The house where I stayed in Sauvelade belonged to a widow, Madame Grosclaude. On first approaching, I saw a sign saying “welcome” in a language that looked like Catalan, but I couldn’t really tell. Later, on the table where I sat to take a coffee with my hostess, lay a newspaper, in a language that might be a form of Occitan…but there were, as I’d been told, no regular publications in Occitan. I was to learn differently.
In 1958, a classical scholar from Savoy, in the north of France, and his wife, had both taken up teaching positions in Béarn. A devout protestant, Michel Grosclaude, as his widow explained, had specifically sought an area of France with a protestant tradition and population.
On this blog, we haven’t yet talked about the protestants in this part of France except to say that they wrecked stuff. There’s more to it than that. If you look at the top right corner of that newspaper you’ll see the remarkable son of a remarkable woman who ruled the Béarn, and was a notorious protestant. And we’ll soon be in Navarrenx, a former protestant stronghold where she had a home.
To return to the subject of this post, Michel Grosclaude was doing secretarial duties for the mairie in his chosen village of Sauvelade when he encountered what would become his hobby then his life’s main work. The language which was called Béarnais by an elderly speaker I’d met on the trail, Gascon by Michel’s widow, and Occitan by outsiders was to become the foster child of this northern scholar.
It varies, of course, from place to place, and gets called Provençal, Languedoc, patois and probably other names. The different forms nonetheless make one language, and it is a language very distinct from French. Michel wrote a dictionary francais-occitan-gascon, produced a daily radio program, and the weekly newsaper (above) which is still published.
In addition, there were all the academic societies, meetings, publications. In his spare time, he was a geology and bookbinding buff, and an authority on protestantism in the Béarn!
And there’s one more tale to tell of this remarkable man.
If you think you have already encountered the ultimate in Political Correctness…you just haven’t! I’ve got it right here.
Here’s a kid’s book in Occitan written by Michel Grosclaude.
Now, you may or may not know that the word for “parrot” in every Latin-based language, except French, is something like “papagai”. And that’s what the word means in Occitan. Moreover, the last syllable, -gai, is not even sounded as the word gai in French. But nearly every human on earth could look at the cover of that book and perceive its perfect and cheerful innocence.
Nonetheless, solely because of the cover of that book, Michel Grosclaude was investigated and questioned by the French police, suspected of sexual discrimination and perhaps even darker offenses.
It’s time we looked at some lovely béarnais countryside, don’t you think?