Somewhere between Montluçon and Limoges, I drove past a sign informing me I was entering the “pays d’oc”. As a linguist and an explorer of France, I got very excited.
First of all, entering a new country is always exciting. The French language has the word “dépaysement”, for the feeling of being in a new country. It is usually translated as “change of scenery”, but it means so much more than the stimulation of the new and different. For it also covers the unsettling feeling of being away from home comforts, when you feel slightly (or greatly) unsuited to the local weather, landscape, people or mores. Dépaysement is a challenge as much as a welcome escape.
So what is this “pays d’oc” I have just entered? Broadly speaking, this is the southern half of France. In the Middles Ages, people in the northern half spoke “langue d’oïl”, and people in the southern half spoke “langue d’oc”. Over time, oïl evolved into oui: “langue d’oïl”, riding on the political rise of the Paris-based kings, became the French language of today.
“Langue d’oc”, or Occitan, covers a multitude of dialects such as Provencal, Limousin, Gascon. Catalan is sometimes considered a dialect of Occitan. The Languedoc region, between the Pyrenees and Provence, is only a small part of the much wider area where Occitan was spoken. Officially it is still spoken by 100,000 people, but its use is rapidly declining. Most speakers are elderly, and shy to speak in the presence of strangers. Personally, I have never heard it, even if part of my family is from Languedoc.
What is left of Occitan are the signs displaying the town names and street names in both French and Occitan. But even better, the language has kept on living through the Southern French accent. More musical and rolling than the Northern one, I personally find it absolutely charming. It varies from region to region, but on the whole, the mute “e” is pronounced, and the nasal sounds are less so; you can almost hear the n.
As it happened, the 14th July – Bastille Day to English speakers, although we call it “le 14 juillet” – found me in Périgueux (or Perigüers in Occitan). A lovely city, dominated by its striking byzantine-style cathedral, at the heart of Périgord, a region of rolling wooded hills, spectacular cave art, and fabulous food.
Périgueux had opened the banks of the river for its summer programme, with grounds for pétanque and beach-volley, table football, several food trucks, deckchairs, and a stage. I had a wonderful evening of dancing, singing and chatting with strangers – the Southerners are very open and easy to approach. The joie de vivre was all around, despite (or perhaps because of?) several days of heavy rain, and a stern speech by President Macron two days before.
From 10 pm onwards, people assembled along the river banks and on the bridges. At 11 they shot the first round of fireworks – blue white and red, obviously. Then round after round added colours and lights and sounds and smoke – you know the wonder of fireworks. In between rounds, people cheered and clapped with enthusiasm. Babies cried, and everyone had sparkles in their eyes.
I will remember this 14th July as one of the best – arriving in a foreign country, only to discover it is my own, all over again.