Sunday, February 24, 2013

Nawlins, y'all

The Pontalba Building at the edge of Jackson Square

Did you miss me? Last week Kim and I took a trip to seek out a little sunshine, some history, and lots of good music. Where did we go? New Orleans, of course, and we had a really, really good time. 

The band Yes Ma'am on Royal Street

There was music everywhere. Royal Street, behind our hotel, was closed off to cars during the day and became a pedestrian mall with a different band busking on every corner. We heard all kinds of music, from rock 'n roll to classical violin, but mostly there were bands with a 1920s-and-30s swing-vagabond-gypsy flair, with washboards and string basses and banjos, all of which suited us just fine. Fabulous musicians, all performing for tips and CD sales. Speaking of CDs, we came home with ten...

The Froggies on Frenchman Street

The Smoking Time Jazz Club on Royal Street

We could have done nothing but wander the streets listening to the buskers and come home feeling like we'd had a real musical treat. But we also went to a number of clubs, including historic Preservation Hall...


...the Spotted Cat...

Showarama Hot Trio

... and the club called dba, where there seems to be a swing dance party in permanent session. I got swept into the dancing by a very nice young fellow who just couldn't sit still and needed a partner. Kim found this funny. I found it horrifying, but once I relaxed I actually had fun. The club was dark and it was impossible to take photos, but I think this one captures a bit of the feeling of being surrounded by a packed room full of people of all ages and sizes, furiously swing dancing and lindy-hopping.


It was a lot of fun to watch, and I am just grateful (given I was sitting six inches from the dance floor) to have escaped with all my teeth and no broken nose.

One of the things we learned about New Orleans is that nobody seems to know what gluten-free means. The world will really be a different place when the Cafe du Monde serves gluten-free beignets. They don't, currently, but I didn't let that stop me. I didn't let the prospect of a sugar-induced diabetic coma stop me, either.


Yes, I ate them, and yes, I lived to tell the tale.


Another thing we learned about New Orleans is that the people are genuinely, unbelievably friendly. Not fake humour-the-tourists friendly, but real make-eye-contact-and-smile-and-"How y'all doin' ladies?" friendly. Not just hotel employees, but regular people on the street, too. We thought Canadians were friendly, but we've got nothing on the people of New Orleans.







We chose New Orleans for our holiday as much for the history and architecture as for the music. The French Quarter reminds me of a sort of Caribbean version of Paris, which I guess it is. Maybe it's because both sets of my grandparents lived in pink houses, but I have a soft spot in my heart for the colourful Creole architecture.





Some buildings, like the Napoleon House across the street from our hotel, date to the late 18th century.


It's now a bar and restaurant, with a lovely courtyard. We ended up there for an emergency cappuccino one afternoon near the end of our trip. It's called the Napoleon House because there was a plot to spring Napoleon from his prison on St. Helena and bring him to New Orleans, where he would be installed as an honoured guest in this house. That never happened, of course, but there's more than enough atmosphere in the place to make you think it did.


We spent a couple of afternoons in cemeteries: St. Louis #1 in the Treme neighbourhood, and the Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District, and thanks to a helpful tour guide we learned a lot about how to deal with a dead body in a location where the water table is just a few feet below ground, that ground being more of a soil sponge than actual terra firma. Above ground tombs are the answer, and the construction of them (brick covered with plaster) reminded me a lot of how an outdoor oven is built. It turns out the similarity is not accidental: with internal temperatures reaching 350 degrees during the summer months, human remains and wooden coffins deteriorate in short order. Which is a good thing, since it probably won't be too long before another body needs interring in the family crypt. When that happens the door is opened, the small pile of remaining remains is gathered up and put in the "basement" of the tomb, and the new body and coffin slid in. I don't at all mean this in a disrespectful way, but it made me think of hot composting. What an efficient and practical way of dealing with what is left of us when we die.

(And speaking of Treme, we are real fans of the HBO series, and how thrilled were we, in the Cafe Rose Nicaud on Frenchman Street, to discover that we were having breakfast right next to one of its stars? Woo hoo!)


Many tombs themselves are returning to the earth, as the families that owned and cared for them die out or scatter. The tour we joined was led by a volunteer from Save Our Cemeteries, a local group working to restore and preserve the tombs in the city's historic cemeteries. It may not have been as colourful as the vampire and voodoo tours we passed, but we felt good knowing the money we had paid for tickets would be going to a good cause.



A funeral took place the afternoon we spent in the Lafayette Cemetery in the Garden District. It was a good reminder for us that many of the tombs are still in use by local families. These fellows were waiting a little ways away waiting for the service to end and the family to leave, so they could reseal the door of the tomb.


While we were in the Garden District we wandered the streets looking at beautiful houses...


...ancient live oak trees with gravity-defying canopies...


...and the local animal population.



It doesn't seem right to write about a visit to New Orleans and not talk about Katrina. There is an exhibit at the Presbytere on Jackson Square focusing on how Louisiana has dealt with hurricanes, that taught us a little bit. Mostly what it taught me was how little I know, and how much I want to know more. There was no way I was going to be a disaster tourist and get on a bus to tour the hardest hit areas of the city, but I really wanted to learn more about how a community of people can surmount catastrophe and betrayal and abandonment in order to rebuild a unique and special culture. Just before we left I found the book 1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose, who was a Pulitzer prize finalist for his post-Katrina columns in the Times-Picayune  - the writings that have been gathered together in this book. The short essays are full of humour and despair and stories of real people; frustration and hope and anger and irony and celebration. It has been a long time since a book has affected me this much, and I really recommend it.

And now it's lovely to be home, where the snowdrops have hit their maturity, and where the first crocuses are starting to bloom. I'm a home-body: it's wonderful to have an occasional adventure, but it's even nicer to come home.

8 comments:

Rae said...

Absolutely WONDERFUL pictures!!! Looks like you two had a rockin good time! :)

~Kim at Golden Pines~ said...

I'm glad you had a great time!! The 'Big Easy' is really a special and unique place. It's proud, and it's colorful. I think the city has so much to show you and totally wants you to come for a visit, and come back again! :-)

Shim Farm said...

It looks like you had a wonderful getaway! You are right, it's nice to go away, but I'm with you - it's great to come home again.

You put together a lovely retrospective of your vacation. Makes me want to go to New Orleans even more!

Stephanie said...

By the looks of the wonderful photos, you both had a good time away.

Paula said...

I'm glad you all had a good time! Steve's nephew is at Tulane and he loves it down there!

backyardfeast said...

How amazing! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and pictures. It's always wonderful to see sunshine and flowers somewhere else while ours are just starting to show their faces.

Lindsey at NW Backyard Veggies said...

Yeah! How cool that you got to go to New Orleans! They need the tourists and we need the culture so everyone wins.

I love vacations. As much for the adventure as for the coming home and settling in again.

Awesome pics!

Sally said...

Miriam, what a wonderful story! Missed seeing you two at Mucky Boots but was delighted anyway by my sneaky visit with J&J! Such a lovely place. Next time.......

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