided that I will leave downtown and meet Neil close to his work. I used a special bus that runs every 20 minutes from the city to the Toulouse airport where Neil picked me up and we went to dinner in the suburbs. We found some very nice restaurants and several of them are specialized in grilling the meat on the barbeque which is situated in the middle of the dining area and one cook is all night long arranging the wood so that the food gets cooked just right! It is quite a spectacle to see this for the first time.
Friday I went to rent the bicycles again for the weekend. Saturday after breakfast, we went to find a hairdresser for Neil and we are happy to say that we ran into a quite talented hairdresser in this foreign town! Afterwards, we were cruising most of the day around town and discovered some new districts. It was very fun and the nice thing is that the bicycles are allowed to drive in the bus lane. We were peacefully driving through the streets while thousands of people were rushing along on the sidewalks doing their Christmas shopping! We were having a ball!!! We then drove towards the Capitol building where the Christmas market and a special Christmas play were organized. But later on, we were drawn back to the river Garonne with its breathtaking view and the many parks along it. As it was still too early for lunch, we drove aimlessly through the many little streets and actually found the so called old town of Toulouse: narrow streets surrounded by old and beautiful houses which are all nicely decorated for the season and many times the street turns and in an intersection we found a peek of a church worth while visiting. For lunch we chose a restaurant that was recommended in several flyers for it local authentic cuisine. I ordered a Cassoulet which is a local dish like a stew with white beans, a local sausage, duck and pork. It was absolutely divine and we both loved it.
After a nice lunch we decided to explore the Midi Canal further and started our bicycle ride along the canal going south. After about 30 minutes we had left the city behind us and the landscape began to be much more deserted and nature awaited us. It was an amazing view while bicycling along the canal and surrounded by an alley of trees. Many big boats were parked on the canal as well and it seems that people are living on them permanently. After a while we approached an official map of the region and it showed us what kind of castles and old villages were ahead of us. However, it was getting later in the afternoon and we were starting to be cold and decided to turn around. On the way back home, we had a heavy and cold wind against us and we had to pedal hard to be moving! But we enjoyed our 2 hour ride and felt a nice workout in our legs when we got home!
Sunday we decided to leave Toulouse because most stores were going to be open for the Christmas shoppers. For us, this was a perfect time to do a first day-trip outside of Toulouse and we decided to drive to Albi, which is about 30 miles northeast. This is the birth town on the famous painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the city has turned an ancient former bishop residence into a museum to honor the painter. Right next to the museum is an amazing gothic cathedral. I have never seen anything like it! It almost looks like a large, tall fort and a cathedral built on top of this fort! This cathedral was built after the Catholics had crushed the Cathar movement in 13th century and it was meant to be a proud statement. Needless to say that the fortress-like cathedral is proudly sitting on top of a hill next to a river.
For lunch we found a very cute tiny restaurant in a small side street; while entering I asked for a table for two non-smokers and the waiter was staring at me like I was totally crazy asking for this because we found ourselves in a small room like a wine cellar with only eight tables and it was clear that he couldnt provide any non-smoking area under those circumstances!!! Neil got quite a kick out of this one and laughed at me!!! Lunch was again delicious and Neil finally got an onion soup that we had been longing for.
On Monday, several more engineers from California and Utah were expected to arrive for an important meeting with Airbus this week. Neil called me at about 11am asking me whether I could have lunch with one of them who had arrived early and to show him Toulouse. It turned out that Neil and two other engineers took the bus into town and we showed them some sightseeing and took them to lunch. We knew that this week was going to be crazy with meetings, entertaining and we had to be flexible. In the evening, Neil worked until after 8pm and we went to dinner around 9pm like the French do! However, there is not much time left for leisure in the evening as most meals last 1.5 hours or longer and by the time we walk home its usually around 10:30 or 11pm.
Yesterday, I checked out a special market which is located on the ground floor of a public parking garage! It is quite a view to see the fresh vegetables and fruits lined up outside around the building, several restaurants located on the first floor and the rest of the building is filled with parked cars! I walked through the market and found the most exotic fruits and wonderful vegetables. Inside the building, there are delicatessa stands, fish and meat vendors, cheese, vine and bread stands. Everything is so fresh and looked delicious I was ready to buy myself some lunch on the spot!
In the evening, all of Neils peers came into town and we showed the Christmas market to some of them and then went to dinner. Tomorrow, all of them will be flying back to the States and I sure hope that they will be home safe and in time for the Holidays!
Neil and I will be flying to Zurich on Friday and return to Toulouse on December 30. Even though we will have the laptop with us, I doubt that we will have time to send you any big emails but I promise that we will catch up with you upon our return!
We wish you all a very peaceful and Merry Christmas and a wonderful Happy New Year!
Bye for now,
Neil and Denise"
Hotel Residence Parthenon
86 Allees Jean Jaures
31000 Toulouse FRANCE
011 33 5 61 10 24 58