I’ve said before that New Year’s Day has never been one of my favorite holidays. This year was especially rough. It’s not because I was sorry to see 2016 end. On the contrary, I thought 2016 was a horrible year! During that year we had seen, on the international scene, some of the worst examples of human behavior since World War II. The economy was a roller coaster, and don’t get me started on that train wreck of a presidential election! The loss of so many beloved celebrities and cultural icons just added insult to injury. My career problems are a story unto themselves. Yes, 2016 sucked like a shop vac!
But I did not agree with all of the people who were saying how glad they would be when 2016 ends. The end of 2016 would make the beginning of 2017, and that filled me with dread. All indications suggested that 2017 would be far worse than 2016, in just about every way imaginable. And I’m not just referring to the change of administration. (Though that is an important part of it.)
With my job, perhaps my career, being in what could best be described as free-fall, I expected 2017 to be filled with struggle. All of those difficulties that Lisa, the kids and I were about the face were scheduled to start in 2017! In light of that, you can probably understand why I was not looking forward to the inevitable change of the calendar.
Recall the ironic curse “May you live in interesting times.”
We already live in interesting times, and 2017 looked like it was going to be more interesting than anyone dared to imagine. Sadly, some of the fears that I and others had about the upcoming year are playing out pretty much as badly as expected. On a more personal level, some of the things I dreaded have turned out better than expected, but still not altogether well. Regarding the remaining concerns on my personal docket, it’s still too early to call.
I certainly wasn’t looking forward to our family trip coming to an end. If I could have stretched things a bit further, I would have. But, time was marching on, and our sojourn to the Pelican State was coming to an end.
I’ve been saying that this trip was largely free form, and with no advance planning. That isn’t entirely true. Lisa and I have been wanting to have a weekend away, as a belated anniversary celebration. The opportunity to set up such a trip didn’t present itself until now. After discussing it with Lisa’s parents, we arranged to leave Caitlin and Michael with them, so Lisa and I could spend an overnight at a regional hotel, inn, or bed & breakfast.
After doing some research, we settled on the Michabelle Inn, a historic house within Hammond. This was perfect, because we didn’t want a long drive. We already had another one of those approaching, and didn’t need another.
Our little getaway started on the afternoon of December 29, when we went to lunch at a local restaurant, Café Nola. We were advised to not let the appearance of the place fool us. We had passed this place earlier in the week, and from the outside it doesn’t look like much. On the inside it looks like a sports bar. But the smell of food was enticing, so we ordered. Lisa had the grilled shrimp Alfredo, and I had the pasta fazula. The food was great, and even the lunch sized portions were generous. If you’re ever in this area, check this place out. Trust me.
After lunch, we did some sight seeing around Ponchatoula. It was a cloudy day, but the temperature was pleasant, and we took some photos of the historic buildings.
We were surprised to see a statue of G. K. Chesterton, because as far as we know the man had no connection to this area. This little mystery warrants further investigation.
Ponchatoula was an important railroad town in the past. If you look at a map of the area, you’ll see that many of the major streets run parallel to the railroad tracks. Today, the railroad is still an important freight handler. But for passenger and other commercial traffic, it is now second fiddle to the regional Interstate highways (I-12 and I-55). Even so, the earlier importance of the railroad is evident.
In the photo below is Old Hardhide, an alligator that lives in an enclosure near the Ponchatoula country market building. He is sort of the town mascot. Apparently he “writes” a column for one of the local newspapers. I would hate to be his stenographer.
After this, we ran a few short errands, then headed back to Hammond to check into Michabelle.
This place was built in 1907 as a private home, and was converted into an inn in 1998. It was added to the National Registry of Historic Places in 1982, and is often referred to as “McGehee House” after the original residents. The current owners include a descendant of this family.
This was another quiet day, with very few things planned. Caitlin enjoyed her new Kindle, while Lisa went shopping for professional attire. At another point, Michael and I went to run some errands. Actually I ran the errands, and Michael was along for the ride.
We also went what I call “driveabout.” That’s rather like going walkabout, only using a car, and generally it only takes an hour or two as opposed to a few weeks or months. Recall that one of the objectives for this trip was to scope out the area for possible places to live and work, should the need arise. So after picking up the dry goods I had set out to acquire, I picked a road and followed it. We proceeded to drive along a country highway, enjoying the scenery, and generally trying to see what this part of Louisiana looked like.
We motored our way along the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, which took us through the towns of Springfield, Ponchatoula, Madisonville, and Covington. Along the way, I was able to get a good sense of the lay of the land, what a typical regional house looked like, and what kinds of services were in the area. I would have liked going further, but I didn’t want everyone else to get worried. You see, I had decided to go driveabout on a whim, so no one knew where Michael and I were! Aboriginal tribes might say that one goes walkabout (or driveabout) when it is time to go, and not when you choose to go. Naturally when we got back to Hammond, I was understandably greeted with:
“Where the hell have you guys been?!?”
Exploring this little piece of the world, that’s where.
Later that day I explored online real estate listings for the area, and took a peek at regional career options. The real estate prices were pretty good, especially when compared to similar houses in the greater Washington, DC area. Unfortunately, the career opportunities were not as encouraging. They weren’t hopeless, but options were thin on the ground, and I suspect competition is fierce. Mr. Wayne said that such has been the norm in Louisiana for many years. A lot of professionals are trained in Louisiana, through the various colleges, universities and trade schools. So when a professional opening appears, competition is rough. But because of economic factors, such openings are uncommon, and few professionals actually remain in state. Even fewer are brought in. The upcoming change in the presidential administration wasn’t helping this situation, nor was the residual effects of recent weather.
The weather is a constant concern in Louisiana. Floods and hurricanes are part of everyday life. There are sections of the state, particularly in the greater New Orleans area, that never recovered from Hurricane Katrina, and that was over ten years ago.
One thing that I really liked about this place (in addition to the delicious fried catfish) was that it is in what looks like a true bayou community. Less than a mile away you can see traditional bayou houseboats and stilt houses, right on the water. Some of the houses had tiny canals instead of driveways, with boats instead of cars. Were it not for the power lines and satellite dishes connected to many of the structures, one might think they had stepped through a time tunnel.
Day 7, December 27
This day was a bit different. My mother in law, Ms. Mary, had made reservations to take her daughters and granddaughters to a formal tea at the Windsor Court Hotel in New Orleans.
So, Lisa and Caitlin got into their best available clothes and set out. I understand the tea setting was great, but for some reason the place was extremely cold! After tea, Ms. Mary, Lisa and Caitlin set out to complete the upgrades to Lisa’s professional wardrobe. Apparently Caitlin was not happy with this portion of the day’s activities, if her mood upon return is anything to go by.
The tea hour was strictly a ladies affair. But you must admit, they all looked great!
I had jokingly suggested that while the girls had tea, that us guys should get several pizzas, one or two beer kegs, a case of imported cigars, and pipe in the loudest sporting event that ESPN could dish up. The plan didn’t fly, but only because both of my brothers in-law had to work. One of them said the idea “had considerable merit.”
I was also able to discuss some of our possible future plans with Mr. Wayne, which was good for me. It can be hard juggling so many issues at a time, and a fresh perspective can be a big help.
Day 8, December 28
The only plan for this day was a visit to the home of Lisa’s older sister, in the nearby village of Loranger. They recently acquired a new home there, after their long time house in Ponchatoula endured one too many floods. Lisa and I really like their new house! It’s a one-story house with a large, central living area, four bedrooms, and two full baths. In terms of total square feet, I think it’s about the same size as our house. But since our house has two floors and isn’t laid out the same way, it feels smaller.
When we got back to Hammond, I took another look at the real estate listings to see if similar houses were available on the market, and what their price range was. Surprisingly, houses of similar design are available in parts of Culpeper county, at prices that are a little high, but not totally unreasonable. If we end up remaining in the Culpeper area, and our career situations stabilize, we may look into this further.
But after everything I had seen over the course of the past few days, I concluded that if the fates decide it to be, I could learn to like this region of Louisiana. Even with the difficult weather.
Unlike some of our earlier family trips, this one didn’t have a lot of frills. For me, this was a chance to put some distance between myself and the problems I had been dealing with for most of the preceding year, and try to determine how best to handle whatever came next. For Lisa, it was a chance to collect and prepare for her upcoming plunge back into the workforce. For Caitlin and Michael, this was a chance to spend time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
Days 3-4, December 23-24.
These two days were quiet days, devoted largely to recovering from the grueling drive. We did run some errands, such as acquire stocking stuffers for the kids and some other last minute things. One strange observation, for me at least, was the sight of teens and twenty somethings walking around in t-shirts, Bermudas, and Daisy Dukes. I know that Louisiana is one of the warmer parts of the country. But even so, the sight of so much traditionally summer attire at Christmas time created a cognitive disconnect.
As with the last time we spent Christmas here, Mr. Wayne prepared a traditional Lithuanian kūčios dinner. The main course contained fish, onions and mushrooms, while the side dishes consisted largely of, well, onions and mushrooms. Caitlin wasn’t very thrilled, because she’s not fond of mushrooms. She asked why there were so many onions and mushrooms in the meal. I told her that in the days prior to refrigeration, onions and mushrooms were among the few foods that could be preserved well into the winter. It was either eat these things, or go hungry until Spring. That’s not much of a choice when you think about it.
Day 5, December 25.
Christmas day was spent in Metarie, at the home of Lisa’s younger sister and her family. Michael had fun with his two young cousins, and Caitlin met her new good friend, a Kindle.
The dinner was amazing, with roasted Cajun-style turkey, a variety of vegetables, and some decadent Louisiana-style desserts. My blood glucose read me the riot act a short time later.
That evening, we did a drive-by of Celebration in the Oaks, a long running tradition in the New Orleans City Park. Lisa and I returned to Hammond, because Michael was falling asleep, but Caitlin stayed with the rest of the family and went through the entire display.