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November 17th, 2010

Plantation Life

There are many things that are plentiful in Southern Louisiana.  Cane fields, live oaks, Spanish moss, fried foods, hot sauce, glasses of ice tea, processing plants (oil and sugar), egrets, pick-up trucks, little tin-roofed houses with deep front porches, pines, cypress, churches (Catholic and Evangelical).  Plantation houses.

Once upon a time, most of the land on either side of any bayou belonged to plantations.  Some of them were the 10,000 acre behemoths with their own sugar mills and hundreds of slaves and the elegant Big House of legend and song.  Many more of them were relatively small, their houses small and neat, their fields right up close behind.  Driving down Route 182, mostly we saw the latter, set far back on their lots among the liveoaks, looking withdrawn and uncertain amid the more modern brick ranches and clapboard split-levels surrounding them.  Most of them are private homes.  Some are B&B's. We wanted to sleep further east, closer to the airport for our flight on Friday, so we opted for  La Bocage, in Darrow, Louisiana.

That was an adventure, too.

La Bocage was bought in 2008 by a wealthy doctor who apparently comes from southern Louisiana but lives in Houston, Texas.  For the past 20 years, he's been collecting New Orleans furniture, antique rugs, French porcelain, Waterford bowls, crystal chandeliers, French clocks, and Napoliana, all of which was languishing in a warehouse until he bought La Bocage. At the time, the house was suffering from rising damp, falling plaster, and mold.  Now, it's as tight and bright a restoration as any I've ever seen.  He's thought of everything--Lucullan bathrooms with steam showers, Wifi, comfy mattresses.  A 1910 Steinway that's been rigged as an electronic player piano that spews out light-popular musak every waking hour, with a huge flat-screen TV above it, framed in gold curlicues.

Our room came with a bottle of wine and a high tea of cheese and fruit and little quiches and salted nuts, after which the manager, Irina (who is from the Ukraine), took us on a tour of the house.  We saw many golden curlicues.  Also a secretary desk with scenes of Naploean's Finest Battles inlaid in pewter, brass, and ivory, small equestrian statues and busts, a Tiffany clock embedded in the gilded wheel of Athena's war chariot, a pair of blindingly bright Baccarat crystal chandeliers with little floral pendents, and some of the most, er, curious modern paintings of harlequins and immodestly clad showgirls it has ever been my fortune to see.  At intervals, Luba (who is also from the Ukraine, and much more recently than Irina, whose English was excellent) would find us with news of some domestic emergency.  The couple in the Chinese Room, who had been closeted all day arguing, were checking out early.  The clock guy was calling to confirm a morning appointment.  The bride's aunt called to be sure Irina photographed her on the red sofa in her wedding dress.  The bride and the groom arrived, exhausted, and just wanted to go to their room.  In the midst of all this, we crept upstairs to test out the steam shower (it was sublime) and do a little light reading and repack everything so we could leave early Friday morning.

I will draw a veil over the awkward communal breakfast the next morning--just us, a young man and his girlfriend who were in town for the game, and the bride and groom, who looked to be about 20.  Suffice it to say that neither Ellen nor I found Luba's accent as funny as they did, or found anything to complain about in her excellent (and very European) biscuits and omelettes.  I swannee, I was surprised at those children, I really was.

After bidding Irina and Luba a fond farewell, we set off for Laura Plantation in Vacherie.  Now, that was something like.  It's a lovely house, long, low, with a deep gallery all the way around, green walls, faux-wood-grained red doors, blue accents--a typical Creole plantation house, in fact, very different from the white-pillared stiffness of the English houses.  For four generations, Laura was run by women--officially as well as actually.  Lest you think this was altogether a good thing, the first woman who ran it, Elisabeth, was the kind of person who thought her son soft because he refused to hit the slaves hard enough and routinely ignored the clause in the Code Noir that forbade slave owners to separate a mother and her children.  Her daughter, however, seemed to have picked up her mother's strength of mind without her inhumanity, and was accounted a reasonable mistress as well as a shrewd businesswoman.  The whole history of the place, recounted by our very well-trained and professional guide, was the stuff of a sensational novel, woven through with duels and men of ungovernable temper and autocratic women and children running off to France and getting hauled back again, all in the name of family and duty and profit. 

And now, what's left is a pretty house, a stand of banana trees boasting 20 different kinds of bananas, some truly horrifying slave cabins, even expanded, as they had been, under the reign of German family who bought the plantation from the eponymous Laura in the early 20th century, a couple of brick cisterns, some rabbit hutches and hen coops, and a lot of photos and documents saved by Laura, who lived from 1850 to 1963 and wrote a memoir of her family.  Which we bought and Ellen read on the plane home, and I'm going to read, too, very soon now.

And that's it, really.  I'm glad to be home, although there's a daunting amount of stuff piled up that needs to be taken care of one way or another before the end of the month.  I've taken a lot of notes about Le Code Noir and 19th century sugar cane and who gets to define what "getting along fine" means in a former slave culture, and how the air smells near a sugar refinery.  And now I'm going more or less underground so I can get the final draft of Freedom Maze done and dusted, so it can finally, finally see the light of day.

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