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I’d intended to spend only one night in Toulouse, in southern France. But when I tried to buy a train ticket to Madrid on the evening of my arrival, I discovered that the following day was dedicated to a general strike. Trains, buses, and even many airlines were taking the day off. This happened to be the same day that the price of oil hit $135 per barrel.
The French didn’t seem to mind the strike very much. And I was content to have a day to see Toulouse, one of the fastest-growing cities in France, with around a million inhabitants.
The notorious rudeness of the French is overstated; in Paris they may ridicule Americans who speak poorly accented French, but in cities like Toulouse they’re tolerant and friendly, and many of them have bothered to learn English themselves.
They aren’t fond of our policies in Iraq and elsewhere, but the French still acknowledge their long history with the United States. Wandering around Toulouse, I soon discovered Allies du Prisident Franklin Roosevelt, a small street that leads directly into Place du Prisident Thomas Wilson, a park named in honor of our 28th president. We know him as Woodrow, but for some reason the citizens of Toulouse call him by his first name.
Toulouse is a modern city, but the past is present at every hand. The centerpiece of Woodrow Wilson’s park is a marble sculpture that might have raised his eyebrows: a larger-than-life lasciviously naked woman sprawls at the feet of the poet Pierre Goudouli, who was born in Toulouse in 1580. The University of Toulouse, which instructs close to 100,000 students, was founded in 1229, predating Goudouli by more than 350 years.
And one of the primary bridges across the Garonne River, an elegant arched structure in the center of the city, is still called Pont-Neuf — that is, the New Bridge — even though it was completed in the 16th century.
So, what does all this have to do with the price of oil? To a large extent American towns and cities are shaped by the hydrocarbon age; they look the way they do because of the invention of the automobile. But significant parts of many French cities — like Toulous — developed their look and feel hundreds of years before Henry Ford. In their older districts, the streets are narrow and curved, more suited to pedestrians and ox carts than automobiles.
In fact, France, a country where gasoline already costs around $8 per gallon, may offer a glimpse into the future, as well as the past. Like us, the French are fond of automobiles, but you don’t see gas-guzzling SUVs. Motorcycles and bicycles are common. For a few francs you can rent a bicycle from a rack and leave it in another part of the city.
Toulouse has a subway system that moves people around in driverless coaches, as well as an efficient bus system. For longer distances, the French have trains that travel as fast as airplanes — well, as fast as slow airplanes — and that move passengers comfortably and quickly from the center of one city to the center of another.
Much of this transportation is driven by electricity, 75 percent of which is generated with nuclear energy, helping the French reduce the size of their so-called carbon footprint. Nuclear isn’t my favorite energy source — the problem of nuclear waste persists — but it may become inevitable.
All in all, the French use about half as much energy per capita as we do. Even the fleabag hotel I stayed in had motion-activated lights in its hallways and stairwells. In many French cities walking is still a feasible form of transportation for many activities, and in Toulouse, you see the French walking everywhere, in combination with efficient public transportation.
In the evenings they like to walk — stroll, really — through the extensive park that borders the Garonne River. Families and lovers eat in outdoor restaurants, then drink and talk and smoke as the sun sets behind the city. Dogs fetch tennis balls on the lawn and an eight-man rowing scull glides silently up the river. The public life of the community thrives. Maybe we’ll eventually see an upside to our soaring gasoline prices.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at jcrisp(at)delmar.edu)