The Félibrée: Celebrating Occitanie

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The Félibrée movement was begun in the 19th century to defend and preserve the Occitan culture. In the langue d’oc,  it is known as the Félibrise, and Frédéric Mistral, the renowned poet, was one of its greatest adherents. Since 1903, on the first Sunday of July, the Félibrée is celebrated in a chosen town of the Périgord. The town spends a good part of the year in preparation for the festival, which is marked by poetry, dance, singing, musical performances, demonstrations of local customs, and election of a queen of the Félibrée. The town of Les Eyzies, just a few kilometers from my house, hosted the Félibrée in July of 2000, and we attended:   July dawns hot and sultry, with azure skies and a piercing heat that by 10 a.m. is already shuddering through the valley. I pick a weed, then go inside for iced tea, pick another, and give up. The poplar trees that line the Vézère seem to be shimmering up little waves of heat, so that the green hillside behind them appears to be a moving, opalescent creature. Hot. And except for birdsong and beetlebuzz and the occasional distant tractor, silent. A helicopter appears suddenly, practically in our yard, so high are we in the cliffs. The pilot waves as he drones over our terrace and disappears to survey the festivities getting underway down the road in Les Eyzies. We have missed the 8:30 a.m. défilé and the mass in Occitan sung by the bishop of Périgueux and the ceremony in honor of the young men of Les Eyzies who gave their lives in two world wars, but there is still a full day of festivities awaiting. If only it weren’t so hot…   We take the normal route into Les Eyzies but just outside town are directed onto an unpaved road that winds through cornfields. I note that the corn is not grown in rows here – it’s just a dense mass of corn plants. They don’t eat it in any event – just feed the huge kernels to the geese for the gavage. Occasionally you get a salad with a few corn kernels scattered on top, but mainly corn is animal food. Eventually the cornfields give way to ploughed fields and we are in what has been turned into a parking lot for 15,000 cars. There’s another one this size on the other side of town. But whether it be the weather or over-optimism on the part of the locals, this parking lot looks as though it won’t be filled up until a week from now. We are directed by a cheerful volunteer into a spot not far from the footbridge into town. Emerging from the air-conditioned car is a chore. The hay crackles and spits as we walk, breathless, into town. I can never remember such a hot day in the Dordogne. It’s a sauna – every step a chore, every breath a wheeze.   Nonetheless, the Félibrée is in full swing. We enter the “portals” of the town through a huge fish constructed of mineral water bottles. This is hard to imagine, I know, but someone has made of white and blue plastic an enormous head of a fish – a huge, round, painted circle, very Picasso-esque, with two bulging eyes on it – and onto that has been attached the body of a fish, straddling the bridge over the Vézère, made of Vittel bottles fitted into one another to mimic scales. The significance of the fish is that near Les Eyzies is a prehistoric site where Crô-Magnon carved and painted several bodies of fish, very rare creatures in the prehistoric art collection. The bridge is also lined with white banners with images in blue of these prehistoric fish. We enter the “portal,” pay a small entrance fee, and are in the Félibrée. Les Eyzies is nothing but one long narrow street under imposing cliffs that house the Musée Nationale de la Préhistoire, and several abris préhistoriques. It’s not a pretty town, really. But 40 kilometers worth of paper and plastic flowers have been strung up on every conceivable bush and tree; they decorate the awnings of every café and restaurant; and they hang over every alleyway leading to the river. The children in the local schools have been preparing them for months. There is a space called the Cours d’Amour, where later in the day there will be singing and dancing. There are livestock everywhere – oxen seem to have been an important part of the culture, and young men are wrestling with yokes and slapping the rumps of fine ox specimens. There are stalls and stands where local artisans show their wares – baskets, jewelry, paintings, ceramics, you name it. And there are stands devoted to the Occitan culture as well – honey stands and wine stands and musical instrument stands and bookstalls where you can buy Occitan books, and lace stands. It’s an odd mixture whereby it seems the locals try to promote the idea of Occitanie while selling Cokes and hawking gemstones and cheap jewelry, all the while enticing you to watch the traditional dances and to learn about the Occitan language. Everyone seems comfortable with the blatant dichotomy, and perhaps that’s the point, that Occitan is alive and well in the 21st century, living alongside crass commercialism. Anyway, if the locals don’t mind, I’m certainly not going to make a fuss. I do note one Occitan maiden in full costume chatting loudly on a cell phone, and in the space of two seconds I have thrust into my hands a brochure for pizza à emporter and one for lessons in Occitan language and dance.   We watch people young and old, encumbered in hot costumes, dance and sing to the old Occitan tunes, which are indeed delightfully tuneful. As the brochure I was handed says, Occitan would have been the language of France if history had not turned out the way it did – well, yes, but history did turn out the way it did and the kings of France chose the langue d’oil instead of the langue d’oc. Yet there is clearly a resurgence of interest in the old traditions.   The Bournat is perhaps the most interesting exhibit of all, although it seems to be the least attended. The Bournat is essentially the committee responsible for the preservation of the Occitan culture in the community. In Les Eyzies, the Jardins Publics and its…
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