My boyhood home in Carter County is 844 miles from Lafayette, La., but it probably wouldn’t matter if it had only been one mile away. There were times it seemed a world away.
I never once thought about living in Louisiana, but on March 11, 2011, I officially became a resident of “The Pelican State.” I’d been a proud member of “The Volunteer State” for 42 years, and becoming a Pelican rather than a Volunteer had never been on my radar.
I have, of course, found my way back to Tennessee now that I’m publisher of the Elizabethton STAR.
I grew up in Hampton, up on Simerly Creek Road, but in Louisiana, I sometimes felt like a fish out of water. I’ll give you some examples.
First, I grew up in the mountains. There are no mountains in southwestern Louisiana. Heck, there are no hills.
A friend in Lafayette was giving Amy and me directions to a restaurant and said, “You go over the hill and turn left.”
“Back up a minute,” I said, “what hill? I haven’t seen a hill.”
“Oh,” said the friend, clearly in need of an altitude adjustment, “I was talking about the railroad tracks.”
Uh huh. To each his own, I suppose. You say tomato, I say ’mater, you know?
In Tennessee, a streaming body of water might be called a creek. If it’s a little bigger, it’s a river. In Louisiana, it’s a bayou.
The Vermilion bayou was just yards away from my home. Looked like a river to me, but, again, I learned to accept the change. After all, we’re all different. You say potato, I say ’tater. Yes, to each his own.
Then there’s football.
In Tennessee, America’s favorite game bleeds orange, but Louisiana State University was only an hour away from Lafayette. As big as football is in Tennessee, it really doesn’t compare to Deep South football.
Babies aren’t given pacifiers in Louisiana, they’re given footballs. (Children are also given coffee in their milk, but that’s a whole other story.)
Differences in landscapes and football teams were, in the end, easy to comprehend.
One thing I didn’t expect was how a co-worker in Lafayette once referred to me as … “a yankee.”
“What?” I said. “I’m from Tennessee!”
I’ve always proudly considered myself a Southerner, but when you live in the Deep South, Northeast Tennessee might as well be New York City. It’s a world away, and Tennesseans talk funny.
Of course, I thought people who spoke in their deep Cajun-French tongue talked funny.
Lafayette is in the heart of Cajun country, where speaking French would be a plus. Neither Amy nor I can speak a syllable of French, which was painfully obvious when we tried to pronounce one of the many French-inspired street names.
I took two years of Spanish at Hampton High School back in the 1980s, but my Tennessee tongue had a hard time wrapping itself around French words. I pretty much make a mockery of it, in fact.
Here’s an example of how prevalent French is in Lafayette: Amy once walked up to an ATM and when the screen popped up to select a language, French came before English. “Sweetie,” Amy said, paraphrasing Dorothy’s famous words in The Wizard of Oz, “I don’t think we’re in Tennessee anymore.”
To each his own, I suppose. You say we, but the Cajun-French folks might say, “Oui.” Oh, yes.
Don’t get me wrong, the Cajun culture is fascinating, and I’m most impressed how the folks of southern Louisiana embrace their unique lifestyle. They are famous for hospitality and friendliness, too, and I found both in abundance in Louisiana.
One thing I was not prepared for was how much Cajuns love to eat crawfish.
The people of Louisiana put crawfish on anything and everything. At breakfast, you can have your eggs with bacon, sausage … and, yes, crayfish.
Oops, I mean crawfish. If you pronounce it crayfish, you’re immediately pegged as, well, you know, a yankee. You say crawfish, I say crayfish — at my own peril.
In all my time in Lafayette, though, I never once ate crawfish. This Tennessean was never sure he could stomach it.
As a boy in Carter County, I spent my days combing the waters of the aforementioned Simerly Creek. I scooped up salamanders. I marveled at all sorts of creek creatures that lived under rocks. I tossed many minnow traps, filled with pieces of white bread, into the water to attract and snare small fish that I then deposited into a minnow bucket.
But there was nothing quite like hunting crawfish in Simerly Creek. They came in all sizes — from as small as my pinky to three or four inches long.
I still to this day remember seeing the biggest crawfish I’d ever seen making its way underneath a rock in the creek in front of our home. I never managed to catch him. It’s one of my life’s great failures.
When Amy and I were searching for a home in Louisiana last year, I kept noticing tiny mounds of dirt in yard after yard.
Finally I said to our realtor, “What are those little cones of dirt?”
“Why,” she said, “those are crawfish mounds.”
I was immediately transported back to my childhood. I had marveled at those same mounds, deposits from a crawfish’s tunnel to and from the creek, as a kid in Tennessee.
It made my day to be taken back to Carter County, Tenn., in an instant. Home is always close at hand, it seems. Memories and good times span time and space and even language barriers.
And as they say, in French, of course, in Lafayette, “Laissez les bons temps rouler.”
That is, apparently, “Let the good times roll.”
Or it might be, “Would you like crawfish with that?” I’m not really sure.
-Mark Stevens, Publisher The Elizabethton Star