kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

kayaking on Loch Leven near Glencoe, Scotland, 2018

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ten Things I've Learned Since Moving to Louisiana

I read this article a couple years ago on Huffington Post; Eight Things I Learned in the South. And it occurred to me; well, yeah, I've learned a few things since moving to the South, too, right! The Huffington piece prompted me to write my own post, Eight Things I've Learned Since Moving to Louisiana. (read that post here).  It's been one of my most read posts to date. 

In the past two years, I've learned a few more things, so I decided to expand on my original list. Here’s my list of TEN things I've learned since moving to southwest Louisiana. 

Mardi Gras – Yes, Mardi Gras season will soon be upon us. Lake Charles will be awash in green, gold, and purple. One of the biggest cultural revelations upon moving to Louisiana for me was that Mardi Gras is not a DAY (Fat Tuesday). It’s a SEASON of balls, parades, and a myriad of other festivities which begins each year on Epiphany and culminates on the Tuesday before Lent begins, called Fat Tuesday or Shrove Tuesday. I've posted many pieces here about Mardi Gras, because, especially at first, I was fascinated by it. Your can read  them herehere, and here.

Friendships take time to nurture. I think this is true most anywhere. But I didn't learn it until I moved to Louisiana. We came south over eight years ago. I now have many dear friends here. But it took a long time, years, to develop these relationships. If you are new to the area, or new anywhere, hang in there. I know it's hard to make friends initially. Be active in the community. Join clubs or service groups you have an interest in. Volunteer. Introduce yourself and talk with your neighbors. Find a place to worship with like-minded people. Don't get discouraged. You'll make friends.

Kayaking – In Pennsylvania, kayaking is a daring, adventurous, often dangerous sport. It is almost always associated with river rapids. I’m adventurous, but I’m also chicken, and I would never consider kayaking on white water. Here in Louisiana, there is A LOT of water. And it's all quiet and slow moving. We have tranquil lakes, peaceful bayous, and rivers that move with the tides – a perfect place for me to kayak! This is me on Indian Bayou. It was January, hence all the winter garb.

It’s not always warm here in the winter. While it’s often possible to wear shorts and a t-shirt on Christmas Day, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, that pesky jet stream dips all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Sometimes it’s in the high 20s at night and only in the 40s during the day. After living in Louisiana for several years, one becomes accustomed to being warm, and 40 degrees is COLD! But the truth is, the cold rarely lasts for more than a day or two. Then it’s back to balmy. And I always say, I’d rather be hot in the summer than cold in the winter.

People around here will eat just about anything. I guess it’s the French influence, but nothing goes to waste here. They eat the craziest things. “Cracklins" are a very popular snack. It’s fried pig flesh, people! I've tried it a few times, but I'm not a fan. Though I do eat boudin, a type of sausage made with "parts" and a spicy rice mixture. We make jokes about roadkill gumbo (possums, armadillos, and raccoons are the most common), and speaking of roadkill, I know people who have accidentally hit a deer with their big truck, turned around, picked it up and tossed it into the truck bed, took it home, and processed the meat.

If it exists, there’s a festival somewhere for it. Every kind of music (Cajun, zydeco, jazz, swamp pop are popular), every type of food imaginable, and any Louisiana animal you can think of, and there’s a festival for it in some town somewhere. I've written more posts about festivals that I could list. But here's one from the very first festival we went to after moving here -- the DeRidder Watermelon Festival. 

I thought there would be more snakes, but I never dreamed there would be THIS many mosquitoes. I occasionally see a snake in my yard, as there is a large empty field just beyond our fence line. I've never seen one out in my kayak. I have seen a few when hiking through the woods. And dead ones on the road. But I thought I’d see more. On the other hand, no one could have prepared me for the nuisance of mosquitoes. All the horror stories in the world could not have convinced me of the extent of this pestilence. The degree of annoyance varies – it’s worse after a lot of rain. It’s less so after the mosquito fumigator truck goes through the neighborhood. Sometimes, they are so thick in the air, you simply can’t be outdoors without getting "eaten alive".

Boots are a thing here, apparently. And I have yet to figure it out. But people, especially women, LOVE boots. I have not worn a pair of boots since I moved to Louisiana. To me, a native northerner, people wear boots because their feet are cold. Who gets cold feet in Lake Charles!? And yet, folks get excited in autumn at the first hint of cooler weather so they can bring out the boots. I don't own any boots. But, I'm thinking about it.

The humidity takes some getting used to. We moved here in June 2007, and I was unprepared for the heat and humidity. But mostly the humidity. The air gets so heavy, it feels like you are breathing water. But I acclimated to it. (I grew gills.)

A unique balance of industry and the arts. The first time Bob brought the boys and me to Lake Charles, we drove in from the airport in Houston. We saw the signs that indicated we had arrived in Lake Charles, and the very first thing we saw from our view on I-10 was industry. Plant after plant after plant. And that was our first impression (post here). My heart sank. What kind of town was he moving us to? But while, yes, the town thrives and bustles because of the booming industries, I gratefully learned that Lake Charles also offers fine dining, entertainment, and a marvelous thriving arts community. Theater, ballet, symphony and other musical events, visual arts, museums, parks . . . it’s all here. And we have a great time!This was an art event a few years ago, held downtown on Ryan St.

So, though I had no idea what to expect or what life would be like in southwest Louisiana when we first moved here, I've learned that Lake Charles is a terrific place to live! For even more information on this great corner of the Bayou State, check out the Southwest Louisiana Convention and Visitors Bureau website.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Grant Christmas Tree Farm

Under the category of "Things I've Wanted to do Since We Moved to Louisiana," Grant Christmas Tree Farm has been near the top of my list for many years. Alas, this adventure proved tricky to accomplish. Visiting this popular holiday destination is only an option for the three Saturdays following Thanksgiving. Until today, we either had other plans. Or the weather was lousy. And besides, we had an artificial Christmas tree and had no use for a real one. But last year, our trusty fake tree basically disintegrated.

So today was the day! The Farm opens at 8:00 a.m. -- we aimed to arrive then. We got up bright and early, drove the hour and twelve minutes, and were shocked upon arrival to see a hundred cars already  in the lot at 8:15. Like I said, it's a popular place this time of year. You should have seen the parking mess when we left three hours later!

We headed straightaway to the tree fields. Our first decision was to choose a variety of pine. The Farm grows several.

Once we determined which variety, we searched for "the perfect tree." We were limited by the height of the tree -- no more than six feet -- so it would fit in the back of our vehicle (which is new and waiting to have a roof rack installed.) We don't know the name of this tree variety, but we liked it. What do you think?

Then we strolled the grounds of the festival. There's a lot to see and do. Hayrides, arts and crafts vendors, Santa and other activities for children. Roasted peanuts, fresh-boiled cracklins . . .

this huge swing . . .

animals waiting to be fed . . .

"Hey, got any food?"

new pups and an old dog who loved to have his belly rubbed.

This donkey walks countless circles, demonstrating the frontier way of grinding sugar cane to extract juice to make cane syrup.

There's live music, a gift shop, but the highlight of the festival, besides the trees, seems to be sausage biscuits. Sausage biscuits plain. With cane syrup. With white gravy. Or both. We waited in this line 40 minutes for  . . . sausage biscuits.

I was somewhat baffled. But I gather it is a tradition. Part of the experience. So, we waited.

Apparently bees are fond of cane syrup, too.

We ran into one of the boys' former middle school teachers who told us she and her family have been going to Grant Christmas Tree Farm every year for the past fourteen years. I'm certain we won't go every year -- we'll likely get another artificial tree next year -- but I suspect we'll be back someday. We enjoyed the holiday family time, and I can check this adventure off my endless list.

Trees in the processing area, waiting to be taken home.

What is your favorite family holiday tradition?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Walk-On's Bistreaux and Bar

Tia Juanita's Fish Camp, Blue Dog Cafe, Restaurant 1910 . . . if I tried to write a post on every new dining establishment that has popped up in southwest Louisiana lately, my travel/adventure/miscellaneous blog would turn into a full-time restaurant review.

But every once in awhile, I feel compelled to share my "adventure" at a new restaurant in the area. Like today, for example.

Walk-On's Bistreaux and Bar opened up on Common St., Lake Charles this past weekend. It's a great new addition to the lake area restaurant scene!

The staff -- greeters, bar tenders, and the servers (aka America's Cheerleaders) -- are energetic, enthusiastic, and friendly.

While this family-oriented establishment is obviously a sports bar, the main attraction at Walk-On's is the menu. It's a surprisingly fascinating read! You might expect typical bar fare at a sports bar. But not at Walk-On's. There's plenty of Louisiana favorites; poboys, crawfish, fried alligator, boudin, gumbo, shrimp, catfish . . . as well as burgers, creative salads, wraps, and more.

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On our first (and certainly not last) visit, I had a Pepper Jelly Spinach Salad and Bob had an Ahi Tuna Wrap. Both were excellent. For dessert? Krispy Kreme Bread Pudding!  Oh, and did I mention there are 50 beers on tap?

Because this cool new place is within walking distance from our home, Bob says it's our new neighborhood bar. We'll be back.

What's your favorite sports bar or neighborhood pub?
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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Irving Berlin -- Learning About a Legend

Many people might define success as being remembered long after leaving this world; in effect, becoming a legend. Over the course of his 60-year career, iconic songwriter Irving Berlin wrote an estimated 1,500 songs, including the scores for 19 Broadway shows and 18 Hollywood films. He's clearly a beloved author in the Great American Songbook.

Berlin in 1941

I love learning new things. The SAGE Series, part of McNeese State University's non-credit Leisure Learning Program, schedules informal classes on a myriad of fascinating topics. Obviously I had heard of Irving Berlin, but I didn't know much about his life until I recently attended one of these classes.

Performed at the University's Tritico Theatre, two theater majors narrated the show, imparting interesting tidbits of his life, while five voice majors sang a selection of some of his most well-known songs.

Israel Isidore Baline was born on May 11, 1888 to Russian Jewish parents who escaped the pogroms and immigrated to the United States when Israel was still a young boy. (He later changed his name to Irving Berlin.) As a kid, he sold newspapers on a street corner and discovered he could sell more papers and earn tips if he also sang songs. He soon realized he had a knack for song writing.

His first hit was Alexander's Ragtime Band.

(Youtube is great but I dislike the ads, especially when you can't stop them early!)

Berlin was a versatile song writer. He wrote love songs. For example, he wrote his first ballad, "When I Lost You," after his first wife died of typhoid fever soon after their honeymoon. He wrote "Always" for his second wife, Ellin Mackay, after her wealthy father disowned her because she eloped with Berlin. Berlin gave the song rights to her so she would "always" be taken care of.

Berlin loved theater and wrote scores for musicals. His most famous was Annie Get Your Gun, starring Ethel Merman.

He wrote holiday songs that continue to be favorites to this day. What is the Christmas season without Bing Crosby singing "White Christmas."

He was a soldier in World War I and wrote several marches, military, and patriotic songs. I did not realize Irving Berlin wrote "God Bless America."

It was a pleasure to learn about this legendary American songwriter's life.

What is your favorite Irving Berlin song or musical?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Visiting Final Vestiges of Autumn

Bob and I went to our home state of Pennsylvania last week. The purpose of the trip was to visit my family once more this year before winter digs in with her cruel icy talons. I also wanted to see some fall foliage.

Funny, we humans, how we tend to take things for granted when they routinely recur. We expect these things, and even enjoy the beauty. But we rarely fully appreciate what we already have. Until we no longer have it. Such is true for me and the fall leaves.

Ohiopyle State Park -- One of my favorite places!

Living in Louisiana, I miss the vibrant hues of autumn; crimson, copper, sienna, golden ocher. Fall in the northeast is as exciting as a brand new box of crayons! We were too late for the peak of fall foliage, but caught the tail end. That was enough for me.

Now that I no longer regularly witness nature's annual costume change, when I do visit Pennsylvania in the fall, I see the landscape with fresh grateful eyes. Even as the the leaves drop to the ground and the colors begin to fade, the trees remain beautiful, to me.

Where did you see pretty leaves this fall?

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Rouge et Blanc 2015

I attended Rouge et Blanc for the first time last year. It's a terrific fun event, though despite the fact they welcome 1750 patrons each year, it is nonetheless very difficult to obtain tickets. They sell out in a day or less. You can read about my experience at last year's event here.

I attended Rouge et Blanc again this year, but I experienced it from the other side of a wine vendor table. Bob and I volunteered as wine pourers.

Bob manned the Gallo tent. I stood two tents away and poured vino from Oak Ridge Winery. "We have a slightly sweet chardonnay, a pinot noir, a red blend, and two Zinfandels -- the difference is the age of the vines. This one is from old vines age 50-80 years old and this one is from ancient vines, 100-120 years old." I had my spiel down after the first couple patrons and said it who knows how many hundreds of times yesterday. "This wine is from Lodi, California."

The wines I served seemed to be a hit with the patrons. Oak Ridge reds are full-bodied and robust. Certainly on the dry side. But the chardonnay is sweeter than the average dry white wine. Several patrons came back for seconds and thirds. It is interesting to observe the change in their sobriety levels as the event progresses.

Four hours flies by quickly when you're pouring wine for a steady stream of oenophiles. And it's lots of fun when a friend or acquaintance stops by to visit and sample the wine. Bob and I enjoy volunteering because it's a great way to participate and help out a worthy cause. Rouge et Blanc is a fundraiser for the Banners Series, something Bob and I have enjoyed for many years. You can read a post I wrote years ago on Banners here.

After the event, the organizers host an after-party for volunteers, with special food and all the leftover wine.

If you want to attend Rouge et Blanc next year, verify the date tickets go on sale, mark your calendar, and call early. Or sign up to be a volunteer!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Heritage, Roots, and Cultural Identification

Last weekend I volunteered at the Great Acadian Awakening, or, if you’re French, Le Grand Réveil Acadien. It’s a “grand” celebration of the Acadian people and their culture, history, language, and music. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the Acadians arrival in Louisiana ten years after being expelled from the Canadian Maritime Provinces by the British in 1755. Lake Charles opened the festivities, and events continue in towns throughout southern Louisiana until Oct. 12. (For more information on this event, go to their website.)
As always, Lake Charles showed up. Attendance was good. People also came to the event from as far away as Canada. The enthusiasm and dedication of the Cajun people for their culture got me thinking a lot about ancestry and heritage, and how people identify with groups, either by birth or association.

Here in Lake Charles, the Cajun French culture permeates every facet of life, the threads intricately woven into the tapestry of our day to day experience. You learn an inkling of the French language by sheer osmosis. Several public schools have French Immersion programs where they speak only French in every subject. The restaurant menus (aside from the chains, which we try to avoid) are flavored with Cajun influence. You hear Cajun music played at the many festivals and on radio stations. Mardi Gras is a state-wide holiday. You can easily recognize the accent of a true Cajun – it’s thick, heavy, and sounds like it is muffled through a cotton filter. I enjoy listening to it because it tells the story of a people who have fought fiercely to preserve their culture and heritage. I admire and respect that.

This was one of those many things I was unprepared for when we moved here eight years ago. I’m embarrassed to admit, I knew nothing of the Cajun people or their history and culture prior to coming to Louisiana. In Pittsburgh, there are many ethnic groups and they each maintain their heritages in their own ways. But no one culture is pervasive, as the Cajun culture is here. There are pockets of neighborhoods that heavily lean to particular ethnic groups. But they tend to become diluted in the mass of a large city population.

My own genetic heritage is German, from both parents. But my ancestors came to America many generations ago. I regret not asking my grandparents more about their past and their parents and grandparents stories. I don’t think of myself as “German.” Although I would love to visit Germany one day to experience my roots. And I have often considered delving into genealogy. But I’ve heard it can become an obsession and I don’t have time for the distraction. Maybe later. But culturally, I just think of myself as an American. When I see the joy that comes from being a part of a cultural group with a shared heritage, as I witnessed this past weekend, I feel like I’m missing out on something.

A great thing about the Cajuns and their culture: they seem to welcome everyone and gladly bring them along. I had a delightful conversation yesterday with Mrs. Patricia Bulber, a dear lady well-known in Lake Charles music and McNeese University circles. Somehow the conversation turned to 'where I am from.’ (Apparently, people here think I have an accent. Imagine that! And I’m often asked, “Where you from?”)

I’m not sure of Mrs. Bulber’s heritage; I only know she is originally from New Orleans and came to Lake Charles in the 1950s to teach music at McNeese. She married her boss, Dr. Francis G. Bulber, but that’s another story.

Anyway, when I told her I’m from Pennsylvania and have lived in Lake Charles for eight years, she said, “Ah, you’re a Cajun now. You like gumbo, right?”

Indeed, I do.

What ethnic or cultural group do you identify with?

Friday, September 25, 2015

Acadian Coffee Roasters

I had the pleasure of meeting Nancy Holmes and Nancy Kirby recently. These two business partners opened their organic coffee roasting company last January in a small unassuming brick building on Hodges St. Lake Charles.

They invited me to come sample their coffees and gave me a tour of their facility. This lovely cat greeted me at the door. They say she came with the place.

I enjoyed sampling their fresh roasted coffees . . .

but I also learned a LOT of interesting things about coffee that I didn't know. For example, coffee plants can be grown in sub-tropically regions like Lake Charles, but the finest coffees grow along the earth’s equator, plus or minus 1000 miles. The higher the elevation, the higher quality the coffee. Which explains why coffee beans grown in Lake Charles would not be good. Acadian Coffee beans are imported primarily from Central and South America. They are looking into beans from Africa.

Map of the origins of Acadian Coffee. Love the push pins!

Sacks of single origin beans.

I didn't realize that medium or mild roast coffees have more actual coffee flavor than a dark roast. With a dark roast, you taste more of the "roast" and less of the coffee. Also, the darker the roast, the LESS caffeine it has. The longer a bean is in the roaster, the more caffeine is roasted out. Raw coffee beans can keep and retain "freshness" for up to eight years. Once a bean has been roasted, it loses freshness rather quickly. Their pretty red roaster can roast up to 40 pounds of beans an hour. Acadian Coffee is considered an artisan or micro-roaster because they roast less than 100,000 pounds a year.

Coffee trees grow a fruit similar to a cherry. Each “cherry” has two coffee beans inside. Each tree only produces about a pound and a half of coffee per harvest and there are usually two harvests per year. 

For more information on Acadian Coffee Roasters, watch for my story in the upcoming November issue of Thrive magazine. In the meantime, visit these sweet ladies at the Cash and Carry Farmers' Market, Tuesdays 4:00-6:00 p.m. or see their website, www.acadiancoffee.com. Their coffees can also be found in Lake Charles at select Market Basket grocery stores, Pronia's Deli, Paper Smith on Ernest St., the newly opened restaurant 1910, and the much anticipated City Market on Michael DeBakey Dr.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Random Thoughts and Pics from the French Quarter

Bob and I visited New Orleans last weekend. Except for a trip to a nearby rum distillery (more on that below) we stayed in the French Quarter. We hadn't been there in several years. I love to stroll those old narrow brick streets. I love the colors, the non-stop music, the crazy people. Of course, being an introvert, the crowds get to me after awhile. But until I get to that point, it's a blast. Below are some random moments that stopped us to pause, look, listen, taste, or wonder. Basically, like any place of interest, it's people, music, food, architecture . . .

When in the Quarter, I gravitate to Royal St. I love the art galleries, antique shops, vintage clothing, street performers on every corner. One evening out on Royal St., we came upon this shop window. I was completely mesmerized. I wish I'd made a note of the name so I could put a link to their website.

Several street musicians captured our attention. This lady sang, played the clarinet, and was truly amazing. Her back-up tuba player/drummer was pretty good, too.

We also enjoyed these guys, the Second Hand Street Band.

I guess part of the show is getting ready to perform.

Here's a different kind of performer. "Poet for Hire." For a tip and a topic suggestion, he'll write you a poem on his old manual typewriter. I asked him to write a poem about nature, and he typed a lovely piece about the jungle, insects, Tarzan, and Jane. It was very good, for being on the spot and all.

Naturally, we ate a lot of good food. Po'boys on Bourbon St.

I can't even remember what this dish was (the Quarter can do that to you) but we were at Mr. B's Bistro and it was REALLY GOOD.

We also had some excellent gumbo and muffaletta at  Le Bayou. I must have been too hungry to take photos there.

Saturday morning, we stopped at New Orleans Famous Beignets and Coffee. It's a block from Cafe Du Monde. We didn't want to wait in line.

I love the history and architecture of this town -- the wrought iron balconies, the European flair, hidden courtyards, and haunted hotels.

We met this gentleman, Patrick van Hoorebeek. He owns Patrick's Bar Vin, an upscale wine bar adjacent to the fabulous Hotel Mazarin, where we lodged. Patrick is from Belgium, has led a fascinating life, and is quite the storyteller!

There's an endless list of things you can see and do in New Orleans . . . the zoo, the aquarium, museums . . .  Bob and I were looking for something a little different. We toured the Olde New Orleans Rum Distillery. It's located just a short drive out of the Quarter in this unassuming warehouse district.

They gave us an excellent tour and, of course, samples. 

Their Gingeroo is really unique and delicious, if you like ginger, which I do.

I can't begin to record in one blog post everything we experienced in two short days of visiting the French Quarter. We sure had a great time!

What's your favorite thing to do/see/eat/hear when visiting New Orleans?