Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

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Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign
Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind
Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?
—Five Man Electrical Band

The following is a loose translation of an article in today’s L’Independent, our local newspaper—along with some personal commentary. We are passing this along because it illustrates questions of cultural identity here in the borderlands of the Western Pyrenees. Some liberty has been taken with the article, mainly to expand on the complexities and historical depths pointed to by these signs.

Signs flourish on the A9
welcoming you to
France
Occitanie
Pyrénées-Orientales
and… Catalan country!

Four panels in less than 2 kilometers at Perthus.

It will probably not have escaped the regulars
returning from neighboring Catalonia by the A9 motorway
the border between France and Spain
has seen new welcome signs flourish recently.

A brand new sign Occitanie
logically replaces Languedoc-Roussillon
after that region’s merger with Midi-Pyrenees.

The name Occitanie refers to the language once spoken here, not to a particular political or cultural entity. In fact, the former president of the region of Languedoc-Roussillon once campaigned to rename the region Septimanie (Septimania). His goal was to umbrella the region’s myriad of languages and cultures with a unifying brand that favored no particular group. But instead of calming rivalries, he ignited a loud and angry reaction. Catalans hated it. The French loathed it. Cathars were offended. Occitan-speakers were indignant. Nobody wanted their region identified with the late-Roman/early medieval kingdom created and loosely governed by the Visigoths on the ruins of the Roman empire’s homeland for veterans of the Seventh Legion. Plus, the word Septimanie begged too many jokes about septicemia.

Even the signs themselves present landmines in the struggle for cultural identity. The French term appartenance points to the deeper issue, which is the question of belonging. What determines what group, which place, what cultural structure a person, a family, a village, a department a person belongs to. Appartenance is partly about the flags you are born with and cannot put aside, even if you want to. And to complicate matters, the Pyrenees-Orientales has become a haven for retirees from all over France. What about their various appartenances?

Catalans are doubly piqued by the logo for Région Occitanie. The blending of the Maltese Cross (symbol of Occitan/Cathar history) with the “gold and blood” stripes of the Catalan flag is especially relevant in these days of cultural/political tension regarding Catalan independence from Spain. Catalans, in France and in Spain, want to clarify what Catalan means on their own, not at the hands of foreigners dictating terms from Montpellier.

Anyway, the four identity signs
in less than two kilometers
should easily confuse the traveller passing through.
But it could have been worse.
The border town of Le Perthus
could have erected a sign of its own as well.

But there is a sign motorists will not encounter,
the one announcing speed-tracking radar.
This is the one that would have been the most useful.

NB. When you drive west from Estagel on the D117 towards St. Paul, you leave Catalan Country and encounter a sign at the border announcing your passage into Fenolheda, which is Occitan for the Fenouillèdes. At St. Paul the town marker reads Sant Pau. At the grocery store, I greet the cashier with a cheery Va pla? (Occitan for ça va, pronounced, sort-of, Bah Plah.)

Photograph by Nicolas Parent.

1 Comment

  1. Some of my ancestors (4 generations ago) were Catalan, but I’m a very mixed up American who doesn’t understand this resurgent tribalness (here, too, in the United States) at all. If we don’t become citizens of the world soon, we won’t have a world for anyone to live in, no matter what language you speak or religion you subscribe to, no matter what identity you claim as yours…

    Liked by 1 person

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