Monday, July 18, 2016

Keep travelling

We're living in dispiriting times. Watching the news, reading the paper, they're a real downer these days. What I find makes it worse is the idea behind this blog, Only Connect (thanks, EM) so that when people get mown down on the Promenade des Anglais, or a bomb explodes outside the Blue Mosque, or policemen get shot in Louisiana, I don't just read the words and see the pictures on the screen, I can smell the air and feel the sun on my skin. I know that those people running along the road in panic, or lying bleeding on the ground, or suddenly dead, are people just like me, tourists visiting somewhere they liked the look of, to have a good time and discover new things; or are people who simply live there, doing their jobs, going home at the end of the day to their families, their cats, their homes. Or not.

It's a good thing, I think, to see them as actual people, to be able to identify with them and feel their fear and outrage; not just more faceless victims.We really do need to think that way, hard and tiring though it can be in the face of such a relentless onslaught of horrors everywhere around the world. Sympathy and empathy: those are important but rarely mentioned benefits of travel. That's why we shouldn't cop out and stay at home. Go wherever you fancy. Don't cross Turkey off your list. Doing that would not only mean you're depriving yourself of seeing a beautiful, friendly, interesting country unlike any other; but it also means all those people who depend on tourism for their living - like my Insight Vacations Tour Director, Barcin, who keeps posting hopeful photos of lovely places on Instagram - are victimised too. None of us can let terrorism win.*
*Or even random acts of violence, such as the cinema shooting that I've just been reminded happened a year ago in Lafayette, which I've been describing as a friendly, safe-feeling place in my stories about it. Which it is, of course.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

14 Juillet: Laissez les bon temps rouler!*

C'est aujourd'hui le quatorze juillet et je viens d'être en Louisiane où ils parlent français. That's not just the odd word, like grand or beaucoup flung into an otherwise English sentence, though that happens all the time; or titles for places like Salle de Danse and Presbytère; or even joke French like Geaux Cajuns! or Buy Leauxcal.
No, there are actual Americans who've lived there all their lives, who speak French naturally and as their first language; which is kind of chastening for those of us who take a bit of comfort from what we thought was the fact that being monoglot in an English-speaking country is the default position. Well, it probably is, actually - but when you come across these effortlessly bilingual people, as you certainly will in Louisiana, it's hard not to be envious.
Of course, here in particular it's celebrated as a point of difference, since the locals like to vaunt their separation from the rest of the US both historically - "We're 80 years older," I was told several times - and culturally. Both the Cajuns (descended from the French settlers evicted by the British from Acadia, now Nova Scotia) and the Creoles (locally-born of settler stock originating from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean, including native Americans and both slaves and free people of colour, all intermingled) spoke and still use French. Sadly, since its use was forbidden (and punished) in schools after the Constitution of 1921, it's declined as a first language and now it's only the elderly who speak it fluently. Like Wallace here, at Johnson's Boucanière, who greeted us all in French as we arrived on our Cajun Food Tour to try their very tasty Sausage and Tasso with Sauce Piquante.
But they're trying to revive it. I hope they succeed. Bonne chance!

* Yes, this is not correct French - but it's Louisiana French, and they use this sentence all the time, so ne t'en fais pas.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

All praise to the mealworm!

When you visit Lafayette, it's non-negotiable that you go to Vermilionville. It's one of those historical villages that isn't real, but has been built out of genuine old buildings that have been relocated, and others that have been reconstructed. You find them everywhere - we've got them all over the place here in New Zealand - and they're usually worth a leisurely stroll around.
Lafayette's is done with customary thoroughness, the story boards throughout telling you the basics, and the costumed artisans inside filling in with the quirky details. Plus, the grounds are pretty, full of mature trees, gardens and neat lawns, beside the Bayou Vermilion. In June, it was sweltering outside, but inside is cool, not because the original inhabitants succeeded at ventilating their homes - though they tried - but because they cheat with air conditioning, to preserve the furnishings. So I spent most of my time poking around inside the buildings looking at portraits made with human hair, quilts that held secret instructions for escaping slaves, the bath-sieve system (line it with a bed sheet that you can take out to shake off the bits as the entire family takes their turn with the same water) and listening to the impassioned - if hard to understand - speech of a Creole fiddler in the school house where some pre-Bart child has had to write 100 times "I must not speak French".
To be honest, though, the most important bit of information I came away with wasn't historical at all, but a recent, and accidental, discovery. In the building given over to the Bayou Vermilion District's environmental display, I met a ranger who showed me a most astonishing thing: it was an open glass tank, like an aquarium, the inside filled to the top with bits of broken polystyrene. The bottom few inches were taken up with a yellowy, grainy substance. Not very interesting? I tell you, this is SPECTACULAR! (Though, sadly, not so spectacular that I thought to take a photo of it. My bad.)

What was happening here, was that a few handfuls of mealworms, those wriggling invertebrates used for fish food and other lowly functions, were busy living full and productive lives eating nothing but polystyrene and converting it to an organic soil conditioner.  Just think: all that unrecyclable polystyrene clogging up landfills all over the world, floating in rivers and the sea, blowing along city streets, that's been impossible up till now to dispose of in an environmentally-sound manner - IT CAN BE EATEN BY MEALWORMS.

I think that's a huge discovery. Everyone should know about
it. Pass it on.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Far from Baton Rouge

It's only a two-hour drive from Lafayette to Baton Rouge: no distance at all, really. I didn't get to the state capital on my recent visit to Louisiana. The nearest I came to it was Lafayette, where I spent three very enjoyable days mooching about discovering the food, the history and the music. The last one meant I was wandering on foot through the warm summer nights, invariably getting lost in the town's quiet winding streets, but never feeling ill at ease. On the contrary: people I came across greeted me in a friendly manner, young and old, black and white.

And then, when I finally found the Blue Moon Saloon, tucked away down a side street, and went through to the back porch to sit along the wall with other random strangers to listen to Terry and the Zydeco Bad Boys (with their star scrub-board player), I was treated to an impromptu dance display from two former strangers that, for me, in my personal experience, sums up the vibe of the South. Nothing like Baton Rouge at all.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Merci beaucoup à la Louisiane

“Oh yes, this place is like the Energiser bunny,” drawled the guide. “It just keeps on going.” So it was a great shame we had only 15 minutes for the Chennault Aviation and Military Museum at Monroe, where the guided tour is normally 40 minutes, followed by browsing. The rooms are full of glass cases full of intriguing items (a Red Cross dagger; Nazi eagle-with-swastika train engine plaque; original aviator sunglasses), the walls and ceilings hung with fascinating stuff. Claire Chennault, despite his girly name, set up the Flying Tigers to save the Chinese from the Japanese and was afterwards presented with a fabulous embroidered Emperor’s gown (which, by a creepy sort of coincidence, includes a tiny swastika in its pre-Nazi incarnation).
The Selman Field navigation school was the biggest in the US, turning out over 15,000 smart guys (the less smart became pilots), one of whom guided the Enola Gay to Hiroshima. Aerial bombing is a bit of a theme: the museum also covers the establishment of Delta Airlines, which began as a crop-dusting company bent on eradicating the boll weevil from Louisiana’s cotton fields, about which we’ve learned so much over the last few days.
We had lots of ground to cover today, literally, so we trooped reluctantly back on the bus to swoop past Bossier city, which our driver told us was where Dubya flew to on 9/11 to hunker down in the bunker; and then was stuck for anything else to say about the place.
Nearby is Shreveport, a much artier and more interesting city, “Louisiana’s cultural Mecca” where Elvis hung out a lot. All we had time for, though, was Artspace, in a lovely Art Deco building, where we had a quick overview of the Moonbot studios exhibition. They are very successful at animation. How successful? Two Oscars and four Emmys successful. Impressive.
And then it was back on the bus again, a boxed lunch, a stream of Twitter-news about Brexit, and goodbye to Louisiana as we swooped into Texas, skirting around Dallas with a glimpse of the Book Depository, before arriving at the airport to flit to LAX for the long trip home again on American Airlines' almost brand-new Dreamliner.

So, Louisiana. Worth a visit? Most definitely: for the food, the music, the variety, the accent, the history, the people. I enjoyed myself enormously. So would you.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

History lives...

We were mostly focused on history today, so it was appropriate to begin it at the Sentry Grill in Alexandria, where the 1950s still reign in all their chrome and Formica glory. Cheesy grits and an egg sunnyside up felt like a suitable order (though the fried hashbrowns looked more sinfully delicious); and then we walked through the town’s quiet streets to the Arna Bontemps House to learn more stuff.

We heard all about the mechanisation of the cotton industry yesterday, which resulted in a mass migration of labourers to the cities where, by happy coincidence, machine-filled new factories required workers. Proper wages and regular hours gave them the leisure to develop their culture and so began the Harlem Renaissance where Alexandria-born Arna, writer and poet, was a star. There was a summer school class of kids studying his ‘Lonesome Boy’ story, the teacher trying to help them learn from Bubber’s trumpet-playing experiences. Ah, classroom literature – good times!

There was more art at the River Oaks Centre, where local artists can rent studios (most of them remarkably tidy) – paintings, prints, glass, pottery. Most stunning though was the Biedenharn House. Back in 1894, Joe was the first to think of bottling Coca Cola ready to drink: previously you had to go to a drugstore to have syrup mixed with water by the infelicitously-titled soda jerk if you wanted to inflict the evil brown drink on yourself. Naturally, he made plenty of money from the business, which still funds the family.

The museum is small but well done; for me, though, it’s the house decorated by Joe’s daughter Emy-Lou that’s of more interest. It’s full of space, colour and beautiful things, stylish and feminine, and elegantly luxurious. Who knew there were dishwashers in the 1940s? She was an opera singer in Europe for 10 years, so it’s sophisticated and arty too – there’s a mirror with a Salvador Dali frame, for example, and gold Japanese wallpaper even on the ceiling. She also collected ancient Bibles, including a page of Gutenberg’s first effort, and a poster of Jesus made from the whole of the New Testament, amongst other painstaking creations.

Outside is gorgeous, too: a formal garden of Louisiana lushness, with fountains, statues, tall trees and fine grass, full of palms, trimmed hedges and neat paths. All funded by Coke, which you can buy for a nickel from a vending machine – and by Delta Airlines, since her brother Bernard was the largest shareholder when it was founded in nearby Monroe in 1924.

There was most history though at Poverty Point, a World Heritage site where archaeologists are still washing dirt to extract artifacts from the site, dating back 3,500 years. Here is where a settlement of hunter-gatherers mysteriously busied themselves for centuries, moving mind-boggling amounts of soil in baskets to build a complex of ridges and mounds, the biggest 21 metres high. The labour that went into it all is almost unimaginable – it was hard enough work just walking up the long slope in oppressive 30-degree heat – and all for why? No-one knows.

It’s also puzzling why a people who got around Louisiana’s absence of rocks by making pottery lumps to use for cooking in a hangi-scenario, who designed spear-throwing holders like those the Aboriginals used, who carved jasper owls for decoration, who traded over half the area of the US, never thought to plant a seed.

But humankind specialises in these mysteries, which still dominate the news: for example, the success of the Brexit supporters today; and the seemingly unstoppable rise of Donald Trump. The more history you learn, the more you realise nothing is impossible.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Grandeur, ghosts, Steinway, slaves...

You’re heading out of New Orleans, going north, there’s a big lake in the way, what do you do? At home, we’d go round it. In the US? You build the country’s longest bridge, all 24 miles (38km) of it, sweeping smooth and concrete across Lake Pontchartrain right the way across past lines of power pylons taking their own route through the lake, above their mirror images in the glossy silver water.

We were on our way to Dallas, via a three-day detour through some of Louisiana’s points of interest. One that we didn’t see is the Angola Penitentiary, where there are apparently several inmate rodeos a year, a nine-hole golf course (for visitors) and a crop and cattle farm worked by the prisoners. It’s not all enlightened rehabilitation though: most of them are lifers, and there is a Death Row.
Our focus today was on accommodation of a much more congenial sort: ante-bellum plantation houses. Big, two-storey plus, pillars, porches, surrounding oak trees hung with Spanish moss, cool (thanks to modern AC) dim interiors furnished with antiques, the tester beds fitted with mosquito-net rails, dining tables set with Limoges china, music rooms with Steinway grands… Yes, grand is the word.
First was the Rosedown Plantation, built in 1835 for three generations of the Turnbull family and restored over 10 years at a cost of $8 million by an Exxon-rich obsessive, for our delectation. Hand-stamped linen wallpaper, portraits, imported antiques 90% original to the family, curved staircase of treacherously steep stairs, especially for the women handicapped by the hoop skirts on display upstairs in the bedrooms… we’re talking rich here. That’s 3,500 acres of cotton fields, 450 slaves rich. All of that was destroyed by a beetle, of course: the boll weevil arrived in 1909 and wasn’t eliminated till the 1970s, so today the house and gardens are a stage on the tourist trail.
Next stop for us was The Myrtles near St Francisville, where we were shown around the 1796 mansion by the gorgeous Miss Connie in her shawl and maroon silk gown: in her previous (real) life employed in the oil industry but now finding her born-to-it place in life as pretend mistress of a plantation house. Here they had 550 slaves, the house is furnished with French antiques gilded with 24ct gold and dominated by an angel theme, to keep away the evil spirits. 
They might have looked in the mirror for those, since they bought a five-piece sofa suite upholstered in fabric embroidered in super-fine petit point by the small fingers of children using magnifying glasses and wrecking their eyesight.
Except, the mirrors are haunted – or, at least, the one in the entrance hall is, with its persistent blurry outline of a woman’s face and children’s handprints. Could of course just be degradation of the silver backing, but only a party-pooper would suggest that…
Miss Connie painted a vivid picture of the high days of The Myrtles, the furniture cleared away for dancing, the Baccarat crystal candelabras lit, the doors open onto the wide porch, fireflies flickering out in the dark, the ladies’ gowns swirling and swishing. Of course, all this grandeur came to the inevitable end with the decline of the cotton industry and again depends on tourists to keep it ticking over.
At Frogmore (yes, named after the estate in Berkshire) they know all about cotton. Owner Lynette and her husband still farm it and, also (initially, till the heat got too much for her) dressed in period costume, she told us all about the boom and the bust, as well as the practical details, with no holds barred about the slavery that underpinned the whole industry: 250lbs a day was standard here. In a dimly-lit wooden building, they have an original cotton processing engine – a gin – which is a marvel of ingenuity and fine-grained magnolia wood. 
Outside, we sat in the welcome breeze blowing through the shady dog-trot passageway of the overseer’s house as bats chittered invisibly in the rafters and Lynette talked about shareholders, how the Chinese don’t play by the rules, and how high thread-count is ‘propaganda’ and actually makes the fabric weaker.

And we ended the day in Alexandria, in the Baroque opulence of the Hotel Bentley with its marble, wrought iron and stained glass, eating across the road at the Diamond Grill, itself an architecturally splendid former jewellery shop with high ceilings, grand staircase and, inevitably, a ghost. But also excellent food!


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