Occitan is not dead, macarel! A week of living in the language at the Escòla Occitana d’Estiu
Last Sunday, after a plane, a train, and a bus, I arrived in Villeneuve-sur-Lot for the 44th annual Escòla Occitana d’Estiu (Occitan Summer School). Several people I met during fieldwork had highly recommended this weeklong residential programme so I enrolled in the intensive introductory language course in the Languedocien dialect, which promised a somewhat daunting six hours a day of Occitan classes to help jumpstart my language learning (more on the course in a later post). Not having any idea of what to expect or knowing anyone else who would be there, I was more than slightly apprehensive about diving headfirst into this intensive, immersive environment…as I write this post the Monday after the Escòla, though, the only remaining concern is how I can make it back to Villeneuve-sur-Lot next August.
From the warm welcome at the bus stop by Sabine Leloir-Paoletti, the EOE’s secretary, to the heartfelt remarks by Bernat Bergé, the president of the EOE, at the closing ceremony, the Escòla was a challenging but immensely enjoyable plunge into lo mond occitan. Of the around 60 participants, approximately half were attending for the first time, while those in the other half ranged from participants returning for a second time to those who had long made the Escòla an integral part of their summer schedules. While most of the students were from the administrative region of Occitania or the rest of France, there were also a number of participants from Catalonia and Italy, as well as the headline-making Russian and American students. These participants’ language abilities were equally diverse, encompassing those starting more or less from zero to native Occitan speakers enrolled in workshops focused on traditional dance or literary analysis. The vast disparities in linguistic competence mattered little, though: as probably the least competent speaker there, I can fully attest that everyone was more than happy to chat regardless of ability, with more experienced speakers and teachers actively seeking out the newcomers and readily engaging in linguistic fill-in-the-blank as they helped their interlocutors to string sentences together. While a fair bit of French could be heard at the dining tables at the beginning of the week, Occitan dominated by the end of the Escòla as students shed inhibitions and gained confidence. Perhaps more than a passively safe space, the Escòla was an actively encouraging environment, with participants and organisers alike supporting each other in their efforts to develop their language abilities and maintain the vitality of Occitan.
On this latter note: while of course relatively small in scale, the Escòla provided a hearteningly alternative vision of the (often seen as grim) fate of Occitan. Having previously only really heard Occitan at academic conferences, and having been told time and again that the language was spoken by “ceux qui sont morts et ceux qui sont en train de mourir”, as one activist put it, I finally had the pleasure of experiencing Occitan as a regular ol’ language, spoken everywhere from the dorm rooms to the dining hall. Beyond the classes, workshops, and evening entertainment options (Occitan-language films, stand-up comedy, live music and traditional dancing, etc.) proposed by the Escòla organisers, the place to be was the estanquet, the outdoor café/bar where everyone gathered between activities and after meals. Here, over peanuts and chilled beer, local wine, or homemade port-style granache, teachers and participants chatted away, played board games, and sang, with the start of lunch and dinner usually being marked by a song or two. By the last night of the Escòla, I found myself part of a group perched around a table at the estanquet until 4am after an evening of traditional dancing. The average age of the assembled congregation could not have been much more than 35, and we whiled away the hours discussing such distinctly contemporary matters as dating woes, TV series, and questions of social categorisation, all almost entirely through the medium of Occitan. For a language characterised as being spoken by the dying and the dead, Occitan certainly felt alive and relevant in moments like this, chatting over a drink and under the stars while Occitan rock music played in the background.
The issues surrounding the language were of course still present in this wee Occitan oasis, with the organisers mentioning the perennial difficulty of finding enough teachers (all of whom were volunteering their time and expertise for the week, which is remarkable) and the Escòla’s lack of visibility in the surrounding area. It was also an exhausting week, with the cognitive overload of intensive learning and the physical fatigue of long days and often even longer nights slowly wearing participants and teachers down. All throughout the week though, one thing that stood out to me was the laughter, both in and beyond the classroom: we were at school in the middle of the summer holidays, it was hot as all get out, and we were studying a language considered to be disappearing, but people were having a delightful time with and through Occitan. Earlier this year, I had met with activists from the Centre Occitan Rochegude in Abli, and our chat had ended with a discussion of how important it was for people to find happiness in learning and speaking Occitan: “il faut que la langue donne du bonheur aux gens pour qu’ils la tiennent”, concluded Michel Tayac based on his 50 years as a militant Occitan activist. The Escòla Occitana d’Estiu certainly seems to have put this wisdom into action, bringing diverse participants together around Occitan and helping them to take pleasure in using it as a living language.
Voldriái ajustar qualques mots per mercejar los organizadors, los professors e los autres estagiaris de l’Escòla. Foguèt un grand plaser de vos rencontrar e de passar aquela setmana amb vos. Ai fòrça apreciat vòstre acuèlh tan calorós. Aviái pas jamai pensat que seriái a charrar e cantar en occitan abans la fin de la setmana, mas aquò foguèt possible gràcias a vòstre encoratjament per l’americana demest vosautres!
Alavetz, a l’an que ven!