Picture this. It’s 6 o’clock on a Sunday evening. In a gloomy suburb of Toulouse stands a red-roofed chartreuse. The landlady claims the structure is more than 100 years old – she whispers, with a mysterious wink, that it’s VERY authentic, VERY toulousain. Inside, wrapped up in a duvet, a girl is reading Les Fleurs du Mal aided by the flicker of a lighter. There’s something very ironic about reading Baudelaire in a power cut. It’s very cold (the heating has gone the same way as the electricity) and yesterday’s market bargains are starting to attract the flies. Folks, I am living the French dream in somebody’s garden shed – sharing 25m₂ of floor space with a bearded metal-head from Essex and paying €650 a month for the privilege!
For all its horrors (foul odours and monstrous spiders included) ‘The Haunted Shack’, as my friends and I christened it, turned out to be a great deal of fun. It also highlighted the dual façade of modern France. My glorified shed was not unlike the cardboard shelters of the shantytown on the opposite bank of the river. When one thinks of France, images of unemployed alcoholics, immigrant ghettos and other symptoms of poverty do not spring to mind. But the reality cannot be ignored. Almost 7 months ago, Toulouse was forcibly reminded of this social fragility when Mohammed Merah, in an act of Islamic fundamentalism, shot dead 7 citizens, 3 of whom were children. This event shocked the country and has undoubtedly left scars on la ville rose – scars which its inhabitants are still trying to cover up.
It was when I was sitting in my favourite café, Le Bar du Matin, with a friend one morning, that I encountered France’s brighter side. I was reading about the gay-marriage controversy in Le Monde whilst dunking a croissant into my café au lait. A cigarette between two fingers, my companion was engrossed in Courrier International. “T.I.F” he suddenly said with a wide grin on his face. “What’s that?” “T.I.F: This Is France.” His point was this: no matter where you are in France it has still maintained the romantic tradition, the elegance and the joie de vivre (by-and-large). Compare Toulouse with the big cities of England and you will find that the conservation of tradition is worlds apart. Whilst I completely support multi-culturalism, it has eroded our “British” identity, transforming it into something new (and perhaps improved). France has been resilient to “foreign influence”. You have only to look at their political scene for proof of this dogmatism. The Economist‘s recent special report on France highlighted this as a reason for France’s impending economic doom but it could be argued that, culturally, this is what sets it apart from other nations.
Toulouse itself is culturally unique – it has a history and language that sets it apart from the rest of France. The city is the ancient capital of Occitania, a region in the south of France whose inhabitants traditionally speak Occitan – a dialect which unified with the northern vernacular to form modern day French. Spoken by 1 million people on a daily basis, the Occitanian identity is just as passionately defended as its sister language, Catalan.
During my stay in Toulouse I signed up for private lessons in Occitan: as a French speaker, the linguistics and history of the language fascinated me. On my last night in the city, whist heading over to a bar to meet my friends, I suddenly heard a chorus of deep harmonies emanating from outside Le Bar du Matin. There sat a circle of elderly men, adorned with black berets and white mustachios, heartily singing in Occitan polyphonic verse. I recognised the song as ‘Se Canta’, the hymn of Occitania, and without thinking about what I was doing, started to mouth the words. One of the men caught my eye and gestured for me to join in. Five minutes later I was tearfully warbling the poetry of the love-sick Gaston Fébus. I was rewarded with warm smiles and cries of “Mercès joine filha!” [Thank you young girl!] and “Adieu-siatz!” [Goodbye!]. The Occitan language now holds a very special place in my heart. Speaking it – albeit a few words and phrases – is like keeping a big juicy secret. Only those that speak it can really comprehend how sacred its culture is and it was a privilege for me to get such a personal glimpse of one of France’s most hidden qualities.