November 2, 2004. I was at Le Verjus, a wonderful little restaurant in Toulouse, the kind of place where the owner and chef comes to sit down at your table and describes his dishes with an enthusiasm bordering on the erotic: “The perch is marinated in a dry white wine and at the last moment a vanilla bean is added, to give it a delicate and teasing touch.” Delicate and teasing touch … I’ve happily experienced some of those in my life, but never from a fish.
I was sharing this meal with a group of those most hated of people … cheese-eating French intellectuals. University professors and scientists the lot of them. Two questions repeatedly came to the fore: “Who will win?” and “How could they vote for him?” The question of my own preference was not raised, as it never occurred to them that perhaps I actually wanted George Bush to win. I did not, but it was rather striking that the thought never even crossed their minds.
“Iraq had nothing at all to do with September 11; 150,000 people have died there for nothing; and bin Laden is free. How could they vote for him?”
“They don’t see it that way.”
“But what way could they see it? Why don’t they see it that way when it is that way?”
These are the questions I had to face.
I had no answers. I could think of no answers that made any sense, really. I had to explain that Americans see Europeans as defeatist appeasers because they didn’t support the Iraq invasion.
“Appeasing whom? Saddam? But Saddam didn’t attack you, bin Laden did, and by invading Iraq you let him get away.”
So I had to explain that many in the United States equate military power with intrinsic national worth, or at least with the ability to influence other nations. I had to explain that Americans consider the United States to be charged with some kind of divine mission to transform the world in their own benevolent image: at the point of a gun, if necessary. I had to try to explain these things to skeptical French intellectuals, who incessantly pointed out that these were 19th-century attitudes, that the world does not work that way.
I know, I visit the world all the time.
So after a tasty and “playful” dessert of roast pineapple with a ginger and cardamom sauce, we stepped out into a pleasant evening to walk down the rue Tolosane, a road lined by 16th-century buildings with antique shops on their ground floors. We continued to discuss the election—well before the votes were counted, of course—and my friends continued to maintain that Bush might lose, despite my predictions to the contrary.
“But clearly, it makes little sense for anyone to vote for Bush if he is running on illogical arguments.”
“That’s why he will win. He is appealing to the emotions of the electorate; primarily fear. This is a far more effective strategy in the United States than any intellectual argument. And you must understand that Americans do not have access to the same information that we see in Europe.”
By this time, we were already at the Place du Capitole. It is a beautiful Place; nice and clear, very little stuff sticking up, and its vast center is devoid of cars, with only a thin road around the edge. The Capitole, Toulouse’s city hall and traditional center, makes up one side, and the others are made up of arcaded buildings sporting cafés and Toulouse’s best ice-cream shop, Octave. (I should point out that I have a nephew also named Octave who lives in Toulouse. He was born on the fête de la musique, France’s national music day, and, given this and his name and the fact that his parents are musicians, he is obviously fated to be a great artist. He is already quite gifted, in a 1-year-old kind of way. But I digress.)
The Place du Capitole is kind of pink, but then all of Toulouse is kind of pink (or “rose,” which is the same word in French). Toulouse was built out of reddish-pink brick; the city never really changed its architectural style after the Romans left in the fifth century (leaving behind a very nice stretch of ramparts, by the way). It is known as “the Pink City,” and it is also known as one of the most pleasant places in France to live. There is an ongoing exodus from Paris toward Toulouse, since the former is so hectic and the latter so nice.
In fact, not only is the city nice, but the people in Toulouse are nice as well. To describe someone as nice is often to damn with faint praise, but there’s really no other word for it. The niceness of the Toulousians can take a visitor by surprise, particularly if he’s just come from Paris. Even the waiters in the cafés are nice, and this can seriously throw you off your stride if you’ve already developed a Parisian shell around yourself.
Toulouse is also a university town, with tens of thousands of students—something like one quarter of the population. All of these students make for a whole lot of inexpensive and very good restaurants, a myriad of trendy bars, and a good selection of halfway decent jazz and rock clubs … as well as a healthy population of cheese-eating intellectual professors.
But it’s the city itself, with its long grassy park lining the Garonne River and its rose-colored buildings, that entices and attracts. You should go and stand in the Place du Capitole and then just walk around. Notice the brass inlays among the paving stones: they represent the signs of the zodiac, make up an “Occitan cross” (the region’s emblem), and are dotted with little reliefs of snowflakes. There are other brass inlays that have reliefs of snowflakes as well, for a reason that absolutely no one seems to know.
On Election Night, I passed through the Place du Capitole one last time during my trip to Toulouse, and tried once more to explain how things work in the United States to my uncomprehending French intellectual friends. In the end, they did their best to comfort me. “Don’t worry,” they said, “Bush may yet be defeated. The American population cannot be as illogical and uninformed as you make them out to be.”
I disagreed, I was more pessimistic than were they, but on that last pre-election evening, I tried to forget it all and appreciate brass snowflakes and rose-colored bricks.