Coma se ditz ... En occitan?For numerous American expats living in France, speaking the language is a challenge. Texan David Price in Avignon has gone one step further by becoming fluent in the regional dialect of Occitan, a language that precedes French.
Born in Bastrop, just outside Austin, David’s enthusiasm for French started when he was fifteen years of age. Watching a PBS documentary on Hitler he thought, “This guy looks crazy but maybe he’s very eloquent if you understand German.” In an attempt to comprehend what the average German found so compelling about Hitler, David asked his parents if he could take German lessons. They said no but suggested Spanish or French since either would be more useful. He chose French and that started him on a life-long road to studying and eventually living in France.
After graduating from Oklahoma University in 1999, he then took a post with the French Ministry of Education in Niort, before switching to tourism and working for Accor, the world’s leading hotel operator, and then later for a small hotel in Avignon. While in Avignon he found himself leading tours for friends and business associates; he started to study the language and culture of Occitan along the way.
David’s knowledge of Occitan would be impressive for a French person, never mind the fact that he is a native-born Texan. He told me that Occitan pre-dates French and is one of the minority Romance languages.
For those at the back of the class
Once the Roman Empire crumbled in Western Europe, a regional dialect and culture spread from the Iberian Peninsula across the South of France to the border of northern Italy. Because of its geographical location, Occitania, or the Pais d’Òc as it’s sometimes referred to, became a trading powerhouse with Occitan as the language of business.
Troubadours, travelling poet-musicians, also originated from Occitania during the 11th century. They sang about courtly love and spread the Occitanian language and concepts of convivencia and partage (roughly translated meaning honour, chivalry and courtesy) as far as Italy, Spain and Greece. Without these Troubadours, we might not have the singer-songwriter of modern times. And where would the Seventies and Easy Listening radio stations be without singer-songwriters?
The Pope and other Catholic hierarchy felt threatened by the Troubadours’ influence on the northern courts and also by the Cathar Movement which took hold in Occitania during the 12th and 13th centuries. Although Christians, Cathar beliefs were a direct challenge to the Catholic Church and at the beginning of the 13th century, the Pope organised a crusade against the Cathars. This religious war pitted northern French nobles against southern Occitania with the northerners coming up on top. Following this victory came the suppression of the Occitan language and culture.
Imagine all the Occitanian people
As David’s fascination with the history and language grew, word of mouth spread of his regional knowledge and his impromptu tours generated more demand. He decided to put together a more formal organisation that would benefit visitors and in 2004 he co-founded the Imagine Tours Association (www.imagine-tours.net) in Avignon. As an Association loi de 1901, this not-for-profit organisation is sponsored by the PACA government with a specific goal to develop the language and culture of Provence and greater Occitania.
Imagine Tours goes about this in several ways, from offering private cultural tours to providing services and free advice to potential visitors to the region, including for French and Occitan language schools. Members benefit from a range of cultural activities while partners, such as Radio Coupo Santo, are part of the association’s many project initiatives.
David’s experience with the French bureaucracy is very different from other expats that I’ve interviewed who are trying to set up their own business. However, as Imagine Tours is a non-profit organisation he says the biggest challenge is trying to find volunteers. Also the time commitment needed to run the association is considerable, especially as David and others who help have full-time jobs, and so co-ordinating schedules can be tricky.
But for this 39-year-old, helping others discover the region is truly a passion. “America's biggest misconception is that the French are arrogant. Generally speaking, Parisians are more so than French from other regions. When Americans come to the South of France they are surprised to find the people much warmer.” He also enjoys smashing the myth of the fat and ignorant American through cultural exchanges via Imagine Tours. “Many French associate the policies of the American government with the American population and are surprised to find Americans interested in French culture, language and food.”
Recently David received his ten-year residence card. He has been asked to run for local office and so and is contemplating applying for French citizenship, which he would have to have to get involved in politics. Since first coming to France, he’s become alarmed by some of the changes that the country has gone through in the past ten years and would like to be able to do something about it through public office. Issues such as “security, litter, graffiti and a general lack of respect for the country” make him want to play a more active role in France’s future. “It’s a beautiful country and it’s unfortunate when people don’t respect it.”
He’s quick to add that despite some of the negative changes he’s witnessed in France he would never move back to America. “I’d be bored to death if I lived in the US. Living here, I can experience something completely different in a matter of hours. It’s intellectually energising to live in a new country.”