There Is a House in New Orleans…
Tennessee Williams said that America is just three cities: New York, San Francisco and New Orleans, and having now visited all these cities and more, I can see how they are really special. Each of these cities is so distinctive and has so much to offer visitors that you couldn’t mistake one of their streets for any other in the world.
New Orleans, FULL of vintage cars!
New Orleans CBD: no idea what’s going on here but I like it.
I was just in Philadelphia for a chemistry conference (where I gave a talk, yikes!) and afterwards I met up in New Orleans with friends from my California road-trip last year. We all fell totally in love with New Orleans, a city which everyone had raved about. It has such character and is so vibrant in every way, from the architecture to the food to the residents to the history and culture.
We stayed in an apartment in the French Quarter which we found on Airbnb, my go-to choice for traveling. Yes, hotels have their concierges and their complementary body wash but they are so artificial, so I much prefer to see how the native hipsters live. Our apartment was in a rickety old building which we affectionately dubbed “Birdshit Manor” because the entrance was under the nest of a pigeon, who shall we say, was deceptively small in stature. Beyond the front steps though, it was superb, with its tall ceilings, antique furnishings and the characteristic Creole filigree metalwork on the balcony, the perfect spot for absorbing the sights and sounds from the street below.
Our New Orleans apartment in the French Quarter, filled with antique furniture and with filigree balcony
My impression of New Orleans (“NOLA”) was very positive and after five days there I’ve come up with a few massive generalisations: Louisiana is supposed to be a pretty conservative State but the city of New Orleans somehow bucks that trend, so for example it’s known as the gay capital of the South. It’s lovely to visit because you benefit from that famous “southern hospitality” so the people are very friendly, warm and down-to-earth with their beautiful accents (how ya doin’ baby?), but people are also generally very open-minded, nonjudgmental and the town is full of eccentric and colourful characters.
Cycling is pretty popular with both tourists and locals, and the surprising thing was how all the bikes were stylish classic low-riders (which you rarely see in London), usually decorated with Mardi Gras beads, flowers, feather boas and even Spanish Moss. Just sitting at a café we saw a man ride by on a double-decker bicycle, another ride by with a Macaw on his handlebars, and another ride buy with a stuffed crow on his head. Deal with it.
We also saw a dog in a tutu, a dog in (three) shoes, a dog in pram and when I was leaving, a dog going though airport security. The abundance of dogs and a generally relaxed attitude means that the sidewalks are pretty treacherous, and at one point I wondered whether I stepped in dog poo or praline (a local delicacy) because both are littered on the streets. Other things that you see on the ground while trying to avoid dog poo are: glitter, St Patrick’s Day confetti, discarded Mardi Gras beads (these are also strewn on every tree, lamppost, street sign etc), discarded crawfish (who look like they’ve crawled a LONG way from the waterfront), oyster shells and spilled cocktails. On Bourbon Street one would find much worse things, but I won’t talk about that dreadful sight.
Unusual graffiti (wonder if it was the same artist!):
Smash patriarchy in the f*ing dick
An equation in cement
Until further notice celebrate everything
I consider myself a bit of a food explorer and am always interested in trying local specialties which are very specific to an area. New Orleans has a particularly interesting range of food, influenced by its complicated history of people from Spain (Creole=settler), France, parts of Africa where slaves came from, Canada (Cajun=Arcadian), Irish and indigenous people of North America. I went out of my way to try as many local foods as possible, including jamabalya (like paella), gumbo (a dark stew with everything in it), boudin (rice sausage), po’ boys (poor boy sandwich, see pic), grits (maize porridge), biscuit and gravy (scone and savoury, creamy stew), beignet (a kind of dougnut), catfish, redfish, red beans, tamale (savoury maize meal with filling), sweet tea and local cocktails like Sazerac made of Bourbon. I missed out on eating gator meat and muffalata but there just wasn’t time, or space in my belly.
New Orleans food:
left: soft-shell crab po’ boy sandwich
right: praline bacon. PRALINE BACON! Like dog-treats for humans!
I quite liked the look of these gator heads (I’d love my house to look like a Natural History Museum, sans animal death) so I bought plastic one.
French Quarter architecture
One day we caught the vintage St Charles Streetcar to the Garden District to look at the southern mansions there, and also because we are all public transport nerds. It was dark by the time we got to the end of the line and it was about a half an hour wait till the streetcar driver could turn around and go back, but we decided to sit around and wait because the trolley was so beautiful, with its original wooden interior, old fashioned light bulbs and roll-down windows which were letting in a warm spring breeze. What transpired next was something truly magical.
To pass the time the driver (the friendliest public transport operator I have EVER met) began chatting to us and the only other people on the train, a small group from Arkansas, about life in New Orleans. With his southern drawl he entertained us with his accounts of life in the city, stories of badly behaved celebrities and a little bit of history of the people that live there. We were completely engrossed by the time he started telling us about his touching personal experience of Hurricane Katrina, of how he drove for weeks on end moving displaced people around the city, and how each of them shared their stories of tragedy and triumph with him. He relayed stories to us of people who had lost their possessions, livelihoods and their loved ones, and how the city is still trying to get back on its feet today.
Intimate moment on the St Charles Streetcar
We were so privileged to be able to listen to him talk to us in such an honest, open way about such a painful ordeal, and being there helped us to imagine what it must have been like. When he finished his stories he got the signal to start driving back to town, and within a few stops the streetcar was full of noisy people again, oblivious to the intimate moment that had just passed. It’s hard to capture the experience with words or picture but afterwards we all agreed that it felt very special, and quite surreal.
I’ll need a few more posts to do this wonderful city justice, and I’ll include my visit to the white tombs of the “Voodoo Queen” cemetery and the plantation where Interview With The Vampire was filmed…
A sweet little night market on Frenchman Street
My new Eshakti dress that I sneakily had shipped to my friend before arriving. Yes, bicycles.
Loads of cute art galleries in courtyards in the French Quarter, with quite an outsider-art vibe.
What are your favourite American cities or ones you’d like to visit? I’ve heard great things about Austin…