Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Truly, I have work to thank for my trip to New Orleans. In January of this year and last, I attended a very exciting and interesting booksellers conference. Last year it was in D.C., where winter chilled my long walks along the National Mall. This year, the Institute found its home in New Orleans, one of the friendliest, most beautiful cities I've ever visited. Before this trip, I'd never been, but long desired to go for the parties, the music, and the food. Of course, now, I can imagine a visit to New Orleans has more meaning than it once did.
The recent devastation from Hurricane Katrina is an unavoidable reality. As my airplane made its final descent above the Gulf and then over the Mississippi River, the hairs on my neck stood straight up as I thought of the tragedy. How could something so horrific happen? How can one city see so much death, displacement, horror and unfairness? My time in the city was short (given that I was mostly in a hotel working), but I couldn't get these questions out of my head.
Any chance I got to explore the city, I took. The questions kept coming: how could New Orleans endure such a disaster, how did they/can they recover and will it ever be the same? Perhaps it can be better? Well, I don't have the answers and I'd say the term 'recovery' stands on a very long, complicated spectrum when it comes to Katrina. I wandered the streets, feeling conflicted about my role as a tourist knowing what once happened under this sky.
I made my way to Jackson Square and sat quietly on a park bench, watching the busy streets take flight. Magicians did tricks, drunken party-goers sipped drinks, and horse-drawn carriages trotted down lanes. Then, I heard it. Music. Horns. Jazz. I heard the music and felt it on my skin the way I felt the hot muggy air surrounding me, very uncharacteristic weather for January.
My thoughts shifted. Questions of why and when turned into questions of how. Does music have the power to heal? I suddenly felt the power of this city, with its history and its culture. I felt a power, but I wasn't sure what to make of it and what it meant. I'm out of my element, but I'm loving this city and feeling loved by it.
I stood up and continued wandering the streets of the French Quarter. This city has come a long way, and I know that there's still a long road. Possibly an endless one. However, I can't help but think some balance can be found between the melodies and the dissonance I heard in that square, coming out of that lone saxophone.
There was lots to love in NOLA. Besides the music, the food and street partying, I was really taken by the architecture.
It felt like another era and most definitely another world.
I saw a lot of homes like this one and I thought the same thing each time: how can I get up on that balcony and enjoy a mint julep with the locals? On a hot summer day (which it wasn't, though the mugginess and sunshine was reminiscent of one) I couldn't imagine doing anything more appropriate.
Once you've wandered long enough, you start to get the feeling: I've been here before. Maybe it's because the architecture is so distinct and consistent, or maybe it's because the structures (like the essence of the city) are sultry and intoxicating.
Speaking of sultry, I lost all sense and literally floated into Bourbon French Parfume, a 164 year old perfumery. With all of its alluring smells, I got caught up inhaling their signature scents: La Vie Nouvelle, La Pluie and Mon Amour. You forget where you are and how you came to this place.
This was one of the many incredible works of art at Armstrong Park. Since I had such a short amount of time in the city, I felt my visit needed some guidance. Before I went, I remembered how one week GOOP (yes, Gwyneth's blog) did a piece on New Orleans. In fact, R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe was the guest editor on the post. Little did I know that he would be my guru, leading me through my journey. Well, he was, in a major way. I followed his guidance as if he was a good friend and, honestly, by the end of the trip, he felt like one.
Despite the grid-like design to the French Quarter, it's easy to get lost. I wasn't lost though, because I had Michael Stipe to follow. He told me where to get a good bowl of Gumbo, at Coops:
A good dose of health food, at Satsuma:
Some great coffee and sweets, at Croissant d'Or:
This was the only time it snowed while I was in New Orleans. Each bite and it was a winter wonderland. I loved it!
Other wise, it was HOT HOT HOT!
While for some people, it's about the drinking...
...for me it was about the sunshine in winter. That, and the music...
The music. Hearing it as I walked along every street, around every corner, and even in my hotel room as I went to sleep (they give you ear plugs upon check-in). I felt soothed and enlivened at the same time. I felt part of this gorgeous city.
One last and final perfect moment: my last night in the city, I went to Buffa's for dinner (another Stipe recommendation). As I sat there enjoying Chuck's award-winning Bratwurst Jambalaya and Boudin Balls, someone put R.E.M.'s "It's the End of the World As We Know It" on the jukebox. It was perfection.