A father–son trip planned as a way of improving the teenager’s French paid dividends when it came to ordering pastries. But, strangely, it also necessitated fluent German for future Netflix viewing. By Mark Dapin.

Travels in Toulouse

The awakening of Long Ma, the dragon horse, at the Halle de la Machine in Toulouse.
The awakening of Long Ma, the dragon horse, at the Halle de la Machine in Toulouse.
Credit: Thomas Baron / Hans Lucas

I took my son to France in his year 12, to teach him how to speak French. In hindsight, it might have been easier if I could speak French myself.

I’ve always been able to make myself understood in France by (a) speaking faltering Spanish in a Pepé Le Pew accent; (b) communicating my intentions through the magic of mime; or (c) confusing everything sufficiently that whomever I am talking to finally admits that they can speak English.

But that’s not really the same as speaking French.

I felt desperately sorry for my 17-year-old boy because he had missed his year 11 Europe camp (and his ski camp and every other decent thing about his schooling) during the pandemic, so I decided to provide the camp myself.

I got the idea from Nabokov. I was reading his memoir, Speak, Memory, to try to figure out why he was so clever when I am so stupid, and I concluded that it was because he had been educated by individual tutors instead of going to school.

I resolved to give the same experience to my son although, admittedly, Nabokov’s French tutor had an advantage over me in that he could speak French.

I brushed up on my language skills, using a website that promised to double my Frenchness in 10 days. The host suggested the first thing I should do was to change the default language on my phone.

My son reacted to this idea with some cynicism.

“You have enough problems with your phone already,” he said.

He was right.

When you choose French as your language in iPhone settings, it alters your keyboard and changes many of the apps. You get the internet in French, which is fine, but you also have to do your banking in French, which is less fine.

Just before Easter, my son, my French-speaking iPhone and I flew from Sydney via Paris to Toulouse (30 hours – don’t even ask) where I have a friend, John, from my student days in England. Toulouse is a pleasant, navigable city – lovely in parts – laced by the Canal du Midi and bisected by the Garonne River. It was a Roman military settlement and has a few Roman remains among an admirable collection of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and neoclassical buildings.

Keith, another friend from university, has a daughter studying in Toulouse – and a French wife, Evelyn, who actually works as a French teacher – so we all agreed to meet in the city with the loose idea that someone was bound to be able to help my son with his French.

I booked an Airbnb near Quai Saint-Pierre with thrilling views of the Garonne. It was a wonderful two-bedroom apartment in the quietest corner of a lively and friendly student area. Unfortunately, the door handles kept coming off – which was disconcerting if you were in the bathroom.

For my son’s first meal, I took him to the nearby Crêperie de l’Ecluse. We ordered buckwheat galettes from the only person we were to meet in Toulouse who genuinely spoke no English. He doubled as both waiter and cook and seemed confused as to why we had come in (I thought we might, er, try a galette) and indignant that we had chosen his restaurant.

My son was baffled when he received his smoked salmon and crème cheese crepe. I’m not sure what he expected, but it wasn’t something hexagonal and flat.

“I don’t understand what I’m eating,” he said.

My brother flew in from England and took my son to the Cité de l’Espace, a sort of aerospace theme park on the outskirts of town. I stayed in the unit and tried to sleep off my jet lag.

My brother believes in aliens and would like to meet one. I do not and would not. My son was happy just to spend time with his relentlessly jovial and quietly adored uncle. Apparently, they saw a satisfyingly large planetarium.

I would have liked to look at buildings and paintings, but I felt I had to find something that would interest us all (that’s just the kind of guy I am) and I stumbled on an ad for the Halle de la Machine. I did not understand what it was (the ad, like my phone, was in French) but it included the offer of a minotaur ride. And, if my brother had a bucket list, “ride a minotaur” would be up there with “win a court case on Judge Judy” and “watch Frasier with a Martian”.

The Halle de la Machine turned out to be a warehouse-museum for a company that manufactures the gigantic automatons that lead parades through festivals in France and Quebec.

Asterion the animatronic minotaur is 14 metres tall, weighs 47 tonnes and can carry scores of people on his back. We mounted him and he lurched to life, then stamped up and down outside the hall like a benevolent monster from a forgotten fantasy movie. Then something incredible happened – the doors of the hall opened and Long Ma, a 12-metre-high, 45-tonne dragon horse reared, turned her head and breathed fire at our minotaur.

It was a profound and moving experience, although I don’t have the words to explain why. I mean, I’m not Nabokov, am I?

During my stay in Toulouse, I somehow befriended the marvellous woman behind the counter at Les Gourmandises de Mathis patisserie, and she agreed to teach my son baked-goods French – which is, of course, the most important kind. She was patient and generous and he learnt to order bread and pastries and coffee, and my heart swelled to hear him. She lost her impeccable bilingual composure only once, when my son ordered 100 (cent) croissants for the family breakfast, instead of five (cinq).

Since my brother has no children of his own, I offered him the chance to pass on his life learnings to my son. His advice included: always go back the way you came; throw out paint rollers after a single use – they are too hard to clean; wash everything at 40 degrees; and save money by doing home electrical jobs yourself (not recommended to sentient beings). He also had a complicated set of instructions about tiling.

He is the quintessential uncle.

I had not seen my friend Keith in 35 years. His family, John’s family, my son and I ate at L’Entrecôte, a steak-frites restaurant offering rib eyes with bottomless fries. This time, my son was mystified to receive his steak in slices. He was later vocal in his preference for Australian slab-style steaks.

We formed a team to play bilingual trivia at Seven Sisters, a “traditional English pub”, where the traditionally English barman spilled my beer over me in traditional English style. Ironically, I was drinking Meantime pale ale, which comes from a brewery cofounded by another friend from university.

Keith tried to teach my son to play darts and soon the kids were all absorbed in a game.

“Thirty-five years later, our children are playing darts together,” said Keith.

We both teared up.

Then Keith told me he loved me and kissed my ear.

Our team came second in the quiz, losing by only half a point (which is, of course, a moral victory).

On Easter weekend, the Halle de la Machine hosted reprises of the company’s contribution to the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in which the dragon horse battled a giant spider from Chinese mythology, with the help of a minotaur – which, I suspect, may not have taken her side in the original legend.

It was, once again, awesome and exhilarating.

The whole Toulouse experience improved my son’s French conversation, comprehension and, especially, his confidence – largely thanks to Evelyn and the patisserie lady.

It also seems to have changed my iPhone forever. I cannot get rid of the French keyboard and each time I open Netflix, it plays every show in German.

Go figure.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2022 as "To win Toulouse".

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