By Alison Bate

My French roommate Julien is practising his Occitan, a language I’d never heard of until he moved in four months ago.

Julien and the Occitan flag
Julien and the Occitan flag

Julien is from Toulouse and he showed me a beautiful YouTube video called Mon Pais, accompanied by a rousing patriotic song. The language of Occitan sounds like a cross between French and Spanish which, of course, it is.

Glorious snowcapped mountains, sweeping white beaches and unbearably cute limestone villages in southern France floated by as Occitan subtitles spread across the screen.

Meanwhile in our apartment, the red and yellow flag of Occitan has pride of place next to Julien’s computer. I made the mistake of saying: “It looks a bit like the Crusades flag.” He visibly blanched and rushed to correct me “No, it’s the opposite of that,” he said, launching into an extended history of Occitan. I quickly apologised.

The other day, I bought two colorful cups from the crockery bicycle woman, to supplement our meagre selection. When I returned to our apartment, Julien immediately grabbed the red one. “Ah, the colour of Occitan,” he cried.

“Of course, that’s why I chose it,” I murmured.

In the evenings, Julien often plays a strategy game called Europa Universalis, which starts in medieval times and seems to involve colonising the world. He’s the president of Occitan, of course, centred on his home town of Toulouse. “I’m going to take Canada next,” he warned, knowing I live in Vancouver.

When I came home from work, true enough, the whole of Canada belonged to him, as well as the U.S.

“I hope you’re a benevolent dictator,” I said.

“Of course and I’m not a dictator. The Americans just asked for freedom and I’ve given it to them.”

The Occitan phase seems to have faded and Julien’s moved on to another strategy game, set in the wilds of Manitoba, where he is fiercely defending his cabin from attacks by wolves.

The headless pig

Living in Hanoi, I’ve learned a lot from my roommates. Before Julien, I shared with two very different friends in this same apartment.

First there was Sarah, a British friend who loved shopping in the local markets in Nghi Tam and Au Co. I’d return after teaching at night to home-cooked dhal or glass noodle salad and long monologues about the wonderful bitter melon or okra she’d bought that day.

In particular, I recall Sarah’s misadventures with a headless pig. I’d been away for New Year’s on vacation and when I returned, she told me about her time over New Year’s Eve.

On January 1, she had a stinking hangover and vague memories of dragging colleagues onto the dance floor surfaced.  “Shouldn’t have caned it last night,” she told herself, before deciding: “Food, healthy food – that’s what I need.”

She left the apartment and headed down the alley to the street market. She bought her usuals – tomatoes, cukes and garlic – and some tofu so fresh it was still steaming.  Then it was time to get some meat.

The meat lady was a youngish woman, hair tied back in a ponytail, and wearing a dirty beige cotton shirt. She didn’t have much on offer, but a lot of women were hanging around expectantly and Sarah waited, too.

Suddenly a man on a motorbike pulled up beside the meat lady with a headless pig straddled on the back, riding pillion, its trotters on either side of the seat.  The driver plonked it down, still bleeding, and the meat lady calmly proceeded to cut it up. Sarah rubbed her hands, excited to buy meat clearly so fresh. She ended up with a kilo of pork for 70,000 dong and went home well pleased at getting such a good deal.

Back home, she settled in and began making a Chinese pork stew with star annise. She started cooking the meat, but whenever she checked it was still tough. Three and a half hours later, it was still chewy. She finally gave up.

“It was diabolical and then I had to eat it for the whole week,” she told me.

“Such a shame there was none left when I got back,” I said.

Going upmarket

After Sarah left Hanoi, an Aussie friend – Chris – moved in and the apartment went decidedly more upmarket. An electric kettle, toaster and proper wine glasses appeared in short order, and Chris hung a huge maroon fan on the wall as a centrepiece. Textile pieces from ethnic tribes around Sapa followed suit, as well as local lacquer paintings of Vietnamese women in conical hats.

Pix Chris on her bike
Biking with Chris near West Lake

We biked around West Lake, she learned to ride a Honda Cub and the conversations changed, too. Instead of food and students (Sarah and I were both teachers), our talks turned to sexual trafficking in Vietnam and the crappy Australian government.

After a visit to Ha Giang province, Chris told me how some of the older local men complained about the revealing dresses worn by women returned from China after being sexually trafficked. As though it was their fault!

Chris is from Adelaide and we both complained about our governments: Canada had Stephen Harper at the time and Australia had Tony Abbott, who made even Stephen Harper mellow by comparison.  I learned all about the damage Abbott was causing to those who needed social services and the cruelty of offshore detention camps such as Nauru.

Chris is back in South Australia but returned for a visit to Hanoi earlier this year, full of envy that Canada now has a more socialist government headed by Justin Trudeau, with a gender-balanced cabinet and ministers with real-life experience. And Australia? Well, Australia has Malcolm Turnbull. Say no more.

Random knowledge

When I was in my early thirties, a Canadian friend about the same age moved into his own place. “Having roommates is something you grow out of,” he told me with absolute certainty.

Clearly, I haven’t.  Living overseas, roommates are especially important buffers and have added greatly to my enjoyment and comfort.  I’ve also picked up copious amounts of random knowledge from hanging out around other people’s brains.

How else would I learn about Occitan, ladies’ fingers and Australian offshore detention camps?

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