Elizabeth's tips for visitors to Acadiana

With Mardi Gras and festival season coming up, I thought maybe I'd once
again throw out a few miscellaneous observations I've picked up since I
moved from Berkeley to Opelousas a year ago. Just some random cultural
tidbits that might be useful for first-time travelers to Acadiana. Take
them with a grain of salt, they're just my own personal impressions.
But this is the kind of stuff I wish I'd known on my first trip here.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the vast majority of
people who live here (I'd estimate 99.8%) are extraordinairly,
astoundingly, almost unnervingly friendly. They'll be very glad to see
you, wherever you're from, and naturally curious about you. Don't be
offended if they ask a lot of questions, and don't be shy. They're not
in a hurry, and they'll be tickled to death if you take the time to ask
a lot back.

People here really don't care how you dance or what you wear: they
aren't going to judge you for being different, or condemn you for doing
it "wrong." Contrary to rumor, they're not easily scandalized, and
won't ostracize you for, say, wearing skimpy little tops or dancing
dirty Zydeco to a geriatric Cajun band, not as long as you're friendly
about it. They do it themselves when they think nobody's looking.

The locals can always tell that you're a tourist, no matter how you
dance or act or talk or dress. You could live here ten years, speak
perfect Cajun English and French, win the squirrel gumbo cook-off five
times in a row, and know how to make the best blood boudin from scratch
out of a hog you raised and shot yourself, but they'd still know with
deep certainty that you're "not from around here." (Just last week
somebody asked me if I was from Belgium. Belgium??? Everything I had on
came from the Opelousas Wal-Mart!) But don't worry, they won't hold it
against you. If anything, it just makes you more interesting to them.

Don't be alarmed if total strangers approach you at a club or on the
street and invite you to their house for dinner. They're probably not
Charles Manson, and nine times out of ten not even trying to pick you
up. It's just considered the polite, normal, civilized thing to do for
a newcomer. And don't be embarrassed if total strangers you've just met
offer to go way out of their way to help you out: they may offer to
drive you to the airport or put you up at their house next time you're
in town. Understand that it gives them a great deal of pleasure to do
these things, and all they expect in return is your fascinating

Take a little trouble to learn how to pronounce the local names. One
good way to do this is listening to the local radio; another is to hang
out in the Wal-Mart and listen when they read out over the PA whose
prescriptions are ready. Don't assume, if you speak French from France,
that you can figure it out. It never hurts to ask. A few examples:
Hollier is OH-yay
Doucet is usually DOO-set, but occasionally doo-SAY
Hebert is AY-bear
Richard is REE-shard
Benoit is BEN-wah
Rideaux and Rideau are REE-doe
Guidry is GID-ree (with a hard g and a short i)
Chavis is SHAY-vis
Comeaux is COE-moe (the guy who installed my air conditioning is
actually named Perry Comeaux!)
Dupre is DOO-pray (and "Ti-Dup" is "TEE-doop")
Ardoin is ARE-dwanh (nasally French on the second syllable)
Vidrine is VIDD-reen etc.
(If you don't have a local name, they'll probably have trouble with it.
I'm the only "Churchill" in the Acadiana phone book, and I constantly
have to repeat it and spell it out like it was Sanskrit or something.)
The local nicknames are too wonderful for words. I recently found
myself in a room with a group of men named: Lala, Lalay, Frenchie,
Foot, Ramp, Twin, Ray-Ray, and Ti-Toe.

Understand that Acadiana is, in some ways, not really part of the
South. South Carolina and Virginia are as foreign as Montana and North
Dakota. (For that matter, so are Shreveport and Alexandria.) The local
accent isn't any kind of southern accent you'll hear any place else (I
grew up in Atlanta, but I couldn't understand a word anybody said the
first three months I was here). And don't make the mistake of believing
that the women here are delicate little hot-house southern-belle
blushing magnolias. I've never met such admirably strong-minded,
strong-willed, able-bodied, fiercely independent women anywhere. They
aren't shy about asking men (or other women) to dance, and they aren't
shy about saying no. They aren't really shy, period.

On the other hand, there is a certain amount of chivalrous dance
etiquette you ought to be aware of. For instance, this is couples
country, and single dancers are the exception. It's rare for members of
a couple to abandon one another. They'll usually only dance with
someone else if their partner also has a dance, so it's common for
couples to ask other couples, kind of a wife-swapping deal where
nobody's left stranded. A married man will almost never ask a woman he
doesn't know to dance. Once she's befriended the couple, however, he'll
feel it's his responsibility to ask her fairly often, especially if
nobody else does. I've noticed that if I'm sitting with even a casual
male friend, other men will tend to ask his permission before they ask
me to dance.

When people accidentally bump into other dancers on the dance floor,
they don't usually apologize. It seems to be considered vulgar to imply
that someone was in the wrong, that there are culprits vs. victims.
Instead of assigning blame, everybody good-naturedly turns it into a
serendipitous little social affair. Big smiles, waves, cries of "Hey,
how y'all doin!" etc., like they've just unexpectedly run into their
long-lost favorite cousins. I don't think I've ever seen people here
express even the mildest irritation at children running zig-zag
underfoot or beginners bumbling the wrong way around the dance floor.
The slack they'll cut is practically endless.

There is still a lot of racial tension, de facto segregation, and
two-way discrimination here, although racial relations may tend to
appear delightfully friendly on the surface. This is not David Duke
country, but there are still all kinds of unspoken "rules" that are
next to impossible for outsiders to grasp, and people really don't
expect you to understand. I can count on one hand the number of times
I've encountered overt racial hostility, and every day I see
encouraging signs of interacial friendships and harmony. But I can also
count on that same hand the number of times I've been to a dance (or a
restraurant) where the racial ratio was better than 8 to 2 in either
direction. The only advice I can give is tread carefully and try to be
aware when something you've said or done has made someone

If you dance with the same person three times in a row, people will
assume you're engaged.

Expect to experience some culture shock. Everywhere you turn there
will be pink plastic bowls filled with pale translucent iceberg
lettuce, drive-through daiquiri stands serving tall drinks with names
like "Nine-One-One" to go, and lard that's been reused to deep-fry
everything since the Carter administration. (If you're committed to a
low-fat organic vegetarian lifestyle, you'll probably die before the
third day.)

You might be thrown a little off balance by your encounters with the
local flora & fauna: you'll see teepees housing giant gamecocks with
magnificently showy multicolored tails, bred to kill each other;
enormous azaleas that eat buildings and clash so bad they nearly blind
you; roaches the size of Buicks that scuttle noisily through your motel
room at 3 a.m.

Be prepared to see anti-abortion bumper stickers on every other car
(the state has even issued official "Choose Life" license plates,
though the ACLU is contesting them). You should probably be aware that
it's legal and quite acceptable to smoke cigarettes on the dance floor,
ride motorcycles without helmets, dump pesticides in the bayou, play
video poker until you lose your house, and burn sugar cane fields till
the smoke is so thick passing motorists can't see for two inches; but
oral sex between consenting adults--even legally married ones--is a
felony in Louisiana that could get you five years with hard labor.

And finally, nothing I say can prepare you for what's going to happen
to your hair when you step off that plane into the 110% humidity. I use
enough anti-frizz products to caulk a bathtub every day, and I still
look like the love-child of Phyllis Diller and Ronald McDonald. Your
best bet is to develop a quirky sense of humor and avoid mirrors.

I've only lived here a year and I still have a lot to learn. But even
so, let me be the first to welcome anybody who's planning a trip to
Acadiana. I hope y'all have a real good time, and be sure to look me up
if you have a chance. We'd be right happy to have you out to the house
for supper.

Reprinted with kind permission from the author.