What defines a foreign country? Is it defined by political disputes over land? Or arbitrary land lines drawn on a map?

Or is it more about the people, the culture, the food? The differentness from the areas that surround a place?

If it’s the latter, then Louisiana is definitely another country. I turn on the radio and hear strange instruments more at home in a rural town in Eastern Europe than a bustling American metropolis. The singer whines the lyrics in a language that somewhat resembles the Parisian French I grew up studying, and yet doesn’t at all. Each day on the hour, I get a report of what jazz bands are playing in what bar in the French Quarter. Band names like Ted Hefko & The Thousandaires or Gal Holiday & The Honky Tonk Review are alien in a world of single-name pop stars like Sting or Beyonce.

Mudbugs & Froglegs

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The food, my Southern California friends would be shocked and maybe even disgusted with. Crustaceans and entrails, which might be discarded by anyone else, are converted into delicacies by the scrappy foragers who left France, then were outcast from Canada, and turned loose in the bayous of the Louisiana Purchase.

How You Doin’, Chère?

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Even the friendliness is other-worldly, and I consider where I live — San Diego — to be a fairly friendly city…for the Southwest. But here in the sticky sweet humidity of Deep South Louisiana, your mama taught you manners, and that means you say hello to each and every person you meet. Store transactions are not for the in-a-hurry, because they can take 10 minutes…or longer, if the person checking out ahead of you mentions that his third cousin (who happens to have once dated the cashier’s sister) is in the hospital. You will wait until the medical report has been given, the two have kissed one another on the cheek, and the customer pays his bill before you can buy your Abita Beer next in line.

This place is another country, even to the French folks who flock to New Orleans year after year. They’re drawn to the only place in the United States where French is spoken, though they are usually surprised at the patois that emerges from some of the older Cajuns’ mouths. The two barely seem related.

Home Away from Home

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Though I’m naturalized in Louisiana by birth only (my parents grew up there, and are Cajun), I slip it on like a glove. It’s foreign at first, but my instincts — those that helped my ancestors survive and even thrive in land the United States didn’t see worth developing for its own purposes — eventually kick in, and I know that I’m home. Not home as in I live here or even want to, but home as in this will always be a familiar and soft place to land, should I need it.