Part VIII of the Serial “The World is my Home”
Tell me what you eat and I tell you who you are or where you come from. Americans are very conscious of their roots and besides fast food also have their traditional ways and dishes just as Cypriots wouldn’t be happy without their mezes, olives and yoghurt and their especially spiced dishes.
American Tunes – From Georgia to Louisiana – alligators, armadillos and Jazz
By Heidi Trautmann
Brunswick, the next little town on the coast down south. It is an active shrimp town with its harbour up one of the many rivers and bays. You can smell the shrimp only by passing the shrimp vessels. It was early in the year and nothing much was happening here, but oh yes, there was an art gallery with nothing but shrimp boat paintings.
The main attraction for people to come here is the nearby Jeckyll Island, which was once bought by a handful of millionaires to have their summer houses in exclusive neighbourhood to one another, the famous Jeckyll Island Club, with people like Rockefeller and Astor and the like. Beautiful architecture in a park-like landscape but still a ghetto, a ghetto of the rich.
We had left the Atlantic coast and were on our way to Tallahassee, the capital city of Florida. The area between Brunswick and Waycross, still in Georgia, is rather poor, flat land with simple houses. We hardly ever travelled on interstates but only on two lane roads which on the maps were marked with green dots as scenery roads. Travelling was slower but we had less truck traffic. The trucks in America are beautiful to look at, polished to high gloss but they travel at top speed and right up to your bumper. It is an awful feeling to have these heavy trucks right in your neck so you try to stay away from them.
Oh yes, Waycross, that is where we got off the main road to go and see the alligators in the Okefenokee Swamps, a huge national park but the swamps were rather dry and we actually met with just one or two alligators. The guide threw some marsh mellows in their direction to get them out of the few water holes for the tourists to see. In the old days settlers had their settlements here to catch animals for their skin, like beavers, bears and alligators. We have seen some black bears but only in captivity, there is still quite a number of wild ones left in the area, we are told.
In Valdosta, a small place with perhaps three downtown streets, we had coffee in real porcelain cups in a café sustained by the Catholic church, the building a very modern architecture with beautiful paintings on the wall. An amazing place, I had not seen a similar café in the whole part of America we have come through so far.
Getting closer to Florida, the landscape along the streets showed more care being taken on the land around the houses, along the roads, signs of wealth. Florida is a rich state and Tallahassee a swinging town, except on Sundays, when everything is closed and dead, except for church activities.
It was the 1st of April, fools' day, and we were on our way to Apalachicola on the Golf coast. I like all these names, they are poetic, Indian. Apalachicola is a small town with a river flowing up country and on this riverfront some old houses have been renovated into extremely expensive hotels. I went into one of them, really nice, and I only missed the lady of the house wearing a crinoline in this old fashioned surrounding.
This coast is supposed to be the “lonely coast where you meet more dead armadillos than tourists” which is an absolute lie. Further along the coast non-distinctive little villages or holiday places like Mexican Beach where we found a small pink motel for $ 65,- but next door was one of those oyster shops my husband had been looking for all day already, and he got it and we left the baggage undone and sat down to two dozens of giant oysters with some drops of a very fine sauce, just a touch of spicy. Delicious!
At our next stop, Panama City, which just looks like it sounds, a modern sort of Lido di Jesolo, we stayed five days at an old motel directly on the beach to wait for our family to come from Louisiana and spend the Easter holidays with us at one of the National Beach Parks along the Gulf coast. Walking on those white sandy beaches with the April wind blowing hard was wonderful and
on Easter Sunday we went to a jazz eating place where I had my first gumbo this time. The place was packed full and simply everybody moved and danced to the music, on their chairs, between the tables. I got dizzy.
From here to Lafayette in Louisiana, an eight hours drive all on the Interstate 10 passing through the States of Alabama and Mississippi. I-10 is the fourth-longest southern-most Interstate Highway in the United States. It stretches from the Pacific Ocean in California to the Atlantic in Florida.
The following two weeks were a deep involvement with the Louisianan way of life. A good part of it we spent at various baseball fields to see our grandchildren play. Whole family clans come and shout for their offspring, no, they shriek, they jump and swear, sometimes with broken voices at the end of a play, and during the breaks while the kids are getting advices from their devoted trainers, all voluntaries, the families get loads to eat from the snack bar, all in foam boxes.
We went to a charity breakfast at one of the old private Louisianan houses with another bayou at the end of the park-like garden full of old oaks and lovely niches with flower beds, fountains and pavilions. In one of the pavilions a group of women played and sang old Louisianian songs, children hopped along bare feet dressed like little nymphs with flower wreaths in their locks, poets were reading their poems, even in haiku, where the rhyme has to be five – seven – five. The tea we got served in old precious cups and the voluntary ladies selling their homemade cakes and cookies for a good cause were most charming.
The architecture in Louisiana is quite pleasing, steep hip roofs, columns, porches, patios, old tiles, -they get them from all over the States - French windows to push up to open, the infrastructure all in wood, no cellars. The very old houses are built on rows of bricks to ventilate the air. The kitchens are usually very big and comfortable, most families eat at the kitchen counter and not at the table; a dining room is only used for big occasions and family gatherings. The bathrooms are a dream, big and spacious with enormous windows. Decoration is very important, and also space. Every family member has an own walk-in-wardrobe, all in it perfectly arranged, one lady had her shoes organized all in boxes up to the ceiling with pictures glued to the front so she could choose them without opening the box. But the best and most illustrative new house at the bank of a beautiful river, with nine bedrooms and nine bathrooms, enormous, a huge swimming pool with fake rocks (there are no natural rocks in this area) and palm trees, a landing place for the boat, all that for two people only. They have become wealthy through oil, but in the same living area are other enormous houses for famous sports stars.
Knowing that we like to try local food and that we like all kind of seafood, the big family clan made it really big. They like it big and they do it big. Enormous pots with hundreds of crawfish boiling in a very spicy fluid, eaten with potatoes, hot sausage, corn cobs and even eggs. Everybody had a big tray where the goodies were ladled onto. We could, however, not catch up with the speed the many family members ate but we did our best. With it went beer out of the bottle, ice cold.
Art came not too short with all the good food. There are two big museums in Lafayette, the one showed a migrating exhibition “Women of the World” with pictures by female artists from many countries around the world. In other halls were photography exhibitions on musicians and old dance halls, with Louisiana being the cradle of blues, zydeco and cajun music. A very interesting exhibition in a totally black room showing Bruce Odell's pottery in different firing techniques. He is known for his three U.S. Pottery Olympics Championship and in 1992 World Championship in Italy and for his extraordinary design.
The other exhibition we went to was a university project on fashion, a play with the theme “cover and uncover the body”, the philosophy behind it, a leafing through the history of fashion with all its absurdities. In Lafayette I found some fine craftsmen in metal and in glass art (Whoojoo Stained Glass Gallery) which finds a lot of recognition and use in the local architecture. In downtown Lafayette, on every Saturday of a month, people are invited to come for an art walk through the galleries and studios which finds its acme in the “Festival International de Louisiane” at the end of April. The largest outdoor, Francophone event in the U.S., with special emphasis on highlighting the connections between Acadiana and the Francophone world. Each year performing, visual and culinary artists from Europe, Africa, Canada, the Caribbean and the Americas are invited to share their talents with Louisiana artists, residents and visitors.
Louisianans of all national backgrounds live with and for music. They love singing and dancing. People in Louisiana grow up with music, they often talk to each other singing, just about banal everyday things, like “have you seen my hair brush” and they move their body to the tune, and their voices are good, even the shy boys do it and enjoy it. And they dance the local dances, Zydeco, Cajun, and Twostep, you should see them, these fanatics, there is rhythm, and they meet in dance halls just for the sake of dancing, and there are old and young ones, the old ones with wrinkles in their face but fire in their legs. I have never in my life seen anything like that, this love for dance and music. And this is what this festival is about, living, dancing, feeling at home. A vibrating mass of people of all ages living up to: “Laissez les bons temps rouler!”
The next morning, our son took us to the Greyhound station for the first bus to leave for New Orleans with connection to the train to Chicago, the last leg of our American trip where we would catch our plane back to Istanbul and Cyprus. We knew when we would mount the train, the family back in Lafayette would get ready for the next festival day. It was my birthday.
We had a sort of birthday dinner on the train while we rattled through the middle of America, there, where I found these wide endless cultivated fields. The vast fields I have heard and read about. In the very comfortable seats we had a good night and woke up approaching Chicago. What did we know about Chicago? Crime, Mafia, Sinatra, music, “Take the A train”, Lake Michigan.
We have done Chicago on the subway, on boats through the channels, we have mounted the skyscrapers they are so very proud of, we have walked the boulevards where we have left some millimetres of our shoe soles and some volume of our hearts. And we have spent the last evening in the very centre of it, the Magnificent Mile, where you encounter the exquisitely dressed people of Chicago, going to the theatre or the opening of one of the many exhibitions, or young people planning an exciting evening just being happy; and there is this sky so clear and full of reflections, and when we went back to our hotel on the subway – Take the A train – Dave Brubeck – this melody I have always on my mind.