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|Finally, I was there. In southern Louisiana where the
tragic love affair of Evangeline (Emmeline Labiche in real life) and her
lover, Gabriel (actually Louis Arceneaux), remains bright, as do the unique
traditions of their people, the French Acadians, who were cruelly evicted
from their Nova Scotia homes in 1776.
From the time I was a teen-ager and first read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow' s epic poem "Evangeline," based on the Acadians' exile, I had yearned to visit the land where these Frenchmen found refuge and, according to Longfellow, called it the "Eden of Louisiana." Today, it is known as Acadiana or Cajun land (Cajun is a corruption of Acadiana).
Naturally, I had expected a rather somber trip. It did not, however, turn out that way. I was suspicious when a local acquaintance welcomed me with a friendly smile and said in beautiful French, "Laissez les bons temps rouler" ("Let the good times roll"). And roll they did.
There were: Toe-tapping zydeco (Creole) and Cajun music (I still can' t tell the difference), born of fiddles, small piano accordions, sometimes a rubboard (a metal gadget resembling an old-fashioned corrugated washboard hung about the neck, played by scraping with bottle openers) and a triangle or ting-a-ling. Fais-dodos (usually street dances) where families - fathers and mothers often holding youngsters - dance spirited intricate steps. Wonderful Cajun stories that kept me laughing.
Also, jolly festivals honoring crawfish, shrimp, music, plus timely Mardi Gras celebrations, the one in Lafayette said to rival that in New Orleans. Outstanding cuisine, spicy, of course, the main entree usually seafood brought fresh daily from the Gulf of Mexico and bayous - boiled crawfish, crab, shrimp, oysters - you name it.
Still, along with all the joie de vivre, the descendants of those long-ago persecuted Acadians remember their heritage with pride and reverence.
In the heart of this fun-loving unique country lies Lafayette, a flourishing city thanks to a 1920 oil boom. Not so long ago, the Louisiana Legislature declared it the capital of Acadiana: 99 parishes (counties) that extend west to the Texas border, then south to edge the Gulf of Mexico.
Today, 700,000 French-speaking Acadians (the largest French-speaking minority in the United States) live in this Deep South region of rivers, bayous, swamps, sugar cane and rice fields, elegant antebellum mansions, year-round blooming flowers and ancient moss-draped oaks.
How the Acadians found their Eden of Louisiana is featured in the documentary movie "Le Grand Derangement" (their exile from Nova Scotia) shown daily at the Jean Laffite Acadian Culture Center in Lafayette.
Get out your handkerchiefs. For surely your heart will break, as mine did, when you learn how they were tortured, their homes burned, families separated then herded into boats, not knowing whether they would ever see each other again. This, because these courageous Frenchmen would not swear allegiance to the British crown, nor would they give up their Catholic religion.
When the Acadians eventually regrouped in Louisiana, they built close- knit communities much like the re-created Acadian Village on Ridge Road south of Lafayette, where sturdy 19th-century cottages (furnished with antiques), a tiny steepled church and general store line a peaceful winding bayou.
Another close-up of early Acadiana comes at Vermilionville (1600 Surrey St.). I wandered through 23 modest cottages, some replicas, some authentic, bought bread at a little bakery where supposedly Acadiana recipes are used, watched women in period costume quilt and spin yarn, admired a couple demonstrating those incredible Cajun dance steps, then gave my feet a rest by rocking contentedly in an old-fashioned handmade rocker on one of the building's wide front porch.
Even though tempting, I skipped the races at Evangeline Downs to pay homage to a 500-year-old live oak tree (charter member of the Live Oak Society - 25 acorns to join). This massive tree spreads its 145- foot-long branches (one weighs 71 tons) at the right of the impressive Gothic-style St. John's Cathedral. In the church's old cemetery, with its above-ground tombs, I discovered the grave of the daughter of Gabriel.
This find set the stage for my call at St. Martinville, 17 miles southeast of Lafayette, where Longfellow's poem is remembered best. For it was here, in what is now Evangeline Oak Park, under a huge live oak bordering the Bayou Teche that Evangeline, after three years of searching for Gabriel, was reunited with him. But it was a sad meeting. Gabriel, believing her lost, had married another, and Evangeline was heartbroken.
As my imagination soared under that old oak, claimed to be the most photographed tree in the nation, I heard the haunting strains of Cajun music and, like the children who followed the magic music of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, I couldn't resist it. And that was the way I met the septuagenarian Romero brothers. Almost every day these retired Cajun rice farmers come to the park to play and sing the old Cajun songs the "way they should be." Ophe plays the accordion; Leness the ting-a-ling.
In St. Martinville, I visited what is believed to be the grave of Emmeline Labiche (Evangeline). The grave is behind St. Martin de Tours Catholic Church and is marked with a stunning bronze statue of Evangeline, actually the likeness of Dolores del Rio, the long- ago movie star who played the role in a 1929 movie.
I almost tiptoed into the sanctuary of St. Martin de Tours - mother church of the Acadians, and oldest church in Louisiana - the pure white sanctuary was that beautiful and so serene. The guide pointed out that the baptismal font was the gift of Louis XVI, and that Napoleon was responsible for the Eternal Light.
My most moving experience, however, came later at the Acadian Memorial where a huge mural (12 feet by 30 feet) depicts the arrival of the Acadians in Louisiana. The thanksgiving and joy on the faces of these life-size figures gripped me so, I will never forget them.
Making the mural more meaningful is the fact that the figures represent actual people documented in Acadian history, and some of the models were descendants of those pioneers. A Wall of Names, under way, will list 3,000 Acadian refugees and, outside, in a little garden, an eternal flame burns in their memory.
To best see Acadiana, visitors should pick up a tour guide brochure at the Visitor Information Center at the intersections of Interstates 10 and 49. I didn't. I simply wandered helter-skelter as carefree and happy as the people I met. I loved every minute of my trip, but I missed a lot.
Still, I did visit Avery Island (not an island at all but a salt dome) and toured the famous McIlhenny Tabasco Sauce Factory. The 10-minute documentary movie was an eye-opener, showing such things as how a petite baton rouge (a little red stick) was used to determine when the peppers were ripe for picking.
And I had a ball exploring McIlhenny's Jungle Gardens: 200 acres embracing stands of lush bamboo, forests of trees from around the world, the world's largest collection of camellias and oceans of azaleas that bloom in the spring. There was even a Buddha surrounded by his seven hills. My favorite of all was Bird City, where some 20,000 egrets along with herons nest and raise their young.
One day I dropped in at lovely Shadows on the Teche in New Iberia, ranked among the most famous antebellum mansions in the South. Its rich Federal and Empire furnishings and delightful garden were an interesting insight into the genteel life of its original sugar cane plantation owners.
Too, I spent a luxurious night at Chretien Point Plantation near Sunset, one of the many charming bed and breakfasts in Acadiana. A picture- book antebellum mansion, it possesses a treasure trove of Civil War memories and a staircase so beautiful it was copied for Tara in the movie "Gone With the Wind."
And, yes, I made it to Mulate's at Breaux Bridge, ballyhooed as the finest Cajun restaurant in the world. I agree. Should you doubt me, order its Zydeco Salad or Crawfish Etouffee. If you want to try the lively Cajun dancing, Mulate's is the place.
On my last day in Acadiana, I rose before sunrise to take a pontoon boat trip on the Atchafalaya swamp (overflow from the river), the largest freshwater swamp in the nation. It was great.
The first rays of the sun seemed to signal the birds that it was get- up time, for they flew in great flocks over us - egrets, heron, osprey and others I couldn't identify. A couple of alligators came too close to our boat. And when the sun filtered through the stands of cypress, it created a masterpiece no artist could duplicate.
Little wonder the Acadians called this extraordinary land the Eden of Louisiana.
The Washington Times Copyright © 1998 News World Communications, Inc.