We have been walking for hours along the lanes, boulevards and public squares of Toulouse, France, and as usual, I have to pee. It is a cycle of sorts: in order to avoid the horrific public bathrooms, we must find a cafe, sit down and order something to drink. Then, after an enjoyable hour of conversation and people-watching, we pay our bill and continue our walk, only to be slammed again an hour or so later by the imperative of a full bladder. And so the search begins for another cafe and a clean bathroom.
My husband, my son and I trail after my daughter, who strides through the crowded maze of narrow, rose-colored streets in her high-heeled boots, and we dodge and side-step around the couples walking arm-in-arm, the dogs on and off leash, the trash cans and crowded cafe tables and miniature cars parked fully on the narrow sidewalks, all of which seem to weave and bob in my daughter’s wake.
After living here for nearly two semesters, Nina knows much of the city, and she navigates through unfamiliar parts with a combination of luck and intuition. Toulouse is a university town and isn’t a usual destination for foreign tourists, although it seems chock full of French visitors this week. The sights my daughter takes us to see would not make it into any guidebook. They are only of interest to us: the Catholic University where she takes classes in philosophy, the art gallery where she had an internship, the fully automated metro that she is so proud of.
And her favorite restaurants. We are on our way to find one now: the Lebanese sandwich place that she has been talking about all day. After a week of rich, butter-laden French food, a freshly made pita stuffed with cucumbers and chickpeas sounds like heaven.
When we arrive, the metal grille is rolled up (all shops have one that can be rolled down and locked into place when the shop is closed for the night— or the day— or days— regular business hours being more flexible than we are used to), but the tiny shop is dark inside, and there are no tables set out on the sidewalk, a sure sign that it is closed. Still, we walk over to make sure, and it turns out that the owner is standing just inside, talking and cooking.
He lives upstairs, Nina tells us, and uses the shop kitchen to cook for his family. The man, older, with a very un-French-like pot belly, sees Nina and greets her enthusiastically. Clearly she is a regular. They have a short, lively conversation in rapid French, and then he looks at me and asks Nina a question in which I can pick out the word “mama.” She nods, and he disappears into the dark recess of the shop.
“He is going to give you some cake, Mom,” says Nina, grinning.
“Me? Why?” I ask as he reappears a moment later with a piece of almond cake wrapped in a yellow paper napkin. He holds it out to me and waves and disappears while I am stumbling through my “merci beau coup.”
“When the Lebanese want to show respect or esteem for someone, they give gifts to the mother,” Nina replies.
I bite into the cake. It is simple and not overly sweet. I will remember this cake long after I have forgotten the tarts and croissants and macaroons.