All Colors but the Blues in New Orleans

Trip Start Jun 01, 2008
Trip End Ongoing

Flag of United States  , Louisiana
Friday, May 27, 2011

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New Orleans, i.e., NOLA, i.e., the Big Easy, i.e., Hurricane City, looks like a French, Spanish, and Caribbean sundae with sprinkles of America on top. Bourbon Street sounds like horns, strings, keyboards, drums, and people squealing. The French Quarter smells like Cajun seasoning, flowers, alcohol, and urine (mostly just Bourbon Street on the urine). A draft from the Mississippi River breaks the feeling of ninety degrees and heavy. My palate tastes like gumbo and beignets and coffee mixed with chicory root.

It is my first time ever in New Orleans, and I am in my element. In fact, I am bursting out of my element. This feels like a foreign country, though they use the US dollar and it only took me five hours from DC, including layover, to get here. Unfortunately, my parents' journey took a little bit longer with an unbargained-for twelve-hour layover in Miami. (Thanks American Airlines!) This leaves me a solo explorer for today.

Music wafting from every corner of the French Quarter seduces me. On Bourbon Street, wrought iron balconies dripping with plants lift the eye up above the "gentlemens'" clubs. Stray strands of colorful beads dangle from railings and gas lamp posts. A violin and guitar duo performing on Royal Street pulls me in that direction. I ignore Royal's high-end art and antique galleries and focus on the musicians. A crowd has gathered around them, appreciating their vibe while sipping cocktails from "go cups," known where I come from as "to-go cups". Everybody has their drinks with them on the street in small paper coffee-like cups and gaudy, plastic, souvenir mugs in the shape of saxophones. Everyone drops a dollar in the duo's money basket.

The outdoor courtyard of the Gumbo Shop proves a great place for lunch. Large banana leaves sway in breezes provided by rickety circular fans. My okra and seafood gumbo arrives less than one minute after I order it. "We got a large pot of it back there," says the waitress. My colleague Adrian is at Cafe du Monde by the river with her family. They invite me to join them for chicory coffee and beignets. I do so happily, and like a proper tourist, end up with powdered sugar all over my dress. Later, back at the hotel, I post this as my Facebook status. One of my earliest childhood friends, Daniele, messages me that she lives in New Orleans. We arrange to meet up for lunch the next day. We haven't seen each other since our high school graduation in, ehem, 1997.

My parents finally arrive in the wee hours of Saturday morning. In the larger hours of Saturday morning, we mosey through the French Quarter and make our way up to the muddy Mississippi river. The water is, in fact, brown. We dip our feet in to discover it is also cold ... hence the wonderful breeze.

Daniele, who lives in the section of town called the Sliver by the River, rides her bike into the French Quarter to meet us. She explains that the Big Easy is an easy biking city, because it is so flat. After another round of beignets at Cafe du Monde with Daniele and my parents, it is off to the Louisiana State History Museum for exhibits on Hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras, and two hours of air conditioning. Then we demand Daniele lead us to some local flavor for lunch.

Daniele delivers by taking us to Frenchmen Street, just outside the French Quarter, where we enjoy Creole food--I have gumbo again--and jazz in a nearby park. This tip pays dividends as my parents and I end up back on Frenchmen Street that evening for a concert at the Spotted Cat. (The ear punishing din of jazz, rock, heavy metal, honking, screaming, engine revving and siren blasting on Bourbon Street turns out to not be our bag.) Daniele also provides invaluable insight into local architecture by pointing out the hurricane shutters, decorative grates to the breezeways underneath the houses--there are no basements in New Orleans!--and the houses attached to the houses that were once slave quarters. Once she points these things out, I can't stop looking at them all over town. It always helps to have a local.

Day three takes my parents and me on a street car ride down Charles Street to the Garden District. There we gaze at grand southern mansions of movie stars and movie sets and listen to our tour guide talk about history. The vibrant greenery of the Garden District was first planted by German immigrants, she says, to counteract the smell from the streets, which were used as sewers. Today, the open sewers are gone, but the gardens remain. Danke Germans! She also tells us it wasn't Hurricane Katrina that devastated New Orleans in August of 2005, but levee failure--the true story can be found at why locals hate Nicholas Cage, love Brad Pitt, and think Sandra Bullock is pretty okay.

The overall feeling I get from my three days in New Orleans is one of celebrated self expression. And this isn't even Mardi Gras time! Whether it be painters in the park, musicians on the corner and in the club, tourists drinking too much and behaving badly, locals hanging flower baskets outside their brightly colored houses, people practicing voodoo, or chefs concocting Cajun and Creole delights, self-expression is protected in New Orleans. Even at the wildest hour on Bourbon Street, police on horseback stand back from the crowd, smiling, and letting people pet their horses. I cannot think of a better place for letting off steam. This video of the To Be Continued Brass Band, which I saw twice, captures the mood.

Our taxi driver also sums it up nicely as my parents and I ride home from Frenchmen Street on Saturday night. My mother asks him--his name is Buddy Luv--where the good blues clubs are in New Orleans. "We ain't got no blues in New Orleans," says Buddy Luv. "We keep it upbeat."

Let the good times roll.

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Jean Olszak on

Great commentary on New Orleans. Brings back memories on our visit last February. And the battery had run out on my camera, so I only had about 6 pictures. Still have to look at your pics. glad you had a great time.

radsolv on

How did I miss this entry? I usually check yr TP blog every few months or more. This time I thought you would have an entry about your most recent - Jan 2012 - trip to China. Disappointed. Will you be updating it on TP?

Great photos! I was last in NO a century ago. Are Pat O'Brian's, [dinner at] Antoines, Arnauds, brunch at Brennans, Court of Two Sisters all gone away??

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