It is a wonderful view of the social realities of two minority languages in France (where only recently, yet again, the government has refused to ratify the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages), but is also generalizable to many situations around the world - something that Florenci calls in the article the "vision of a parallel world", which is a phrase that has stuck in my mind. And even more, it is written beautifully. For my blog, I asked if I could publish a translation done by me. The original is written in Catalan, and another translation was made into Occitan by Patricia Delbosc. Florenci agreed, and you can find my translation after the cut, along with photographs taken by Florenci during his trip. I hope my translation does his work justice!
Territory of the Secret Language
by Florenci Salesas i Pla
translated by Stephen Shull
|The land of the secret language|
When we visit the ‘south of France’ everywhere we read that we are in Languedòc. Languedòc … what does that mean? Is there some visitor who asks himself if there are many parts of the world that are named for their original languages? I don’t believe that there exists any state, any known country; and I doubt there are many districts, counties, regions, provinces, colonies or whatever we’d like to call them that are named “Language of England” or “Language of Germany” (or perhaps more accurately “Yes language” or “Ja language”).
|A rest on the way.|
“This country is called that because they spoke - and still speak - a different language from French - the òc language. In this language ‘òc’ means ‘yes’.
Now that was great. Òc language! The place where they speak a language where instead of saying ‘yes’ they say ‘òc’.
“How fun!”, I must have thought. “But why ‘yes’ and not ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘love’, ‘sun’, ‘moon, ‘land’ or something else, like ‘human beings’, just like the members of some Native American tribes call themselves?” I asked, but that was too much for my father...
From then on, whenever I’ve gone back through these lands I have never felt as though I were going to France, but to that country that names itself with pride after its language. “A lovely thanks to the mother that taught you how to speak”, I’ve always thought. Unfortunately, I’ve concluded that for a place that names itself after its language, that language is nowhere to be found.
|A detail of the cathedral at Rodés (Rodez)|
Other trips, like the one I made for the demonstration (Carcassona 2009), have confirmed this feeling. I hold tightly to the idea that a feeling doesn’t represent a whole reality. Surely there are villages or cities where Occitan still shoots up from the earth like fresh, dewy grass. Or at least I would like to believe that. The place is too big, I have seen too little of it, and in an incomplete and disordered fashion. I would not be able to reach a conclusion, much less an expert one.
A detail that left me feeling badly: We ran into the uncle who was walking on a street in the village, accompanied by a woman. We greeted him from my friend’s car. The two men had a very brief conversation. The uncle said he’d come see us tomorrow and afterwards we all said goodbye.
|Tomb at the Templar town of La Cobertoirada (La Couvertoirade)|
With this lesson learned - and many other, thakfully more pleasing, lessons - I said goodbye to my friend, got into my car and made my way toward the land that is named for its language. Wherever I would go, whatever I asked, I would do it in French. I’m nobody to come teach the natives lessons. I’m not that presumptuous. I have many faults, but not that, I believe.
|The calming plain of Roussillon|
|Plaza in Milhau with portico|
There are those that content themselves with the artificial borders that states have established as indissoluble, absolute truths. I understand if it makes you tired to think about it, but if your head is accustomed to being dizzied with questions, it all becomes very insufficient, inexact, frustrating. Even the other borders, which I find more just, are artificial! We have to accept that we can’t know everything and that reality changes constantly. We ought to be more humble and admit we know nothing. States have spent lots of money and effort misinforming people of their history and their true identities. And in that way parents, when they try to tell them truth, see how their children insult them: “You can’t know more than a book, you who can barely even read!” They won’t ever believe you when you tell them that those books were written by the foreign turtles. Furthermore, the winner will always have a more attractive face to most people … I find these people sometimes attractive, sometimes they make me feel sad, sometimes they make me angry. But the minority that I love, I love it very much. We aren’t better than anyone else, absolutely. Some of us are pretty bad people even! But we are aware of what is going on, we speak the same language. We don’t have to waste too much breath convincing each other of certain fundamental truths. Our arguments and debates hinge on the details, the how’s, and the solutions.
|Plaza in Milhau with portico|
And I, there, in the middle of Milhau, practicing my French...
French. They speak it old and young. Blacks and Chinese speak it. Men and women. All the teenagers screech in French. The waiter who amiably serves your coffee. The Arab man who asks for the time. The people in charge of the city museum, who make an effort to sound like they’re from Paris. The policeman, the thief, the doctor, the murderer...
|Ruins of tombs and walls|
Do you know who else spoke it? I was in Milhau, waiting for my lunch, in a Moroccan restaurant that is in the middle of a narrow street, the name of which I don’t remember. I was reading poems by Calhalon, one of my latest discoveries. From behind an old lady comes up to me. She must have been 75, or thereabouts. Perhaps she was younger, but she had destroyed her face with alcohol. She was dressed in ridiculous clothes, garrish and dated at the same time, like a teenager from the 80s. Dirty hair, teeth black and decayed, fading eyes and breath that stank of wine.
|Photo taken from the table where the old lady came up to me|
“Pouvez-vous me donner trente centimes, s’il vous plait?” [Can you give me 30 cents please?]
Thirty cents! Why exactly thirty cents? Before I could react, she pores over my book, so that her head is quite literally hanging over my shoulder, as if she were a crane and I were the building she was constructing.
“Qu’est ce que vous lisez?” [What are you reading?]
I respond that it’s an Occitan poet, and that I want to learn Occitan. And she reacts (switching to Occitan) when, maybe, she recognizes a word:
“Oh, patois! I can’t ever speak patois with anyone! Patois is for worms to eat. People now only speak French. No one remembers it at all. But it’s normal, that’s what life is like...”
I gave her a 5€ bill (and, man, I could really have used it!). I hoped she could get drunk with a slightly better wine that day.
|A small bit of the mountains that circle Milieu|
Rodés, marvelous city, marvelous cathedral, marvelous people. The friendliness, the sweetness, the flavor of Milhau is extended … Occitan continues to be invisible. My heart continues to shrink. I am ashamed of my lack of strength, of crying easily. How does my friend put up with it? How do her friends put up with it, who struggle alongside her?
|Exterior of the cathedral at Rodés|
|Interior of the cathedral at Rodés|
I begin one of the books by Bodon that I bought (Lo libre dels grands jorns). I’ve been told that it’s strange, and from what I saw at a visit to the author’s house where they read a fragment of the ending to us, it's as though a time will come when he will return there. For now, anyways, it is a very beautiful and sad text, where a man who has been given three months to live laments all the while the disappearance of his language. It’s true that much of Occitan literature is a lament on this subject. But what can be done? In a café in Rodés a waitress came up to me and asked if anything was wrong. “Nothing, the book I’m reading talks about things that make me want to cry” I heard myself say.
|Home of the author Joan Bodon|
Rodés still. Walking around the streets that have been robbed by French, a language that I have always loved too. It makes me sad that it is such a terrible weapon here. What a devastating force it has had! It’s been made to play the part of a beautiful young princess that is set up as a public face, a cultural ambassador. She doesn’t know anything, but is just a perfect instrument to cause submission - so perfect that those made to submit will protest against those who tell them the truth about what they are losing. They’ll grab on to that cardboard idol, while their true gods will sleep amid cobwebs in the “Regional Literature” section …
|The official crumbs of Occitan that dot the walls of Milhau|
|A gloomy Citroën 2CV cementary in the countryside outside of Narbonne|