The fifty shades of Latin


In the bird’s-eye view, one might have the comforting illusion that country borders are also language borders. Especially where the borders follow the ranges of high mountains that separate peoples, like the Alps or the Pyrenees. In Germany they speak German, in Italy Italian. In France French, in Spain Spanish (all right, in Catalonia Catalonian). This is supported by the historical experience that in Eastern Europe, in the past century, the changes of state borders were usually followed by the forced resettlement or assimilation of peoples speaking other languages. So that, for example, on the two sides of the Ukrainian-Polish border, arbitrarily drawn in 1939, or of the German-Polish border, also so drawn in 1945, we can hardly find anyone speaking the language of the other side. However, when you happen to survey in the ant’s-eye view a more fortunate border zone, where neither the border nor the residents have moved very much over the past centuries, your experience will be quite different.

I want to go north from Catalonia’s northernmost region, the Boí Valley, one of the cradles of European Romanesque art, to France’s southernmost region, the Upper Garonne, to the pilgrimage church of Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, which was for the inhabitants of the valley the nearest connecting point to the great Compostela pilgrimage road throughout the Middle Ages. The distance from Castilló de Tor, which guards the entrance of the valley, to the cathedral of Comminges, is just ninety kilometers, which you can cover in one hour and a half by car, including the obligatory slow downs.


The Spanish-language Wikipedia site of the destination, Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges informs us (the French one does not), that the little town is called San Bertran de Comenge in the Occitan language. Why is this interesting? Because the inhabitants of the town, although declining in proportion, speak this language. Occitan – the lengua d’oc, as Dante called it after the word oc meaning “yes”, and as opposed to his own lingua de sì –, the original Latin language version of Southern France has been increasingly pushed into the background by French in recent centuries.

But Occitan is also divided into various dialects, from eastern Provençal to western Gascon, the latter being spoken here, in the region of Saint-Bertrand. This dialect is known to all of us, as one of its most famous speakers was D’Artagnan, the fourth musketeer, who, as a rookie in Paris, was mocked simply for his Gascon accent. The Gascons were excellent soldiers, they formed the backbone of the King’s musketeer guard, and also represented a peculiar linguistic patch of color in 17th-century Paris. Another famous Gascon speaker was none less than the Virgin Mary. At least, in 1858 she said to Bernardette Soubirous, the shepherd girl of Lourdes, in the latter’s native language: Que sòi era Immaculada Councepciou, “I am the Immaculate Conception”, which it still emblazoned on the pedestal of her statue in Lourdes. No wonder, then, that the locals are proud of their ancient tongue, and in more and more towns they operate a nursery and primary school in this language, although no version of Occitan is officially recognized in France.




Crossing the Spanish or Catalan border, you would expect to hear only Spanish or Catalan. But the first café in the town of Bossòst, over whose streets the peak of Tuc d’Aubas hovers like Mount Fuji, bears the proud name Er Occitan – The Occitan –, and moreover, as marked by the peculiar definite article neither in Spanish nor Catalan, but in the Occitan language.



And the main language of the information board at the town’s 11th-century Romanesque church – whose northern gate is adorned with the loveliest Romanesque relief of the Virgin Mary – is also not Catalan or Spanish. But yet another, which I can only assume, for lack of competence, is Occitan. The assumption is correct, but not precise.



In fact, a few towns away, on the gate of the Romanesque church of Vila a board announces the hours and languages of the Mass for the settlements of the neighboring Aran Valley. Even the language of the board and the names of the days are peculiar. And in the center of the valley, in the town of Vielha – which is called Viella both in Catalan and Spanish, for nevertheless the former version is written at the entrance of the town – they celebrate Sunday Mass in the Aranès language.




Aranès or Aranese is the version of Occitan, more precisely of Gascon, or even more precisely, of Pyrenean Gascon, which, as the name indicates, is spoken in Aran Valley. This small area, which falls to the north of the ridge of the Pyrenees, but still belongs to Catalonia, and is home to the source of Garonne River. The dialect of its inhabitants is closer to the adjacent Occitan than to Catalan, from which they are separated by the ridge. The number of its speakers is less than ten thousand, yet it is the official language of the valley. Moreover, in 2010 it was adopted by the Catalan parliament as the third official language of all Catalonia, in addition to Spanish and Catalan. Thus Catalonia is the only state where a variant of Occitan enjoys official status.


Crossing the mountain, we get back to Boí Valley. This is already in Catalonia, therefore, we might assume, they speak Catalan. Yes, but what kind? The language they speak among themselves in the shops and pubs is appreciably different from the one you hear in Barcelona: it is deeper, they often say -a or -au instead of -e, the -er at the end of the words is pronounced , like in French, and a lot of Spanish words are used. This is the Ribagorçan dialect, spoken on both sides of the Catalan-Aragonian border instead of the official Catalan or Spanish. Even if the great linguist Joan Corominas considers this to be the “most archaic and purest” form of Catalan, you would have to cross quite a few valleys going south-east to hear the standard version of Catalan.

Romance linguistics teaches that by walking across the former Roman Empire from Sicily to Normandy, every pair of neighboring villages can understand each other. It is nice to see how this really works on a small scale.


The bridge

Maurice de Flaminck, The bridge (detail, s.d., 1890s). From the great Impressionist exhibition of Potsdam

We are having lunch in Neukölln, in a Turkish kebab house, with the Berlin sightseeing group. Twenty people are too many for the small canteen, we must join others at their tables. A meek little man is dining with his son, he opens up slowly, he speaks good English. They came from Aleppo, a life-threatening journey, crossing many borders. There is no wife and mother, it is not known where she was left, we do not dare to ask. The little boy is going to go to school, to refugee school, he already knows a few words in German, he proudly plays with the colored pencils received in advance. And then the inevitable: “And where are you from?” It is hard to speak the words, we do not know what memories they might bring with them from one of the many borders. “From Hungary.” The father translates it to his little son. The boy’s face brightens up, he lifts his colored pencil: “Hungary is friend!” Blessed be the name of the nameless one who gave him this impression of us.

Persian disco


I know these songs. They play in the taxi, as soon as you leave for the city from Khomenei Airport, they rumble in the kebab shop and in the bazaar, they stiffen your mind during the all-day bus route across the desert. But I have never seen people publicly dancing to them, especially not with a glass of whisky in the hand, and particularly not in the company of girls with uncovered hair and in skirts that at the thigh. Any of these subplots individually would call out for a few years of prison in Iran. But not in Berlin, in Neukölln’s Werkstatt der Kulturen, in the cellar of which a Noruz celebration, a spring New Year’s disco is being held tonight. The songs are the characteristic pieces of rollicking Iranian music, laments in Persian about the torment of love and the inevitability of adulthood, singing Egyptian pop in Arabic, which is becoming increasingly fashionable in Iran, or changing to Iranian-Azerbaijani Torki or Kurdish folk songs for the sake of the Iranian ethnic minorities present in the room. The audience still responds as they did at home, the boys dance only with boys and the girls with girls, but at least no longer in separate rooms, but in a common space, laughing, embarrassed, at the unusual situation. The children wander about along the edge of the stage, they already grow into the situation, imitating the adults, until around midnight they are taken away to sleep.

Habibi (Sweetheart), with Arabic text

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And the bonus: Üsküdara, the Balkan migrating melody, about which we have already written, tonight in its Iranian version

River-watch


The Wall had fallen twenty-eight years ago, just as many as it had lived. The wounds slowly scab over. Who remembers any more that in the Potsdamer Platz there was a forest, from where thousands of crows took off at dawn, that behind the Märkisches Museum the street ended in a trabant leaned against the wall? Only the seamless row of remarkably new houses reveals the lack of a past, the scar of the basalt cube line running in the middle of the asphalt sets one more layer on this city full of scars. And yet, even after twenty-eight years, a crack in the space-time opens in the most unexpected places, the wall romanticism rises again in the very middle of the city. A few hundred meters from Checkpoint Charlie, where you now have to relive in the freak show of a Persian artist what it felt like to peep over the wall, along the Stallschreiberstraße, where Martin Luther King personally hurried to express a distressing opinion about the East German border guards who opened fire on that morning on a DDR-Flüchtling, the coppice wood, which has thriven for twenty-eight years, has disappeared overnight. In the middle of the land, moled by building machinery, a guard with long white hair is watching the cut-out woods, at the yowl of his dog he turns back, he beckons to the camera. The new house row of the Alte Jakobsstraße, and the TV tower of the Alexanderplatz shines through the clearance. The cast stone blocks running on the edge of the ground will not indicate for long the former line of the wall. Time has swallowed another piece from the shelf islands of recent history.

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Carnival in Mamoiada


The normative descriptions of folk customs, such as we find in ethnographic encyclopaedia, or in the representative publication of the Museum of Mediterranean Masques of Mamoiada about the local Carnival, lift the custom into a timeless sphere, adjust it to the rhythm of the eternal return. What was yesterday will be tomorrow as well, and the parade of the mamuthones and issohadores of Mamoiada appears before us from the obscurity of five thousand years as we would have experienced it by entering the stream of time at any of the carnivals in the past five thousand years.

The normative description highlights the actions repeated year after year, which are considered the essential elements of the custom, and the carriers of collective identity. Exactly because of this, it does not account for such casual and improvised actions of the realization of the custom, as, for example

• that the mamuthones and issohadores, while dancing through the village, en-route stop at every bar, where they dance around the room, and they get free drink in return;

• the villagers take part in the feast in a wide variety of carnival costumes, which, from a historical and symbolic point of view, are absolutely incompatible with the millenary tradition of the mamuthones, but this absolutely does not bother anyone;

• the participants of the parade again and again quit their ritual role, to interact with the relatives and friends, thereby strengthening social ties, and they take pictures with their mobile phones of the other millenary masquerade, the kurents invited from Slovenia to amuse the village, just as these latter take photos of them, and all the onlookers of all of them;

• and that this multi-threaded series of events, which waves on, halts and then restarts during many hours in several sites, unique and never repeatable, and only to be experienced here and in person, this is the very carnival of Mamoiada.

On the Milan flight a young Italian couple is watching me organizing the photos. “Where is this?” they ask. “In Mamoiada, Sardinia”, I reply. “Next year we will go there, too”, they decide.

Mamuthones in the bar. Video by Tibor Nagy


Maria Pittau: Su Beranu (Spring). From the album Raighinas (2004)

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New blood. Video by Ildikó Fabricius


Growth-ring

Gavoi (Sardinia), 15th-c. parish church, Easter 2016

Gavoi, Carnival 2017

Carnival in Sardinia

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“If you want to see a carnival, as there is no other in all the earth, go to Mamoiada, where it begins on the day of St. Anthony, and you will see the herd in wooden masks, the mute and subdued herd, the defeated elders and winning young people, the sad carnival, the carnival of ashes, our everyday history, a joy seasoned with bile and vinegar, the bitter honey.”


Salvatore Cambosu: Miele amaro (Bitter honey)
Just a few days, and Lent sets in. In the last days, however, from Shrove Sunday to Shrove Tuesday, the Carnival reaches its summit. It is celebrated in an especially archaic way in the villages of Sardinia. First and foremost in the secluded mountain region of Barbagia, which is culturally a kind of island in the island. And there, primarily in the village of Mamoiada.

Mamoiada is one of the oldest settlements in Sardinia. Next to it, in the double cave Sa Oche e Su Ventu was excavated one of the island’s oldest – twenty thousand years old – human habitation, and the huge rock-cut tombs under the village have been in use since the 6th millennium BC. In the Middle Ages, the remote and inaccessible mountain region could not be really achieved by the Catholic Church: in contrast to the rest of Sardinia, no monastic community has settled next to the village, and its only church was the small shepherd church of St. Cosmas and Damian, far from the settlement. This may also explain the survival of those very ancient carnival and spring-greeting fertility rites, which thousands of years ago were common throughout the Mediterranean, but today their remains are to be found mainly in the mountain villages of the Balkans.


The Carnival of Mamoiada begins on the night of 16 January, the feast of St. Anthony, when fires are lit and masquerade processions organized across the whole Mediterranean. The two types of the Mamoiada processions are the mamuthones and the issohadores. The former, who symbolize some kind of ancient animal or natural force, wear black sheep skin dress, black wooden mask and black cloth, and carry on their back twenty to thirty kilos of copper bells – “sa carriga” – with bone tongues, which accompany with a ghostly roar their slow, rhythmic procession. The latter follow them in red-white Renaissance – or as they say here, “Turkish” – dress, mostly in white masks, with lasso in the hand, with which they try to pull the viewers into the march. The procession ends at the bonfire lit on the main square of the town, where all the participants and spectators are offered a traditional Sardinian plate of beans with bacon, and the whole village is united in a Sardinian round dance – ballu tundu – around the fire.

Today we travel to the Carnival. Now we can illustrate this short report only with the pictures of the booklet of the Mask Museum of Mamoiada. On the evening of Shrove Tuesday we can hopefully publish our own photos on the feast.



Tenores di Bitti: Ballate a ballu tundu (Round dance). From the album Ammentos (1996)

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Start point


It is well known that all roads lead to Rome. So lately I have been much more interested in how many places you can get to from Rome. Can you determine, using classic triangulation, in what small Polish town this photo was taken, between 1935 and 1938, by Roman Vishniac? Caution: Poland has since shifted a few hundred kilometers to the west, and the official names of many places changed.


Yes, you have guessed well. The signpost stood in today’s Belorussian town of Слоним, at a time when, between the two world wars, it belonged to Poland as Słonim. Vishniac published the photo with the title “From Słonim the roads lead to everywhere in the world”. The version found in the Vishniac Archive shows that the signpost stood behind the great synagogue, built in 1642, lending a special connotation to the title. Słonim, established at the confluence of the navigable Shchara and Issa rivers, has been an important trading town since the Middle Ages, with a Jewish quarter known since 1388, and with a pre-war Jewish population of nearly 20 thousand. Its beautiful great synagogue was even spared the devastation of the war. Hence comes the Słonim Hasidic Dynasty in Israel, and the founder of the British Marks & Spencer warehouse chain. Vishniac visited the town between 1935 and 1938, during his photographic survey of the Eastern European Jewish settlements. Let us include here the other photos he took in Słonim, too, as well as two closing pictures on the weekly market and the firemen of Słonim. The latter is a part of a postcard series of ethnographic interest, which was published on the town, and primarily on its exotic-looking Jews in 1917, during the German military occupation. The other pieces of the series can be seen on Pinterest’s Słonim page and in Eliat Gordin Levitan’s collection of old Słonim photos, and a superb stand-alone piece here.

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