Of walnuts and werewolves: Learning Occitan by doing something else

On two different weekends in early 2019, I found myself at the same café in Toulouse, engaging in some rather diverse pastimes: whipping up homemade aioli on the first occasion, and solving supernatural murders on the second. The link between this improbable series of events? Why, Occitan, of course!

Perhaps some context could be of use here. The café was La Topina, a newly reopened Occitan cultural café-restaurant aiming to create a space in which Occitan thrives as a language of cuisine, culture, and conviviality. The aioli was prepared during one of the regular cooking workshops organized by La Topina, conducted in Occitan and offering an introduction to traditional regional specialties. The hunt for homicidal werewolves, meanwhile, took place as part of an afternoon of Mafia-style parlor games in Occitan, which had been organized by Occitan Summer School regulars as an occasion to catch up with participants, longtime and relatively new like myself, before the summer.

Cooking workshop at La Topina (Photo: Sara Brennan)

While whisking eggs and trying to identify the mythical beasts terrorizing a village might not have much in common, both these activities offered a chance to learn and practice Occitan while focusing on something else. Perfect grammar was not the goal: rather, the assembled participants were more concerned with balancing out the overabundance of garlic we had mixed into the aioli, or with trying to decide whether or not the village’s mayor was secretly a werewolf. Sonia, the cooking workshop leader, gamely translated steps of the Occitan recipes into French to clear up doubts about technical culinary terms or how finely the walnuts needed to be chopped, while the parlor game players conferred with each other to settle on the best way to say “fortune teller” in Occitan. A certain educational dimension was thus present but secondary: by taking the focus off Occitan itself, these activities took the pressure off of its speakers, giving learners like myself a chance to participate in the social life of Occitan and to be distracted from the usual hang-ups and hesitations about speaking the language.

It’s the werewolf! (Photo: Sara Brennan)

Such gatherings thus lived up to the aims set by both La Topina and the Occitan Summer School: beyond being a language of the classroom, Occitan became a language of cooking classes and card games, of shared meals and shared laughter, of Friday afternoons and Saturday nights – in short, a language of everyday life.

These opportunities to have fun with Occitan beyond educational settings, however, took place at the same time as efforts by the French state to reform the national education system threaten to severely curtail – and in many cases, effectively eliminate – the teaching of Occitan and other French regional languages in secondary school (click here for English-language coverage of the reforms and recent protests against them). The majority of the people preparing humous for tartines or cracking the case of marauding werewolves were under 35 or so, and many if not most had primarily learned Occitan within the national education system, with a good few now employed as Occitan teachers. Such opportunities to learn Occitan by doing something else are thus indirectly at risk as well, as the proposed reforms could hamper the emergence of future cohorts of aioli chefs and werewolf chasers. Even just in the context of these two gatherings, the far-reaching potential consequences of the reforms both within and far beyond the education system were abundantly clear.

An online petition in favor of the valorization of Occitan language education can be found here.

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