Originally written in April 2014 – Part of the Deep South series
“At any rate, that is happiness: to be dissolved into something complete and great”
Wills Cather – My Antonia
To best illustrate New Orleans, I need you to play a game with me.
Think of your favourite song
Got one? Cool, think of how it makes you feel
Multiply that by one million
Think of your favourite movie
Multiply that by a million
Think of one of your happy memories
Assign a numerical value to it and add the previous ones too…
What do you end up with? a crazy high number. If the 1 equalled 1 smile, the result in terms of what New Orleans meant for me from an emotional perspective was one of the biggest feelings of liberation, happiness and satisfaction of my life. Welcome to New Orleans, where the motto is “let the good times rule”.
As you remember from my previous post, we got there on a horribly ugly day, with a ton of rain and strong winds, a month after Mardi Gras. It looks like a recipe for disaster, right?
Well, let me put you at ease… It wasn’t at all.
If you’ve never been to New Orleans, you may recognise its French Quarter, one of the oldest parts of the city. It’s known as such thanks to its colonial homes with those gorgeous, spacious balconies. They are generally 2 storeys high and they have their balconies to thank for the air that comes into the house, don’t forget New Orleans is right by the gulf and it’s also where the Mississippi ends, making it and awfully hot and humid place in the summer.
But anyway, let’s go back to history, something that’s important to do if we want to understand New Orleans’ character (and that of Louisiana’s too). If you grab a map and look at where the state is, you can clearly see how exposed the city is and its value from a strategic point of view in the past. In fact, Louisiana has gone “from hand to hand” like a lady of the night, through many hands, including those of Spain.
New Orleans was founded by the French in the early 1700’s. Halfway through that century, France gave it to Spain as part of a treaty that had been signed earlier, in exchange for Spanish support against the English in the 7 year war. Funnily enough, Spain lost Cuba and Manila for the first time in that conflict. Whilst I may sound very knowledgeable now, the truth is that I found out about all of this whilst reading a travel guide when we were already in the US. It’s sad that we didn’t get to learn XVIII century US history in school. Anyway
The city was Spanish for 39 years, after which time went back to French hands. Napoleon must have not liked it much as he then sold Louisiana to the Americans only 2 years later. Society in New Orleans had been mainly French-Spanish- creole, but after the Americans took over there was a wave of Italians and Irish (they still have their own bayous!).
To be honest, I wasn’t expecting New Orleans to have any signs of Spanish occupation at all and when I saw the street signs (made in Talavera de la Reina), I was shocked… Had we really had that much relevance in the US before? Not only did were we relevant in Louisiana, but we also had a pretty big role in the civil war; even today they are still coming across more and more documents that clearly estate the importance of Spain in the conflict. Despite all of this, you can still see funny mistranslations in the names of the streets, particularly with the name of one of its main ones, Bourbon street. Everyone thinks the name is to do with the liquor, when really the original street name was “Calle Borbón”, after the royals… Oh well…
Aside from the world famous French quarter, there are another 2 semi touristy areas and the rest is more residential. We stayed in canal street, the big diagonal south of the French quarter and we spent the first day immersing ourselves in the city’s savoured faire, looking for the best spot for a Bloody Mary (we didn’t do it, but they have a walk for the drink) and the best spots for Bourbon (for himself). Of course, that was much needed to forget the terrible time we had spent in getting to the city. We went from bar to bar in the pouring rain. Eventually it stopped raining for long enough for us to venture a little bit further for our first Po’boy in New Orleans.
And since we are talking about Po’boys, let’s take a moment to reflect (in total admiration) to Louisiana’s gastronomy. It perfectly describes its creole past; the food has clear African, Spanish and French roots, simply do a search for jambalaya or gumbo and you’ll see what I mean. Wonderful combinations and a feast for the senses. And of course, let’s not forget about the beignets… First time I had this doughy treat in 20 years!
We had our first gumbo on our first evening, when we were looking for the real New Orleans, that one frequented by the locals. Walking, we found a bar called Maison, which is probably not an exclusive local place but rather a place where both locals and tourists coincide. As I went in, I knew how hard it would be for me to leave town 3 days later. The band was phenomenal, the audience was dancing… I feel transported to a different era. One of the happiest nights of my life. We dined, we drank, and we enjoyed the night like it was one of our last nights on earth. The band of the night was “New Orleans Swamp Donkeys” and they were spectacular. I loved them so much I bought their CD and I still remember how I played it as we drove away from New Orleans days later… I swear I could feel a tear coming on.
Music in New Orleans is not just art, it’s life. It’s in their blood, it’s who they are. Their amazing mix of cultures translates into rhythm, beat, feeling; from brass to “jass” and ever so slightly into blues. I am convinced that if you are born or raised in New Orleans, you get to develop and amazing sense of hearing from a musical perspective. Every street has a couple of bands, and every bar has a group that could potentially sell a couple million records in any country. It’s fascinating. You can just imagine the pressure guy feel as a musician when you are from the same place as so many of the greats, like Louis Armstrong…
Today, New Orleans is a big touristic spot and there’s guides everywhere around the French Quarter. We managed to find one of the few independent ones and we did a tour with him on the second day. He arrived 12 years ago and was simply unable to leave he loved the place so much. He went through the Quarter and he explained in each street stories, who lived where and included information on the changes of Government that happened in the past. He also took us to the St Louis Cathedral, built while New Orleans was Spanish. It stands proud today, but it is true that part of it did was affected by an act of God and had to be partially reconstructed. He did not forget to go through the impact slavery and its climate had in the city.
Yes, climate is very important here. You simply cannot forget that the city is on the gulf, also right by the Mississippi and, like most of Louisiana, it was holy on a swamp. When Katrina went through, it literally flooded the city and created havoc. 50% of the population disappeared, either because they perished or because they had to abandon their homes. A lot has been said about the injustice that was committed, about how the flooding barrier failed, etc. I’ll let you do your own research and make up your own mind, otherwise I fear I’ll never finish this post.
As I was explaining previously, New Orleans was built on a swamp, which would explain why “niches” are so fashionable here… Of course, the heavy rains and the floods would raise all the graves – can you imagine? When you walk around St Louis cemetery no. 1, you can even see how the graves are sinking, being eaten by the swamp. You can also see Nicholas Cage’s pyramid (yes, a pyramid), which is already there for when he travels to the other side.
Of course, we can’t forget New Orleans’ passion for the occult. Voodoo, vampires, witches, shamans… There’s a lot of superstition in New Orleans and you feel it wherever you go. In the cemetery you can visit the tomb of Marie Laveau, “queen” of voodoo. She was very popular in her day and age and managed to get a lot of information off important people in exchange for potions, lotions and spells. Marie is even respected (or feared?) today and people still go to visit her grave today. We know this because people draw an X with chalk on the stone when they are asking for a wish and an X in a circle when they are giving her a gift. (N.B. from after the trip in 2014- it seems the entry to the cemetery is now limited as a very stupid person chose to go in and paint her grave pink – sacrilege).
We spent the rest of our time in New Orleans eating (oysters, crayfish, jambalaya and gumbo), drinking, walking around and soaking the atmosphere in the amazing cauldron of culture that is this city. This is what New Orleans was for me: a means to escape the pressure and demand of everyday life. From the moment I got to the city, my mood changed: things that had been stressful before ceased to be so. That fantastic attitude of almost complete ignorance of petty things, of letting yourself go and, most importantly, of being able to enjoy life… Amazing lessons and amazing people… How grateful I am for their wisdom and for having had the opportunity to be there. Quite frankly, I hope you have the chance to feel the same way too.
Thanks for tuning in