Lafayette, Louisiana looks like an indistinct American city. Driving up from the east, the swampy lowlands of the Atchafalaya Basin give way to suburban ranch-style homes, historic Victorian two-stories, and, finally, a downtown shaped by boxy mid-century buildings and an imposing Romanesque cathedral. It’s pleasant, if a bit plain.
I was on the tail end of a road trip around the Deep South, and Lafayette, a city of around 125,000, couldn’t compare at first to other places I’d visited, especially its storied neighbour 135 miles east: it didn’t have anything approximating the cobbled streets, endless jazz, and candy-coloured Creole cottages of New Orleans’ French Quarter.
What it did have, I quickly noticed, was French. Street signs were in both English and French, parks had names like Parc Sans Souci, and shop windows declared, “Ici on parle francais.” (A reassurance, apparently, for those who’d rather stick to their mother tongue.)
These were the first signs of a city harbouring a culture separate from the rest of the U.S. Lafayette, it turns out, is the heart of Cajun country, or “Acadiana,” the part of Louisiana where a number of French colonists of Acadia, Canada’s present-day Maritime Provinces, settled after being exiled by the British in the mid-eighteenth century.
Like many stories born of exile, a distinct way of life emerged. Inside Lafayette’s unassuming buildings, a centuries-old culture is being preserved and—locals hope—revitalised.
“It’s a special kind of tourist who comes here,” said John Pastor, owner of The Duchess Downtown B&B, during his daily cocktail hour where he promotes his ancestors’ culture with a quick history lesson, travel tips, song, and dance.
I looked down at my drink sheepishly; I’d driven over on the offhand recommendation of a girl I’d met in a Florida hostel. Like most Americans, I knew almost nothing about the Cajuns and associated them primarily with two things: seasoning and crawfish.
That special kind of tourist, I came to realise, was probably someone who wants to see the preservation of a geopolitical anomaly in action, with the odd swamp tour thrown in. Lafayette has not one, but two recreations of historic villages—think old buildings, historical actors, and general stores—as well as an Acadian Cultural Center that shows a dramatised film on the Acadians’ persecution on the hour.
Though it turns out I wasn’t too far off on the cuisine front. Cajun country is a bona fide American foodie destination. Tourists and locals flock to Lafayette’s restaurants for crawfish by the pound, gumbo, blackened catfish, étouffée (a seafood dish smothered in a roux), and boudin balls (deep-fried spheres of pork and rice). One local institution, Prejean’s, greets visitors with a fourteen-foot taxidermied gator named Big Al.
Prejean’s and a number of other restaurants double as dance halls, some of which are open any given night of the week. While the vast majority of the country has long abandoned organised dance, Cajuns regularly frolic, two-stepping and waltzing to Cajun and Zydeco music. With dance cards and accordions, it’s a strange mix of Old Europe and American South, a bit of Jane Austen in raucous Louisiana.
Still, what makes the city and its region perhaps most distinct is what’s rapidly dying: Cajun French, an oral tradition with considerable differences from its European counterpart. It’s something like eighteenth-century French with an American accent, where apparently a truck is often just “un truck.”
Although you can still hear the older generations speaking French in Lafayette, it’s waned over the past century. As Pastor told me, it was quite literally beaten out of children in school. Today, only 5 per cent of the city’s population is fluent in French. In 2000, it was 11.1 per cent.
Despite decline, there are concerted efforts to revive the French language: Louisiana now has the largest French immersion program in the country for schoolchildren, and a free app called LearnCajun was developed last year. So far, the effects are unclear.
And yet there’s still something to be said for the presence of French in the city. I imagine that any first-time visitor would feel, as I did, like they’d stumbled upon a foreign part of the States just by seeing French. The persistence of the language is a statement. It upholds a place that no longer exists as it once did, while still trying to find a niche for it in the present—not just as a tourist town, but as the symbolic centre of an entire culture.