PS Click the gallery to embiggen and see fancy photo-ness. Not really, these are pre-pro camera days.
Around this time last year, I had a glorious time in Nola.
I spent a day hanging out with a couple of boys from Pittsburgh. We went from bar to restaurant to shop to bar meeting locals and chatting about everything except the NCAA March Madness playoffs that were happening.
Most of the time, it felt like we were the only non-Kentucky fans in the city, especially in the French Quarter. It’s a bit strange to stand out in a crowd because you’re wearing any color except blue. Not surprisingly I opted for summer dresses most days.
We met up for mufaletta at a local shop, then we tried out some hurricanes. Next we made our way to a shop selling alligator and beer. Another hurricane and we wandered through the quarter trying our best to leave the party known as Bourbon Street behind us.
It didn’t take much for us to go off the beaten path and find our way to street kids playing songs for money. We were intrigued by the grubby young adults about our same age who had clearly made a life decision to play guitar and sing for a living in the Crescent City. We watched them for a time trying to work out how they got there and whether they or us, the employed, had made a better life choice.
Eventually the questions felt too deep and real. Their wailing brought out the inner-philosopher far too much on this wild night.
We left the singers to their songs. We ventured to the edges of the “safe” neighborhoods and hung around in bars filled with musicians. Our accents giving us away as tourists right off. We drank a few beers and danced to a few songs trying to fit the rhythm of this wonderful city. A bucket passed through the crowd of swaying, sweaty bodies as the band played on. An old woman shouted and cursed kissing and dancing the donors as dollars dropped in to fill the bucket past its brim.
No one wanted the night to end.
We whirled and danced and swayed. Until finally the band called it a night from under the stage lights. We moved on to the next bar and the next song until finally there were no more musicians. Even the bar tenders were starting to wane.
Somehow we managed to find an empty taxi. It felt like the only one that wasn’t already carting off drunken bodies elsewhere. We hurtled through the last of the black night until finally I was at my home for the night deeply in love with a new city.
The next morning I couldn’t wait to be out the door for coffee and beignets. It was a street car ride away to Cafe deMonde, but I didn’t mind the slow going. The damp morning felt like a hopeful promise of another day to explore the port city.
At the cafe I had my first taste of black chicory coffee or cafe au lait, it was not at all what I expected and not much to my liking. The beignets however were light, flaky and sugary–the best donut ever. I ordered a second cup of coffee, regular and another beignet. Then I made my way slowly along the promenade following the Mississippi River. The river runs deep, wide and slow. Watching the world wake up that morning, I was struck by just how powerful a force the river is.
Once the day had firmly started with barges moving along briskly and the neighboring Avery Island clearly up and about, I made my inside the mall to a cooking class. It was a simple demonstration of etouffe, gumbo, bananas foster and pralines . The chef was knowledgeable and kind, a delightful teacher who did a great job on selling the group of 10 or so women on nearly every product in the shop. The foods were wonderful. Even now when I eat Cajun or Creole, I think back to this lesson and meal as the benchmark for good.
I’ve since tried my hand at the dishes presented, but sadly without equally wonderful results. A bit of practice, the right tools and better ingredients would make a world of difference. (Do you know how hard it is to get fresh prawns in SLC without paying an absurd amount of money? Ugh.)
Next I slowly wound my way away from the commercialism of the mall onto other tourist quarters like the French Market and Jackson Square. I took my time moving slowly in no hurry for the day to get away from me. Outside a voodoo shop, I bought a ticket for a tour. It was still an hour until go time, so I made my way back through the small streets to another cafe for another coffee and beignet.
The walking tour proceeded along through the French Quarter and along the edge fo Treme. (I was overly excited by the mere mention of HBO’s New Orleans based show and dropped my coffee in happy surprise.) We went through a cemetery where Nicolas Cage bought a plot and built a pyramid for mysterious Cage-y reasons. It stands out as an odd duck in the city’s first cemetery. After seeing it, I can sympathize with the locals who are tired of celebrities buying up bits of the land around them.
Next we moved onto Preservation Hall, it was a nice little museum with displays mostly centered around the music of the city. Then it was time to visit a church and a grotto. I found the church a little less than impressive, but the grotto was intriguing.
Moss covered rocks with crevices stuffed full of rosaries and statues. My knowledge of Catholicism is nil, so I have no idea what all the mementos meant. But clearly this was a place of prayer and rememberance. More saintly in feel than the cemetery, it struck me as creepy.
I was the first tourist out of the grotto and back on the street.
The rest of the afternoon I spent wondering around the city solo. I passed empty building after empty building on the edge of the French Quarter. Finally I found a small market that was open for business. It was next to a museum that warned erratic hours due to understaffing. In the market I found overpriced water, in the museum I found tremendous art work from displaced local artists. Most of them had left during Hurricane Katrina, none had made their way back home. Yet.
A donation box at the door asked for help in bringing artists home.
Keep in mind Katrina happened in 2007, this was 2012. And still people needed help coming home. I was shocked. I asked the lone employee where the artists stayed. She said most were with family in other states or countries. I asked her how long they had been gone for and if they were coming back. She said, “Since Katrina,” to the first question. Then smiled and shrugged to the second.
I opted for the long way back to the Garden District, and walked slowly towards the hostel. I was full of wonder at this place that could survive so much disaster and struggle so much to continue. The city itself seemed to thrive on contradictions: artists showing work who lived no where near, revelers partying into the morning who had never seen a hurricane, locals pouring drinks who never drink. All of the past two days swirled around me and through me. I reached my destination, a small Vietnamese restaurant. I ordered pho and a beer. I reached for a phone and called to ask about renting a building I noticed early in the day.
The end of the story has already been told.
I didn’t move. But leaving Nola was almost as hard as leaving home. I love that city for its grime, for its heat, for its alcohol, for its people, for the atmosphere, for the inspiration, for the insanity.
No where else is quite like Nola; and I can’t wait to go back.