I wrote this post five years ago about New Orleans, or rather my lack of desire to ever go there. What a fool I was! I mean, to be fair, I associated the city with some unsavory people and unsavory stories and thus sort of wrote it off as a “meh” destination. I wasn’t going to dive headfirst into a town built on vice. Yet, everyone loves New Orleans. Everyone who goes there seems to always return and in the meantime, longs to.
Actually, I take that back. My first impression, very first, was the opening of Live and Let Die, where a funeral (a going home) marches down the street. I was probably 8 years old and 100% baffled how a parade and dancing went in-hand with a funeral procession, and why it started out slow and ended joyous. Now, I get it. But let me back up, and then go forward.
We celebrated our first anniversary in June of ’16 and spent the better part of the previous April trying to decide how and where to do that. We wanted anywhere we wouldn’t have to rent a car and anywhere that wasn’t a huge tourist mecca at that time of year. Incidentally all you wedding planners: keep your wedding month in mind for future anniversary trips. Turns out June is a really expensive time to travel anywhere. Anyway, we settled on New Orleans. Dylan lived in Louisiana for some time many years ago, and when Katrina happened, he went there to help. He was familiar with the city but not overly so, and it would essentially be new to us both. We bought our plane tickets and booked an AirB&B in the Lower Garden District, and researched the trip (that would be me, Dylan cares not for such planning). Unfortunately, a month before we were to arrive, our AirB&B host cancelled. We decided that rebooking would be costly in a short window of time, and put the whole thing off until I had vacation time and we really needed somewhere warm after a long winter.
I’ll spare you the starts and stops of rebooking. Suffice to say, we indeed wound up in New Orleans this month, we got home 10 days ago. It was unlike any trip I’ve ever taken, let me say that right now. We walked everywhere but for two Lyft rides twice every day, to and from our AirB&B and the airport. Of those rides, 12 in all, only two drivers weren’t chatty and/or from New Orleans. Every one of our rides involved long conversations with city natives who lived through “the Storm” and offered up so much information from the best oyster happy hours (discovered too late to go, arg!) to why the locals don’t use their a/c even in brutal summer. Of all the tips people ask for about what to do when they go there, “don’t rent a car” has been my top one. Talking to our drivers was one of my favorite parts, I learned so much from them that research would never have taught me.
The first night we were there, it was late on a Thursday so we did as you do, we walked the French Quarter and drank the fruity drinks, which come to find out days later, was a moment of brilliance. It was empty and quiet in most parts and I fell in love with the buildings, even in the dark. In the coming days, we ate po’ boys and beignets, and we took the ferry to Algiers Point. We walked everywhere, logging something like 10+ miles per day.
Oh, second tip: wear the most comfortable shoes you own. I did not and I have the blisters to prove it. We didn’t get to City Park, the Bywater, or Uptown, and I didn’t get to see the huge trees with the hanging Spanish moss along a majestic plantation road as I’d hoped, but they’ll still be there when we go back. They’ll always be there.
New Orleans is the most special place. Music, as promised, is all over. It’s in the air and on the street corners, it’s in bars late at night with no one in them and bars that are packed, but the musicians (some of who double as bar staff in the venues) are the cells in the blood in the veins, the pulse and the beat. THAT’S why New Orleans funerals have brass bands, because music is as big a part of life as is death. It’s woven in. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, strange about someone walking down the street or sitting on their porch, singing their lungs out to the neighborhood. It’s a gift given freely. It’s love, really.
The people are made from the joy and stuff that could only survive and rebuild wholly after what they went through. And stay! And thrive! They know exactly what their city is, good and bad. The street art, the galleries (and so much Prince in both), the night craft market, even our disappointment at Frenchman Street, it all found its way to my heart. I cried happy tears walking through Treme and the Garden District, overwhelmed by the beauty. The gas lamps, the retired streetcar track lines which now serve as walking paths that divide streets, that we were staying in the same area as the Mardi Gras Indians are based (look ’em up), the raised homes and razed blocks, and the constant stream of greetings and conversations with strangers we passed on the street.
Chicago, I came to really realize, is very divided and racially kind of a mess. New Orleans though, everyone mixes and no one thinks twice. You literally greet everyone you pass just the same. At least, that’s how it felt during our brief time. We did find out after we got back that we walked through a really crowded and dangerous spot on a Sunday night, on our walk back to where we stayed. Two locals and a regular visitor looked at us in raised eyebrow silence when they found out, and asked if we were ok. It didn’t feel dangerous though, at least in the ways we know danger to be in Chicago, so I don’t know what to say about that.
As we strolled around the Garden District and began to recognize streets and places we’d seen before, we asked ourselves the frequently-visited question, could we live here? What neighborhoods would we want to live in? What would we do here? I don’t know… maybe…the humidity and bugs though… Naturally, the neighborhood that stole my heart is the most expensive one, and there’s a lot to concede to living in those old houses with another flood just a season away, but it was interesting cruising Trulia for a few days to see what’s out there. I don’t know…maybe.
Before we went, like everyone who plans a trip there, we asked those who have gone before what we should eat and where we should go. Some experienced friends offered up their favorite lists, others remained silent and in a spirit of love, put hands on our shoulders and said, find your own NOLA, a phrase we’d hear over again. Therefore, I can’t tell you where to go or what to eat because what I loved, you may not love. Except for District Donuts, everyone should go there. Yes, we saw a parade, we hung out at a fantastic divey neighborhood bar a few times where we ate some fantastic crawfish boil and got to know the staff, we drank Hurricanes, ate a piece of king cake, devoured oysters (twice), visited some breweries, got some beads (without skin), and a few other fun things, but I’m not going to tell you all about that because that was our trip, it won’t be yours.
Now I’m one of those people. I miss it. I miss the people and the energy, and I’ve only been once! I understand why people go back again and again, and why so many want to move there. Some people party their time away while they’re there but their NOLA isn’t my NOLA and my NOLA won’t be yours. All I really know is that I only scratched the surface and barely, and that I want to go back. Soon.