This continues a series of posts about a road trip to New Orleans that starts here.
We had the same conversation every morning:
“What do you want to do today?”
“I dunno. What do you want to do?”
“I don’t care. I’m up for anything.”
“Okay then, let’s go!”
I had been to the city before. One of the most memorable things I had done was a tour of a Creole plantation called Laura. It was about what you’d expect: a wide lawn, big house, antiques, and vignettes of how people lived 150 years ago. The house was a different style from Tara, the plantation you might recall from Gone with the Wind:
This is actually a photo of Oak Alley, another plantation near New Orleans on which Tara was based. I think. Don’t quote me on that. Anyway, it’s built in the English style, symmetrical and staid. Built to impress.
By contrast, here is Laura:
Very French, don’t you think? Because that’s partly what Creoles are—a people of French or Spanish descent, sometimes with Afro-Caribbean or Native American mixed in. They speak Creole, cook Creole, and make Creole music.
I was enjoying the tour of the plantation. Then we stepped out back to the slave quarters and it was like everything turned from brilliant color to grey. We “toured” a restored slave cabin, but only two or three of us could fit inside at a time. Meant for a family, it was about half the size of a boxcar, made of rough-hewn wood and sparsely furnished. Next we gathered outside so the guide could talk to us all at once, and that’s when I happened to turn and notice this behind me:
You don’t need to read French to know this is a bill of sale for people. My eyes welled with tears. I’m teary right now. The poor woman at the end of the list is a “lunatique.” What did that mean? Was she schizophrenic? Autistic? Rebelious maybe? Would someone have bought her because she was cheap? For what purpose? Ugh. Double ugh.
I passed around the brochure about the tour and told Lynn, Molly, and Christine about it. No one wanted to go. Maybe I should have left out the part about the lunatique.
When I was younger I would have pressed and wheedled until I guilted everyone into going, because I thought it was an important, historically significant tour.
But I got it. Lynn and I had spent half a day in the civil rights museum learning about slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow. Molly is a head start teacher whose kids live in trailer parks and whose parents are in jail or on drugs. Christine works for Oxfam, which aids people in disasters and wars. I got it. We didn’t need to be “sensitized.” And we were on vacation!
You may be wondering, “What’s a Cajun?” since I wrote about Creoles above. Cajuns are descendants of Acadians, who lived in eastern Canada and the Northeast U.S. When the British took over this region, the Acadians, who are French and Roman Catholic, refused to sign an oath of loyalty to the crown. They wound up in Louisiana, either voluntarily or forcefully exiled, and that was a much better fit for them. As with the Creoles, the Cajuns have their own food, music, and language.
So there’s this theme in Louisiana of cultures coming together—French, English, and Spanish; African, Caribbean, and American Indian. It seems like they mostly got along, although that may be because they stuck to their own territories. In New Orleans, for instance, Canal Street marks the boundary between the old English and French parts of town.
Back at the B&B, we had our own little cultural casserole. The English couple avoided the Germans, who were sour faced but friendly in their serious German way to the Dutch pair. The French couple seemed anxious about everything while the Scotts and Canadians were outgoing. I had two free bus tour tickets and offered them to the group. The Germans recoiled as if I were trying to hand them a rotting fish, while the Dutch couple eagerly grabbed them.